FEDERAL WRITERS' PROJECT
American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)
Pearl Randolph, Field Worker
January 30, 1937
Born in Brooks County, Georgia, 83 years ago on February 24th,
Willie[TR:?] Dukes jovially declares that he is "on the high road to
livin' a hund'ed years."
He was one of 40 slaves belonging to one John Dukes, who was only in
moderate circumstances. His parents were Amos and Mariah Dukes, both
born on this plantation, he thinks. As they were a healthy pair they
were required to work long hours in the fields, although the master was
not actually cruel to them.
On this plantation a variety of products was grown, cotton, corn,
potatoes, peas, rice and sugar cane. Nothing was thrown away and the
slaves had only coarse foods such as corn bread, collard greens, peas
and occasionally a little rice or white bread. Even the potatoes were
reserved for the white folk and "house niggers."
As a child Willis was required to "tote water and wood, help at milking
time and run errands." His clothing consisted of only a homespun shirt
that was made on the plantation. Nearly everything used was grown or
manufactured on the plantation. Candles were made in the big house by
the cook and a batch of slaves from the quarters, all of them being
required to bring fat and tallow that had been saved for this purpose.
These candles were for the use of the master and mistress, as the slaves
used fat lightwood torches for lighting purposes. Cotton was used for
making clothes, and it was spun and woven into cloth by the slave women,
then stored in the commisary for future use. Broggan shoes were made of
tanned leather held together by tacks made of maple wood. Lye soap was
made in large pots, cut into chunks and issued from the smoke house.
Potash was secured from the ashes of burnt oak wood and allowed to set
in a quantity of grease that had also been saved for the purpose, then
boiled into soap.
The cotton was gathered in bags of bear grass and deposited in baskets
woven with strips of white oak that had been dried in the sun.
Willis remembers the time when a slave on the plantation escaped and
went north to live. This man managed to communicate with his family
somehow, and it was whispered about that he was "living very high" and
actually saving money with which to buy his family. He was even going to
school. This fired all the slaves with an ambition to go north and this
made them more than usually interested in the outcome of the war between
the states. He was too young to fully understand the meaning of freedom
but wanted very much to go away to some place where he could earn
enough money to buy his mother a real silk dress. He confided this
information to her and she was very proud of him but gave him a good
spanking for fear he expressed this desire for freedom to his young
master or mistress.
Prayer meetings were very frequent during the days of the war and very
often the slaves were called in from the fields and excused from their
labors so they could hold these prayer meetings, always praying God for
the safe return of their master.
The master did not return after the war and when the soldiers in blue
came through that section the frightened women were greatly dependent
upon their slaves for protection and livelihood. Many of these black man
chose loyalty to their dead masters to freedom and shouldered the burden
of the support of their former mistresses cheerfully.
After the war Willis' father was one of those to remain with his widowed
mistress. Other members of his family left as soon as they were freed,
even his wife. They thus remained separated until her death.
Willis saw his first bedspring about 50 years ago and he still thinks a
feather mattress superior to the store-bought variety. He recalls a
humorous incident which occurred when he was a child and had been
introduced for the first time to the task of picking a goose.
After demonstrating how it was done to a group of slave children, the
person in charge had gone about his way leaving them busily engaged in
picking the goose. They had been told that the one gathering the most
feathers would receive a piece of money. Sometimes later the overseer
returned to find a dozen geese that had been stripped of all the
feathers. They had been told to pick only the pin feathers beneath the
wings and about the bodies of the geese. Need we guess what happened to
the over ambitious children?
He had heard of ice long before he looked upon it and he only thought of
it as another wild experiment. Why buy ice, when watermelons and butter
could be ley down into the well to keep cool?
One of Willis' happiest moments was when he earned enough money to buy
his first pair of patern leather shoes. To possess a paid of store
bought shoes had been his ambition since he was a child, when he had to
shine the shoes of his master and those of the master's children.
He next owned a horse and buggy of which he was very proud. This
increased his popularity with the girls and bye and bye he was married
to Mary, a girl with whom he had been reared. Nobody was surprised but
Mary, explained Mr. Dukes. "Me and everybody else knowed us ud get
married some day. We didn't jump over no broom neither. We was married
like white folks wid flowers and cake and everything."
Willis Dukes has been in Florida for "Lawd knows how long" and prefers
this state to his home state. He still has a few relatives there but has
never returned since leaving so long ago.
1. Personal Interview with Willis Dukes, Valdosta Road, near Jeslamb
Church, Madison, Florida
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