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Harriett Gresham

From: Florida

American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)

Pearl Randolph, Field Worker
Jacksonville, Florida
December 18, 1936


Born on December 6, 1838, Harriett Gresham can recall quite clearly the
major events of her life as a slave, also the Civil War as it affected
the slaves of Charleston and Barnwell, South Carolina.

She was one of a, group of mulattoes belonging to Edmond Bellinger, a
wealthy plantation owner of Barnwell. With her mother, the plantation
seamstress and her father, a driver, she lived in the "big house"
quarters, and was known as a "house nigger." She played with the
children of her mistress and seldom mixed with the other slaves on the

To quote some of her quaint expressions: "Honey I aint know I was any
diffrunt fum de chillen o' me mistress twel atter de war. We played and
et and fit togetter lak chillen is bound ter do all over der world.
Somethin allus happened though to remind me dat I was jist a piece of

"I heard der gun aboomin' away at Fort Sumpter and fer de firs' time in
my life I knowed what it was ter fear anythin' cept a sperrit. No, I
aint never seed one myself but--"

"By der goodness o'God I done lived ter waltz on der citadel green and
march down a ile o' soldiers in blue, in der arms o' me husban', and
over me haid de bay'nets shined."

"I done lived up all my days and some o' dem whut mighta b'longed ter
somebody else is dey'd done right in der sight o' God." "How I know I so
old?" "I got documents ter prove it." The documents is a yellow sheet of
paper that appears to be stationery that is crudely decorated at the top
with crissed crossed lines done in ink. Its contents in ink are as

Harriett Pinckney, born September 25, 1790. Adeline, her daughter, born
October 1, 1809. Betsy, her daughter, born September 11, 1811. Belinda,
her daughter, born October 4, 1813. Deborah, her daughter, born December
1, 1815. Stephen, her son, born September 1, 1818.

Harriett's Grandchildren

Bella, the daughter of Adeline born July 5, 1827. Albert, son of Belinda
born August 19, 1833. Laurence, son of Betsy born March 1, 1835. Sarah
Ann Elizabeth, daughter of Belinda born January 3, 1836. Harriett,
daughter of Belinda born December 6, 1838. (This record was given
Harriett by Mrs. Harriett Bellinger, her mistress. Each slave received a
similar one on being freed.)

As a child Harriett played about the premises of the Bellinger estate,
leading a very carefree life as did all the slave children belonging to
Edmond Bellinger. When she was about twelve years old she was given
small tasks to do such as knitting a pair of stockings or dusting the
furniture and ample time was given for each of these assignments.

This was a very large plantation and there was always something for the
score of slaves to do. There were the wide acres of cotton that must be
planted, hoed and gathered by hand. A special batch of slave women did
the spinning and weaving, while those who had been taught to sew, made
most of the clothing worn by slaves at that time.

Other products grown here were rice, corn, sugarcane, fruits and
vegetables. Much of the food grown on the plantation was reserved to
feed the slaves. While they must work hard to complete their tasks in a
given time, no one was allowed to go hungry or forced to work if the
least ill.

Very little had to be bought here. Candles ware made in the kitchen of
the "big house," usually by the cook who was helped by other slaves.
These were made of beeswax gathered on the plantation. Shoes were made
of tanned dried leather and re-inforced with brass caps; the large herds
of cattle, hogs and poultry furnished sufficient meat. Syrup and sugar
were made from the cane that was carried to a neighboring mill.

Harriett remembers her master as being exceptionally kind but very
severe when his patience was tried too far. Mrs. Bellinger was dearly
loved by all her slaves because she was very thoughtful of them.
Whenever there was a wedding, frolic or holiday or quilting bee, she
was sure to provide some extra "goody" and so dear to the hearts of the
women were the cast off clothes she so often bestowed upon them on these

The slaves were free to invite those from the neighboring plantations to
join in their social gatherings. A Negro preacher delivered sermons on
the plantation. Services being held in the church used by whites after
their services on Sunday. The preacher must always act as a peacemaker
and mouthpiece for the master, so they were told to be subservient to
their masters in order to enter the Kingdom of God. But the slaves held
secret meetings and had praying grounds where they met a few at a time
to pray for better things.

Harriett remembers little about the selling of slaves because this was
never done on the Bellinger plantation. All slaves were considered a
part of the estate and to sell one, meant that it was no longer intact.

There were rumors of the war but the slaves on the Bellinger place did
not grasp the import of the war until their master went to fight on the
side of the Rebel army. Many of them gathered about their mistress and
wept as he left the home to which he would never return. Soon after that
it was whispered among the slaves that they would be free, but no one
ran away.

After living in plenty all their lives, they were forced to do without
coffee, sugar salt and beef. Everything available was bundled off to
the army by Mrs. Bellinger who shared the popular belief that the
soldiers must have the best in the way of food and clothing.

Harriett still remembers very clearly the storming of Fort Sumpter. The
whole countryside was thrown into confusion and many slaves were mad
with fear. There were few men left to establish order and many women
loaded their slaves into wagons and gathered such belongings as they
could and fled. Mrs. Bellinger was one of those who held their ground.

When the Union soldiers visited her plantation they found the plantation
in perfect order. The slaves going about their tasks as if nothing
unusual had happened. It was necessary to summon them from the fields to
give them the message of their freedom.

Harriett recalls that her mistress was very frightened but walked
upright and held a trembling lip between her teeth as they waited for
her to sound for the last time the horn that had summoned several
generations of human chattel to and from work.

Some left the plantation; others remained to harvest the crops. One and
all they remembered to thank God for their freedom. They immediately
began to hold meetings, singing soul stirring spirituals. Harriett
recalls one of these songs. It is as follows:

T'ank ye Marster Jesus, t'ank ye,
T'ank ye Marster Jesus, t'ank ye,
T'ank ye Marster Jesus, t'ank ye
Da Heben gwinter be my home.
No slav'ry chains to tie me down,
And no mo' driver's ho'n to blow fer me
No mo' stocks to fasten me down
Jesus break slav'ry chain, Lord
Break slav'ry chain Lord,
Break slav'ry chain Lord,
Da Heben gwinter be my home.

Harriett's parents remained with the widowed woman for a while. Had they
not remained, she might not have met Gaylord Jeannette, the knight in
Blue, who later became her husband. He was a member of Company "I", 35th
Regiment. She is still a bit breathless when she relates the details of
the military wedding that followed a whirlwind courtship which had its
beginning on the citadel green, where the soldiers stationed there held
their dress parade. After these parades there was dancing by the
soldiers and belles who had bedecked themselves in their Sunday best and
come out to be wooed by a soldier in blue.

Music was furnished by the military band which offered many patriotic
numbers that awakened in the newly freed Negroes that had long been
dead--patriotism. Harriett recalls snatches of one of these songs to
which she danced when she was 20 years of age. It is as follows:

Don't you see the lightning flashing in the cane brakes,
Looks like we gonna have a storm
Although you're mistaken its the Yankee soldiers
Going to fight for Uncle Sam.
Old master was a colonel in the Rebel army
Just before he had to run away--
Look out the battle is a-falling
The darkies gonna occupy the land.

Harriett believes the two officers who tendered congratulations shortly
after her marriage to have been Generals Gates and Beecher. This was an
added thrill to her.

As she lived a rather secluded life, Harriett Gresham can tell very
little about the superstitions of her people during slavery, but knew
them to be very reverent of various signs and omens. In one she places
much credence herself. Prior to the Civil War, there were hordes of ants
and everyone said this was an omen of war, and there was a war.

She was married when schools were set up for Negroes, but had no time
for school. Her master was adamant on one point and that was the danger
of teaching a slave to read and write, so Harriett received little "book

Harriett Gresham is the mother of several children, grandchildren and
great grandchildren. Many of them are dead. She lives at 1305 west 31st
Street, Jacksonville, Florida with a grand daughter. Her second husband
is also dead. She sits on the porch of her shabby cottage and sews the
stitches that were taught her by her mistress, who is also dead. She
embroiders, crochets, knits and quilts without the aid of glasses. She
likes to show her handiwork to passersby who will find themselves
listening to some of her reminiscences if they linger long enough to
engage her in conversation--for she loves to talk of the past.

She still corresponds with one of the children of her mistress, now an
old woman living on what is left of a once vast estate at Barnwell,
South Carolina. The two old women are very much attached to each other
and each in her letters helps to keep alive the memories of the life
they shared together as mistress and slave.


1. Personal interview with Harriett Gresham, 1305 West 31st, Street,
Jacksonville, Florida

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