Elijah Henry Hopkins

MAY 31 1938

Interviewer: Samuel S. Taylor

Person interviewed: Elijah Henry Hopkins

13081/2 Ringo Street, Little Rock, Arkansas

Age: 81

"My father's master was old Tom Willingham, an awful big farmer who

owned farms in Georgia and South Carolina, both. He lived in southwest

Georgia in Baker County. Old man Willingham's wife was Phoebe Hopkins.

Her mother was old lady Hopkins. I don't know what the rest of her name

was. We never called her nothin' but old lady Hopkins or Mother Hopkins.

She was one of the richest women in the state. When she died, her estate

was divided among her children and grandchildren. Her slaves were part

of her estate. They were divided among her children and grandchildren,

too. Tom Willingham's family come in for its part. He had three sons,

Tom, Jr., John, and Robert. My father already belonged to Tom

Willingham, Sr., so he stayed with him. But my mother belonged to old

lady Hopkins, and she went to Robert, so my daddy and mother were

separated before I knew my daddy. My father stayed with old man

Willingham until freedom.

"Robert Willingham was my mother's master. He never married. When he

died he willed all his slaves free. But his relatives got together and

broke the will and never did let 'em go.

"When I saw my father to know him, I saw him out in Georgia. They told

me that was my father. Then he had another wife and a lot of children.

My mother brought me up and my father taken charge of me after she died

and after freedom--about a year after. It was close to emancipation

because the states were still under martial law.

"I was born May 15, 1856, in the Barnwell district, South Carolina. They

used to call them districts then. It would be Barnwell County now. They

changed and started calling 'em counties in 1866 [HW: 1868?] or

thereabouts. I was running around when they mustered the men in for the

Civil War, and I was about nine years old when the War ended. I was

about ten when my mother died and my father taken charge of me. I was

taken from South Carolina when I was about four years old and carried

into Georgia and stayed there until emancipation. My mother didn't tarry

long in Georgia after she was emancipated. She went back into South

Carolina; but she died in a short time, as I just said. Then my father

taken charge of me. I got married in South Carolina in 1885, and then I

came out here in 1886--to Arkansas. Little Rock was the first place I

came to. I didn't stay here a great while. I went down to the Reeder

farm on the Arkansas River just about sixteen miles above Pine Bluff. I

started share cropping but taken down sick. I never could get used to

drinking that bottom water. Then I went to Pine Bluff and went to work

with the railroad and helped to widen the gauge of the Cotton Belt Road.

Then the next year they started the Sewer Contract, and I worked in that

and I worked on the first water plant they started. In working with the

King Manufacturing Company I learned piping.

"I stayed in Pine Bluff sixteen years. My wife died August 1, 1901. A

couple of years after that, I came back to Little Rock, and have been

here ever since. I went to work on the Illinois Central Railroad just

across the river, which is now the Rock Island Railroad. After it became

the Rock Island, the bridge was built across the river east of Main

Street. They used to go over the old Baring Cross Bridge and had to pay

for it. The Missouri Pacific enjoined the Rock Island and wouldn't let

it go straight through, so they built their own bridge and belted the

city and went on around. I got stricken down sick in 1930 and haven't

been able to do heavy work since. You know, a plumber and steam-fitter

have to do awful heavy work.

"I get a little old age assistance from the state. They are supposed to

give me commodities but my card got out and they ain't never give me

another one. I went down to see about it today, and they said they'd

mail me another one."

How the Little Children Were Fed

"My mother was always right in the house with the white people and I was

fed just like I was one of their children. They even done put me to bed

with them. You see, this discrimination on color wasn't as bad then as

it is now. They handled you as a slave but they didn't discriminate

against you on account of color like they do now. Of course, there were

brutal masters then just like there are brutal people now. Louisiana and

Alabama and Mississippi always were tough states on colored people.

South Carolina and Georgia got that way after people from those places

came in and taught them to mistreat colored people. Yet in Alabama and

Louisiana where they colored people were worse treated, it seems that

they got hold of more property and money. Same way it was in



"The patrollers was just a set of mean men organized in every section of

the country. If they'd catch a nigger out and he didn't have a pass,

they'd tie him up and whip him and then they'd take him back. You had

to have a pass to be out at night. Even in the daytime you couldn't go

no great distance without a pass. Them big families--rich families--that

had big plantations would come together and the niggers from two or

three places might go to a church on one of them. But you couldn't go no

place where there wasn't a white man looking on."

Reading and Writing in Slave Time

"Some of the white people thought so much of their slaves that they

would teach them how to write and read. But they would teach them

secretly and they would teach them not to read or write out where

anybody would notice them. They didn't mind you reading as much as they

minded you writing. If they'd catch YOU now and it was then, they'd take

you out and chop off them fingers you're doing that writing with."

Slave Occupation and Wages

"My daddy was a builder. Old man Willingham gave him freedom and time to

work on his own account. He gave him credit for what work he done for

him. He got three hundred dollars a year for my father's time, but all

the money was collected by him, because my father being a slave couldn't

collect any money from anybody. When my father's master died, he may

have had money deposited with him. But he was strictly honest with my

father. No matter how much he collected, he wouldn't take no more'n

three hundred dollars and he put all the rest to the credit of my

father. He said three hundred dollars was enough to take."

How Freedom Came

"The owners went to work and notified the slaves that they were free.

After the proclamation was issued, the government had agents who went

all through the country to see if the slaves had been freed. They would

see how the proclamation was being carried out. They would ask them,

'How are you working?' 'You are free.' 'What are you getting?' Some of

them would say, 'I ain't gettin' nothin' now.' Well, the agent would

take that up and they would have that owner up before the government.

Maybe he would be working people for a year and giving them nothin'

before they found him out. There are some places where they have them

cases yet. Where they have people on the place and ain't paying them


Memories of Soldiers and the War

"I have seen thousands and thousands of soldiers. Sometimes it would

take a whole day for them to pass through. When Sherman's army marched

through Atlanta, it took more than a day. I was in Atlanta then. He sent

word ahead that he was coming through and for all people that weren't

soldiers to get out of the town. I saw the Rebels, too; I saw them when

they stacked their arms. Looked like there was a hundred or more rifles

in each stack. They just come up and pitched them down. They had to

stack their arms and turn them over.

"I was taken to Georgia when I was four years old, you know. I recollect

when all the people came up to swear allegiance, and when they were

hurrying out to get away from Sherman's army. They fit in Atlanta and

then marched on toward Savannah. Then they crossed over into South

Carolina. They went on through Columbia and just tore it up. Then they

worked their way on back into Georgia. They didn't fight in Augusta


"Jeff Davis was captured not far from my father's place[7]. Jeff Davis

had a big army, but the biggest thing he had was about a thousand wagons

or more piled up with silver and other things belonging to the

Confederacy. He was supposed to be taking care of that. He had to turn

it over to the North."

'Shin Plasters'

"They had a kind of money right after the Civil War--paper money gotten

out by the United States Government and supposed to be good. The

Confederate money was no good but this money--these 'shin plasters' as

they were called--was good money issued by the government. They did away

with it and called it all in. You could get more for it now than it is

worth. The old green back took its place but the 'shin plaster' was in

all sizes. It wasn't just a dollar bill. It was in pinnies, five cents,

ten cents, twenty-five cents, and then they skipped on up to fifty

cents, and they didn't have nothin' more till you got to a dollar."


"I haven't had a great deal of schooling. I have had a little about in

places. Just after the emancipation, my mother died and my father

married again. My stepmother had other children and they kept me out of

my education. Since I have been grown, I have gotten a little training

here and there. Still I have served as supervisor of elections and done

other things that they wanted educated people to do. But it was just

merely a pick-up of my own. The first teachers I had were white women

from the North."


"I have never taken a great deal of interest in politics. Only in the

neighborhood where I lived there was a colony of colored people at

Bentley, South Carolina. They chose me to represent them at the polls

and I did the best I could. I got great credit for both the colored and

the white people for that. But I never took much interest in politics.

"My father spent a fortune in it but I never could see that it benefited

him. I never did care for any kind of office except a mail contract that

I had once to haul mail. I went through that successfully and never lost

a pouch or anything but at the end of the year I throwed it up. I

couldn't trust anyone else to handle it for me and I had to meet trains

at all hours. The longest I could sleep was two or three hours a night,

so I gave it up at the end of the year."

Care of Old People

"Some of the masters treated us worse than dogs and others treated us

fine. Colonel Robert Willingham freed his slaves but his sisters and

brothers wouldn't stand for it. They went and stole us off and sold us.

My mother being a thrifty colored woman and a practical nurse,

everywhere she went, a case gave thirty dollars and her board and mine.

My father paid his master three hundred dollars a year. He built these

gin houses and presses. The old man would write him passes and

everything and see that he was paid for his work. Some years, he would

make as much as three or four thousand dollars. His master collected it

and held it for him and gave it to him when he wanted it. That was

during slavery times."

Opinion of the Present

"Slavery days were hard but in the same time the colored people fared

better than now because the white folks taken up for them and they

raised what they needed to eat. You couldn't go nowhere but what people

had plenty to eat. Now they can't do it.

"I know what caused it too. The Jews didn't have much privilege till

after the Negro was emancipated. They used to kill Jews and bury them in

the woods. But after emancipation, he began to rise. First he began to

lend money on small interest. Then he started another scheme. People

used to not have sense. They went to work and got in with the Southern

white folks and got a law passed about the fences.

"The Greeks and Italians are next to the Jews. They don't make much off

the white man; they make it off the Negro. They come 'round and open up

a place and beg the niggers to come in; and when they get up a little

bit, they shut out the niggers and don't want nothin' but white folks.

It's a good thing they do, too; because if somebody didn't shut the

Negro out, he'd never have anything.

"The slaveholders were hard, but those people who come here from across

the water, they bring our trouble. You can't squeeze as much out of the

poor white as you can out of the darkey. The darkey is spending too much

now--when he can get hold of it. Everywhere you see a darkey with a

home, he's got a government mortgage on it. Some day the government will

start foreclosing and then the darkeys won't have anything, and the

biggest white man won't have much.

"A hundred years from now, they won't be any such thing as Negroes.

There will be just Americans. The white people are mixed up with Greeks,

Germans, and Italians and everything else now. There are mighty few pure

Americans now. There used to be plenty of them right after the War.

"The country can't hold out under this relief system.

"They're sending the young people to school and all like that but they

don't seem to me to have their minds on any industry. They have got to

have backing after they get educated. Now, they'll bring these

foreigners in and use them. In the majority of states now the colored

man ain't no good unless he can get some kind of trade education and can

go into some little business.

"In slavery times, a poor white man was worse off than a nigger. General

Lee said that he was fighting for the benefit of the South, but not for

slavery. He didn't believe in slavery."

Occupation and Present Support of Hopkins

"I came to Arkansas in 1886. I got married in 1885 in South Carolina. I

never had but the one wife. I have done a little railroading, worked in

machinery. I have planted one crop. Did that in 1887 but got sick and

had to sell out my crop. For forty-six years, I worked as a plumber and

piper. I worked in piping oil, gas, water, and I worked with mechanics

who didn't mind a colored man learning. They would let me learn and they

would send me out to do jobs.

"Nothing hurts me but my age. If I were younger, I could get along all

right. But the work is too heavy for me now.

"I get old age assistance from the state. They pay me eight dollars. I

have to pay four dollars for the use of this shack. So that don't leave

much for me to live on. I'm supposed to get commodities too, and I am

waiting for my order now."


[7] [HW: Jeff Davis captured May 10, 1865, outside Irwinsville, Ga.]

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