FEDERAL WRITERS' PROJECT
American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)
Viola B. Muse, Field Worker
December 16, 1936
Immediately after slavery in the United States, the southern white
people found themselves without servants. Women who were accustomed to
having a nurse, maid, cook and laundress found themselves without
sufficient money to pay wages to all these. There was a great amount of
work to be done and the great problem confronting married women who had
not been taught to work and who thought it beneath their standing to
soil their hands, found it very difficult.
There were on the other hand many Negro women who needed work and young
girls who needed guidance and training.
The home and guidance of the aristocratic white people offered the best
opportunity for the dependent un-schooled freed women; and it was in
this kind of home that the ex-slave child of this story was reared.
Irene Coates of 2015 Windle Street, Jacksonville, Florida, was born in
Georgia about 1859. She was close to six years of age when freedom was
She was one among the many Negro children who had the advantage of
living under the direct supervision of kind whites and receiving the
care which could only be excelled by an educated mother.
Jimmie and Lou Bedell were the names of the man and wife who saw the
need of having a Negro girl come into their home as one in the family
and at the same time be assured of a good and efficient servant in years
When Irene was old enough, she became the nurse of the Bedell baby and
when the family left Savannah, Georgia to come to Jacksonville, they
brought Irene with them.
Although Irene was just about six years old when the Civil War ended,
she has vivid recollection of happenings during slavery. Some of the
incidents which happened were told her by her slave associates after
slavery ended and some of them she remembers herself.
Two incidents which she considers caused respect for slaves by their
masters and finally the Emancipation by Abraham Lincoln she tells in
The first event tells of a young, strong healthy Negro woman who
knew her work and did it well. "She would grab up two bags of
guana (fertilizer) and tote 'em at one time," said Irene, and was never
found shirking her work. The overseer on the plantation, was very hard
on the slaves and practiced striking them across the back with a whip
when he wanted to spur them on to do more work.
Irene says, one day a crowd of women were hoeing in the field and the
overseer rode along and struck one of the women across the back with the
whip, and the one nearest her spoke and said that if he ever struck her
like that, it would be the day he or she would die. The overseer heard
the remark and the first opportunity he got, he rode by the woman and
struck her with the whip and started to ride on. The woman was hoeing at
the time, she whirled around, struck the overseer on his head with the
hoe, knocking him from his horse, she then pounced upon him and chopped
his head off. She went mad for a few seconds and proceeded to chop and
mutilate his body; that done to her satisfaction, she then killed his
horse. She then calmly went to tell the master of the murder, saying
"I've done killed de overseer," the master replied--"Do you mean to say
you've killed the overseer?" she answered yes, and that she had killed
the horse also. Without hesitating, the master pointing to one of his
small cabins on the plantation said--"You see that house over there?"
she answered yes--at the same time looking--"Well" said he, "take all
your belongings and move into that house and you are free from this day
and if the mistress wants you to do anything for her, do it if you want
to." Irene related with much warmth the effect that incident had upon
the future treatment of the slaves.
The other incident occured in Virginia. It was upon an occasion when
Mrs. Abraham Lincoln was visiting in Richmond. A woman slaveowner had
one of her slaves whipped in the presence of Mrs. Lincoln. It was
easily noticed that the woman was an expectant mother. Mrs. Lincoln was
horrified at the situation and expressed herself as being so, saying
that she was going to tell the President as soon as she returned to the
White House. Whether this incident had any bearing upon Mr. Lincoln's
actions or not, those slaves who were present and Irene says that they
all believed it to be the beginning of the President's activities to end
Besides these incidents, Irene remembers that women who were not strong
and robust were given such work as sewing, weaving and minding babies.
The cloth from which the Sunday clothes of the slaves was made was
called ausenburg and the slave women were very proud of this. The
older women were required to do most of the weaving of cloth and making
shirts for the male slaves.
When an old woman who had been sick, regained her strength, she was sent
to the fields the same as the younger ones. The ones who could cook and
tickle the palates of her mistress and master were highly prized and
were seldon if ever offered for sale at the auction block.
The slaves were given fat meat and bread made of husk of corn and wheat.
This caused them to steal food and when caught they were severely
Irene recalls the practice of blowing a horn whenever a sudden rain
came. The overseer had a certain Negro to blow three times and if
shelter could be found, the slaves were expected to seek it until the
The master had sheds built at intervals on the plantation. These
accomodated a goodly number; if no shed was available the slaves stood
under trees. If neither was handy and the slaves got wet, they could not
go to the cabins to change clothes for fear of losing time from work.
This was often the case; she says that slaves were more neglected than
Another custom which impressed the child-mind of Irene was the tieing of
slaves by their thumbs to a tree limb and whipping them. Women and young
girls were treated the same as were men.
After the Bedells took Irene to live in their home they traveled a deal.
After bringing her to Jacksonville, when Jacksonville was only a small
port, they then went to Camden County, Georgia.
Irene married while in Georgia and came back to Jacksonville with her
husband Charles, the year of the earthquake at Charleston, South
Carolina, about 1888.
Irene and Charles Coates have lived in Jacksonville since that time. She
relates many tales of happenings during the time that this city grew
from a town of about four acres to its present status.
Irene is the mother of five children. She has nine grandchildren and
eight great-grandchildren. Her health is fair, but her eyesight is poor.
It is her delight to entertain visitors and is conversant upon matters
pertaining to slavery and reconstruction days.
1. Irene Coates, 2015 Windle Street, Jacksonville, Florida
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