Willis Bennefield


[TR: "Uncle Willis" in individual interviews.]

"Uncle Willis" lives with his daughter Rena Berrian, who is 74 years

old. "I his baby," said Rena, "all dead but me, and I ain't no good for

him now 'cause I can't tote nothin'."

When asked where Uncle Willis was, Rena looked out over the blazing

cotton field and called:

"Pap! Oh--pappy! Stop pickin' cotton and come in awhile. Dey's some

ladies wants to see you."

Uncle Willis hobbled slowly to the cabin, set in the middle of the

cotton patch. He wore clean blue overalls, obviously new. His small,

regular features had high cheekbones. There was a tuft of curly white

hair on his chin, and his head was covered with a "sundown" hat.

"Mawnin," he said, "I bin sick. So I thought I might git some cotton


Willis thinks he is 101 years old. He said, "I was 35 years old when

freedom delcared." He belonged to Dr. Balding Miller, who lived on Rock

Creek plantation. Dr. Miller had three or four plantations, Willis said

at first, but later stated that the good doctor had five or six places,

all in Burke County.

"I wuk in de fiel'," he went on, "and I drove de doctor thirty years. He

owned 300 slaves. I never went to school a day in my life, 'cept Sunday

school, but I tuk de doctor's sons fo' miles ev'y day to school. Guess

he had so much business in hand he thought the chillun could walk. I

used to sit down on de school steps 'till dey turn out. I got way up in

de alphabet by listenin', but when I went to courtin' I forgot all dat."

Asked what his regular duties were, Willis answered with pride:

"Marster had a cay'age and a buggy too. My father driv' de cay'age and I

driv de doctor. Sometimes I was fixing to go to bed, and had to hitch up

my horse and go five or six miles. I had a regular saddle horse, two

pairs for cay'age. Doctor were a rich man. Richest man in Burke County.

He made his money on his farm. When summertime come, I went wid him to

Bath, wheh he had a house on Tena Hill. We driv' down in de cay'age.

Sundays we went to church when Dr. Goulding preach. De darkies went in

de side do'. I hear him preach many times."

Asked about living conditions on Rock Creek plantation, Willis replied:

"De big house was set in ahalf acre yard. 'Bout fifty yards on one side

was my house, and fifty yards on de udder side was de house of granny, a

woman that tended de chillun and had charge of de yard when we went to

Bath," Willis gestured behind him, "and back yonder was de quarters, a

half mile long; dey wuz one room 'crost, and some had shed room. When

any of 'em got sick, Marster would go round to see 'em all."

Asked about church and Bible study, Willis said:

"I belongst to Hopeful Church. Church people would have singin' and

prayin', and de wicked would have dancin' and singin'. At dat time I was

a regular dancer" Willis chuckled. "I cut de pigeon wing high enough!

Not many cullud people know de Bible in slavery time. We had dances, and

prayers and sing too," he went on, "and we sang a song, 'On Jordan's

stormy banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye.'"

"How about marriages?" he was asked.

"Colored preacher marry 'em. You had to get license and give it to the

preacher, and he marry 'em. Then de men on our plantation had wives on

udder plantations, dey call 'em broad wives."

"Did you give your wife presents when you were courting?" he was asked.

"I went to courtin' and never give her nuthin' till I marry her."

As to punishment, Willis said that slaves were whipped as they needed

it, and as a general rule the overseer did the whipping.

"When darky wouldn't take whippin' from de overseer," he said, he had to

cay'y dem to de boss; and if we needed any brushin' de marster brush

'em. Why, de darkies would whip de overseer!"

Willis was asked to describe how slaves earned money for personal use,

and replied:

"Dey made dey own money. In slavery time, if you wanted four or five

acres of land to plant anything on, marster give it to you, and whatever

dat land make, it belong to you. You could take dat money and spend it

any you wanted to. Still he give you somethin' to eat and clothe you,

but dat patch you mek cotton on, sometimes a whole bale, dat money


Willis thought the plantation house was still there, "but it badly

wounded," he said. "Dey tell me dere ain't nobody living in it now. It

seven miles from Waynesboro, south."

"When de soldiers come thoo'," continued Willis, "dey didn't burn dat

place, but dey went in dere and took out ev'thing dey want, and give it

to de cullud people. Dey kep' it till dey got free. De soldiers tuk Dr.

Millers horses and carry 'em off. Got in de crib and tuk de corn. Got in

de smoke'ouse and tuk de meat out. Old Marssa bury his money and silver

in a iron chist. Dey tuk it 300 yards away to a clump of trees and bury

it. It tuk fo' men to ca'y it. Dere was money without mention in dat

chist! After de soldiers pass thoo, de went down and got it back."

"What did you do after freedom was declared?"

Willis straightened up.

"I went down to Augusta to de Freedmen's Bureau to see if twas true we

wuz free. I reckon dere was, over a hundred people dere. The man got up

and stated to de people, "you is jus' as free as I am. You ain't got no

mistis and no marster. Work wheh you want." On Sunday morning old

Marster sent de house girl and tell us to all come to de house. He said:

"What I want to send for you all, is to tell you you are free. You hab

de privilege to go anywhere you want, but I don't want none of you to

leave me now. I wants you-all to stay right wid me. If you stay, you you

mus' sign to it' I asked him: "What you want me to sign for?, I is

free." 'Dat will hold me to my word, and hold you to yo' word,' he say.

All my folks sign it, but I wouldn't sign. Marster call me up and say:

'Willis, why wouldn't you sign?' I say: 'If I already is free, I don't

need to sign no paper. If I was working for you, and doing for you befo'

I got free, I can do it still, if you want me to stay wid yo'.' My

father and mother tried to git me to sign, but I wouldn't sign. My

mother said: 'You oughter sign. How you know Marster gwine pay?' I said:

'Den I kin go somewhere else.' Marster pay first class hands $15.00 a

month, other hands $10.00, and den on down to five and six dollars. He

give rations like dey always. When Christmas come, all come up to be

paid off. Den he call me. Ask whar is me? I wus standin' roun' de corner

of de house. 'Come up here,' he say, 'you didn't sign dat paper, but I

reckon I have to pay you too.' He paid me and my wife $180.000. I said:

'Well, you-all thought he wouldn't pay me, but I got my money too.' I

stayed to my marster's place one year after de war den I lef'dere. Nex'

year I decided I wuld quit dere and go somewhere else. It was on account

of my wife. You see, Marster bought her off, as de highes', and she

hadn't seen her mother and father in Waynesboro for 15 years.

When she got free, she went down to see 'em. Waren't willin' to come

back. T'was on account Mistis and her. Dey bofe had chilluns, five-six

years old. De chillun had disagreement. Mistis slap my girl. My wife

sass de Mistis. But my marster, he was as good a man as ever born. I

wouldn't have lef' him for anybody, just on account of his wife and her

fell out."

"What did your marster say when you told him you were going to leave?

Was he sorry?"

"I quit and goes over three miles to another widow lady house, and mek

bargain wid her," said Willis. "I pass right by de do'. Old boss sitting

on de pi-za. He say: 'Hey, boy, wheh you gwine?' I say; 'I 'cided to

go.' I was de fo'man of de plow-han' den. I saw to all de locking up,

and things like dat. He say: 'Hold on dere.' He come out to de gate. 'I

tell you what I give you to stay on here, I give you five acre of as

good land as I got, and $30.00 a month, to stay here and see to my


Willis paused a moment, thinking back on that long distant parting.

"I say," he went on, "I can't, Marster. It don't suit my wife 'round

here, and she won't come back, and I can't stay.' He turn on me den, and

busted out crying. 'I didn't tho't I could raise up a darky that would

talk thataway,' he said to me. Well, I went on off. I got de wagon and

come by de house. Marster says: 'Now you gwone off, but don't forget me,

boy. Remember me as you always done.' I said: 'All right.'"

Willis chewed his tobacco reflectively for a few minutes, spat into the

rosemary bush, and resumed his story:

"I went over to dat widow lady's house and work. Along about May I got

sick. She say: 'I going to send for de doctor.' I said: 'Please ma'am,

don't do dat.' I thought maybe he kill me 'cause I lef' him. She say:

'Well, I gwine send fo' him.' I in desprut condition. When I know

anything, he walk up in de do'. I was laying wid my face toward de do'

and I turn over.

"Doctor come up to de bed. 'Boy, how you getting on?' 'I bad off,' I

say. He say: 'I see you is. 'yeh.' Lady say: 'Doctor, what you think of

him?' 'Mistis, it mos' too late,' he say, 'but I do all I kin.' She say:

'Please do all yo' kin, he 'bout de bes' han' I got.'

"Doctor fix up med'cine and tole her to give it to me. She say: 'Uncle

Will, tek dis med'cine.' I 'fraid to tek it, 'fraid he wuz tryin' to

kill me. Den two men, John and Charles, come in. Lady say: 'Get dis

med'cine in Uncle Will.' One of de men hold my hand, one hold my head,

and dey gagged me and put it in me. Nex few days I kin talk, and ax for

somethin' to eat, so I git better. I say: 'Well, he didn't kill me when

I tuk de Med'cine.'

"I stayed dere wid her. Nex' yar I move right back in two miles other

side wheh I always live, wid anudder lady. I stay dere three years. Got

along all right. When I lef' from there, I lef' dere wid $300.00 and

plenty corn and hog. Everything I want, and three hundred dollars cash

in my pocket!"

(It was plain that in his present status of relief ward, Uncle Willis

looked back on that sum of money as a small fortune. He thought about it

awhile, spat again, and went on:)

"Fourth year I lef' and went down to de John Fryer place on Rock Creek.

I stayed dere 33 years in dat one place."

"Uncle Willis, did you ever see the doctor again?"

"He die 'fore I know it," he replied, "I was 'bout fifteen miles from

him and be de time I hear of his death, he bury on plantation near Rock


Willis was asked about superstitions, and answered with great


"Eberybody in de worl' have got a spirit what follow 'em roun' and dey

kin see diffrunt things. In my sleep I hab vision."

"Pappy, tell de ladies 'bout de hant," urged Aunt Rena from her post in

the doorway, and Willis took up the story with eagerness:

"One night I was gwine to a lady's store, riding a horse. De graveyard

was 100 yards from de road I wuz passing. De moon was shining bright as

day. I saw somethin' coming out of dat graveyard. It come across de

road, right befo' me. His tail were dragging on de ground, a long tail.

He had hair on both sides of him, laying down on de road. He crep' up. I

pull de horse dis way, he move too. I pull him dat way, he move too. I

yell out: 'What in de name o' God is dat?' And it turn right straight

'round de graveyard and went back. I went on to de lady's store, and

done my shoppin'. I tell you I was skeered, 'cause I was sho' I would

see it going back, but I never saw it. De horse was turrible skeered of

it. It looked like a Maryno sheep, and it had a long, swishy tail."

Uncle Willis was asked if he had ever seen a person "conjured" and he


"Dey is people in de worl' got sense to kill out de conjur in anybody,

but nobuddy ever conjur me. I year 'um say if a person conjur you,

you'll git somethin' in you dat would kill you."

Asked to what he attributed his long, healthy life, he raised his head

with a preaching look and replied:

"I tell you, Missis, 'zactly what I believe. I bin tryin' to serve God

ever since I come to be a man of family. I bin trying to serve de Lawd

79 years, and I live by precepts of de word. Until today nobuddy can

turn me away from God business. I am a man studying my gospel. I ain't

able to go to church, but I still keep serving God."

A week later Uncle Willis was found standing in the cabin door.

"Do you want to ride to the old plantation to-day?" he was asked. His

vitality was almost too low form to grasp the invitation.

"I'se might weak today," he said in a feeble voice. "I don't feel good

for much."

"Where is Aunt Rena?" he was asked. "Do you think she would mind your

taking an automobile trip?"

"She gone to town on de bus, to see de Fambly Welfare."

"Have you had breakfast?" His weak appearance indicated lack of food.

"I had some coffee, but I ain't eat 'none."

"Well, come on, Uncle Willis. We'll get you some breakfast, and then

we'll take you to the plantation and take your picture in the place

where you were born 101 years ago."

Uncle Willis appeared to be somewhat in a daze as he padlocked the cabin

door, put on his "sundown" hat, took up his stout stick and tottered

down the steps. He wore a frayed sweater, with several layers of shirts

showing at the cuffs. On the way he recalled the first railroad train

that passed through Burke County.

"I kinder scared," he recollected, "we wuz all 'mazed to see dat train

flyin' long 'thout any horses. De people wuz all afraid."

"Had you hear of airplanes before you saw one, Uncle Willis?"

"Yes, ma'am. I yeared o' them, but you couldn't gimme dis car full of

money to fly, they's too high off de ground. I never is gwine in one."

Uncle Willis was deposited on the porch of one of the remaining slave

cabins to eat his "brekkus," while his kidnappers sought over hill and

field for "the big house," but only two cabins and the chimney

foundation of a large burned dwelling rewarded the search.

He was posed in front of the cabin, just in front of the clay and brick

end chimney, and took great pleasure in the ceremony, rearing his head

up straight so that his white beard stuck out.

The brutal reality of finding the glories of Rock Creek plantation

forever vanished must have been a severe blow for the old man, for

several times on the way back he wiped tears from his eyes. Once again

at his cabin in the cotton field, his vitality reasserted itself, and he

greeted his curious dusky neighbors with the proud statement:

"Dey tuk me wheh I was bred and born. I don't ax no better time."

His farewell words were:

"Goo'bye. I hopes you all gits to Paradise."

Willie Mccullough Willis Cofer facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail