Slave Narrative of Harriett Gresham

Interviewer: Pearl Randolph
Person Interviewed: Harriett Gresham
Location: Jacksonville, Florida
Age: 98
Occupation: Field Worker

Born on December 6, 1838, Harriett Gresham can recall quite clearly the major events of her life as a slave, also the Civil War as it affected the slaves of Charleston and Barnwell, South Carolina. She was one of a group of mulattoes belonging to Edmond Bellinger, a wealthy plantation owner of Barnwell. With her mother, the plantation seamstress and her father, a driver, she lived in the “big house” quarters, and was known as a “house nigger.” She played with the children of her mistress and seldom mixed with the other slaves on the plantation.

To quote some of her quaint expressions: “Honey I aint know I was any diffrunt fum de chillen o’ me mistress twel atter de war. We played and et and fit togetter lak chillen is bound ter do all over der world. Somethin allus happened though to remind me dat I was jist a piece of property.”

“I heard der gun aboomin’ away at Fort Sumpter and fer de firs’ time in my life I knowed what it was ter fear anythin’ cept a sperrit. No, I aint never seed one myself but —-”

“By der goodness o’God I done lived ter waltz on der citadel green and march down a ile o’ soldiers in blue, in der arms o’ me husban’, and over me haid de bay’nets shined.”

“I done lived up all my days and some o’ dem whut mighta b’longed ter somebody else is dey’d done right in der sight o’ God.” “How I know I so old?” “I got documents ter prove it.”

The documents is a yellow sheet of paper that appears to be stationery that is crudely decorated at the top with crissed crossed lines done in ink.

Its contents in ink are as follows:
Harriett Pinckney, born September 25, 1790.
Adeline, her daughter, born October 1, 1809.
Betsy, her daughter, born September 11, 1811.
Belinda, her daughter, born October 4, 1813.
Deborah, her daughter, born December 1, 1815.
Stephen, her son, born September 1, 1818.

Harriett’s Grandchildren—-
Bella, the daughter of Adeline born July 5, 1827. Albert, son of Belinda born August 19, 1833. Laurence, son of Betsy born March 1, 1835. Sarah Ann Elizabeth, daughter of Belinda born January 3, 1836. Harriett, daughter of Belinda born December 6, 1838. (This record was given Harriett by Mrs. Harriett Bellinger, her mistress. Each slave received a similar one on being freed.)

As a child Harriett played about the premises of the Bellinger estate, leading a very carefree life as did all the slave children belonging to Edmond Bellinger. When she was about twelve years old she was given small tasks to do such as knitting a pair of stockings or dusting the furniture and ample time was given for each of these assignments.

This was a very large plantation and there was always something for the score of slaves to do. There were the wide acres of cotton that must be planted, hoed and gathered by hand. A special batch of slave women did the spinning and weaving, while those who had been taught to sew, made most of the clothing worn by slaves at that time. Other products grown here were rice, corn, sugarcane, fruits and vegetables. Much of the food grown on the plantation was reserved to feed the slaves. While they must work hard to complete their tasks in a given time, no one was allowed to go hungry or forced to work if the least ill.

Very little had to be bought here. Candles ware made in the kitchen of the “big house,” usually by the cook who was helped by other slaves. These were made of beeswax gathered on the plantation. Shoes were made of tanned dried leather and re-enforced with brass caps; the large herds of cattle, hogs and poultry furnished sufficient meat. Syrup and sugar were made from the cane that was carried to a neighboring mill.

Harriett remembers her master as being exceptionally kind but very severe when his patience was tried too far. Mrs. Bellinger was dearly loved by all her slaves because she was very thoughtful of them. Whenever there was a wedding, frolic or holiday or quilting bee, she was sure to provide some extra “goody” and so dear to the hearts of the women were the cast off clothes she so often bestowed upon them on these occasions.

The slaves were free to invite those from the neighboring plantations to join in their social gatherings. A Negro preacher delivered sermons on the plantation. Services being held in the church used by whites after their services on Sunday. The preacher must always act as a peacemaker and mouthpiece for the master, so they were told to be subservient to their masters in order to enter the Kingdom of God. But the slaves held secret meetings and had praying grounds where they met a few at a time to pray for better things. Harriett remembers little about the selling of slaves because this was never done on the Bellinger plantation. All slaves were considered a part of the estate and to sell one, meant that it was no longer intact.

There were rumors of the war but the slaves on the Bellinger place did not grasp the import of the war until their master went to fight on the side of the Rebel army. Many of them gathered about their mistress and wept as he left the home to which he would never return. Soon after that it was whispered among the slaves that they would be free, but no one ran away. After living in plenty all their lives, they were forced to do without coffee, sugar salt and beef. Everything available was bundled off to the army by Mrs. Bellinger who shared the popular belief that the soldiers must have the best in the way of food and clothing.

Harriett still remembers very clearly the storming of Fort Sumpter. The whole countryside was thrown into confusion and many slaves were mad with fear. There were few men left to establish order and many women loaded their slaves into wagons and gathered such belongings as they could and fled. Mrs. Bellinger was one of those who held their ground.

When the Union soldiers visited her plantation they found the plantation in perfect order. The slaves going about their tasks as if nothing unusual had happened. It was necessary to summon them from the fields to give them the message of their freedom. Harriett recalls that her mistress was very frightened but walked upright and held a trembling lip between her teeth as they waited for her to sound for the last time the horn that had summoned several generations of human chattel to and from work.

Some left the plantation; others remained to harvest the crops. One and all they remembered to thank God for their freedom. They immediately began to hold meetings, singing soul stirring spirituals. Harriett recalls one of these songs.

It is as follows:
T’ank ye Marster Jesus, t’ank ye,
T’ank ye Marster Jesus, t’ank ye,
T’ank ye Marster Jesus, t’ank ye
Da Heben gwinter be my home.
No slav’ry chains to tie me down,
And no mo’ driver’s ho’n to blow fer me
No mo’ stocks to fasten me down
Jesus break slav’ry chain,
Lord Break slav’ry chain Lord,
Break slav’ry chain Lord,
Da Heben gwinter be my home.

Harriett’s parents remained with the widowed woman for a while. Had they not remained, she might not have met Gaylord Jeannette, the knight in Blue, who later became her husband. He was a member of Company “I”, 35th Regiment. She is still a bit breathless when she relates the details of the military wedding that followed a whirlwind courtship which had its beginning on the citadel green, where the soldiers stationed there held their dress parade. After these parades there was dancing by the soldiers and belles who had bedecked themselves in their Sunday best and come out to be wooed by a soldier in blue.

Music was furnished by the military band which offered many patriotic numbers that awakened in the newly freed Negroes that had long been dead–patriotism. Harriett recalls snatches of one of these songs to which she danced when she was 20 years of age.

It is as follows:

Don’t you see the lightning flashing in the cane brakes,
Looks like we gonna have a storm
Although you’re mistaken its the Yankee soldiers
Going to fight for Uncle Sam.
Old master was a colonel in the Rebel army
Just before he had to run away – look out the battle is a-falling
The darkies gonna occupy the land.

Harriett believes the two officers who tendered congratulations shortly after her marriage to have been Generals Gates and Beecher. This was an added thrill to her. As she lived a rather secluded life, Harriett Gresham can tell very little about the superstitions of her people during slavery, but knew them to be very reverent of various signs and omens. In one she places much credence herself. Prior to the Civil War, there were hordes of ants and everyone said this was an omen of war, and there was a war. She was married when schools were set up for Negroes, but had no time for school. Her master was adamant on one point and that was the danger of teaching a slave to read and write, so Harriett received little “book learning.”

Harriett Gresham is the mother of several children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Many of them are dead. She lives at 1305 west 31st Street, Jacksonville, Florida with a grand daughter. Her second husband is also dead. She sits on the porch of her shabby cottage and sews the stitches that were taught her by her mistress, who is also dead. She embroiders, crochets, knits and quilts without the aid of glasses. She likes to show her handiwork to passersby who will find themselves listening to some of her reminiscences if they linger long enough to engage her in conversation – for she loves to talk of the past.

She still corresponds with one of the children of her mistress, now an old woman living on what is left of a once vast estate at Barnwell, South Carolina. The two old women are very much attached to each other and each in her letters helps to keep alive the memories of the life they shared together as mistress and slave.

Bellinger, Gresham,

Federal Writers' Project. WPA Slave Narratives. Web. 2007.

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