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Willis Williams

From: Florida

American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)

Viola B. Muse
Jacksonville, Florida
March 20, 1937


Willis Williams of 1025 Iverson Street, Jacksonville, Florida, was born
at Tallahassee, Florida, September 15, 1856. He was the son of Ransom
and Wilhemina Williams, who belonged during the period of slavery to
Thomas Heyward, a rich merchant of Tallahassee. Willis does not know the
names of his paternal grandparents but remembers his maternal
grandmother was Rachel Fitzgiles, who came down to visit the family
after the Civil War.

Thomas Heyward, the master, owned a plantation out in the country from
Tallahassee and kept slaves out there; he also owned a fine home in the
city as well as a large grocery store and produce house.

Willis' mother, Wilhemina, was the cook at the town house and his
father, Williams, did carpentry and other light work around the place.
He does not remember how his father learned the trade, but presumes that
Mr. Heyward put him under a white carpenter until he had learned. The
first he remembers of his father was that he did carpentry work.

At the time Willis was born and during his early life, even rich people
like Mr. Heyward did not have cook stoves. They knew nothing of such.
The only means of cooking was by fireplace, which, as he remembers, was
wide with an iron rod across it. To the rod a large iron pot was
suspended and in it food was cooked. An iron skillet with a lid was used
for baking and it also was used to cook meats and other food. The
common name for the utensil was 'spider' and every home had one.

Willis fared well during the first nine years of his life which were
spent in slavery. To him it was the same as freedom for he was not a
victim of any unpleasant experiences as related by some other ex-slaves.
He played base ball and looked after his younger brothers and sister
while his mother was in the kitchen. He was never flogged but received
chastisement once from the father of Mr. Heyward. That, he related, was
light and not nearly so severe as many parents give their children

Wilhemina, his mother, and the cook, saw to it that her children were
well fed. They were fed right from the master's table, so to speak. They
did not sit to the table with the master and his family, but ate the
same kind of food that was served them.

Cornbread was baked in the Heyward kitchen but biscuits also were baked
twice daily and the Negroes were allowed to eat as many as they wished.
The dishes were made of tin and the drinking vessels were made from
gourds. Few white people had china dishes and when they did possess them
they were highly prized and great care was taken of them.

The few other slaves which Mr. Heyward kept around the town house tended
the garden and the many chickens, ducks and geese on the place. The
garden afforded all of the vegetables necessary for feeding Master
Heyward, his family and slaves. He did not object to the slaves eating
chicken and green vegetables and sent provisions of all kinds from his
store to boot.

Although Mr. Heyward was wealthy there were many things he could not buy
for Tallahassee did not afford them. Willis remembers that candles were
mostly used for light. Home-made tallow was used in making them. The
moulds, which were made of wood, were of the correct size. Cotton string
twisted right from the raw cotton was cut into desired length and placed
in the moulds first, then heated tallow was poured in until they were
filled. The tallow was allowed to set and cool, then they were removed,
ready for use.

In those days coffee was very expensive and a substitute for it was made
from parched corn. The whites used it as well as the slaves.

Willis remembers a man named Pierce who cured cow hides. He used to buy
them and one time Willis skinned a cow and took the hide to him and sold
it. Sixty-five and seventy years ago everyone used horses or mules and
they had to have shoes. The blacksmith wore leather aprons and the
horses and mules wore leather collars. No one knew anything about
composition leather for making shoes so the tanning of hides was a
lucrative business.

Clothing, during Civil War days and early Reconstruction, was simple as
compared to present day togs. Cloth woven from homespun thread was the
only kind Negroes had. Every house of any note could boast of a spinning
wheel and loom. Cotton, picked by slaves, was cleared of the seed and
spun into thread and woven into cloth by them. It was common to know how
to spin and weave. Some of the cloth was dyed afterwards with dye made
from indigo and polk berries. Some was used in its natural color.

Cotton was the main product of most southern plantations and the owner
usually depended upon the income from the sale of his yearly crop to
maintain his home and upkeep of his slaves and cattle. It was necessary
for every farm to yield as much as possible and much energy was directed
toward growing and picking large crops. Although Mr. Heyward was a
successful merchant, he did not lose sight of the fact that his country
property could yield a bountiful supply of cotton, corn and tobacco.

Around the town house Mr. Heyward maintained an atmosphere of home life.
He wanted his family and his servants well cared for and spared no
expense in making life happy.

As Willis remembers the beds were made of Florida moss and feathers.
Boards ware laid across for slats and the mattress placed upon the
boards. On top of the moss mattress a feather one was placed which made
sleeping very comfortable. In summer the feather mattress was often
removed, sunned, aired and replaced in winter. Goose and the downy
feathers of chickens were saved and stored in large bags until enough
were collected for a mattress and it was considered a prize to possess

Every family of note boasted the ownership of a horse and buggy or
several of each. The kind most popular during Willis' boyhood was the
one-seated affair with a short wagon-like bed in the rear of the seat.
Sometimes two seats were used. The seats were removable and could be
used for carrying baggage or other light weights. The brougham, surrey
and landam were unknown to Willis.

Before the Civil War and during the time the great struggle was in full
swing, women wore hoop skirts, very full, held out with metal hoops.
Pantaloons were worn beneath them and around the ankle where they were
gathered very closely, a ruffle edged with a narrow lace, finished them
off. The waist was tight fitting basque and sleeves which could be worn
long or to elbow, were very full. Women also wore their hair high up on
their heads with frills around the face. Negro women, right after
slavery, fell into imitating their former mistresses and many of them
who were fortunate enough to get employment used part of their earnings
for at least one good dress. It was usually made of woolen a yard wide,
or silk.

Money has undergone a change as rapidly as some other commonplace
things. In Willis' early life, money valued at less than one dollar was
made of paper just as the dollar, five dollar or ten dollar bills were.
There was a difference however, in the paper representing 'change' and
not as much care was taken in protecting it from being imitated. The
paper money used for change was called "shin plasters" and much of it
flooded the southland during Civil War days.

Mr. Heyward did not enlist in the army to help protect the south's
demise but his eldest son, Charlie, went. His younger son was not old
enough to go. Willis stated that Mr. Heyward did not go because he was
in business and was needed at home to look after it. It is not known
whether Charlie was killed at war or not, but, Willis said he did not
return home at the close of war.

When the news of freedom came to Thomas Heyward's town slaves it was
brought by McCook's Cavalry. Willis remembers the uniforms worn by the
northerners was dark blue with brass buttons and the Confederates wore
gray. After the cavalry reached Tallahassee, they separated into
sections, each division taking a different part of the town. Negroes of
the household were called together and were informed of their freedom.
It is remembered by Willis that the slaves were jubilant but not

Mr. Heyward was dealt a hard blow during the war; his store was
confiscated and used as a commissary by the northern army. When the war
ended he was deprived of his slaves and a great portion of his former
wealth vanished with their going.

The loss of his wealth and slaves did not bitter Mr. Heyward; to the
contrary, he was as kindhearted as in days past.

McCook's Cavalry did not remain in Tallahassee very long and was
replaced by a colored company; the 99th Infantry. Their duty was to
maintain order within the town. An orchestra was with the outfit and
Willis remembers that they were very good musicians. A Negro who had
been the slave of a man of Tallahassee was a member of the orchestra.
His name was Singleton and his former master invited the orchestra to
come to his house and play for the family. The Negroes were glad to
render service, went, and after that entertained many white families in
their homes.

The southern soldiers who returned after the war appeared to receive
their defeat as good 'sports' and not as much friction between the races
existed as would be imagined. The ex-slave, while he was glad to be
free, wanted to be sheltered under the 'wings' of his former master and
mistress. In most cases they were hired by their former owners and peace
reigned around the home or plantation. This was true of Tallahassee, if
not of other sections of the south.

Soon after the smoke of the cannons had died down and people began
thinking of the future, the Negroes turned their thoughts toward
education. They grasped every opportunity to learn to read and write.
Schools were fostered by northern white capitalists and white women were
sent into the southland to teach the colored boys and girls to read,
write and figure. Any Negro who had been fortunate enough to gain some
knowledge during slavery could get a position as school teacher. As a
result many poorly prepared persons entered the school room as tutor.

William Williams, Willis' father, found work at the old Florida Central
and Peninsular Railroad yards and worked for many years there. He sent
his children to school and Willis advanced rapidly.

During slavery Negroes attended church, sat in the balcony, and very
often log churches were built for them. Meetings were held under "bush
harbors." After the war frame and log churches served them as places of
worship. These buildings were erected by whites who came into the
southland to help the ex-slave. Negro men who claimed God had called
them to preach served as ministers of most of the Negro churches but
often white preachers visited them and instructed them concerning the
Bible and what God wanted them to do. Services were conducted three
times a day on Sunday, morning at eleven, in afternoon about three and
at night at eight o'clock.

The manner of worship was very much in keeping with present day modes.
Preachers appealed to the emotions of the 'flock' and the congregation
responded with "amens," "halleluia," clapping of hands, shouting and
screaming. Willis remarked to one white man during his early life, that
he wondered why the people yelled so loudly and the man replied that in
fifty years hence the Negroes would be educated, know better and would
not do that. He further replied that fifty years ago the white people
screamed and shouted that way. Willis wonders now when he sees both
white and colored people responding to preaching in much the same way as
in his early life if education has made much difference in many cases.

Much superstition and ignorance existed among the Negroes during slavery
and early reconstruction. Some wore bags of sulphur saying they would
keep away disease. Some wore bags of salt and charcoal believing that
evil spirits would be kept away from them. Others wore a silver coin in
their shoes and some made holes in the coin, threaded a string through
it, attached it to the ankle so that no one could conjure them. Some who
thought an enemy might sprinkle "goofer dust" around their door steps
swept very clean around the door step in the evening and allowed no one
to come in afterwards.

The Negro men who spent much time around the "grannies" during slavery
learned much about herbs and roots and how they were used to cure all
manner of ills, the doctor gave practically the same kind of medicine
for most ailments. The white doctors at that time had not been schooled
to a great extent and carried medicine bags around to the sick room
which contained pills and a very few other kinds of medicines which they
had made from herbs and roots. Some of them are used to-day but Willis
said most of their medicines were pills.

Ten years after the Civil War Willis Williams had advanced in his
studies to the extent that he passed the government examination and
became a railway mail clerk. He ran from Tallahassee to Palatka and
River Junction on the Florida Central and Peninsular Railroad. There was
no other railroad going into Tallahassee then.

The first Negro railway mail clerk according to Willis' knowledge
running from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, was Benjamin F. Cox. The first
colored mail clerk in the Jacksonville Post Office was Camp Hughes. He
was sent to prison for rifling the mail. Willis Myers succeeded Hughes
and Willis Williams succeeded Myers. Willis received a telegram to come
to Jacksonville to take Myers' place and when he came expected to stay
three or four days, but, after getting here was retained permanently and
remained in the service until his retirement.

His first run from Tallahassee to Palatka and River Junction began in
1875 and lasted until 1879. In 1879 he was called to Jacksonville to
succeed Myers and when he retired forty years later, had filled the
position creditably, therefore was retired on a pension which he will
receive until his death.

Willis Williams is in good health, attends Ebenezer Methodist Episcopal
Church of which he is a member. He possesses all of his faculties and is
able to carry on an intelligent conversation on his fifty years in

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