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Father Charles Coates

From: Florida

American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)

Viola B. Muse, Field Worker
Jacksonville, Florida
December 3, 1936


"Father" Charles Coates, as he is called by all who know him, was born a
slave, 108 years ago at Richmond, Virginia, on the plantation of a man
named L'Angle. His early boyhood days was spent on the L'Angle place
filled with duties such as minding hogs, cows, bringing in wood and such
light work. His wearing apparel consisted of one garment, a shirt made
to reach below the knees and with three-quarter sleeves. He wore no
shoes until he was a man past 20 years of age.

The single garment was worn summer and winter alike and the change in
the weather did not cause an extra amount of clothes to be furnished for
the slaves. They were required to move about so fast at work that the
heat from the body was sufficient to keep them warm.

When Charles was still a young man Mr. L'Angle sold him on time payment
to W.B. Hall; who several years before the Civil War moved from Richmond
to Washington County, Georgia, carrying 135 grown slaves and many
children. Mr. Hall made Charles his carriage driver, which kept him from
hard labor. Other slaves on the plantation performed such duties as rail
splitting, digging up trees by the roots and other hard work.

Charles Coates remembers vividly the cruelties practiced on the Hall
plantation. His duty was to see that all the slaves reported to work on
time. The bell was rung at 5:30 a.m. by one of the slaves. Charles had
the ringing of the bell for three years; this was in addition to the
carriage driving. He tells with laughter how the slaves would "grab a
piece of meat and bread and run to the field" as no time was allowed to
sit and eat breakfast. This was a very different way from that of the
master he had before, as Mr. L'Angle was much better to his slaves.

Mr. Hall was different in many ways from Mr. L'Angle, "He was always
pretending" says Charles that he did not want his slaves beaten
unmercifully. Charles being close to Mr. Hall during work hours had
opportunity to see and hear much about what was going on at the
plantation. And he believes that Mr. Hall knew just how the overseer
dealt with the slaves.

On the Hall plantation there was a contraption, similar to a gallows,
where the slaves were suspended and whipped. At the top of this device
were blocks of wood with chains run through holes and high enough that a
slave when tied to the chains by his fingers would barely touch the
ground with his toes. This was done so that the slave could not shout or
twist his body while being whipped. The whipping was prolonged until the
body of the slave covered with welts and blood trickled down his naked
body. Women were treated in the same manner, and a pregnant woman
received no more leniency than did a man. Very often after a severe
flogging a slave's body was treated to a bath of water containing salt
and pepper so that the pain would be more lasting and aggravated. The
whipping was done with sticks and a whip called the "cat o' nine tails,"
meaning every lick meant nine. The "cat o' nine tails" was a whip of
nine straps attached to a stick; the straps were perforated so that
everywhere the hole in the strap fell on the flesh a blister was left.

The treatment given by the overseer was very terrifying. He relates how
a slave was put in a room and locked up for two and three days at a time
without water or food, because the overseer thought he hadn't done
enough work in a given time.

Another offense which brought forth severe punishment was that of
crossing the road to another plantation. A whipping was given and very
often a slave was put on starvation for a few days.

One privilege given slaves on the plantation was appreciated by all and
that was the opportunity to hear the word of God. The white people
gathered in log and sometimes frame churches and the slaves were
permitted to sit about the church yard on wagons and on the ground and
listen to the preaching. When the slaves wanted to hold church they had
to get special permission from the master, and at that time a slave hut
was used. A white Preacher was called in and he would preach to them not
to steal, lie or run away and "be sure and git all dem weeds outen dat
corn in de field and your master will think a heap of you." Charles does
not remember anything else the preacher told them about God. They
learned more about God when they sat outside the church waiting to drive
their masters and family back home.

Charles relates an incident of a slave named Sambo who thought himself
very smart and who courted the favor of the master. The neighboring
slaves screamed so loudly while being whipped that Sambo told his master
that he knew how to make a contraption which, if a slave was put into
while being whipped would prevent him from making a noise. The device
was made of two blocks of wood cut to fit the head and could be fastened
around the neck tightly. When the head was put in, the upper and lower
parts were clamped together around the neck so that the slave could not
scream. The same effect as choking. The stomach of the victim was placed
over a barrel which allowed freedom of movement. When the lash was
administered and the slave wiggled, the barrel moved.

Now it so happened that Sambo was the first to be put into his own
invention for a whipping. The overseer applied the lash rather heavily,
and Sambo was compelled to wiggle his body to relieve his feelings. In
wiggling the barrel under his stomach rolled a bit straining Sambo's
neck and breaking it. After Sambo died from his neck being broken the
master discontinued the use of the device, as he saw the loss of
property in the death of slaves.

Charles was still a carriage driver when freedom came. He had
opportunity to see and hear many things about the master's private life.
When the news of the advance of the Union Army came, Mr. Hall carried
his money to a secluded spot and buried it in an iron pot so that the
soldiers who were confiscating all the property and money they could,
would not get his money. The slave owners were required to notify the
slaves that they were free so Mr. Hall sent his son Sherard to the

cabins to notify all the slaves to come into his presence and there he
had his son to tell them that they were free. The Union soldiers took
much of the slave owners' property and gave to the slaves telling them
that if the owners' took the property back to write and tell them about
it; the owners only laughed because they knew the slaves could not read
nor write. After the soldiers had gone the timid and scared slaves gave
up most of the land; some few however, fenced in a bit of land while the
soldiers remained in the vicinity and they managed to keep a little of
the land.

Many of the slaves remained with the owners. There they worked for small
monthly wages and took whatever was left of cast off clothing and food
and whatever the "old missus" gave them. A pair of old pants of the
master was highly prized by them.

Charles Coates was glad to be free. He had been well taken care of and
looked younger than 37 years of age at the close of slavery. He had not
been married; had been put upon the block twice to be sold after
belonging to Mr. Hall. Each time he was offered for sale, his master
wanted so much for him, and refusing to sell him on time payments, he
was always left on his master's hands. His master said "being tall,
healthy and robust, he was well worth much money."

After slavery, Charles was rated as a good worker. He at once began
working and saving his money and in a short time he had accumulated
"around $200."

The first sight of a certain young woman caused him to fall in love. He
says the love was mutual and after a courtship of three weeks they were
married. The girl's mother told Charles that she had always been very
frail, but he did not know that she had consumption. Within three days
after they were married she died and her death caused much grief for

He was reluctant to bury her and wanted to continue to stand and look at
her face. A white doctor and a school teacher whose names he does not
remember, told him to put his wife's body in alcohol to preserve it and
he could look at it all the time. At that time white people who had
plenty of money and wanted to see the faces of their deceased used this

A glass casket was used and the dressed body of the deceased was placed
in alcohol inside the casket. Another casket made of wood held the glass
casket and the whole was placed in a vault made of stone or brick. The
walls of the vault were left about four feet above the ground and a
window and ledge were placed in front, so when the casket was placed
inside of the vault the bereaved could lean upon the ledge and look in
at the face of the deceased. The wooden casket was provided with a glass
top part of the way so that the face could easily be seen.

Although the process of preserving the body in alcohol cost $160,
Charles did not regret the expense saying, "I had plenty of money at
that time."

After the death of his wife, Charles left with his mother and father,
Henrietta and Spencer Coates and went to Savannah, Georgia. He said they
were so glad to go, that they walked to within 30 miles of Savannah,
when they saw a man driving a horse and wagon who picked them up and
carried them into Savannah. It was in that city that he met his present
wife, Irene, and they were married about 1876.

There are nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren living and in
March of 1936, when a party was given in honor of Father Coates' 108th
birthday, one of each of the four generations of his family were

The party was given at the Clara White Mission, 615 West Ashley Street
by Ertha M.M. White. Father Coates and his wife were very much honored
and each spoke encouraging words to those present. On the occasion he
said that the cause for his long life was due to living close to nature,
rising early, going to bed early and not dissipating in any way.

He can "shout" (jumping about a foot and a half from the floor and
knocking his heels together.) He does chores about his yard; looks years
younger than he really is and enjoys good health. His hair is partly
white; his memory very good and his chief delight is talking about God
and his goodness. He has preached the gospel in his humble way for a
number of years, thereby gaining the name of "Father" Coates.


1. Personal interview with Charles Coates--2015 Windle Street,
Jacksonville, Florida

Next: Irene Coates

Previous: Florida Clayton

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