Nancy Smith

PLANTATION LIFE as viewed by Ex-Slave

NANCY SMITH, Age about 80

129 Plum Street

Athens, Georgia

Written by:

Grace McCune


Edited by:

Sarah H. Hall



John N. Booth

District Supervisor

Federal Writers' Project

Residencies 6 & 7

Nancy Smith was in bed when the interviewer called. The aged Negress

appeared to be quite feeble but, even though she was alone in the house,

her head was tied up in a snowy white cloth and the sickroom was neat

and clean. The bowl of fresh flowers on her bedside table was no gayer

than Nancy's cheerful chuckle as she repeated the doctor's instructions

that she must stay in bed because of a weak heart. "Lawsy Chile," she

said, "I ain't dead yit." Nancy stated that the grandson who lives with

her has been preparing breakfast and cleaning the room since she has

been bedridden, and that a niece who lives nearby comes in occasionally

during the day to look after her.

Asked if she felt strong enough to talk about the old plantation days,

she answered: "I jus' loves to talk 'bout old times, and I spends a lot

of dis lonesome time here by myself jus' a-studyin' 'bout dem days. But

now listen, Chile, and understand dis. I warn't no plantation Negro. Our

white folks was town folks, dey was. My Mammy and Daddy was Julia and

Jack Carlton. Dey belonged to old Marster, Dr. Joe Carlton, and us lived

right here in town in a big white house dat had a upstairs and a

downstairs in it. Our house stood right whar de courthouse is now.

Marster had all dat square and his mother, Mist'ess Bessie Carlton,

lived on de square de other side of Marse Joe's. His office was on de

corner whar de Georgia (Georgian) Hotel is now, and his hoss stable was

right whar da Cain's boardin' house is. Honey, you jus' ought to have

seed Marse Joe's hoss stable for it sho' was a big one.

"No Mam, I don't know 'zactly how old I is. I was born 'fore de war, and

Marse Joe kept de records of all of us and evvything, but somehow dem

books got lost. Folks said I was 'bout de age of Marse Joe's son, Dr.

Willie. Marster had three boys: Dr. Joe, Jr., Dr. Willie, and Dr.

Jimmie, and dere was one little Mist'ess. She was Miss Julia. Us all

played 'round in de yard together.

"Daddy, he was de car'iage driver. He driv Marse Joe 'round, 'cept when

Mist'ess wanted to go somewhar. Den Daddy driv de coach for her, and

Marse Joe let another boy go wid him.

"De biggest, bestest fireplace up at de big house was in de kitchen whar

Mammy done de cookin'. It had a great wide hearth wid four big swingin'

racks and four big old pots. Two of de ovens was big and two was little.

Dat was better cookin' 'rangements and fixin's dan most of de other

white folks in dis town had den. When dat fire got good and hot and dere

was plenty of ashes, den Mammy started cookin' ash cakes and 'taters.

One of Mammy's good ash-roasted 'taters would be awful good right now

wid some of dat good old home-made butter to go wid it. Marster allus

kept jus' barrels and barrels of good old home-made 'lasses sirup,

'cause he said dat was what made slave chilluns grow fast and be strong.

Folks don't know how to have plenty of good things to eat lak us had

den. Jus' think of Marse Joe's big old plantation down nigh de Georgia

Railroad whar he raised our somepin' t'eat: vegetables sich as green

corn, 'taters, cabbages, onions, collards, turnip greens, beans,

peas--more than I could think up all day--and dere was plenty of wheat,

rye, and corn for our bread.

"Out dar de pastur's was full of cows, hogs and sheep, and dey raised

lots of chickens and turkeys on dat farm. Dey clipped wool from dem

sheep to weave wid de cotton when dey made cloth for our winter clothes.

"Marster had a overseer to look atter his plantation, but us chillun in

town sho'ly did love to be 'lowed to go wid him or whoever went out dar

when dey needed somepin' at de big house from de farm. Dey needed us to

open and shut gates and run errands, and whilest dey was gittin' up what

was to be took back to town, us would run 'round seein' evvything us


"Honey, de clothes us wore den warn' t lak what folks has now. Little

gals jus' wore slips cut all in one piece, and boys didn't wear nothin'

but long shirts 'til dey was big enough to wuk in de fields. Dat was

summertime clothes. In winter, dey give us plenty of warm clothes wid

flannel petticoats and brass-toed shoes. Grown-up Negroes had dresses

what was made wid waisties and skirts sewed together. Dey had a few

gathers in de skirts, but not many. De men wore homespun britches wid

galluses to hold 'em up. White folks had lots better clothes. Mist'ess'

dresses had full, ruffled skirts and, no foolin', her clothes was sho'ly

pretty. De white menfolks wore plain britches, but dey had bright

colored coats and silk vests dat warn't lak de vests de men wears now.

Dem vests was more lak fancy coats dat didn't have no sleeves. Some

folks called 'em 'wescoats.' White chillun never had no special clothes

for Sunday.

"Miss Julia used to make me sweep de yard wid a little brushbroom and I

had to wear a bonnet den to keep dust out of my hair. Dat bonnet was

ruffled 'round de front and had staves to hold de brim stiff, but in de

back it didn't have no ruffle; jus' de bottom of de crown what us called

de bonnet tail. Dem bonnets looked good enough in front but mighty

bob-tailed in de back.

"Dey used to have big 'tracted meetin's in Pierce's Chapel nigh Foundry

Street and Hancock Avenue, and us was allus glad for dem meetin' times

to come. Through de week dey preached at night, but when Sunday come it

was all day long and dinner on de ground. Pierce's Chapel was a old

fashioned place, but you forgot all 'bout dat when Brother Thomas got in

de pulpit and preached dem old time sermons 'bout how de devil gwine to

git you if you don't repent and be washed in de blood of de Lamb. De

call to come up to de mourner's bench brought dem Negroes jus' rollin'

over one another in de 'citement. Soon dey got happy and dere was

shoutin' all over de place. Some of 'em jus' fell out. When de 'tracted

meetin' closed and de baptizin' dey come, dat was de happiest time of

all. Most of de time dere was a big crowd for Brother Thomas to lead

down into de river, and dem Negroes riz up out of de water a-singin':

Lord, I'm comin' Home, Whar de Healin' Waters Flow, Roll, Jordan

Roll, All God's Chillun Got Wings, and sich lak. You jus' knowed dey

was happy.

"No Mam, I don't 'member much 'bout folks dyin' in dem days 'cause I

never did love to go 'round dead folks. De first corpse I ever seed was

Marse Joe's boy, young Marse Jimmy. I was skeered to go in dat room 'til

I had done seed him so peaceful lak and still in dat pretty white

casket. It was a sho' 'nough casket, a mighty nice one; not lak dem old

home-made coffins most folks was buried in. Hamp Thomas, a colored man

dat lived right below us, made coffins for white folks and slaves too.

Some of dem coffins was right nice. Dey was made out of pine mostly, and

sometimes he painted 'em and put a nice linin' over cotton paddin'. Dat

made 'em look better dan de rough boxes de porest folks was buried in.

Mammy said dat when slaves died out on de plantation day wropped de

'omans in windin' sheets and laid 'em on coolin' boards 'til de coffins

was made, Dey put a suit of homespun clothes on de mens when dey laid

'em out. Dey jus' had a prayer when dey buried plantation slaves, but

when de crops was laid by, maybe a long time atter de burial, dey would

have a white man come preach a fun'ral sermon and de folks would all

sing: Harps (Hark) From De Tomb and Callin' God's Chillun Home.

"Dere warn't no patterollers in town, but slaves had to have passes if

dey was out atter 9:00 o'clock at night or de town marshal would put a

fine on 'em if dey couldn't show no pass.

"De fust I knowed 'bout de war was when Marse Joe's brother, Marse

Bennie Carlton, left wid de other sojers and pretty soon he got kilt. I

was little den, and it was de fust time I had ever seed our Mist'ess

cry. She jus' walked up and down in de yard a-wringin' her hands and

cryin'. 'Poor Benny's been killed,' she would say over and over.

"When dem yankee sojers come, us warn't much skeered 'cause Marse Joe

had done told us all 'bout 'em and said to spect 'em 'fore long. Sho'

'nough, one day dey come a-lopin' up in Marse Joe's yard. Dey had dem

old blue uniforms on and evvy one of 'em had a tin can and a sack tied

to his saddle. Marster told us dey kept drinkin' water in dem cans and

dey called 'em canteens. De sacks was to carry deir victuals in. Dem

fellows went all through out big house and stole whatever dey wanted.

Dey got all of Mist'ess' best silver 'cause us didn't have no time to

hide it atter us knowed dey was nigh 'round de place. Dey tuk all de

somepin' t'eat dere was in de big house. When dey had done et all dey

wanted and tuk evvything else dey could carry off, dey called us Negroes

up 'fore deir captain, and he said all of us was free and could go any

time and anywhar us wanted to go. Dey left, and us never seed 'em in dat

yard no more. Marse Joe said all of us dat wanted to could stay on wid

him. None of us had nowhar else to go and 'sides nobody wanted to go

nowhar else, so evvy one of Marse Joe's Negroes stayed right on wid him

dat next year. Us warn't skeered of dem Kluxers (Ku Klux Klan) here in

town, but dey was right bad out on de plantations.

"'Bout de time I was old enough to go to school, Daddy moved away from

Marse Joe's. Us went over to de other side of de river nigh whar de old

check mill is. Dey had made guns dar durin' de war, and us chillun used

to go and look all through dat old mill house. Us played 'long de river

banks and went swimmin' in de river. Dem was de good old days, but us

never realized it den.

"I never went to school much, 'cause I jus' couldn't seem to larn

nothin'. Our teachers said I didn't have no talent for book larnin'.

School was taught in Pierce's Chapel by a Negro man named Randolph, and

he sho'ly did make kids toe da mark. You had better know dem lessons or

you was gwine to git fanned out and have to stay in atter school. Us got

out of school evvy day at 2:00 o'clock. Dat was 'cause us was town

chillun. I was glad I didn't live in de country 'cause country schools

kept de chillun all day long.

"It was sort of funny to be able to walk out and go in town whenever us

wanted to widout gittin' Marster's consent, but dere warn't nothin' much

to go to town for 'less you wanted to buy somepin. A few stores, mostly

on Broad Street, de Town Hall, and de Fire Hall was de places us headed

for. Us did love to hang 'round whar dat fire engine was, 'cause when a

fire broke out evvybody went, jus' evvybody. Folks would form lines from

de nearest cisterns and wells and pass dem buckets of water on from one

to another 'til dey got to de man nighest de fire.

"Soon as I was big enough, I went to wuk for white folks. Dey never paid

me much in cash money, but things was so much cheaper dan now dat you

could take a little cash and buy lots of things. I wukked a long time

for a yankee fambly named Palmer dat lived on Oconee Street right below

de old Michael house, jus' 'fore you go down de hill. Dey had two or

three chillun and I ain't never gwine to forgit de day dat little Miss

Eunice was runnin' and playin' in de kitchen and fell 'gainst de hot

stove. All of us was skeered most to death 'cause it did seem den lak

her face was plumb ruint, and for days folks was 'most sho' she was

gwine to die. Atter a long, long time Miss Eunice got well and growed up

to be a fine school teacher. Some of dem scars still shows on her face.

"Me and Sam Smith got married when I was 17. No Chile, us didn't waste

no money on a big weddin' but I did have a right pretty weddin' dress.

It was nice and new and was made out of white silk. My sister was

a-cookin' for Mrs. White at dat time, and dey had a fine two-room

kitchen in de back yard set off from de big house. My sister lived in

one of dem rooms and cooked for de Whites in de other one. Mrs. White

let us git married in her nice big kitchen and all de white folks come

out from de big house to see Brother Thomas tie de knot for us. Den me

and Sam built dis very same house whar you is a-settin', and I done been

livin' here ever since.

"Us was livin' right here when dey put on dem fust new streetcars.

Little bitty mules pulled 'em 'long and sometimes dey had a right hard

time draggin' dem big old cars through mud and bad weather. Now and den

day got too frisky and run away; dat was when dem cars would rock and

roll and you wished you could git off and walk. Most of de time dem

little mules done good and us was jus' crazy 'bout ridin' on de


When Nancy tired of talking she tactfully remarked: "I spects I better

git quiet and rest now lak de doctor ordered, but I'm mighty glad you

come, and I hopes you'll be back again 'fore long. Most folks don't take

up no time wid old wore-out Negroes. Good-bye, Missy."

Nancy Settles Nancy Washington facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail