Slave Narrative of Berry Clay

Interviewer: Adella S. Dixon
Person Interviewed: Berry Clay
Location: Macon, Georgia
Age: 89

Telfair County was the home of some colored people who never were slaves, but hired their services for wages just as the race does today. Berry Clay, half Indian, half white, was the son of Fitema Bob Britt, a full blood Indian, who died shortly after his son’s birth. His mother later married William Clay, whose name was taken by the children as well as the mother. The family then moved to Macon.

Clay, next [TR: ‘to the’ scratched out] oldest of five children was 89 years old on August 5, 1936, and while he was never a slave, remembers many incidents that took place then. Not many years after his mother remarried, she became very ill and he recalls being lifted by his step-father to kiss her good bye as she lay dying. After her death, the family continued to live in South Macon where the father was employed as overseer for a crew at the Railroad yard.

This position often called for the punishment of slaves but he was too loyal to his color to assist in making their lives more unhappy. His method of carrying out orders and yet keeping a clear conscience was unique—the slave was taken to the woods where he was supposedly laid upon a log and severely beaten. Actually, he was made to stand to one side and to emit loud cries which were accompanied by hard blows on the log. The continuation of the two sounds gave any listener the impression that some one was severely beaten. It is said that Clay, the father, wore out several huge leather straps upon logs but that he was never known to strike a slave.

Mr. Wadley, by whom he was employed, was a well-known Macon citizen who served as President of the Central of Georgia Railroad for many years. A monument on Mulberry Street nearly opposite the Post Office is a constant reminder of the esteem in which he was held. His plantation was a huge one extending from the Railroad yard as far as the present site of Mercer University. A day of rest was given the slaves about once every three months in addition to the regular holidays which are observed today. On holidays, “frolics” at which square dances were the chief form of entertainment (by the music of a banjo or fiddle) were enjoyed. Ring games were played by the children. The refreshments usually consisted of ash cakes and barbecue. The ash cake was made by wrapping corn pones in oak leaves and burying the whole in hot ashes. When the leaves dried, the cake was usually done and was carefully moved to prevent its becoming soiled. [HW: A] skillful cook could produce cakes that were a golden brown and not at all ashy.

The membership of the local church was composed of slaves from several plantations. It was an old colored church with a white minister who preached the usual doctrine of the duty of a slave to his master. The form of service was the same as that of the white church. One unusual feature of the plantation was its Sunday School for the Negro children.

Courtships were very brief for as soon as a man or woman began to manifest interest in the opposite sex, the master busied himself to select a wife or husband and only in rare cases was the desire of the individual considered. When the selection was made, the master read the ceremony and gave the couple a home. He always requested, or rather demanded, that they be fruitful. A barren woman was separated from her husband and usually sold.

Very little money was handled by these people. The carriage drivers were more fortunate than the regular workers for they smuggled things to town when they drove the master and mistress and sold them while the family shopped or went visiting. At rare intervals, the field hands were able to earn small sums of money in this manner.

Food was provided by the owners and all families cooked for themselves whether they were many or one. The weekly allotments of meal, meat, etc., were supplemented through the use of vegetables which could always be obtained from the fields. On special days chicken or beef was given and each one had a sufficient amount for his needs. Hunting and fishing were recreations in which the slaves were not allowed to participate although they frequently went on secret excursions of this nature. All food stuff as well as cloth for garments was produced at home.

Clay is very superstitious, still believing in most of the signs commonly believed in those days, because he has “watched them and found that they are true”. He stated that the screeching of the owl may be stopped by placing a poker in the fire and allowing it to remain until it becomes red hot. The owl will then leave, but death will invariably follow its visit.

The attitudes of the two races in the South regarding the war were directly opposite. The whites beheld it as something horrible and dreaded the losses that would necessarily be theirs. Sons and fathers had property to be considered, but they were generous in their contributions to the soldiers. On the other hand, the slaves rejoiced as they looked forward to their freedom when the war was over. There were, however, a few who were devoted to their masters to the extent that they fought in their stead in the Confederate Army. Others remained at home and skillfully ran the plantation and protected the women and children until the end of the war.

When Sherman made his famous “March to Sea”, one phalanx of his army wrought its destruction between this city and Griswoldville. A gun factory and government shoe factory were completely destroyed. Although the citizens gave the invaders everything they thought they desired, the rest was destroyed in most instances. They tried to ascertain the attitudes of the land owners toward his servants and when for any reason they presumed that one was cruel, their vengeance was expressed through the absolute destruction of his property. In nearly every instance smoke houses were raided and the contents either destroyed or given away. Barrels of syrup flowing through the yard was a common sight.

At the end of the war, the South was placed under military rule. The presence of the Yankee guardsmen had a psychological effect upon the Southerners and they were very humble.

Before the terrors of the war had subsided a new menace sprang up—the Klu Klux Klan. While its energy was usually directed against ex-slaves, a white man was sometimes a victim. One such occasion was recalled by Clay. The group planned to visit a man who for some reason became suspicious and prepared to outwit them if they came. He heated a huge pot of water and when a part of his door was crashed in he reached through the opening and poured gourds of boiling water upon his assailants. They retreated, [HW: and] while they were away, he made his way to Atlanta.

Another group which began its operations shortly after the close of the war was a military clan organized for the purpose of giving the ex-slaves a knowledge of drilling and war tactics. An order to disband was received from the “Black Horse Calvary” by the leader of the group. His life was threatened when he failed to obey so he prepared for a surprise visit. He fortified his house with twenty-five men on the inside and the same number outside. When the approaching calvarymen reached a certain point, the fifty hidden men fired at the same time. Seven members of the band were killed and many others wounded. There was no further interference from this group.

Clay and his father ran a grocery store just after Emancipation. He did not like this type of work and apprenticed himself to a painter to learn the trade. He is still considered an excellent painter though he does not receive much work.

He has always taken care of himself and never “ran about” at night. He boasts that his associates never included a dancing woman. As he has used tobacco for sixty-five years, he does not consider it a menace to health but states that worry will kill anyone and the man who wants to live a long time must form the habit of not worrying. His Indian blood—the high cheek bones, red skin and straight black hair now tinged with grey make this unmistakable—has probably played a large part in the length of his life.

Britt, Clay,

Federal Writers' Project. WPA Slave Narratives. Web. 2007-2024. The WPA Slave Narratives must be used with care. There is, of course, the problem of confusion in memory resulting from (73+ years) of the participants. In addition, inexperienced interviewers sometimes pursued question lines related to their own interests and perspectives and attempted to capture the colloquialism of the informant's speech. The interviews provide fascinating insight and surprisingly candid information, however.

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