Nellie Smith



660 W. Hancock Avenue

Athens, Georgia

Written by:

Miss Grace McCune


Edited by:

Mrs. Sarah H. Hall



John N. Booth

District Supervisor

Federal Writers' Project

Residencies 6 & 7

Augusta Georgia

September 2, 1938

Large pecan trees shaded the small, well-kept yard that led to Nellie

Smith's five-room frame house. The front porch of her white cottage was

almost obscured by a white cloud of fragrant clematis in full blossom,

and the yard was filled with roses and other flowers.

A small mulatto woman sat in the porch swing, a walking stick across her

lap. Her straight, white hair was done in a prim coil low on the neck,

and her print dress and white apron were clean and neat. In answer to

the visitor's inquiry, she smiled and said: "This is Nellie Smith. Won't

you come in out of the hot sun? I just knows you is plumb tuckered out.

Walkin' around in this hot weather is goin' to make you sick if you

don't be mighty careful.

"'Scuse me for not gittin' up. I can't hardly make it by myself since I

fell and got hurt so bad. My arm was broke and it looks lak my old back

never will stop hurtin' no more. Our doctor says I'll have to stay

bandaged up this way two or three weeks longer, but I 'spects that's on

account of my age. You know old folks' bones don't knit and heal quick

lak young folks' and, jus' let me tell you, I've done been around here a

mighty long time. Are you comfortable, Child? Wouldn't you lak to have a

glass of water? I'll call my daughter; she's back in the kitchen."

Nellie rapped heavily on the floor with her walking stick, and a tall,

stout, mulatto in a freshly laundered house frock made her appearance.

"This is my daughter, Amanda," said Nellie, and, addressing her

off-spring, she continued: "Bring this lady a drink of water. She needs

it after walkin' 'way out here in this hot sun." Ice tinkled in the

glass that the smiling Amanda offered as she inquired solicitously if

there was anything else she could do. Amanda soon went back to her work

and Nellie began her narrative.

"Lordy, Honey, them days when I was a child, is so far back that I don't

s'pect I can 'member much 'bout 'em. I does love to talk about them

times, but there ain't many folks what keers anything 'bout listening to

us old folks these days. If you don't mind we'll go to my room where

it'll be more comfortable." Amanda appeared again, helped Nellie to her

room, and placed her in a large chair with pillows to support the broken

arm. Amanda laughed happily when she noticed her mother's enthusiasm for

the opportunity to relate her life story. "Mother likes that," she said,

"and I'm so glad you asked her to talk about those old times she thinks

so much about. I'll be right back in the kitchen ironing; if you want

anything, just call me."

Nellie now began again: "I was born right near where the Coordinate

College is now; it was the old Weir place then. I don't know nothin'

'bout my Daddy, but my Mother's name was Harriet Weir, and she was owned

by Marster Jack Weir. He had a great big old plantation then and the

homeplace is still standin', but it has been improved and changed so

much that it don't look lak the same house. As Marse Jack's sons married

off he give each one of 'em a home and two slaves, but he never did sell

none of his slaves, and he told them boys they better not never sell

none neither.

"Slaves slept in log cabins what had rock chimblies at the end. The

rocks was put together with red clay. All the slaves was fed at the big

house kitchen. The fireplace, where they done the cookin', was so big it

went 'most across one end of that big old kitchen. It had long swingin'

cranes to hang the pots on, and there was so many folks to cook for at

one time that often there was five or six pots over the fire at the same

time. Them pots was large too--not lak the little cookin' vessels we use

these days. For the bakin', they had all sizes of ovens. Now Child, let

me tell you, that was good eatin'. Folks don't take time enough to cook

right now; They are always in too big a hurry to be doin' something else

and don't cook things long enough. Back in dem days they put the

vegetables on to cook early in the mornin' and biled 'em 'til they was

good and done. The biggest diffunce I see is that folks didn't git sick

and stay sick with stomach troubles then half as much as they does now.

When my grandma took a roast out of one of them old ovens it would be

brown and juicy, with lots of rich, brown gravy. Sweet potatoes baked

and browned in the pan with it would taste mighty fine too. With some of

her good biscuits, that roast meat, brown gravy, and potatoes, you had

food good enough for anybody. I just wish I could taste some more of it

one more time before I die.

"Why, Child, two of the best cake-makers I ever knew used them old ovens

for bakin' the finest kinds of pound cakes and fruit cakes, and evvybody

knows them cakes was the hardest kinds to bake we had in them days. Aunt

Betsey Cole was a great cake-baker then. She belonged to the Hulls, what

lived off down below here somewhere but, when there was to be a big

weddin' or some 'specially important dinner in Athens, folks 'most

always sent for Aunt Betsey to bake the cakes. Aunt Laura McCrary was a

great cake-maker too; she baked the cake for President Taft when he was

entertained at Mrs. Maggie Welch's home here.

"In them days you didn't have to be runnin' to the store evvy time you

wanted to cook a extra good meal; folks raised evvything they needed

right there at home. They had all the kinds of vegetables they knowed

about then in their own gardens, and there was big fields of corn, rye,

and wheat. Evvy big plantation raised its own cows for plenty of milk

and butter, as well as lots of beef cattle, hogs, goats, and sheep.

'Most all of 'em had droves of chickens, geese, and turkeys, and on our

place there were lots of peafowls. When it was goin' to rain them old

peafowls set up a big holler. I never knew rain to fail after them

peafowls started their racket.

"All our clothes and shoes was home-made, and I mean by that they growed

the cotton, wool, and cattle and made the cloth and leather on the

plantation. Summer clothes was made of cotton homespun, and cotton and

wool was wove together for winter clothin'. Marse Jack owned a man what

he kept there to do nothin' but make shoes. He had another slave to do

all the carpenterin' and to make all the coffins for the folks that died

on the plantation. That same carpenter made 'most all the beds the white

folks and us slaves slept on. Them old beds--they called 'em

teesters--had cords for springs; nobody never heard of no metal springs

them days. They jus' wove them cords criss-cross, from one side to the

other and from head to foot. When they stretched and sagged they was

tightened up with keys what was made for that purpose.

"Jus' look at my room," Nellie laughed. "I saw you lookin' at my bed. It

was made at Wood's Furniture Shop, right here in Athens, and I've had it

ever since I got married the first time. Take a good look at it, for

there ain't many lak it left." Nellie's pride in her attractively

furnished room was evident as she told of many offers she has had for

this furniture, but she added: "I want to keep it all here to use myself

jus' as long as I live. Shucks, I done got plumb off from what I was

tellin' you jus' ravin' 'bout my old furniture and things.

"My Mother died when I was jus' a little girl and she's buried in the

old family graveyard on the Weir place, but there are several other

slaves buried there and I don't know which grave is hers. Grandma raised

me, and I was jus' gittin' big enough to handle that old peafowl-tail

fly brush they used to keep the flies off the table when we were set


"It wasn't long after the War when the Yankees come to Athens. Folks had

to bury or hide evvything they could, for them Yankees jus' took

anything they could git their hands on, 'specially good food. They would

catch up other folks' chickens and take hams from the smokehouses, and

they jus' laughed in folks' faces if they said anything 'bout it. They

camped in the woods here on Hancock Avenue, but of course it wasn't

settled then lak it is now. I was mighty scared of them Yankees and they

didn't lak me neither. One of 'em called me a little white-headed devil.

"One of my aunts worked for a northern lady that they called Mrs.

Meeker, who lived where the old Barrow home is now. Evvy summer when she

went back up North she would leave my aunt and uncle to take care of her

place. It was right close to the Yankees' camp, and the soldiers made my

aunt cook for them sometimes. I was livin' with her then, and I was so

scared of 'em that I stayed right by her. She never had to worry 'bout

where I was them days, for I was right by her side as long as the

Yankees was hangin' 'round Athens. My uncle used to say that he had seen

them Yankees ride to places and shoot down turkeys, then make the folks

that owned them turkeys cook and serve 'em. Folks used to talk lots

'bout the Yankees stoppin' a white 'oman on the street and takin' her

earrings right out of her ears to put 'em on a Negro 'oman; I never saw

that, I jus' heard it.

"After the war was over Grandpa bought one of the old slave cabins from

Marse Jack and we lived there for a long time; then we moved out to Rock

Spring. I was about eight or nine years old then, and they found out I

was a regular tomboy. The woods was all 'round Rock Spring then, and I

did have a big time climbin' them trees. I jus' fairly lived in 'em

durin' the daytime, but when dark come I wanted to be as close to

Grandpa as I could git.

"One time, durin' those days at Rock Spring, I wanted to go to a Fourth

of July celebration. Those celebrations was mighty rough them days and

Grandpa didn't think that would be a good place for a decent little

girl, so he didn't want me to go. I cried and hollered and cut up

something awful. Grandma told him to give me a good thrashin' but

Grandpa didn't lak to do that, so he promised me I could go to ride if I

wouldn't go to that celebration. That jus' tickled me to death, for I

did lak to ride. Grandpa had two young mules what was still wild, and

when he said I could ride one of 'em Grandma tried hard to keep me off

of it, for she said that critter would be sure to kill me, but I was so

crazy to go that nobody couldn't tell me nothin'. Auntie lent me her

domino coat to wear for a ridin' habit and I sneaked and slipped a pair

of spurs, then Grandpa put a saddle on the critter and helped me to git

up on him. I used them spurs, and then I really went to ride. That mule

showed his heels straight through them woods and way on out in the

country. I couldn't stop him, so I jus' kept on kickin' him with them

spurs and didn't have sense to know that was what was makin' him run. I

thought them spurs was to make him mind me, and all the time I was I

lammin' him with the spurs I was hollerin': 'Stop! Oh, Stop!' When I got

to where I was too scared to kick him with the spurs or do nothin' 'cept

hang on to that saddle, that young mule quit his runnin' and trotted

home as nice and peaceable as you please. I never did have no more use

for spurs.

"Grandpa used to send me to Phinizy's mill to have corn and wheat

ground. It would take all day long, so they let me take a lunch with me,

and I always had the best sort of time when I went to mill. Uncle Isham

run the mill then and he would let me think I was helpin' him. Then,

while he helped me eat my lunch, he would call me his little 'tomboy

gal' and would tell me about the things he used to do when he was 'bout

my age.

"My first schoolin' was in old Pierce's Chapel that set right spang in

the middle of Hancock Avenue at Foundry Street. Our teacher was a Yankee

man, and we were mighty surprised to find out that he wasn't very hard

on us. We had to do something real bad to git a whippin', but when we

talked or was late gittin' to school we had to stand up in the back of

the schoolroom and hold up one hand. Pierce's chapel was where the

colored folks had preachin' then--preachin' on Sunday and teachin' on

week days, all in the same buildin'. A long time before then it had been

the white folks' church, and Preacher Pierce was the first one to preach

there after it was built, so they named it for him. When the white folks

built them a new church they gave the old chapel to the colored folks,

and, Honey, there was some real preachin' done in that old place. Me, I

was a Methodist, but I was baptized just lak the Baptists was down there

in the Oconee River.

"Me and my first husband was too young to know what we was doin' when we

got married, but our folks give us a grand big weddin'. I think my

weddin' cake was 'bout the biggest one I ever saw baked in one of them

old ovens in the open fireplace. They iced it in white and decorated it

with grapes. A shoat was cooked whole and brought to the table with a

big red apple in his mouth. You know a shoat ain't nothin' but a young

hog that's done got bigger than a little pig. We had chicken and pies

and just evvything good that went to make up a fine weddin' supper.

"Our weddin' took place at night, and I wore a white dress made with a

tight-fittin' waist and a long, full skirt that was jus' covered with

ruffles. My sleeves was tight at the wrists but puffed at the shoulders,

and my long veil of white net was fastened to my head with pretty

flowers. I was a mighty dressed up bride. The bridegroom wore a real

dark-colored cutaway coat with a white vest. We did have a swell weddin'

and supper, but there wasn't no dancin' 'cause we was all good church


"We was so young we jus' started out havin' a good time and didn't miss

nothin' that meant fun and frolic. We was mighty much in love with each

other too. It didn't seem long before we had three children, and then

one night he was taken sick all of a sudden and didn't live but a little

while. Soon as he was taken sick I sent for the doctor, but my husband

told me then he was dyin' fast and that he wasn't ready to die. He said:

'Nellie, here we is with these three little children and neither one of

us had been fit to raise 'em. Now I've got to leave you and you will

have to raise one of 'em, but the other two will come right on after


For several moments Nellie was still and quiet; then she raised her head

and said: "Honey, it was jus' lak he said it would be. He was gone in

jus' a little while and it wasn't two weeks 'fore the two youngest

children was gone lak their daddy. I worried lots after my husband and

babies was taken. I wanted to be saved to raise my little girl right,

and I was too proud to let anybody know how troubled I was or what it

was all about, so I kept it to myself. I lost weight, I couldn't sleep,

and was jus' dyin' away with sin. I would go to church but that didn't

git me no relief.

"One day a dear, good white lady sent for me to come to the hotel where

she was stayin'. She had been a mighty good friend to me for a long,

long time, and I had all the faith in the world in her. She told me that

she had a good job for me and wanted me to take it because it would let

me keep my little girl with me. She said her best friend's maid had died

and this friend of hers needed someone to work for her. 'I want you to

go there and work for her,' said the white lady, 'for she will be good

to you and your child. I've already talked with her about it.'

"I took her advice and went to work for Mrs. R.L. Bloomfield whose

husband operated the old check mill. Honey, Mrs. Bloomfield was one of

God's children and one of the best folks I have ever known. Right away

she told her cook: 'Amanda, look after Nellie good 'cause she's too

thin.' It wasn't long before Mrs. Bloomfield handed me a note and told

me to take it to Dr. Carlton. When he read it he laughed and said; 'Come

on Nellie, I've got to see what's wrong with you.' I tried to tell him I

wasn't sick, but he examined me all over, then called to see Mrs.

Bloomfield and told her that I didn't need nothin' but plenty of rest

and to eat enough good food. Bless her dear old heart, she done

evvything she could for me, but there wasn't no medicine, rest, or food

that could help the trouble that was wearin' me down then.

"Soon they started a revival at our church. One night I wanted to go,

but Aunt Amanda begged me not to, for she said I needed to go to bed and

rest; later she said she would go along with me to hear that preachin'.

Honey, I never will forgit that night. The text of the sermon was: 'Come

unto me all you weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' When

they began callin' the mourners to come up to the mourners' bench

something seemed to be jus' a-pullin' me in that direction, but I was

too proud to go. I didn't think then I ever could go to no mourners'

bench or shout. After a while they started singin' Almost Persuaded,

and I couldn't wait; I jus' got up and run to that blessed mourners'

bench and I prayed there. Honey, I shouted too, for I found the Blessed

Lord that very night and I've kept Him right with me ever since. I don't

aim to lose Him no more. Aunt Amanda was most nigh happy as I was and,

from that night when the burden was lifted from my heart, I begun

gittin' better.

"I worked on for Mrs. Bloomfield 'til I got married again, and then I

quit work 'cept for nursin' sick folks now and then. I made good money

nursin' and kept that up 'til I got too old to work outside my own


"My second husband was Scott Smith. We didn't have no big, fancy weddin'

for I had done been married and had all the trimmin's one time. We jus'

had a nice quiet weddin' with a few close friends and kinfolks invited.

I had on a very pretty, plain, white dress. Again I was blessed with a

good husband. Scott fixed up that nice mantelpiece you see in this room

for me, and he was mighty handy about the house; he loved to keep things

repaired and in order. Best of all, he was jus' as good to my little

girl as he was to the girl and boy that were born to us later. All three

of my children are grown and married now, and they are mighty good to

their old mother. One of my daughters lives in New York.

"Soon after we married, we moved in a big old house called the old White

place that was jus' around the corner from here on Pope Street. People

said it was haunted, and we could hear something walkin' up and down the

stairs that sounded lak folks. To keep 'em from bein' so scared, I used

to try to make the others believe it was jus' our big Newfoundland dog,

but one night my sister heard it. She got up and found the dog lyin'

sound asleep on the front porch, so it was up to me to find out what it

was. I walked up the stairs without seein' a thing, but, Honey, when I

put my foot on that top step such a feelin' come over me as I had never

had before in all my life. My body trembled 'til I had to hold tight to

the stair-rail to keep from fallin', and I felt the hair risin' up all

over my head. While it seemed like hours before I was able to move, it

was really only a very few seconds. I went down those stairs in a hurry

and, from that night to this day, I have never hunted ghosts no more and

I don't aim to do it again, never.

"I've been here a long time, Honey. When them first street lights was

put up and lit, Athens was still mostly woods. Them old street lights

would be funny to you now, but they was great things to us then, even if

they wasn't nothin' but little lanterns what burned plain old lamp-oil

hung out on posts. The Old Town Hall was standin' then right in the

middle of Market (Washington) Street, between Lumpkin and Pulaski

Streets. The lowest floor was the jail, and part of the ground floor was

the old market place. Upstairs was the big hall where they held court,

and that was where they had so many fine shows. Whenever any white folks

had a big speech to make they went to that big old room upstairs in Town

Hall and spoke it to the crowd.

"You is too young to remember them first streetcars what was pulled by

little bitsy Texas mules with bells around their necks. Hearing them

bells was sweet music to us when they meant we was goin' to git a ride

on them streetcars. Some folks was too precise to say 'streetcars'; they

said 'horsecars', but them horsecars was pulled through the streets by

mules, so what's the diffunce? Sometimes them little mules would mire up

so deep in the mud they would have to be pulled out, and sometimes, when

they was feelin' sassy and good, they would jus' up and run away with

them streetcars. Them little critters could git the worst tangled up in

them lines." Here Nellie laughed heartily. "Sometimes they would even

try to climb inside the cars. It was lots of fun ridin' them cars, for

you never did know what was goin' to happen before you got back home,

but I never heard of no real bad streetcar accidents here."

Nellie now began jumping erratically from one subject to another. "Did

you notice my pretty flowers and ferns on the front porch?" she asked.

"I jus' know you didn't guess what I made them two hangin' baskets out

of. Them's the helmets that my son and my son-in-law wore when they was

fightin' in the World War. I puts my nicest flowers in 'em evvy year as

a sort of memorial to the ones that didn't git to fetch their helmets

back home. Yes Mam, I had two stars on my service flag and, while I

hated mighty bad that there had to be war, I wanted my family to do

their part.

"Honey, old Nellie is gittin' a little tired, but jus' you listen to

this: I went to meetin' one night to hear the first 'oman preacher that

ever had held a meetin' in this town. She was meanin' to preach at a

place out on Rock Spring Street, and there was more folks there than

could git inside that little old weather-boarded house. The place was

packed and jammed, but me and Scott managed to git in. When I saw an old

Hardshell Baptist friend of mine in there, I asked her how come she was

at this kind of meetin'. 'Curiosity, my child,' she said, 'jus' plain

old curiosity.' The 'oman got up to preach and, out of pure devilment,

somebody on the outside hollered; 'The house is fallin' down.' Now

Child, I know it ain't right to laugh at preachin's of any sort, but

that was one funny scene. Evvybody was tryin' to git out at one time;

such cryin', prayin', and testifyin' to the Lord I ain't never heard

before. The crowd jus' went plumb crazy with fright. I was pushed down

and trampled over in the rush before Scott could git me out; they mighty

near killed me." The old woman stopped and laughed until the tears

streamed down her face. "You know, Honey," she said, when she could

control her voice sufficiently to resume her story, "Niggers ain't got

no sense at all when they gits scared. When they throwed one gal out of

a window, she called out: 'Thank you, Lord,' for the poor thing thought

the Lord was savin' her from a fallin' buildin'. Poor old Martha

Holbrook,"--The sentence was not finished until Nellie's almost

hysterical giggles had attracted her daughter who came to see if

something was wrong--"Martha Holbrook," Nellie repeated, "was climbin'

backwards out of a window and her clothes got fastened on a nail. She

slipped on down and there she was with her legs kickin' around on the

outside and the rest of her muffled up in her clothes. It looked lak her

clothes was jus' goin' to peel off over her head. It took the menfolks a

long time to git her uncaught and out of that predicament in the window.

Pretty soon the folks began to come to their senses and they found there

wasn't nothin' wrong with the house 'cept that some doors and windows

had been torn out by the crowd. They sho did git mad, but nobody seemed

to know who started that ruction. My old Hardshell Baptist friend came

up then and said: 'Curiosity brought us here, and curiosity like to have

killed the cat.'"

Seeing that Nellie was tired, the visitor prepared to leave. "Goodbye

and God bless you," were the old woman's farewell words. At the front

door Amanda said: "I haven't heard my Mother laugh that way in a long,

long time, and I jus' know she is goin' to feel more cheerful after

this. Thank you for givin' her this pleasure, and I hope you can come

back again."

Nellie Maxwell Nellie Smith facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail