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Matilda Brooks

From: Florida

American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)

Alfred Farrell, Field Worker
Monticello, Florida
January 12, 1937



Matilda Brooks, 79, who lives in Monticello, Fla., was once a slave of a
South Carolina governor.

Mrs. Brooks was born in 1857 or 1858 in Edgefield, S.C. Her parents were
Hawkins and Harriet Knox, and at the time of the birth of their daughter
were slaves on a large plantation belonging to Governor Frank Pickens.
On this plantation were raised cotton, corn, potatoes, tobacco, peas,
wheat and truck products. As soon as Matilda was large enough to go into
the fields she helped her parents with the farming.

The former slave describes Governor Pickens as being 'very good' to his
slaves. He supervised them personally, although official duties often
made this difficult. He saw to it that their quarters were comfortable
and that they always had sufficient food. When they became ill he would
himself doctor on them with pills, castor oil, turpentine other
remedies. Their diet consisted largely of potatoes, corn bread, syrup,
greens, peas, and occasionally ham, fowl and other meats or poultry.
Their chief beverage was coffee made from parched corn.

Since there were no stoves during slavery, they cooked their foods in
large iron pots suspended from racks built into the fireplaces. Fried
foods were prepared in iron 'spiders', large frying pans with legs.
These pans were placed over hot coals, and the seasoning was done with
salt which they secured from evaporated sea-water. After the food was
fried and while the coals were still glowing the fat of oxen and sheep
was melted to make candles. Any grease left over was put into a large
box, to be used later for soap-making.

Lye for the soap was obtained by putting oak ashes in a barrel and
pouring water over them. After standing for several days--until the
ashes had decayed--holes were drilled into the bottom of the barrell
and the liquid drained off. This liquid was the lye, and it was then
trickled into the pot into which the fat had been placed. The two were
then boiled, and after cooling cut into squares of soap.

Water for cooking and other purposes was obtained from a well, which
also served as a refrigerator at times. Matilda does not recall seeing
ice until many years later.

In the evenings Matilda's mother would weave cloth on her spinning-jenny
and an improvised loom. This cloth was sometimes dyed in various colors:
blue from the indigo plant; yellow from the crocus and brown from the
bark of the red oak. Other colors were obtained from berries and other

In seasons other than picking-time for the cotton the children were
usually allowed to play in the evenings, when cotton crops were large,
however, they spent their evenings picking out seeds from the cotton
bolls, in order that their parents might work uninterruptedly in the
fields during the day. The cotton, after being picked and separated,
would be weighed in balances and packed tightly in 'crocus' bags.

Chicken and goose feathers were jealously saved during these days. They
were used for the mattresses that rested on the beds of wooden slats
that were built in corners against the walls. Hoop skirts were worn at
the time, but for how long afterward Matilda does not remember. She only
recalls that they were disappearing 'about the time I saw a windmill for
the first time'.

The coming of the Yankee soldiers created much excitement among the
slaves on the Pickens plantation. The slaves were in ignorance of
activities going on, and of their approach, but when the first one was
sighted the news spread 'just like dry grass burning up a hill'. Despite
the kindness of Governor Pickens the slaves were happy to claim their
new-found freedom. Some of them even ran away to join the Northern
armies before they were officially freed. Some attempted to show their
loyalty to their old owners by joining the southern armies, but in this
section they were not permitted to do so.

After she was released from slavery Matilda came with her parents to the
Monticello section, where the Knoxes became paid house servants. The
parents took an active part in politics in the section, and Matilda was
sent to school. White teachers operated the schools at first, and were
later replaced by Negro teachers. Churches were opened with Negro
ministers in the pulpits, and other necessities of community life
eventually came to the vicinity.

Matilda still lives in one of the earlier homes of her parents in the
area, now described as 'Rooster-Town' by its residents. The section is
in the eastern part of Monticello.


Interview with subject, Matilda Brooks; "Rooster-Town", eastern part of
city, Monticello, Jefferson County, Fla.

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