James Cornelius

Mississippi Federal Writers

Slave Autobiographies


Magnolia, Mississippi]

James Cornelius lives in Magnolia in the northwestern part of the town,

in the Negro settlement. He draws a Confederate pension of four dollars

per month. He relates events of his life readily.

"I does not know de year I was borned but dey said I was 15 years old

when de War broke out an' dey tell me I'se past 90 now. Dey call me

James Cornelius an' all de white folks says I'se a good 'spectable


"I was borned in Franklin, Loos'anna. My mammy was named Chlo an' dey

said my pappy was named Henry. Dey b'longed to Mr. Alex Johnson an'

whil'st I was a baby my mammy, my brudder Henry, an' me was sol' to

Marse Sam Murry Sandell an' we has brung to Magnolia to live an' I niver

remember seein' my pappy ag'in.

"Marse Murry didn' have many slaves. His place was right whar young

Mister Lampton Reid is buildin' his fine house jes east of de town. My

mammy had to work in da house an' in de fiel' wid all de other niggers

an' I played in de yard wid de little chulluns, bofe white an' black.

Sometimes we played 'tossin' de ball' an' sometimes we played

'rap-jacket' an' sometimes 'ketcher.' An' when it rained we had to go in

de house an' Old Mistess made us behave.

"I was taught how to work 'round de house, how to sweep an' draw water

frum de well an' how to kin'le fires an' keep de wood box filled wid

wood, but I was crazy to larn how to plow an' when I could I would slip

off an' get a old black man to let me walk by his side an' hold de lines

an' I thought I was big 'nouf to plow.

"Marse Murry didn' have no overseer. He made de slaves work, an' he was

good an' kind to 'em, but when dey didn' do right he would whip 'em, but

he didn' beat 'em. He niver stripped 'em to whip 'em. Yes ma'm, he

whipped me but I needed it. One day I tol' him I was not goin' to do

whut he tol' me to do--feed de mule--but when he got through wid me I

wanted to feed dat mule.

"I come to live wid Marse Murry 'fo dar was a town here. Dar was only

fo' houses in dis place when I was a boy. I seed de fust train dat come

to dis here town an' it made so much noise dat I run frum it. Dat smoke

puffed out'n de top an' de bell was ringin' an' all de racket it did

make made me skeered.

"I heered dem talkin' 'bout de war but I didn' know whut dey meant an'

one day Marse Murry said he had jined de Quitman Guards an' was goin' to

de war an' I had to go wid him. Old Missus cried an' my mammy cried but

I thought it would be fun. He tuk me 'long an' I waited on him. I kept

his boots shinin' so yer could see yer face in 'em. I brung him water

an' fed an' cur'ied his hoss an' put his saddle on de hoss fer him. Old

Missus tol' me to be good to him an' I was.

"One day I was standin' by de hoss an' a ball kilt[FN: killed] de hoss

an' he fell over dead an' den I cried like it mout[FN: might] be my

brudder. I went way up in Tennessee an' den I was at Port Hudson. I seed

men fall dawn an' die; dey was kilt like pigs. Marse Murry was shot an'

I stayed wid him 'til dey could git him home. Dey lef' me behin' an'

Col. Stockdale an' Mr. Sam Matthews brung me home.

"Marse Murry died an' Old Missus run de place. She was good an' kind to

us all an' den she mar'ied afte' while to Mr. Gatlin. Dat was afte' de

war was over.

"Whil'st I was in de war I seed Mr. Jeff Davis. He was ridin' a big hoss

an' he looked mighty fine. I niver seed him 'ceptin he was on de hoss.

"Dey said old man Abe Lincoln was de nigger's friend, but frum de way

old Marse an' de sojers talk 'bout him I thought he was a mighty mean


"I doan recollec' when dey tol' us we was freed but I do know Mr. Gatlin

would promise to pay us fer our work an' when de time would come fer to

pay he said he didn' have it an' kep' puttin us off, an' we would work

some more an' git nothin' fer it. Old Missus would cry an' she was good

to us but dey had no money.

"'Fo de war Marse Murry would wake all de niggers by blowin' a big

'konk' an' den when dinner time would come Old Missus would blow de

'konk' an' call dem to dinner. I got so I could blow dat 'konk' fer Old

Missus but oh! it tuk my wind.

"Marse Murry would 'low me to drive his team when he would go to market.

I could haul de cotton to Covin'ton an' bring back whut was to eat, an'

all de oxen could pull was put on dat wagon. We allus had good eatin

afte' we had been to market.

"Every Chris'mus would come I got a apple an' some candy an' mammy would

cook cake an' pies fer Old Missus an' stack dem on de shelf in de big

kitchen an' we had every thing good to eat. Dem people sho' was good an'

kind to all niggers.

"Afte de war de times was hard an' de white an' black people was

fightin' over who was to git de big office, an' den dere was mighty

leetle to eat. Dar was plen'y whiskey, but I'se kep' 'way frum all dat.

I was raised right. Old Missus taught me ter 'spect white folks an' some

of dem promised me land but I niver got it. All de land I'se ever got I

work mighty hard fer it an' I'se got it yit.

"One day afte' Mr. Gatlin said he couldn' pay me I run 'way an' went to

New Orleans an' got a job haulin' cotton, an' made my 50 cents an'

dinner every day. I sho' had me plen'y money den. I stayed dere mighty

close on to fo' years an' den I went to Tylertown an' hauled cotton to

de railroad fer Mr. Ben Lampton. Mr. Lampton said I was de bes' driver

of his team he ever had caze I kep' his team fat.

"Afte I come back to Miss'ssippi I mar'ied a woman named Maggie Ransom.

We stayed together 51 years. I niver hit her but one time. When we was

gittin' mar'ied I stopped de preacher right in de ceremony an' said to

her, 'Maggie, iffen you niver call me a liar I will niver call you one'

an' she said, 'Jim, I won't call you a liar.' I said, 'That's a bargain'

an' den de preacher went on wid de weddin'. Well, one day afte' we had

been mar'ied' bout fo' years, she ast[FN: asked] me how come I was so

late comin' to supper, an' I said I found some work to do fer a white

lady, an' she said, that's a lie,' an' right den I raised my han' an'

let her have it right by de side of de head, an' she niver called me a

liar ag'in. No ma'm, dat is somethin' I won't stand fer.

"My old lady had seven chulluns dat lived to git grown. Two of 'em lived

here in Magnolia an' de others gone North. Maggie is daid an' I live wid

my boy Walter an' his wife Lena. Dey is mighty good to me. I owns dis

here house an' fo' acres but day live wid me an' I gits a Confed'rate

pension of fo' dollars a month. Dat gives me my coffee an' 'bacco. I'se

proud I'se a old sojer, I seed de men fall when dey was shot but I was

not skeered. We et bread when we could git it an' if we couldn' git it

we done widout.

"Afte' I lef' Mr. Lampton I'se come here an' went to work fer Mr. Enoch

at Fernwood when his mill was jes a old rattletrap of a mill. I work fer

him 45 years. At fust I hauled timber out'n de woods an' afte' whil'st I

hauled lumber to town to build houses. I sometimes collec' fer de lumber

but I niver lost one nickle, an' dem white folks says I sho' was a

honest nigger.

"I lived here on dis spot an' rode a wheel to Fernwood every day, an'

fed de teams an' hitched 'em to de wagons an' I was niver late an' niver

stopped fer anything, an' my wheel niver was in de shop. I niver 'lowed

anybody to prank wid it, an' dat wheel was broke up by my gran'chulluns.

"Afte I quit work at de mill I'se come home an' plow gardens fer de

white folks an' make some more money. I sho' could plow.

"I jined de New Zion Baptist Church here in Magnolia an' was baptized in

de Tanghipoa River one Sunday evenin'. I was so happy dat I shouted, me

an' my wife bofe. I'se still a member of dat church but I do not preach

an' I'm not no deacon; I'se jes a bench member an' a mighty po' one at

dat. My wife was buried frum dat church.

"Doan know why I was not called Jim Sandell, but mammy said my pappy was

named Henry Cornelius an' I reckin I was give my pappy's name.

"When I was a young man de white folks' Baptist Church was called Salem

an' it was on de hill whar de graveyard now is. It burnt down an' den

dey brung it to town, an' as I was goin' to tell yer I went possum

huntin' in dat graveyard one night. I tuk my ax an' dog 'long wid me an'

de dog, he treed a possum right in de graveyard. I cut down dat tree an'

started home, when all to once somethin' run by me an' went down dat big

road lak light'ning an' my dog was afte' it. Den de dog come back an'

lay down at my feet an' rolled on his back an' howled an' howled, an'

right den I knowed it was a sperit an' I throwed down my 'possum an' ax

an' beat de dog home. I tell you dat was a sperit--I'se seed plen'y of

'em. Dat ain't de only sperit I ever seed. I'se seen 'em a heap of

times. Well, dat taught me niver to hunt in a grave yard ag'in.

"No ma'm, I niver seed a ghost but I tell yer I know dere is sperits.

Let me tell yer, anudder time I was goin' by de graveyard an' I seed a

man's head. He had no feet, but he kep' lookin' afte' me an' every way I

turned he wouldn' take his eye offen me, an' I walked fast an' he got

faster an' den I run an' den he run, an' when I got home I jes fell on

de bed an' hollered an' hollered an' tol' my old lady, an' she said I

was jes' skeered, but I'se sho' seed dat sperit an' I ain't goin' by de

grave yard at night by myse'f ag'in.

"An' let me tell yer dis. Right in front of dis house--yer see dat

white house?--Well, last Febr'ary a good old cullud lady died in dat

house, an' afte' she was buried de rest of de fambly moved away, an'

every night I kin look over to dat house an' see a light in de window.

Dat light comes an' goes, an' nobody lives dar. Doan I know dat is de

sperit of dat woman comin' back here to tell some of her fambly a

message? Yes ma'm, dat is her sperit an' dat house is hanted an' nobody

will live dar ag'in.

"No ma'm, I can't read nor write."

James Childress James D Johnson facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail