Della Briscoe



Macon, Georgia

By Adella S. Dixon [HW: (Colored)]

[JUL 28 1937]

Della Briscoe, now living in Macon, is a former slave of Mr. David Ross,

who owned a large plantation in Putnam County. Della, when a very tiny

child, was carried there with her father and mother, Sam and Mary Ross.

Soon after their arrival the mother was sent to work at the "big house"

in Eatonton. This arrangement left Della, her brother and sister to the

care of their grandmother, who really posed as their mother. The

children grew up under the impression that their mother was an older

sister and did not know the truth until just after the close of the

Civil War, when the mother became seriously ill and called the children

to her bedside to tell them goodbye.

Mr. David Ross had a large family and was considered the richest planter

in the county. Nearly every type of soil was found on his vast estate,

composed of hilly sections as well as acres of lowlands. The highway

entering Eatonton divided the plantation and, down this road every

Friday, Della's father drove the wagon to town with a supply of fresh

butter, for Mrs. Ross' thirty head of cows supplied enough milk to

furnish the city dwellers with butter.

Refrigeration was practically unknown, so a well was used to keep the

butter fresh. This cool well was eighty feet deep and passed through a

layer of solid rock. A rope ladder was suspended from the mouth of the

well to the place where the butter was lowered for preservation. For

safety, and to shield it from the sun, reeds were planted all around the

well. And as they grew very tall, a stranger would not suspect a well

being there.

In addition to marketing, Della's father trapped beavers which were

plentiful in the swampy part of the plantation bordering the Oconee,

selling their pelts to traders in the nearby towns of Augusta and

Savannah, where Mr. Ross also marketed his cotton and large quantities

of corn. Oxen, instead of mules, were used to make the trips to market

and return, each trip consuming six or seven days.

The young children were assigned small tasks, such as piling brush in

"new grounds", carrying water to field hands, and driving the calves to


Punishment was administered, though not as often as on some plantations.

The little girl, Della, was whipped only once--for breaking up a

turkey's nest she had found. Several were accused of this, and because

the master could not find the guilty party, he whipped each of the


Crime was practically unknown and Mr. Ross' slaves never heard of a jail

until they were freed.

Men were sometimes placed in "bucks", which meant they were laid across

blocks with their hands and feet securely tied. An iron bar was run

between the blocks to prevent any movement; then, after being stripped,

they were whipped. Della said that she knew of but one case of this

type of punishment being administered a Ross slave. Sickness was

negligible--childbirth being practically the only form of a Negro

woman's "coming down".

As a precaution against disease, a tonic was given each slave every

spring. Three were also, every spring, taken from the field each day

until every one had been given a dose of calomel and salts. Mr. Ross

once bought two slaves who became ill with smallpox soon after their

arrival. They were isolated in a small house located in the center of a

field, while one other slave was sent there to nurse them. All three

were burned to death when their hut was destroyed by fire.

In case of death, even on a neighboring place, all work was suspended

until the dead was buried.

Sunday, the only day of rest, was often spent in attending religious

services, and because these were irregularly held, brush arbor meetings

were common. This arbor was constructed of a brush roof supported by

posts and crude joists. The seats were usually made of small saplings

nailed to short stumps.

Religion was greatly stressed and every child was christened shortly

after its birth. An adult who desired to join the church went first to

the master to obtain his permission. He was then sent to the home of a

minister who lived a short distance away at a place called Flat Rock.

Here, his confession was made and, at the next regular service, he was

formally received into the church.

Courtships were brief.

The "old man", who was past the age for work and only had to watch what

went on at the quarters, was usually the first to notice a budding

friendship, which he reported to the master. The couple was then

questioned and, if they consented, were married without the benefit of


Food was distributed on Monday night, and for each adult slave the

following staple products were allowed--

Weekly ration: On Sunday:

3-1/2 lbs. meat One qt. syrup

1 pk. of meal One gal. flour

1 gal. shorts One cup lard

Vegetables, milk, etc., could be obtained at the "big house", but fresh

meat and chickens were never given. The desire for these delicacies

often overcame the slaves' better natures, and some frequently went

night foraging for small shoats and chickens.

The "old man" kept account of the increase or decrease in live stock and

poultry and reported anything missing each day. When suspicion fell on a

visitor of the previous night, this information was given to his master,

who then searched the accused's dinner pail and cabin. If meat was found

in either the culprit was turned over to his accuser for punishment.

After being whipped, he was forbidden for three months to visit the

plantation where he had committed the theft.

One of Della's grandmother's favorite recipes was made of dried beef and

wheat. The wheat was brought from the field and husked by hand. This,

added to the rapidly boiling beef, was cooked until a mush resulted,

which was then eaten from wooden bowls with spoons of the same material.

White plates were never used by the slaves.

Cloth for clothing was woven on the place. Della's grandmother did most

of the spinning, and she taught her child to spin when she was so small

that she had to stand on a raised plank to reach the wheel. After the

cloth was spun it was dyed with dye made from "shoemake" (sumac) leaves,

green walnuts, reeds, and copperas. One person cut and others sewed. The

dresses for women were straight, like slips, and the garments of the

small boys resembled night shirts. If desired, a bias fold of

contrasting colour was placed at the waist line or at the bottom of

dresses. The crudely made garments were starched with a solution of

flour or meal and water which was strained and then boiled.

As a small child Della remembers hearing a peculiar knock on the door

during the night, and a voice which replied to queries, "No one to hurt

you, but keep that red flannel in your mouth. Have you plenty to eat?

Don't worry; you'll be free." No one would ever tell, if they knew, to

whom this voice belonged.

Just before the beginning of the Civil War a comet appeared which was so

bright that the elder people amused themselves by sitting on the rail

fence and throwing pins upon the ground where the reflection was cast.

The children scrambled madly to see who could find the most pins.

During the early part of the war Mr. Ross fought with the Confederates,

leaving his young son, Robert, in charge of his affairs. The young

master was very fond of horses and his favorite horse--"Bill"--was

trained to do tricks. One of these was to lie down when tickled on his

flanks. The Yankees visited the plantation and tried to take this

horse. Robert, who loved him dearly, refused to dismount, and as they

were about to shoot the horse beneath him, the slaves began to plead.

They explained that the boy was kind to every one and devoted to

animals, after which explanation, he was allowed to keep his horse.

The breastworks at Savannah required many laborers to complete their

construction, and as the commanders desired to save the strength of

their soldiers, slave labor was solicited. Two slaves from each nearby

plantation were sent to work for a limited number of days. The round

trip from the Ross plantation required seven days.

Nearly every man had a family and when they returned from these long

trips they drove to the quarters and fell on their knees to receive the

welcome caresses of their small children.

Recreational facilities were not provided and slave children had little

knowledge of how to play. Their two main amusements were building frog

houses and sliding down a steep bank on a long board. One day, as they

played up and down the highway, building frog houses at irregular

intervals, little Della looked up and saw a group of Yankee calvarymen

approaching. She screamed and began running and so attracted the

attention of Mr. Ross who was at home on a furlough.

He saw the men in time to find a hiding place. Meanwhile, the soldiers

arrived and the leader, springing from his horse, snatched Della up and

spanked her soundly for giving the alarm, as they had hoped to take her

master by surprise. Della said this was the first "white slap" she ever


Some of the Yankees entered the house, tore up the interior, and threw

the furniture out doors. Another group robbed the smokehouse and smashed

so many barrels of syrup that it ran in a stream through the yard. They

carried much of the meat off with them and gave the remainder to the

slaves. Chickens were caught, dressed, and fried on the spot as each

soldier carried his own frying pan, and a piece of flint rock and a

sponge with which to make a fire. The men were skilled in dressing fowls

and cleaned them in a few strokes.

When they had eaten as much as they desired, a search for the corral was

made, but the mules were so well hidden that they were not able to find

them. Della's father's hands were tied behind him and he was then forced

to show them the hiding place. These fine beasts, used for plowing, were

named by the slaves who worked them. Characteristic names were: "Jule",

"Pigeon", "Little Deal", "Vic", (the carriage horse), "Streaked leg,"

"Kicking Kid", "Sore-back Janie". Every one was carried off.

This raid took place on Christmas Eve and the slaves were frantic as

they had been told that Yankees were mean people, especially was Sherman

so pictured.

When Sherman had gone, Mr. Ross came from his hiding place in the "cool

well" and spoke to his slaves. To the elder ones he said, "I saw you

give away my meat and mules."

"Master, we were afraid. We didn't want to do it, but we were afraid not


"Yes, I understand that you could not help yourselves." He then turned

to the children, saying, "Bless all of you, but to little Della, I owe

my life. From now on she shall never be whipped, and she shall have a

home of her own for life."

She shook with laughter as she said, "Master thought I screamed to warn

him and I was only frightened."

True to his word, after freedom he gave her a three-acre plot of land

upon which he built a house and added a mule, buggy, cow, hogs, etc.

Della lived there until after her marriage, when she had to leave with

her husband. She later lost her home. Having been married twice, she now

bears the name of Briscoe, her last husband's name.

When the family had again settled down to the ordinary routine, a new

plague, body lice, said to have been left by the invaders, made life

almost unbearable for both races.

Della now lives with her granddaughter, for she has been unable to work

for twenty-eight years. Macon's Department of Public Welfare assists in

contributing to her livelihood, as the granddaughter can only pay the

room rent.

She does not know her age but believes that she is above ninety. Her

keen old eyes seemed to look back into those bygone days as she said, "I

got along better den dan I eber hab since. We didn't know nuthin 'bout

jail houses, paying for our burial grounds, and de rent. We had plenty

o' food."

Delia Thompson Della Fountain facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail