A Calhoun County Slave Narrative

The WPA Slave Narratives consist of 3,500 relatively brief oral histories (most of them two to four pages long), representing about 2 percent of all ex-slaves surviving in the late 1930s. The sample for Mississippi was somewhat smaller: out of perhaps 20,000 living former slaves, 450 were interviewed by the WPA. All states and territories that had slaves in 1865 are represented, except Louisiana which did not participate.

Unfortunately, the quality of the interviews rarely matched the quantity. Few of the WPA interviewers were adequately trained. With the rarest exceptions, the interviews were not tape recorded and the finished transcripts were not so much word-for-word representations of what ex-slaves actually said, but reconstructions based on the interviewers’ memory or field notes. Nearly all of the interviewers were white Southerners and most of them were women. Far too often the tone and even the content of the interviews reflected the white supremacist values of the 1930s. The WPA workers often patronized or insulted the ex-slave interviewees, reconstructing their speech in the crudest “plantation style,” referring to them as “old darkies,” or as “auntie” and “uncle.” Too often interviewers accepted Old South mythology as truth, assuming that all slaves were contented, all masters kind, and all plantations idyllic.

Not surprisingly, during the interview process former slaves often seemed uncomfortable and cautious, eager to please their interviewers by supplying the “right answers” and by wearing the mask of racial submission. Yet some of Mississippi’s former slaves spoke so bluntly about harsh conditions and cruel treatment that state FWP officials, apparently offended by such candor, chose to violate WPA guidelines and not forward their narratives to the Library of Congress in Washington. Thousands of pages of “bad” slave memories were discovered in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in the 1970s.

(From “WPA Slave Narratives” by Dr. Neil R. McMillen professor emeritus of history, the University of Southern Mississippi, posted February 2005 in Mississippi History Now, a publication of the Mississippi Historical Society)

Ike Woodward

I was born in Calhoun County at Pittsboro July 4, 1855. My papa was Nelson Woodward who was born in Richmond, Va., an’ my Mama was Dolly Pruitt from Alabama. My brothers was Jeff, Sam, Ben an Jim an my sisters was Tilla, Lena an’ Rosetta. “My job durin’ de war was to lead (blind) Bob Conner all through de war. You know Massa Conner was de papa of Mr. Fox Conner who is now such a big man in de’ army. “We belonged to de Wiley Woodward family but Mr. Wileys brother, Ike, was administrator for de estate after Mr. Wiley’s brother killed him. He lent me out to take de job of leadin’ Mr. Conner in de war. “Course I didn’ make no money workin for Mr. Conner. Money is one thing us niggers didn’t see.

My Missus, Massa Wileys wife had a son John Woodward. Dey was 690 acres on de Woodward plantation. I just don’t know how many of us niggers he owned but he was said to be de biggest slave owner in dis part of de country. De white folks sho’ didn’t ‘low us niggers to see a newspaper or nothin we might learn to read an ‘rite from. We went to de white folks church to worship an’ sometimes us niggers would hold meetings of our own at our quarters. White folks read ‘de Bible to us at Massa Conner’s on Sunday mornin’.

One slave we called Alex Woodward ran away lots o’ times an’ de white folks would have to catch him with bull dogs. Dey always used de “Bull Whip” on him when dey caught him. Major Woodard was good ’nuff to give ‘de slaves truck patches that dey could work Sunday, Sunday nights or any other moonlight nights but dey sho must be ready for their regular work on Monday mornin an’ work through Saturday evenin’.

Lots o’ times dey would scare us chillun with homemade ghosts. When slaves got sick a “Granny” would look after ’em. Us niggers sho’ did get good treatment when we was sick. You know white folks sho didn’t want a nigger o’ theirs to die—they was worth somethin! Back then if de white folks did let us niggers go anywhere they would write us a pass describin’ who we belonged to, our name, description an’ where we was goin’, cause some white folks might take us up thinkin’ we was a run-a-way slave.

When dem Yankees come through from de north travelin’ south dey stole lots of de wealthy peoples good stock an’ left their ole wore out plugs in their places. When de war was over didn’t nobody at Massa Conners tell us niggers we was free. One mornin’ several days after de 8th o’ May de white folks sent me to de well down in de valley below de house to get a bucket o’ water. When I started to draw de water I saw my brother comin through de woods ridin a blazed face mare. He never said a word but galloped to de well, picked me up an put me on de horse with him an’ carried me from Massa Conners to de Woodwards. Massa Woodward had told my papa if he’d stay on with him an’ work when crops was gathered he’d give him half we made, so we did.

I has been married twice. My first wife was July Wade, we married when I was 17 years old and we had 10 chillun. Carrie Bell lives close to Calhoun City, Sammie Lee she lives there close by an de others are scattered about in other states. Most of ’em farms. My next wife was Lizzie Moore an’ we ain’t got no chillun. Young people now have better times.

 

Calhoun County in the 1830s: Settling the Wilderness

This is another section (Chapter 3) of Mississippi governor and Calhoun County native David H. Murphree’s History of Calhoun County, which was published circa 1948. What’s riveting about this portion is an eye-witness account of the settlement of the land, descriptions now-vanished plants and animals, the people and provisions. Notes providing additional historical and genealogical information by James M. Young.

I wish that I might have had an opportunity to see the virgin country the greeted the eye of the first settlers in what is now Calhoun County, Mississippi. It must have been a beautiful sight. It was my privilege to have had a first-hand description of this land from Miss Elizabeth Enochs, who was the sister of my mother’s mother, and who came with a caravan from Tennessee as a girl of eighteen, not so awfully long after the Indians left. She said that it had been the practice of the Indians for many years to burn the woods each fall, so that there were few thickets; that therefore standing on one hilltop, you could see a man or a deer moving through the trees even to the next one; that the trees were all large in size and tall in the extreme. She described the time of their arrival in May, when the wild flowers were blooming everywhere in profusion and indescribably beautiful. “Switch” cane or short growth cane was to be found in all the valleys, and through these beautiful woods moved herds of deer, sometimes thirty or forty in a drove. Wild turkeys were everywhere and without much fear of man. Wild pigeons (passenger pigeons) according to “Aunt Bet” came at times in such immense droves as to absolutely darken the skies; when they alighted on the trees they did so in such great numbers that the branches often broke.

There was “bear sign” where these huge animals had reached high up on the tree trunks and scratched, sharpening their claws everywhere, and at night the wild scream of a panther sounding like American Black Bear Audubon bloga woman in keen distress was often heard, making the children hug the camp fires and their mothers shudder with uneasy fear. Small game like rabbits, quail, and squirrels were so numerous as to attract no attention whatever when sighted and so easily killed that the hunters refused to shoot at one single target, but waited to get two or more of the animals together so that they might be killed with one shot. The streams were all crystal-clear and huge fish could be easily seen drifting with the current or darting swiftly to seize some luckless worm or insect that had fallen in the water.

It was to such country that there came in the early 1830s a stream of pioneer men and women in covered mule or ox wagons, driving their cattle and other livestock, with a plow or so swung behind. These covered wagons were usually called “tarheel” wagons because the axles were wooden and must have every few miles an application of tar or some other kind of lubricant to keep them rolling. My father said you could hear them squeaking for miles. Bows of splits made from heart white oak were bent over the wagon high enough that a person could stand up inside and over the bows was stretched tightly a piece of tenting or “wagon sheet” treated to repel the rain. There was an opening at the front end and also the back, and inside these immigrants carried everything that they could store which they felt would be necessary in the wild new land. Of course, the “Tennessee Rifle” was a very necessary piece of equipment and most of them had in addition a long single barrel shotgun with which to keep the pot filled with the small game above mentioned.

Naturally here and there one of them brought with him his old time violin or “fiddle” as it was better known, and these instruments were from time to time brought into use at the “log rollings”, “corn shuckings” and “house raisings” which were so popular in the early days. Too, in addition to the well-worn copy of the family Bible, which each and every family brought and on whose pages were inscribed the names, date of birth, etc., of all the children as well as the dates of death of members of the family, a number of these folks brought with them copies of a peculiar book. It was the old “Sacred Harp” song book. These books were different in makeup from all other books, in that they were very wide in page width and narrow in page depth. The notes were differently shaped from other music notes. Singing in the Sacred Harp goes back for hundreds of years and even today many people who learned to love this music as they grew up feel that it is the most beautiful of all music.

An old fashioned black wash pot, made of iron, standing on three short legs, was also part of the necessary equipment and this pot was used for many, many things. In it the clothes were boiled for the weekly wash. Soap was made in this pot; hominy was also made in it;  likewise water for the Saturday night scrub was oftentimes heated in it. When the hogs were killed in the fall, the lard was cooked in this pot. There were few kitchen utensils. An old fashioned oven with a heavy lid was one. In it bread was often baked and potatoes too. It too had many uses. Beds were usually homemade after the immigrants arrived. The “corded” bedstead was most popular. It was a four poster bed, with rope or cords stretched back and forth across from one side to the other and from one end to the other. On this was laid the “corn shuck” mattress, which as its name implies, was made from the husks or shucks from corn. For real luxury a feather bed made from feathers or down plucked from live geese and stuffed into a “tick” was laid on top of the shuck mattress. People slept on feather beds in even hottest summer time. The women brought a few seeds of flowers, sometimes if the season was right, a shrub itself, to reset in their new homes in the wild new country. The old spinning wheel was another piece of standard equipment for without it there would have been no thread for knitting socks and stocking, and likewise no thread to be use on the old hand looms for weaving for the clothes for the entire family.

Notes: It is positive that almost all of the first inhabitants of what is now Calhoun County came down the famous old Natchez Trace. (1) They came from the Tennessee-Carolina country. Crossing the Tennessee River near Corinth, then on down the Natchez Trace to Old Houlka where the Indian Agency was formerly located, spreading out over the section to the west, along the various creeks which ran into the Schoona and the Yalobusha rivers. In the beginning, these settlers did not open and clear the river bottom lands very much. They cleared the rolling hill sides and the creek bottoms. Their dwellings were built on high hills, often just where a spring bubbled out from under the hill below.

Of course, a number of these first inhabitants came from Alabama and Georgia. These came by way of Aberdeen, Columbus etc. However, the great majority of these first settlers came as stated above from Tennessee and the Carolinas. Governor Murphree says “it is positive” Mississippi_Territory_darkthat almost all of the first inhabitants came down the Natchez Trace. However (probably after someone proofread what he had written and provided him comments to the contrary), he retracted that a bit and said “Of course, a number of these first inhabitants came from Alabama and Georgia…” In fact, many of the first settlers of Calhoun County came from Alabama into north Mississippi. The Murphree family itself came over from Alabama. Martin Murphree, DHM’s grandfather and David Murphree, DHM’s great grandfather, came from Alabama. As the Murphree Genealogical Association data states: “David Murphree remained in Tennessee about a decade. By 1818, however, records show that he was a Justice of the Peace in Blount County, Alabama and the same in Walker County in 1820. The David Murphree family is enumerated in the 1830 census of Walker County where the families of his sons Roland J., Ransom, and Samuel M. Murphree are also enumerated along with his son-in-law William Barton.

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830 opened Choctaw Nation land in north Mississippi and the Treaty of Pontotoc a few years later opened Chickasaw Nation land as well. For the next few years after the treaties, there was a great migration into the Yalobusha-Chickasaw area of north Mississippi. About 1835-1836 David Murphree and his wife Jemima, who were then about ages 72 and 63 gathered up their children, in-laws, and grandchildren, and with their neighbors — the Brashers, Collums, Lantrips, and Browns — made their way into Mississippi in a wagon train pulled by oxen, some 30 wagons all told. They apparently crossed the Tombigbee River at Cotton Gin Port near Amory and made their way into Chickasaw County and to the Indian agency at Old Houlka. From there, they spread out over the area to the west along the various creeks and rivers. Many of the early settlements were located on or near abandoned Indian villages.

According to one of David’s descendants, the late Jackson MS attorney Dale H. McKibben, the family first landed at Airmount, which was in the Choctaw Cession. When Chickasaw Cession lands became available about three years later, tonesome of the families moved eastward from previous Choctaw lands to Chickasaw lands. Two of David’s sons’ families, Martin and Ransom Murphree, split off from the rest and moved eastward into the Rocky Mount/Oldtown area which was in Chickasaw County at first but became Calhoun County when that county was formed. Airmount and Rocky Mount are about 15 miles apart as the crow flies. Airmount is on the north side of the river which has come to be known as the “Skuna”, while Rocky Mount is on the south side. Travel between the two was arduous, especially during the winter time or in flood times, and remained so until relatively recent times. “ JMY

Holidays in Old Calhoun

My mother Monette Morgan Young was born in 1915 on a small farm east of the village of Reid in the northeast part of Calhoun County on the old road to Houlka. She was the daughter of Hosea Morgan and Eula Murphree Morgan, and was an only child. The lack of siblings and nearby neighbor children made her childhood lonelier than most. Her mother was a teacher for many of Monette’s early years, moving around from one one-room community school to another and lodging with someone in that community during the short school term each year. She took Monette with her while Hosea stayed home to take care of the farm. When schools were not in session, all three worked hard to raise enough food and “bring in” a small cotton crop to sell for their cash needs.

Monette was a reader and a writer; she loved poetry and history. In her later years, Monette began to write of her growing-up days and her life on that farm. Like many people as they grow older, she became interested in family history and began a decades-long period of formal research and the gathering of family stories from surviving aunts, cousins and others who had lived in Reid. Her cousin Clarence Morgan was a great source of family and community information; and she and he made many trips, some with grandkids along, to old cemeteries and old communities barely recognizable by then with the changes of time.

 In the early 1980s she began sending me long letters—some she typed but most were handwritten in a hurried scrawl—letters with information she had gathered about not only our family but also about other families who lived in that area and her memories of them and her life there. As I saved her letters, I began to realize that if the material was organized, edited a bit, fleshed out with a map or two, and if I took the various bits of information about, for example, the Clark family or the community social life, and put those together and did likewise with other topics, this might make an interesting memoir as well as a useful genealogical and historical resource. I did that. It took months in those pre-computer days, but it began to come together. I finished typing it and decided I’d have a few copies made for me and my children and would give her a few copies on her 75th birthday. I called it “The Cherry Hill – Poplar Springs – Reid Community in Calhoun County, Mississippi”. She was delighted, but said several times, “If I had known you were going to do this, I’d have written this or that, or would have not said that, or would have added the story about….” I told her to consider it a draft and to add or subtract whatever she wanted, and I’d revise the book accordingly. She did, and I did. After Mother died in 2000, I created a second edition of the book, adding the additional material and cleaning up some typos and some errors that had been pointed out. Over 100 copies of that second edition were subsequently made and a digital version is available on the internet for free download.

Holidays
(an excerpt from The Cherry Hill – Poplar Springs – Reid Community in Calhoun County, Mississippi, by Monette Morgan Young

We did not do lavish Christmas cooking, not in our circle of acquaintances and kin, nor did we do lavish Thanksgiving cooking. We usually had fresh pork both times and often our meat would be a huge pot of backbones. If the hog killing had been in the last day or two before the holiday, we had the most prized meat of all, the loin strip. Our men did not make pork chops of any cut of hog. That long lean strip was taken out without bone and how I looked forward to it. I hated any boiled meat. Mother and all her acquaintances and kin only boiled or fried meat. One reason for that is that they did not know of roasting procedures and second that it would have required oven cooking and use of much stovewood. They could boil a piece or pieces of meat in the black iron cooking pot on the coals on the hearth by the fire which was already going for warmth. Mother would make good dressing with that water and we always had small Bermuda onions growing in the garden all winter. These grew in clusters and did not decay as the large ones did and were not hot. Mother did not have to buy sage. She grew it, dried it in a slow oven and so we had sage and onions for dressing and since I always contended for fried meat, she fried something for me. We sometimes did have a hen boiled but since I wouldn’t eat boiled meat, she had to do the frying for me and I ate dressing with that.

Usually Thanksgiving Day was just another day. Daddy was sometimes up to his ears in corn gathering and we cooked a little better dinner. Some meat as I have described, maybe a molasses cake with the dried apple filling and frosting, one or two or three of the many vegetables in storage, canned or dried, the usual dish of pickles, preserves, canned berries, or peaches, on the table. Christmas would be the same with the exception of a coconut cake. Mother always cooked a large luscious coconut cake. She used only her simple two-egg recipe for the batter (2 eggs, ¾ cup milk, 1-1/3 cup sugar, 1/3 cup fat, 2 cups flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt), but we always got a fresh coconut and she filled and covered the cake lavishly with frosting and coconut. Then she always had Daddy to buy the cone-shaped frosted jellied candies, assorted colors. She topped the cake with those and it looked like tiny frost-covered shapes of color in a snow bank. That was her specialty. I never saw or read of a fruit cake. With all our folks, just ordinary cakes were made. A little more lavish perhaps, was a Christmas cake, or was called so.

We often saw no one but ourselves on Christmas Day. The weather would have been too bad to venture forth. My parents had bought a little fruit and a few nuts. Oranges still always smell like Christmas. We had them no other time unless someone was really sick. Those little home-grown apples smelling like all the aromas of Araby would still be crisp and we would allow ourselves a few more of those unwrapping them from the Sears Roebuck catalog pages that were used to protect them and out of their cardboard boxes from under the bed in the front room. We got a few raisins, the seeded ones still on stems, I never taste such now.

If we did not go to Mama Murphree’s on pretty Christmas days we would walk to Grandaddy Morgan’s. My parents occasionally bought a box of lemon stick candy. At Grandfather’s he would bring out his goodies. He may have sent to town for a bushel of shipped in apples, which then I preferred to our small homegrown ones, and he had oranges and several boxes of candy. He always bagged up a large paper bag for us to carry home. Uncle Alsie’s children made their home at Grandaddy’s and Grandmother’s. These were Euras, Theda, Roy and Lois. Lois was near my age, the youngest. So I would get to see the cousins there.

One favorite toy at Christmas time for parents and teachers to give children was a harmonica. At that time, all children were given gifts by teachers. A harmonica, which we called a French Harp, cost all of a nickel or a dime. A good sized professional one might cost a quarter. I invariably wanted one. Of course, I had not a musical bone in my body. I made noise on it, and that was all. Another gift that teachers most often gave was a “bought” toothbrush. Our toothbrushes were off the black gum bush or the black gum tree. They made a large tree, but the woods were full of the small ones and we got a good sized twig about as large as a small cedar pencil, peeled the bark down about an inch and a half and the whole thing was about six inches long. We chewed the peeled end into a mop shaped thing and brushed our teeth with that. We used ashes or baking soda. I recall that Daddy used ashes.

I had bountiful Christmases. I always got one special large gift and one or two small ones. Also there were the oranges and raisins which we did not get at other times, not often. There was candy too, then, but seldom at other times. My victory over my nice pretty things was a little hollow, with no one to show them to or to play with them with me. Some other children of the area did not get anything but the candy, nuts, and fruits. Christmas was a very quiet celebration then. The weather was usually bad and the roads almost impossible to travel on, so family get-togethers were never planned. We almost always got to both my grandparents during the Christmas week. At “Mama” Murphree’s sometimes we got to see other cousins, sometimes not. At the Morgan grandparents, my four cousins who made their home there were always at home and I enjoyed them. Friends and relatives did not exchange gifts. We had no church programs. We didn’t try to plan for such due to not knowing what the weather might do. Mother tried to see that I had a good Christmas. When she was a child, they had had usually nothing except a little candy and one time nothing at all. One Christmas there was a bisque doll with curls for me and one time there was a big sleeping doll and a cloth body–perhaps a paper mache head with painted-on reddish blonde hair. That day it rained all day. We never got outside.

When I was about four, Tellie Murff and Winnie Davis gave me some lovely Christmas gifts. I think Tellie gave me a beautiful ball and some of the best of candy. Winnie gave me a box of blocks, some of which were painted to form the facade of an antebellum house. They were still in the house when all of the things had to be sold and/or given away when Daddy got sick. Some winter Sundays we couldn’t go to church. We’d have Sunday school at home. My Father was well read in the Bible. He was on speaking terms with the old Bible Patriarchs. We three would read and discuss the lesson while pork backbones simmered in the kitchen, they for our Sunday dinner, and while sweet potatoes baked and while perhaps dried peas or butterbeans cooked.

Monette Morgan Young
Monette Morgan Young