Person Interviewed: Nettie Henry
Location: Meridian, Mississippi
Place of Birth: Livingston, Alabama
Place of Residence: 19th Street, Meridian, Lauderdale County, Mississippi
Nettie Henry, ex-slave, 19th Street, Meridian, Lauderdale County, is 82 years old. She is five feet tall and weighs one hundred pounds.
“De Chil’s place was at Livingston, Alabama, on Alamucha Creek. Dat’s where I was born, but I jus’ did git borned good when Miss Lizzie—she was Marse Chil’s girl—married Marse John C. Higgins an’ moved to Mer-ree-dian. Me an’ my mammy an’ my two sisters, Liza an’ Tempe, was give to Miss Lizzie.
“I aint no country Nigger; I was raised in town. My mammy cooked an’ washed an’ ironed an’ done ever’thing for Miss Lizzie. She live right where Miss Annie—she was Miss Lizzie’s daughter—live now. But den de house face Eighth Street ‘stead o’ Seventh Street, lak it do now. Day warnt any other houses in dat block. ‘Fore de Surrender, dey turnt de house to face Seventh Street ’cause de town was growin’ an’ a heap o’ folks was buildin’ houses. I tell you somp’in’ ’bout Seventh Street in a minute. Couldn’ nobody dat lived in Mer-ree-dian right after de Surrender ever forgit Seventh Street an’ where it head to.
“My pappy didn’ go wid us to Mer-ree-dian. He b’longed to one set o’ white people, you see, an’ my mammy b’longed to another. He’d come to see us till de War started, den his folks jus’ kinda went to Texas. I don’ know why zackly ‘cep’ maybe it warnt so healthy for ’em ‘roun’ Livingston. Dey didn’ go to de War or nothin’. I ‘spec’ nice white folks talked ’bout ’em an’ wouldn’ have nothin’ to do wid ’em. So dey took an’ went to Texas an’ took my pappy wid ’em. But after de War he come back to us, walked mos’ all de way frum Texas. He rented some lan’ frum Mr. Ragsdale. My pappy built us a shack on dat lan’. It’s tore down now, but it was built good. Us all he’ped. I pulled a cross-cut saw an’ toted de boards up on de roof on a ladder. De chimley was built out o’ mud an’ rocks. Den us moved in an’ started growin’ us somp’in t’eat. Us didn’ have no horse an’ plow; Yankees done carried off all de horses an’ mules an’ burnt up ever’dthing lak plows. Us dug up de groun’ wide a grubbin’ hoe an’ raised pun-kins an’ plenty o’ chickens an’ ever’thing.
“Us lived nice. My people was smart. My white people was good white people. Dey warnt brutish; never whupped us or nothin’ lak dat. I don’ know nothin’ ’bout no meanness.
“Mr. Higgins he died pretty soon an’ Miss Lizzie went to teachin’ school. Her chillun—Miss Annie an’ dem—would try to teach us. Den us carried Blue Back Spellers to Sund’y school an’ a old Baptist cullud preacher would teach us out o’ it. He say, ‘de same words is in dis book what’s in de Bible. You chillun learn ’em de way dey is fixed for you to learn ’em in dis here Blue Back Speller, den de firs’ thing you know you can read de Bible.’ Use went to de white folk’s church endurin’ o’ de War an’ right after. Any o’ de white folks can tell you ’bout Mr. Preacher Hamlin. He was a preacher an’ a school teacher mixed. He had de firs’ boardin’ school for young white ladies. It’s standin’ right dare on Eighth [HW: No 7] Street right now. I ‘members de firs’ one to gragurate[FN: graduate] frum it. Well, Mr. Hamlin ‘nitiated my pappy right dare in de white folks’s church, de Firs’ Baptis’ Church; it burnt up long time ago. My pappy was Isam Allbrook. He was de firs’ cullud deacon ordained in Mer-ree-dian.
“I was ten years old at de Surrender, but I took notice. Dem was scarey times an’ when you is scared you takes trigger-notice. It was nex’ to de las’ year o’ de War ‘fore Sherman got to Mer-ree-dian—not Sherman hisse’f but his sojers. Dey burnt up dat big house on Eighth Street hill an’ built camps for de sojers in de flower garden. De cap’ns went an’ live at Marse Greer’s house. Marse Greer had done sunk all de silver in de duck pond an’ hid out de horses an’ cows in de big cane-brake what used to be on dis side o’ Sowashee Creek. But, Lor!, it didn’ do no good. Sherman done caught on by dat time ’bout how to fin’ things. Dey got ever’thing an’ burned Marse Greer’s barn. Day lef’ de house an’ didn’ bother de fam’ly ’cause dey called deyse’fs company. De good Lord knows Marse Greer didn’ ‘vite ’em! But de Cap’ns bein’ dere kep’ de rip-rap[FN: riff-raff] sojers frum tearin’ up ever’thing.
“When word come dat dey was comin’, it soun’ lak a moanin’ win’ in de quarter. Ever’body was a-sayin’, ‘De Yankees is comin’! De Yankees is comin’!’ Us chullun was scared, but it was lak Sund’y, too,—nobody doin’ nothin’. Us march’ ‘roun’ de room an’ sorter sing-lak, ‘De Yankees is comin’! De Yankees is comin’!’ Dey wouldn’ let us out in de big road. Well, dey come. Dey burn up seventy houses an’ all de stores. Dey tore up de railroad tracks an’ toted off ever’thing dey couldn’ eat. I don’ un’erstan’ nothin’ ’bout how come dey act lak dat. Us aint done nothin’ to ’em.
“Well things kep’ gittin’ worse an’ worse. After de Surrender Niggers got mighty biggity. Mos’ of ’em was glad jus’ to feel free. Dey didn’ have no better sense. Dey forgot wouldn’ be nobody to take care of ’em. Things warnt healthy an’ my mammy an’ me kep’ close to de white folks. ‘Course, Tempe she was grown an’ could do what she please. She sho’ done somp’in’ when she married Cal. Dat was de meanes’ Nigger! He nail up a board over de gate pos’ what say, ‘No visitors allowed’. Sho’ ‘nough didn’ no visitors want to go to his house!
“I don’ know how come things got so unnatchel after de Surrender. Niggers got to bein all kin’ o’ things what de Lawd didn’ inten’ ’em for, lak bein’ policemen an’ all lak dat. It was scan’lous! ‘Course, it was de Yankees what done it. Dey promise to give ever’body forty acres o’ lan’ an’ a mule. A lot of ’em didn’ have no better sense dan to believe ’em. Dey’d go ‘head an’ do what de Yankees ‘ud tell ’em. Well, dey didn’ give’ em nothin’, not even a rooster. Didn’ give ’em nothin’ but trouble.
“I don’ know how come Mr. Theodore Sturges’ brother was a Yankee. But after de Surrender he come to Mer-ree-dian an’ got to be Mayor. Didn’ none o’ de white folks lak dat. Mr. Theodore didn’ lak it hisse’f, but nothin’ he could do ’bout it. Things got so bad de Kloo-Kluxes[FN: Klu Klux] started ridin’ at night an’ sposin'[FN: disposing] o’ bad Niggers. Den one Satu’d’y night Mr. Theodore’s big sto’ got set fiah to an’ de Mayor he tried to blame it on de Kloo-Kluxes. ‘Course ever’body knowed de Yankees done it. You see de Yankees was a-tryin’ to git de Gov’nor to run de Kloo-Kluxes out. Dat was one awful fiah. Near ’bout de whole town burnt up down town an’ ever’ nice white man was down dare a-fightin’ de fiah.
“Plenty o’ Niggers was out, too, doin’ devlishment. Three of ’em got ‘rested an’ dey had de trial Monday. In de meantime, all de Yankee-lovin’ Niggers had a big meetin’ an’ de loudes’ mouf dere was dat big buck Nigger Bill. He all time call hisse’f Dennis when he don’ call hisse’f Clopton. Here dey goes, all het up frum makin’ speeches an’ a-drinkin’, an’ packs de courtroom full. When Mr. Patton got up on de stan’ an’ say, he sho’ done hear Bill Dennis say somp’in’, Bill he holler out, ‘Dat’s a lie!’ Only he say a bad word dat I wouldn’ say. Den Mr. Patton raise up his walkin’ stick an’ start toward Bill. ‘Bout den Bill jerk out his pistol an’ shoot at Mr. Patton. He miss Mr. Patton an’ hit Judge Bramlette. Yes’m, kilt him corpse-dead right dere on his high pulpit chair!
“‘Bout dat time ever’thing bus’ loose. Near ’bout all de white gent’mun in de court room take a shot at Bill. He falls, but he aint dead yet. Dey put him in de sheriff’s office an’ lef two white men wid him. But things was a-happenin’ so fas’ by dat time dey couldn’ stan’ it. Dey th’owed Bill out of dat two-story window an’ run down to git in de fight. De white folks was plumb wo’ out by dat time wid all de devilishment o’ de Yankees an’ de fool Niggers. Even a mean Nigger got sense ‘nough to know when he done gone too far. Dey all git away as fas’ as dey could an’ scatter over town, den after dark dey come a-creepin’ back to de quarters. Dat was sho’ de wronges’ thing to do. Dat night, all de sho’ ‘nough white men came a-marchin’ out Seventh Street on dey way to de quarters.
“I had did up Miss Lizzie’s parlor curtains dat very day an’ de boy was puttin’ up de mouldin’ frame ‘roun’ ’em when us hear dat trompin’ soun’. It didn’ soun’ lak no ever’day marchin’. It soun’ lak Judgement Day. De boy fell off de ladder an’ run an’ hid b’hind de flour barrel in de pantry. Miss Lizzie was peepin’ out ‘twixt dem white lace curtains an’ I was right b’hin’ ‘er. I ‘spec’ Seventh Street was lined wid wimmin-folks doin’ jus’ what us doin’, ’cause dey husban’s, sons, an’ sweethearts was out dere in dat march-line.
“Well, dat night ended all de troubles. De line done stop at Mr. Theodore Sturges’ house’ fore it git out far as us. ‘Course, ever’body know Mr. Theodore an’ Miss Allie was sho’ ‘nough folks, but dey was bound to have dat Yankee brother o’ his’n.
“De yard was plumb full o’ white men ready to burn de house right down on Miss Allie’s head lessen dey’d give up dat Yankee Mayor. Mr. Theodore come to de door an’ say, ‘Gent’mun, he aint here.’ Aint nobody believe dat. Dey was a-fixin’ to bus’ on in anyhow, when Miss Allie come out. She come right down dem steps ‘mongst all dem mad folks an’ say, calm an’ lady-lak, ‘Gent’mun, my brother-in-law is here, cert’ny. Where would he go for safety ‘cepn to his brother’s house? But I give you my word dat he gwine stay right here ’till you put him on de firs’ train headin’ nawth. Den no mo’ blood will be spilled.’ An’ dat’s what dey done.
“Yes’m it was all mighty bad, but plenty good things done happen in Mer-ree-dian, too. I’se seen dis town grow frum nothin’. When us come here ‘fore de War, dey was hitchin’ dey horses to little oak bushes right in de middle o’ town where de bigges’ stores is now. I was a grown girl by den an’ could make horsemint tea for chills an’ mullen leaves for fever good as anybody; an’ horehound tea for colds, bitter as gall. I jus’ now caught up how to cook an’ sew.
“I married when I was nineteen years old. I had nine chillun an’ five of ’em’s still livin’. Dey looks after me right nice, too. My son in Chicago gimme dis house an’ I lives here by myse’f. I keeps it nice an’ clean jus’ lak I learnt how to do frum de white folks where I used to work. I aint never work for no common folks. I tries to live lak a Christian an’ do jus’ lak Old Mistis say. Den when I die I can go to Heaven.”