FEDERAL WRITERS' PROJECT
American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)
Pearl Randolph, Field Worker
November 24, 1936
Duncan Gaines, the son of George and Martha Gaines was born on a
plantation in Virginia on March 12, 1853. He was one of four children,
all fortunate enough to remain with their parents until maturity. They
were sold many times, but Duncan Gaines best remembers the master who
was known as "old man Beever."
On this plantation were about 50 slaves, who toiled all day in the
cotton and tobacco fields and came home at dusk to cook their meals of
corn pone, collards and sweet potatoes on the hearths of their one room
cabins. Biscuits were baked on special occasions by placing hot coals
atop the iron tops of long legged frying pans called spiders, and the
potatoes were roasted in the ashes, likewise the corn pone. Their
masters being more or less kind, there was pork, chicken, syrup and
other foodstuffs that they were allowed to raise as their own on a small
scale. This work was often done by the light of a torch at night as they
had little time of their own. In this way slaves earned money for small
luxuries and the more ambitious sometimes saved enough money to buy
their freedom, although this was not encouraged very much.
The early life of Duncan was carefree and happy. With the exception of
carrying water to the laborers and running errands, he had little to do.
Most of the time of the slave children was spent in playing ball and
wrestling and foraging the woods for berries and fruits and playing
games as other children. They were often joined in their play by the
master's children, who taught them to read and write and fired Duncan
with the ambition to be free, so that he could "wear a frill on his
colar and own a pair of shoes that did not have brass caps on the toes"
and require the application of fat to make them shine.
Wearing his shoes shined as explained above and a coarse homespun suit
dyed with oak bark, indigo or poke berries, he went to church on Sunday
afternoons after the whites had had their services and listened to
sermons delivered by white ministers who taught obedience to their
masters. After the services, most of the slaves would remove their shoes
and carry them in their hands, as they were unaccustomed to wearing
shoes except in winter.
The women were given Saturday afternoons off to launder their clothes
and prepare for Sunday's services. All slaves were required to appear on
Monday mornings as clean as possible with their clothing mended and
Lye soap was used both for laundering and bathing. It was made from
fragments of fat meat and skins that were carefully saved for that
purpose. Potash was secured from oak ashes. This mixture was allowed to
set for a certain period of time, then cooked to a jelly-like
consistency. After cooling, the soap was cut into square bars and
"lowanced out" (allowance) to the slaves according to the number in each
family. Once Duncan was given a bar of "sweet" soap by his mistress for
doing a particularly nice piece of work of polishing the harness of her
favorite mare and so proud was he of the gift that he put it among his
Sunday clothes to make them smell sweet. It was the first piece of
toilet sopa that he had ever seen; and it caused quite a bit of envy
among the other slave children.
Duncan Gaines does not remember his grandparents but thinks they were
both living on some nearby plantation. His father was the plantation
blacksmith and Duncan liked to look on as plowshares, single trees,
horse shoes, etc were turned out or sharpened. His mother was strong and
healthy, so she toiled all day in the fields. Duncan always listened for
his mother's return from the field, which was heraled by a song, no
matter how tired she was. She was very fond of her children and did not
share the attitude of many slave mother who thought of their children as
belonging solely to the masters. She lived in constant fear that "old
marse Seever" would meet with some adversity and be forced to sell them
separately. She always whispered to them about "de war" and fanned to a
flame their desire to be free.
At that time Negro children listened to the tales of Raw Head and
Bloody Bones, various animal stories and such childish ditties as:
"Little Boy, Little Boy who made your breeches?
Mamma cut 'em out and pappa sewed de stitches."
Children were told that babies were dug out of tree stumps and were
generally made to "shut up" if they questioned their elders about such
Children with long or large heads were thought to be marked to become
"wise men." Everyone believed in ghosts and entertained all the
superstitions that have been handed down to the present generation.
There was much talk of "hoodooism" and anyone ill for a long time
without getting relief from herb medicines was thought to be "fixed" or
suffering from some sin that his father had committed.
Duncan was 12 years of age when freedom was declared and remembers the
hectic times which followed. He and other slave children attended
schools provided by the Freedmen' Aid and other social organizations
fostered by Northerners. Most of the instructors were whites sent to the
South for that purpose.
The Gaines were industrious and soon owned a prosperous farm. They
seldom had any money but had plenty of foodstuffs and clothing and a
fairly comfortable home. All of the children secured enough learning to
enable them to read and write, which was regarded as very unusual in
those days. Slaves had been taught that their brain was inferior to the
whites who owned them and for this reason, many parents refused to send
their children to school, thinking it a waste of time and that too much
learning might cause some injury to the brain of their supposedly
Of the various changes, Duncan remembers very little, so gradual did
they occur in his section. Water was secured from the spring or well.
Perishable foodstuffs were let down into the well to keep cool. Shoes
were made from leather tanned by setting in a solution of red oak bark
and water; laundering was done in wooden tubs, made from barrels cut in
halves. Candles were used for lighting and were made from sheep and beef
tallow. Lightwood torches were used by those not able to afford candles.
Stockings were knitted by the women during cold or rainy weather.
Weaving and spinning done by special slave women who were too old to
work in the fields; others made the cloth into garments. Everything was
done by hand except the luxuries imported by the wealthy.
Duncan Gaines is now a widower and fast becoming infirm. He looks upon
this "new fangled" age with bare tolerance and feels that the happiest
age of mankind has passed with the discarding of the simple, old
fashioned way of doing things.
1. Personal interview with Duncan Gaines, Second Street near Madison
Training School for Negroes, Madison, Florida
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