Prophet John Henry Kemp
FEDERAL WRITERS' PROJECT
American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)
L. Rebecca Baker, Field Worker
Daytona Beach, Florida
January 11, 1937
"PROPHET" JOHN HENRY KEMP
A long grey beard, a pair of piercing owl-like eyes and large bare feet,
mark "Prophet" Kemp among the citizenry of Daytona Beach, Florida. The
"Prophet", christened John Henry--as nearly as he can remember--is an 80
year old ex-slave whose remininiscences of the past, delight all those
who can prevail upon him to talk of his early life on the plantation of
"Prophet" Kemp does not talk only of the past, however, his conversation
turns to the future; he believes himself to be equally competent to talk
of the future, and talks more of the latter if permitted.
Oketibbeha County, Mississippi was the birthplace of the "Prophet". The
first master he can remember was John Gay, owner of a plantation of some
2,700 acres and over 100 slaves and a heavy drinker. The "Prophet" calls
Gay "father", and becomes very vague when asked if this title is a blood
tie or a name of which he is generally known.
According to Kemp--Gay was one of the meanest plantation owners in the
entire section, and frequently voiced his pride in being able to employ
the cruelest overseers that could be found in all Mississippi. Among
these were such men as G.T. Turner, Nels T. Thompson, Billy Hole, Andrew
Winston and other men with statewide reputations for brutality. When all
of the cruelties of one overseer had been felt by the slaves on the Gay
plantation and another meaner man's reputation was heard of on the Gay
plantation, the master would delight in telling his slaves that if they
did not behave, he would send for this man. "Behaving"--the "Prophet"
says, meant living on less food than one should have; mating only at his
command and for purposes purely of breeding more and stronger slaves on
his plantation for sale. In some cases with women--subjecting to his
every demand if they would escape hanging by the wrists for half a day
or being beaten with a cowhide whip.
About these whippings, the "Prophet" tells many a blood-curdling tale.
"One day when an old woman was plowing in the field, an overseer came by
and reprimanded her for being so slow--she gave him some back talk, he
took out a long closely woven whip and lashed her severely. The woman
became sore and took her hoe and chopped him right across his head, and
child you should have seen how she chopped this man to a bloody death."
"Prophet" Kemp will tell you that he hates to tell these things to any
investigator, because he hates for people to know just how mean his
"fahter" really was.
So great was the fear in which Gay was held that when Kemp's mother,
Arnette Young, complained to Mrs. Gay, that her husband was constantly
seeking her for a mistress and threatening her with death if she did not
submit, even Mrs. Gay had to advise the slaves to do as Gay demanded,
saying--"My husband is a dirty man and will find some reason to kill you
if you don't." "I can't do a thing with him." Since Arnette worked at
the "big house" there was no alternative, and it was believed that out
of the union with her master, Henry was born. A young slave by the name
of Broxton Kemp was given to the woman as husband at the time John Kemp
was born, it is from this man that "Prophet" took his name.
Life on the plantation held nothing but misery for the slaves of John
Gay. A week's allowance of groceries for the average small family
consisted of a package of about ten pounds containing crudely ground
meal, a slab of bacon--called side-meat and from a pint to a quart of
syrup made from sorghum, depending upon the season.
All slaves reported for work a 5 o'clock in the morning, except those
who cared for the overseer, who began their work an hour earlier to
enable the overseer to be present at the morning checkup. This checkup
determined which slaves were late or who had committed some offense late
on the day before or during the night. These were singled out and before
the rest of the slaves began their work they were treated to the sight
of these delinquents being stripped and beaten until blood flowed; women
were no exception to the rule.
The possible loss of his slaves upon the declaration of freedom on
January 1, 1866 caused Gay considerable concern. His liquor-ridden mind
was not long in finding a solution, however, he barred all visitors from
his plantation and insisted that his overseers see to the carrying out
of this detail. They did, with such efficiency that it was not until May
8, when the government finally learned of the condition and sent a
marshall to the plantation, that freedom came to Gay's slaves. May 8, is
still celebrated in this section of Mississippi, as the official
Relief for the hundreds of slaves of Gay came at last with the
declaration of freedom for them. The government officials divided the
grown and growing crops; and some land was parcelled out to the former
Kemp may have gained the name "Prophet" from his constant reference to
the future and to his religion. He says he believes on one faith, one
Lord and one religion, and preaches this belief constantly. He claims to
have turned his back on all religions that "do not do as the Lord says."
In keeping this belief he says he represents the "True Primitive Baptist
Church", but does not have any connection with that church, because he
believes it has not lived exactly up to what the Lord expects of him.
Kemp claims the ability to read the future with ease; even to help
determine what it will bring in some cases. He reads it in the palms of
those who will believe in him; he determines the good and bad luck;
freedom from sickness; success in love and other benefits it will bring
from the use of charms, roots, herbs and magical incantations and
formulae. He has recently celebrated what he believes to be his 80th
birthday, and says he expects to live at least another quarter of a
1. Personal interview with John Henry Kemp, Daytona Beach, Florida
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