Mary Minus Biddie
SLAVE CUSTOMS AND ANECDOTES
MARY MINUS BIDDIE
Mary Minus Biddie, age one hundred five was born in Pensacola, Florida,
1833, and raised in Columbia County. She is married, and has several
children. For her age she is exceptionally active, being able to wash
and do her house work. With optimism she looks forward to many more
years of life. Her health is excellent.
Having spent thirty-two years of her life as a slave she relates vividly
some of her experiences.
Her master Lancaster Jamison was a very kind man and never mistreated
his slaves. He was a man of mediocre means, and instead of having a
large plantation as was usual in those days, he ran a boarding house,
the revenue therefrom furnishing him substance for a livelihood. He had
a small farm from which fresh produce was obtained to supply the needs
of his lodgers. Mary's family were his only slaves. The family consisted
of her mother, father, brother and a sister. The children called the old
master "Fa" and their father "Pappy." The master never resented this
appellation, and took it in good humor. Many travelers stopped at his
boarding house; Mary's mother did the cooking, her father "tended" the
farm, and Mary, her brother and sister, did chores about the place.
There was a large one-room house built in the yard in which the family
lived. Her father had a separate garden in which he raised his produce,
also a smokehouse where the family meats were kept. Meats were smoked
in order to preserve them.
During the day Mary's father was kept so busy attending his master's
farm that there was no time for him to attend to a little farm that he
was allowed to have. He overcame this handicap, however, by setting up
huge scaffolds in the field which he burned and from the flames that
this fire emitted he could see well enough to do what was necessary to
The master's first wife was a very kind woman; at her death Mary's
master moved from Pensacola to Columbia County.
Mary was very active with the plow, she could handle it with the agility
of a man. This prowess gained her the title of "plow girl."
Stoves were unknown and cooking was done in a fireplace that was built
of clay, a large iron rod was built in across the opening of the
fireplace on which were hung pots that had special handles that fitted
about the rod holding them in place over the blazing fire as the food
cooking was done in a moveable oven which was placed in the fireplace
over hot coals or corn cobs. Potatoes were roasted in ashes. Oft' times
Mary's father would sit in front of the fireplace until a late hour in
the night and on arising in the morning the children would find in a
corner a number of roasted potatoes which their father had thoughtfully
roasted and which the children readily consumed.
Matches were unknown; a flint rock and a file provided the fire. This
occured by striking a file against a flint rock which threw off sparks
that fell into a wad of dry cotton used for the purpose. This cotton, as
a rule, readily caught fire. This was fire and all the fire needed to
start any blaze.
The white folk wove the cloth on regular looms which were made into
dresses for the slaves. For various colors of cloth the thread was dyed.
The dye was made by digging up red shank and wild indigo roots which
were boiled. The substance obtained being some of the best dye to be
BEVERAGES & FOOD.
Bread was made from flour and wheat. The meat used was pork, beef,
mutton and goat. For preservation it was smoked and kept in the
smokehouse. Coffee was used as a beverage and when this ran out as oft'
times happened, parched peanuts were used for the purpose.
Mary and family arose before daybreak and prepared breakfast for the
master and his family, after which they ate in the same dining room.
When this was over the dishes were washed by Mary, her brother and
sister. The children then played about until meals were served again.
WASHING and SOAP.
Washing was done in home-made wooden tubs, and boiling in iron pots
similar to those of today. Soap was made from fat and lye.
The only amusement to be had was a big candy pulling, or hog killing and
chicken cooking. The slaves from the surrounding plantations were
allowed to come together on these occasions. A big time was had.
The slaves went to the "white folks" church on Sundays. They were seated
in the rear of the church. The white minister would arise and exhort the
slaves to 'mind your masters, you owe them your respect.' An old
Christian slave who perceived things differently could sometimes be
heard to mumble, "Yeah, wese jest as good as deys is only deys white and
we's black, huh." She dare not let the whites hear this. At times
meetin's were held in a slave cabin where some "inspired" slave led the
In the course of years Mr. Jamison married again. His second wife was a
veritable terror. She was always ready and anxious to whip a slave for
the least misdemeanor. The master told Mary and her mother that before
he would take the chance of them running away on account of her meanness
he would leave her. As soon as he would leave the house this was a
signal for his wife to start on a slave. One day, with a kettle of hot
water in her hand, she chased Mary, who ran to another plantation and
hid there until the good master returned. She then poured out her
troubles to him. He was very indignant and remonstrated with his wife
for being so cruel. She met her fate in later years; her son-in-law
becoming angry at some of her doings in regard to him shot her, which
resulted in her death. Instead of mourning, everybody seemed to rejoice,
for the menace to well being had been removed. Twice a year Mary's
father and master went to Cedar Keys, Florida to get salt. Ocean water
was obtained and boiled, salt resulting. They always returned with about
three barrels of salt.
The greatest event in the life of a slave was about to occur, and the
most sorrowful in the life of a master, FREEDOM was at hand. A Negro was
seen coming in the distance, mounted upon a mule, approaching Mr.
Jamison who stood upon the porch. He told him of the liberation of the
slaves. Mr. Jamison had never before been heard to curse, but this was
one day that he let go a torrent of words that are unworthy to appear in
print. He then broke down and cried like a slave who was being lashed by
his cruel master. He called Mary's mother and father, Phyliss and Sandy,
"I ain't got no more to do with you, you are free," he said, "if you
want to stay with me you may and I'll give you one-third of what you
raise." They decided to stay. When the crop was harvested the master did
not do as he had promised. He gave them nothing. Mary slipped away,
mounted the old mule "Mustang" and galloped away at a mules snail speed
to Newnansville where she related what had happened to a Union captain.
He gave her a letter to give to Mr. Jamison. In it he reminded him that
if he didn't give Mary's family what he had promised he would be put in
jail. Without hesitation the old master complied with these pungent
After this incident Mary and her family left the good old boss to seek a
new abode in other parts. This was the first time that the master had in
any way displayed any kind of unfairness toward them, perhaps it was the
reaction to having to liberate them.
There was no marriage during slavery according to civil or religious
custom among the slaves. If a slave saw a woman whom he desired he told
his master. If the woman in question belonged on another plantation, the
master would consult her master: "one of my boys wants to marry one of
your gals," he would say. As a rule it was agreeable that they should
live together as man and wife. This was encouraged for it increased the
slave population by new borns, hence, being an asset to the masters.
The two slaves thus joined were allowed to see one another at intervals
upon special permission from the master. He must have a pass to leave
the plantation. Any slave caught without one while off the plantation
was subject to be caught by the "paderollers" (a low class of white who
roved the country to molest a slave at the least opportunity. Some of
them were hired by the masters to guard against slaves running away or
to apprehend them in the event that they did) who would beat them
unmercifully, and send them back to the plantation from whence they
As a result of this form of matrimony at emancipation there were no
slaves lawfully married. Orders were given that if they preferred to
live together as man and wife they must marry according to law. They
were given nine months to decide this question, after which if they
continued to live together they were arrested for adultery. A Mr. Fryer,
Justice of the Peace at Gainesville, was assigned to deal with the
situation around the plantation where Mary and her family lived. A big
supper was given, it was early, about twenty-five slave couples
attended. There was gaiety and laughter. A barrel of lemonade was
served. A big time was had by all, then those couples who desired to
remain together were joined in wedlock according to civil custom. The
party broke up in the early hours of the morning.
Mary Biddie, cognizant of the progress that science and invention has
made in the intervening years from Emancipation and the present time,
could not help but remark of the vast improvement of the lighting system
of today and that of slavery. There were no lamps or kerosene. The first
thread that shearer spun was for a wick to be used in a candle, the only
means of light. Beef tallow was used to make the candle; this was placed
in a candle mould while hot. The wick was then placed in the center of
the tallow as it rest in the mould; this was allowed to cool. When this
chemical process occured there was a regular sized candle to be used
Mary now past the century mark, her lean bronze body resting in a
rocker, her head wrapped in a white 'kerchief, and puffing slowly on her
clay pipe, expressed herself in regard to presidents: "Roosevelt has
don' mo' than any other president, why you know ever since freedom they
been talkin' 'bout dis pension, talkin' 'bout it tha's all, but you see
Mr. Roosevelt he don' com' an' gived it tu us. What? I'll say he's a
good rightus man, an' um sho' go' vot' fo' him."
Residing in her little cabin in Eatonville, Florida, she is able to
smile because she has some means of security, the Old Age Pension.
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