Emma Virgel



1491 W. Broad Street

Athens, Georgia

Written by:

Grace McCune


Edited by:

Sarah H. Hall



John N. Booth

District Supervisor

Federal Writers' Project

Residencies 6 & 7

Augusta, Ga.

[Date Stamp: MAY 13 1938]

Hurrying for shelter from a sudden shower, the interviewer heard a

cheerful voice singing "Lord I'se Comin' Home," as she rushed up the

steps of Aunt Emma's small cabin. Until the song was ended she quietly

waited on the tiny porch and looked out over the yard which was

attractive with roses and other old-fashioned flowers; then she knocked

on the door.

Dragging footsteps and the tap, tap of a crutch sounded as Aunt Emma

approached the door. "Come in out of dat rain, chile, or you sho' will

have de pneumony," she said. "Come right on in and set here by my fire.

Fire feels mighty good today. I had to build it to iron de white folkses

clothes." Aunt Emma leaned heavily on her crutch as she wielded the iron

with a dexterity attainable only by long years of experience. Asked if

her lameness and use of a crutch made her work difficult, she grinned

and answered: "Lawsy chile, I'se jus' so used to it, I don't never think

'bout it no more. I'se had to wuk all of my life, no matter what was in

de way." The comfort, warmth and cheer of the small kitchen encouraged

intimate conversation and when Aunt Emma was asked for the story of her

childhood days and her recollections of slavery, she replied: "I was too

little to 'member much, but I'se heared my Ma tell 'bout dem days.

"My Pa and Ma was Louis and Mary Jackson. Dey b'longed to Marse John

Montgomery, way down in Oconee County. Marse John didn't have no wife

den, 'cause he didn't git married 'til atter de War. He had a big place

wid lots of slaves. He was sho' good to 'em, and let 'em have plenty of

evvything. De slave quarters was log cabins wid big fireplaces, whar dey

done de cookin'. Dey had racks to hang pots on to bile and dey baked in

ovens set on de harth (hearth). Dat was powerful good eatin'. Dey had a

big old gyarden whar dey raised plenty of corn, peas, cabbages,

potatoes, collards, and turnip greens. Out in de fields dey growed

mostly corn, wheat, and cotton. Marster kep' lots of chickens, cows,

hogs, goats, and sheep; and he fed 'em all mighty good.

"Marster let his slaves dance, and my Ma was sho' one grand dancer in

all de breakdown's. Dey give 'em plenty of toddy and Niggers is dancers

f'um way back yonder while de toddy lasts.

"Slaves went to deir Marster's meetin's and sot in de back of de church.

Dey had to be good den 'cause Marster sho' didn't 'low no cuttin' up

'mongst his Niggers at de church. Ma said he didn't believe in whuppin'

his Niggers lessen it jus' had to be done, but den dey knowed he was

'round dar when he did have to whup 'em.

"Ma said when dey had big baptizin's in de river dey prayed and shouted

and sung 'Washin' 'way my Sins,'--'Whar de Healin' Water Flows,' and

'Crossin' de River Jerdan.' De white preacher baptized de slaves and den

he preached--dat was all dere was to it 'ceppen de big dinner dey had in

de churchyard on baptizin' days.

"When slaves died, dey made coffins out of pine wood and buried 'em whar

de white folkses was buried. If it warn't too fur a piece to de

graveyard, dey toted de coffin on three or four hand sticks. Yessum,

hand sticks, dat's what day called 'em. Dey was poles what dey sot de

coffin on wid a Nigger totin' each end of de poles. De white preacher

prayed and de Niggers sung 'Hark f'um de Tomb.'

"Ma said she had a grand big weddin'. She wore a white swiss dress wid a

bleachin' petticoat, made wid heaps of ruffles and a wreath of flowers

'round her head. She didn't have no flower gals. Pa had on a long, frock

tail, jim swinger coat lak de preacher's wore. A white preacher married

'em in de yard at de big house. All de Niggers was dar, and Marster let

'em dance mos' all night.

"I was de oldest of Ma's 10 chillun. Dey done all gone to rest now

'ceptin' jus' de three of us what's lef in dis world of trouble. Yessum,

dere sho' is a heap of trouble here.

"Atter de War, Ma and Pa moved on Mr. Bill Marshall's place to farm for

him and dar's whar I was born. Dey didn't stay dar long 'fore dey moved

to Mr. Jim Mayne's place away out in de country, in de forks of de big

road down below Watkinsville. I sho' was a country gal. Yessum, I sho'

was. Mr. Mayne's wife was Mrs. Emma Mayne and she took a lakin' to me

'cause I was named Emma. I stayed wid her chilluns all de time, slep' in

de big house, and et dar too, jus' lak one of dem, and when dey bought

for dey chillun dey bought for me too.

"Us wore homespun dresses and brass toed shoes. Sometimes us would git

mighty mad and fuss over our games and den Miss Emma would make us come

in de big house and set down. No Ma'am, she never did whup us. She was

good and she jus' talked to us, and told us us never would git to Heb'en

lessen us was good chillun. Us played games wid blocks and jumped de

rope and, when it was warm, us waded in de crick. Atter I was big

'nough, I tuk de white chillun to Sunday School, but I didn't go inside

den--jus' waited on de outside for 'em. I never got a chanct to go to

school none, but de white chilluns larnt me some.

"Marse Jim was mighty good to de Niggers what wukked for him, and us all

loved him. He didn't 'low no patterollers or none of dem Ku Kluxers

neither to bother de Niggers on his place. He said he could look atter

'em his own self. He let 'em have dances, and evvy Fourth of July he had

big barbecues. Yessum, he kilt hogs, goats, sheep and sometimes a cow

for dem barbecues. He believed in havin' plenty to eat.

"I 'members dem big corn shuckin's. He had de mostes' corn, what was in

great big piles put in a circle. All de neighbors was axed to come and

bring deir Niggers. De fus' thing to do was to 'lect a gen'ral to stand

in de middle of all dem piles of corn and lead de singin' of de reels.

No Ma'am, I don't 'member if he had no shuck stuck up on his hat or not,

and I can't ricollec' what de words of de reels was, 'cause us chillun

was little den, but de gen'ral he pulled off de fus' shuck. Den he

started singin' and den dey all sung in answer to him, and deir two

hands a-shuckin' corn kep' time wid de song. As he sung faster, dey jus'

made dem shucks more dan fly. Evvy time de gen'ral would speed up de

song, de Niggers would speed up deir corn shuckin's. If it got dark

'fore dey finished, us chillun would hold torch lights for 'em to see

how to wuk. De lights was made out of big pine knots what would burn a

long time. Us felt mighty big when us was 'lowed to hold dem torches.

When dey got done shuckin' all de corn, dey had a big supper, and Honey,

dem was sho' some good eatments--barbecue of all sorts--jus' thinkin'

'bout dem pies makes me hongry, even now. Ma made 'em, and she couldn't

be beat on chicken pies and sweet potato pies. Atter dey done et and

drunk all dey wanted, Marse Jim would tell 'em to go to it. Dat was de

word for de gen'ral to start up de dancin', and dat lasted de rest of de

night; dat is if dey didn't all fall out, for old time corn shuckin'

breakdowns was drag-outs and atter all dem 'freshments, hit sho' kept

somebody busy draggin' out dem what fell out. Us chillun was 'lowed to

stay up long as us wanted to at corn shuckin's, and sometimes us would

git out and try to do lak de grown-up Niggers. Hit was de mos' fun.

"Dey went huntin' and fishin' and when dey cotch or kilt much, dey had a

big supper. I 'members de fus' time I ever cooked 'possum. Ma was sick

in de bed, and de mens had done been 'possum huntin'. Ma said I would

jus' have to cook dem 'possums. She told me how to fix 'em and she said

to fix 'em wid potatoes and plenty of butter and red pepper. Den she

looked at me right hard and said dat dey had better be jus' right. Dat

skeered me so I ain't never been so I could eat no 'possum since den.

Yessum, dey was cooked jus' right, but cookin' 'em jus' once when I was

skeered cured me of de taste for eatin' 'possum.

"Us chillun didn't git out and go off lak dey does dese days. Us stayed

dar on de plantation. In winter us had to wear plenty of clothes, wid

flannel petticoats and sich lak, and us stayed in by de fire. Big boys

had clothes made out of jeans, but little boys wore homespun shirts. On

hot days us jus' wore one piece of clothes, a sort of shirt what was

made long and had a yoke in it.

"Dey made me use snuff to cure my sore eyes when I was little, and I

never could quit usin' it no more. When I was 'bout 15, Ma and Pa moved

to Athens and I went to wuk for Mr. Joe Webb's fambly. I wukked for 'em

for 30 years and raised all deir chillun. Dey was all mighty good to me

and seed dat I had plenty of evvything. I would still be dar, but de old

folkses all done died out and gone to dey rest and de younguns done

married and lef' here.

"I was wukkin' right in de house wid 'em when I 'cided to git married.

Yes Ma'am, I sho' done had one swell elegant weddin'. Jus' evvything

heart could ask for. I married at my Ma's house, but my white folkses

was all right dar, and dey had done fixed de house up pretty wid flowers

all over it. Dey give me my white flannel weddin' dress and it was sho'

pretty, but dey warn't nothin' lackin' 'bout my second day dress. My

white folkses bought dat too,--It was a bottle green silk. Lawsy, but I

was sho' one dressed up bride. It was 8 o'clock dat night when de

preacher got finished wid tyin' dat knot for me and Sam Virgel. My

sister and her fellow stood up wid us and us had a big crowd at our

weddin' supper. Dere was one long table full of our white folkses,

'sides all de Niggers, and I jus' never seed so much to eat. My white

folkses said dat Emma jus' had to have plenty for her weddin' feast and

dey evermore did lay out good things for dat supper, and dem Niggers

sho' did hide dat chicken and cake away lak dey hadn't never seed none


"I wukked on for de Webbs 'til dey was all gone. De old folks is in

Heb'en whar I 'spects to see 'em some day when de Lord done called me

home. De younguns moved away, but I still loves 'em evvyone, 'cause dey

looked atter old Emma so good when dey was here. Us never had no chillun

and Sam done been gone to his res' long years ago. I'se jus' a-wukkin

and a-waitin 'til I gits called to go too. I don't have plenty all de

time now lak I used to, and nobody here looks atter old Emma no more,

but I makes out.

"I'se mighty glad it rained if dat's what sont you to my door. It's been

nice to talk wid white folkses again. I wisht I had somepin' nice for

you! Let me cut you a bunch of my flowers?" She carefully placed her

iron on the hearth and hobbled out in the yard. The May shower had been

followed by sunshine as she handed her guest a huge bouquet of roses,

Aunt Emma bowed low. "Good-bye, Missy," she said, "please come back to

see me."

Emma Turner Emmaline Heard facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail