James Gill


Interviewer: Watt McKinney

Person interviewed: James Gill

R.F.D. Marvell, Arkansas

Age: 86

Occupation: Farmer

"Uncle Jim" Gill, an ex-slave eighty-six years of age, owns a nice two

hundred acre farm five miles north of Marvell where he has lived for the

past thirty-five years. "Uncle Jim" is an excellent citizen, prosperous

and conservative and highly respected by both white and colored. This is

molasses making time in the South and I found "Uncle Jim" busily engaged

in superintending the process of cooking the extracted juice from a

large quantity of sorghum cane. The familiar type of horse-power mill in

which the cane is crushed was in full operation, a roaring fire was

blazing in the crudely constructed furnace beneath the long pan that

contained the furiously foaming, boiling juice and that "Uncle Jim"

informed me was "nigh 'bout done" and ready to drain off into the huge

black pot that stood by the side of the furnace. The purpose of my visit

was explained and "Uncle Jim" leaving the molasses making to some

younger Negro accompanied me to the shade of a large oak tree that stood

near-by and told me the following story:

"My ole mars, he was name Tom White and my young mars what claimed me,

he was name Jeff. Young mars an' me was just 'bout same age. Us played

together from time I fust riccolect till us left de ole home place back

in Alabama and lit out for over here in Arkansas.

"Ole mars, he owned a heap of niggers back dere where us all lived on de

big place but de lan', it was gittin' poor an' red and mought near wore

out; so ole mars, he 'quired a big lot of lan' here in Arkansas in

Phillips County, but you know it was all in de woods den 'bout fifteen

miles down de ribber from Helena and just thick wid canebrakes. So he

sont 'bout twenty famblies ober here end dats how us happened to come

'cause my pappy, he was a extra blacksmith and carpenter and ole mars

knowed he gwine to haf to hab him to 'sist in buildin' de houses and

sich like.

"Though I was just 'bout seben year ole den, howsomeever, I 'member it

well an' I sure did hate to leave de ole home where I was borned and I

didn' want leave Mars Jeff either and when Mars Jeff foun' it out 'bout

'em gwine take me he cut up awful and just went on, sayin' I his nigger

and wasn't gwine 'way off to Arkansas.

"Ole mars, he knowed my mammy and pappy, dey wasn't gwine be satisfied

widout all dere chillun wid 'em, so en course I was brung on too. You

see, ole mars and he fambly, dey didn' come and we was sont under de

oberseer what was name Jim Lynch and us come on de train to Memphis and

dat was when I got so skeered 'cause I hadn' nebber seen no train 'fore

den an' I just hollered an' cried an' went on so dat my mammy say if I

didn' hush up she gwine give me to de paddy rollers.

"Dey put us on de steamboat at Memphis and de nex' I 'member was us

gittin' off at de landin'. It was in de winter time 'bout las' of

January us git here and de han's was put right to work clearin' lan' and

buildin' cabins. It was sure rich lan' den, boss, and dey jus' slashed

de cane and deaden de timber and when cotton plantin' time come de cane

was layin' dere on de groun' crisp dry and day sot fire to it and burned

it off clean and den planted de crops.

"Ole mars, he would come from Alabama to see 'bout de bizness two an'

three times every year and on some of dem 'casions he would bring Mars

Jeff wid him and Mars Jeff, he allus nebber failed to hab somethin' for

me, candy and sich like, and dem times when Mars Jeff come was when we

had de fun. Us just run wild playin' and iffen it was in de summer time

we was in de bayou swimmin' or fishin' continual but all dem good times

ceasted atter a while when de War come and de Yankees started all dere

debbilment. Us was Confedrits all de while, leastwise I means my mammy

an' my pappy and me an' all de res' of de chillun 'cause ole mars was

and Mars Jeff would er fit 'em too and me wid him iffen we had been ole


"But de Yankees, dey didn' know dat we was Confedrits, dey jus' reckon

we like most all de res' of de niggers. Us was skeered of dem Yankees

though 'cause us chillun cose didn' know what dey was and de oberseer,

Jim Lynch, dey done tole us little uns dat a Yankee was somepin what had

one great big horn on he haid and just one eye and dat right in de

middle of he breast and, boss, I sure was s'prized when I seen a sure

'nough Yankee and see he was a man just like any er de res' of de folks.

"De war tore up things right sharp yit an' still it wasn't so bad here

in Arkansas as I hear folks tell it was back in de yolder states like

Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. De bes' I riccolect de Yankees come in

here 'bout July of de year and dey had a big scrap in Helena wid 'em and

us could hear de cannons fifteen miles off and den dey would make dere

trips out foragin' for stuff, corn and sich, and dey would take all de

cotton dey could fin', but our mens, dey would hide de cotton in de

thickets an' canebrakes iffen dey had time or either dey would burn it

up 'fore de Yankees come if dey could. I 'member one day we had on han'

'bout hundred bales at de gin and a white man come wid orders to de

oberseer to git rid of it, so dey started to haulin' it off to de woods

and dey hauled off 'bout fifty bales and den dey see dey wasn't goin' to

hab time to git de res' to de woods and den dey commenced cuttin' de

ties on de bales so dey could set fire to dem dat dey hadn' hid yit and

'bout dat time here come one of Mr. Tom Casteel's niggers just a flyin'

on a mule wid a letter to de white man. Mr. Tom Casteel, he had he place

just up de ribber from us, on de island, and when he gived de letter to

de man an de man read it, he said de Yankees is comin' and he lit out

for de ribber where de boat was waitin' for him and got 'way and dere

was all dat loose cotton on de groun' and us was skeered to sit fire to

de cotton den and 'bout dat time de Yankees arive and say don' you burn

dat cotton and dey looked all ober de place and find de bales dat was

hid in de woods and de nex' day dey come and haul it off and dey say us

niggers can hab dat what de ties been cut on and my mammy, she set to

work and likewise de odder women what de Yankees say can had de loose

cotton and tie up all dey can in bags and atter dat us sold it to de

Yankees in Helena for a dollar a poun' and dat was all de money us had

for a long time.

"How-some-ever us all lived good 'cause dere was heap of wild hogs an'

'possums and sich and we had hid a heap of corn and us did fine.

Sometimes de war boats, dey would pass on de ribber--dat is de Yankee

boats--and us would hide 'hind de trees and bushes and see dem pass. We

wouldn't let dem see us though 'cause we thought dey would shoot. Heap

en heap er times sojers would come by us place. When de Yankees ud come

dey would ax my mammy, 'Aunt Mary, is you seen any Se-cesh today?' and

mammy, she ud say 'Naw suh' eben iffen she had seen some of us mens, but

when our sojers ud come and say, 'Aunt Mary, is you seen ary Yankee

'round here recent?' she ud allus tell dem de truf. Dey was a bunch of

us sojers, dat is de Confedrits, what used to stay 'round in de

community constant, dat we knowed, but dey allus had to be on de dodge

'cause dere was so many more Yankees dan dem.

"Some of dese men I 'member good 'cause dey was us closest neighbors and

some of dem libed on 'j'ining places. Dere was Mr. Lum Shell, Mr. Tom

Stoneham, Mr. Bob Yabee, Mr. Henry Rabb and Mr. Tom Casteel. Dem I

'member well 'cause dey come to us cabin right of'en and mammy, she ud

cook for 'em and den atter de niggers git dey freedom dey could leave de

place any time dey choose and every so of'en mammy ud go to Helena and

gin'rally she took me wid her to help tote de things she get dere. Ole

Mr. Cooledge, he had de biggest and 'bout de onliest store dat dere was

in Helena at dat time. Mr. Cooledge, he was a ole like gentleman and had

everything most in he store--boots, shoes, tobacco, medicine en so on.

Cose couldn't no pusson go in an' outen Helena at dat time--dat is

durin' war days--outen dey had a pass and de Yankee sojer dat writ de

passes was named Buford en he is de one what us allus git our passes

from for to git in en out and 'twasn't so long 'fore Mr. Buford, he git

to know my mammy right well and call her by her name. He, just like all

de white mens, knowed her as 'Aunt Mary', but him nor none of de Yankees

knowed dat mammy was a Confedrit and dats somepin I will tell you, boss.

"Dese sojers dat I is just named and dat was us neighbors, dey ud come

to our cabin sometimes en say, 'Aunt Mary, we want you to go to Helena

for us and git some tobacco, and mebbe some medicine, and so on, and we

gwine write ole man Cooledge er note for you to take wid you'; and mammy,

she ud git off for town walking and ud git de note to ole man Cooledge.

Ole man Cooledge, you see, boss, he sided wid de Confedrites too but he

didn' let on dat he did but all de Confedrit sojers 'round dar in de

county, dey knowed dey could 'pend on him and when my mammy ud take de

note in ole man Cooledge, he ud fix mammy up in some of dem big, wide

hoop skirts and hide de things 'neath de skirts dat de men sont for. Den

she and sometimes me wid her, us would light out for home and cose we

allus had our pass and dey knowed us and we easy git by de pickets and

git home wid de goods for those sojer men what sont us.

"Speakin' from my own pussonal 'sperience, boss, de niggers was treated

good in slavery times, dat is dat was de case wid my mars' peoples. Our

mars wouldn't hab no mistreatment of his niggers but I'ze heered tell

dat some of de mars was pretty mean to dere niggers, but twasn't so wid

us 'cause us had good houses and plenty somepin to eat outen de same pot

what de white folks' victuals cooked in and de same victuals dat dey

had. You see dat ole kittle settin' ober dar by de lasses pan right now?

Well, I is et many a meal outen dat kittle in slavery times 'cause dat

is de very same kittle dat dey used to cook us victuals in when us

belonged to ole mars, Tom White, and lived on he place down on de

ribber. It was den, boss, just same wid white men as 'tis in dis day and

time. Dere is heap of good white folks now and dere is a heap of dem

what ain't so good. You know dat's so, boss, don't you?

"When de niggers been made free, de oberseer, he called all de peoples

up and he says, 'You all is free now and you can do like you please. You

can stay on here and make de crops ur you can leave which-some-ever you

want to do.' And wid dat de niggers, dat is most of dem, lef' like when

you leave de lot gate open where is a big litter of shotes and dey just

hit de road and commenced to ramble. Most of 'em, dey go on to Helena

and gits dey grub from de Yankees and stay dar till de Yankees lef'.

"But us, we stay on de place and some more, dey stay too and you know,

boss, some of dem niggers what belonged to old mars and what he was so

good to, dey stole mighty nigh all de mules and rode dem off and mars,

he never git he mules back. Naw suh, dat he didn'. De war, it broke ole

mars up and atter de surrender he jus' let he Arkansas farm go an'

never come back no more. Some of de older peoples, dey went back to

Alabama time er two and seen ole mars but I nebber did git to see him

since us was sot free. But Mars Jeff, he comed here all de way from de

home in Alabama way atter he was growed. It's been 'bout fifty year now

since de time he was here and I sure was proud to see him, dat I was,

boss, 'cause I sure did love Mars Jeff and I loves him yit to dis day

iffen he still lives and iffen he daid which I ain't never heered er

not, den I loves and 'spects he memory.

"Yas suh, boss, times is changed sure 'nough but like I 'splained 'bout

white folks and it's de same wid niggers, some is good and trys to lib

right en some don' keer and jus' turns loose en don' restrain demselves.

"You know, boss, dere is heaps of niggers wid white blood in 'em and dat

mess was started way back yonder I reckon 'fore I was ever borned.

Shucks, I knowed it was long afore den but it wasn't my kine er white

folks what 'sponsible for dat, it was de low class like some of de

oberseers and den some of de yother folks like for instance de furriners

what used to come in de country and work at jobs de mars ud give 'em to

do on the places like carpentrying an' sich. I knowed one bad case,

boss, dat happened right dere by us place and dat was de oberseer who

'sponsible for dat and he was de oberseer for a widow oman what lived in

Helena and dis white man runned de place an' he hab he nigger oman and

she de mama of 'bout six chillun by dis man I tellin' you 'bout, three

gals and three boys, and dem chillun nigh 'bout white and look just like

him and den he move off to some yother part of de county and he git

married dere to a white oman but he take he nigger fambly wid him just

de same and he built dem a house in de middle of de place he done bought

and he keep 'em dere eben though he done got him a white wife who he lib

wid also and, boss, since I done told you he name don't tell I said so

'cause de chillun, dey is livin' dere yet and some of dem is gettin' old

deyselves now but, boss, I don't 'spect I is tellin' you much you don't

already know 'bout dat bunch."

James Dickey James Graham facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail