Interviewer: Edwin Driskell
Person Interviewed: Henry Bland
Henry Bland is one of the few living ex-slaves who was born on a plantation near Edenton, Ga., in 1851. His parents were Martha and Sam Coxton. In this family group were three other children, two girls and one boy, who was the oldest. When questioned regarding the birthplace and the movements of his parents, Mr. Bland stated that his father was born in Hancock County, Ga. His mother along with her mother was brought to Georgia by the speculator with a drove of other slaves. The first thing that he remembers of his parents is when he was quite small and was allowed to remain in the Master’s kitchen in the “big house” where his mother was cook.
Mr. Coxton, who was the owner of Mr. Bland and his family, was described as being very rich and influential man in the community where he lived. Says Mr. Bland, “His only fault was that of drinking too much of the whisky that he distilled on the plantation.” Unlike some of the other slave owners in that section, Mr. Coxton was very kind to his slaves. His plantation was a large one and on it was raised cotton, corn, cane[TR:?], vegetables, and live stock. More cotton was grown than anything else.
From the time he was 1 year and 6 months of age until he was 9 years old he lived in the “big house” with his mother. At night he slept on the floor there. In spite of this, his and his mother’s treatment was considerably better than that received by those slaves who worked in the fields. While their food consisted of the same things as did that of the field slaves, sometimes choice morsels came back to the kitchen from the Master’s table. He says that his mother’s clothes were of better quality than the other slave women (those who were not employed in the house).
As a child his first job was to cut wood for the stove, pick up chips, and to drive the cows to and from the pasture. When 9 years old he was sent to the field as a plow boy. Here he worked with a large number of other slaves (he does not know the exact number) who were divided into two groups, the plow group and the hoe group. His father happened to be the foreman of the hoe gang. His brothers and sisters also worked here in the fields being required to hoe as well as plow. When picking time came, everyone was required to pick. The usual amount of cotton each person was required to pick was 200 lbs. per day. However, when this amount was not picked by some they were not punished by the overseer, as was the case on neighboring plantations, because Mr. Coxton realized that some could do more work than others. Mr. Coxton often told his overseer that he had not been hired to whip the slaves, but to teach them how to work.
Says Mr. Bland: “Our working hours were the same as on any other plantation. We had to get up every morning before sun-up and when it was good and light we were in the field. A bugle was blown to wake us.” All the slaves stayed in the field until dark. After leaving the field they were never required to do any work but could spend their time as they saw fit to. No work was required on Saturday or Sunday with the exception that the stock had to be cared for. Besides those days when no work was required, there was the 4th of July and Christmas on which the slaves were permitted to do as they pleased. These two latter dates were usually spent in true holiday spirit as the master usually gave a big feast in the form of a barbecue and allowed them to invite their friends.
When darkness came they sang and danced and this was what they called a “frolic.” As a general rule this same thing was permitted after the crops had been gathered. Music for these occasions was furnished by violin, banjo and a clapping of hands. Mr. Bland says that he used to help furnish this music as Mr. Coxton had bought him a violin.
On the Coxton plantation all slaves always had a sufficient amount of clothing. These clothes which were issued when needed and not at any certain time included articles for Sunday wear as well as articles for work. Those servants who worked in the “big house” wore practically the same clothes as the master and his wife with the possible exception that it met the qualification of being second-handed. An issue of work clothing included a heavy pair of work shoes called brogans, homespun shirts and a pair of jeans pants. A pair of knitted socks was also included The women wore homespun dresses for their working clothes. For Sunday wear the men were given white cotton shirts and the women white cotton dresses. All clothing was made on the plantation by those women who were too old for field work.
In the same manner that clothing was sufficient, so was food plentiful. At the end of each week each family was given 4 lbs. of meat, 1 peck of meal, and some syrup. Each person in a family was allowed to raise a garden and so they had vegetables whenever they wished to. In addition to this they were allowed to raise chickens, to hunt and to fish. However, none of the food that was secured in any of the ways mentioned above could be sold. When anyone wished to hunt, Mr. Coxton supplied the gun and the shot.
Although the slaves cooked for themselves, their breakfast and dinner were usually sent to them in the fields after it had been prepared in the cook house. The reason for this was that they had to get up too soon in the morning, and at noon too much time would be lost if they were permitted to go to their cabins for lunch.
The children who were too young to work in the field were cared for by some old slave who likewise was unable to do field work. The children were usually fed pot liquor, corn bread, milk, syrup, and vegetables. Each one had his individual cup to eat from. The food on Sunday was usually no different from that of any other day of the week. However, Mr. Bland says that they never had to break in the smokehouse because of hunger.
When asked to describe the living quarters of the slaves on his plantation he looked around his room and muttered: “Dey wuz a lot better than dis one.” Some of the cabins were made of logs and some of weatherboards. The chinks in the walls were sealed with mud. In some instances boards were used on the inside to keep the weather out. There were usually two windows, shutters being used in the place of window panes. The chimney and fireplace were made of mud and stones. All cooking was done at the fireplace as none of them were provided with stoves. Iron cooking utensils were used. To boil food a pot was hung over the fire by means of a hook. The remaining furniture was a bench which served as a chair, and a crude bed. Rope running from side to side served as bed springs. The mattress was made of straw or hay. For lighting purposes, pine knots and candles were used. The slaves on the Coxton plantation were also fortunate in that all cabins had good floors. All cabins and their furnishings were built by the slaves who learned the use of hammer and saw from white artisans whom Mr. Coxton employed from time to time. Mr. Bland remarked that his father was a blacksmith, having learned the trade in this manner.
A doctor was employed regularly by Mr. Coxton to minister to the needs of the slaves in time of illness. “We also had our own medicine,” says Mr. Bland. At different times excursions were made to the woods where “yarbs” (herbs) were gathered. Various kinds of teas and medicines were made by boiling these roots in water. The usual causes of illness on this plantation were colds, fevers, and constipation. Castor oil and salts were also used to a great extent. If an individual was too ill to work an older slave had to nurse this person.
No effort was made by Mr. Coxton to teach his slaves anything except manual training. A slave who could use his hands at skilled work was more valuable than the ordinary field hand. If, however, a slave secured a book, Mr. Coxton would help him learn to read it. Above all, religious training was not denied. As a matter of fact, Mr. Coxton required each one of his servants to dress in his Sunday clothes and to go to church every Sunday. Services for all were held at the white church—the slaves sitting on one side and the masters on the other. All preaching was done by a white pastor.
No promiscuous relationships were allowed. If a man wanted to marry he merely pointed out the woman of his choice to the master. He in turn called her and told her that such and such an individual wished her for a wife. If she agreed they were pronounced man and wife and were permitted to live together.
The slaves on his plantation were great believers in roots and their values in the use of conjuring people.
Mr. Bland doesn’t remember ever seeing anyone sold by Mr. Coxton, but he heard that on other nearby plantations slaves were placed on an auction block and sold like cattle.
None of the slaves were ever whipped or beaten by Mr. Coxton or by anyone else. If a rule was broken the offender was called before Mr. Coxton where he was talked to. In some cases a whipping was promised and that ended the matter. The “Paddie Rollers” whipped the slaves from other plantations when they were caught off of their premises without a “pass” but this was never the case when a slave belonging to Mr. Coxton broke this rule. Mr. Bland remembers that once he and some of his fellow slaves were away from home without a pass when they were seen by the “Paddie Rollers” who started after them. When they were recognized as belonging to Mr. Coxton one of them (Paddie Rollers) said: “Don’t bother them; that’s them d—- ‘free niggers’.” The Paddie Rollers were not allowed to come on the Coxton plantation to whip his slaves or any other owner’s slaves who happened to be visiting at the time. Mr. Coxton required that they all be on the plantation by nightfall.
(The above seems to be rather conclusive proof of Mr. Coxton’s influence in the community.) [TR: Parentheses added by hand.]
Whenever a slave committed a crime against the State, his master usually had to pay for the damage done or pay the slave’s fine. It was then up to him to see that the offender was punished.
Mr. Coxton once saw him (Mr. Bland) beat another slave (who was a guest at a frolic) when this visitor attempted to draw a pistol on him. Mr. Bland was upheld in his action and told by Mr. Coxton that he had better always fight back when anyone struck him, whether the person was white or black. Further, if he (Mr. Coxton) heard of his not fighting back a whipping would be in store for him.
Mr. Coxton was different from some of the slave owners in that he gave the head of each family spending money at Christmas time—the amount varying with the size of the family.
“When the Civil war was begun the master seemed to be worried all the time” states Mr. Bland. “He was afraid that we would be freed and then he would have to hire us to do his work.”
When asked to describe his feelings about the war and the possibility of his being freed, Mr. Bland said that he had no particular feeling of gladness at all. The outcome of the war did not interest him at all because Mr. Coxton was such a good master he didn’t care whether he was freed or not. His fellow slaves felt the same way.
When Sherman and the Yankees were marching through they took all of the live stock but bothered nothing else. The buildings on the adjoining plantation were all burned. A small skirmish took place about 2 miles away from Mr. Coxton’s plantation when the Yankees and Confederates met. Mr. Coxton’s two sons took part in the war.
Mr. Bland was taken by Sherman’s army to Savannah and then to Macon. He says that he saw President Jeff Davis give up his sword to General Sherman in surrender.
After the war Mr. Coxton was still well off in spite of the fact that he had lost quite a bit of money as a result of the war. He saved a great deal of his cash by burying it when Sherman came through. The cattle might have been saved if he (Mr. Bland) could have driven them into the woods before he was seen by some of the soldiers.
At the close of the war Mr. Coxton informed all the slaves that they were free to go where they wished, but they all refused to leave. Most of them died on the plantation. Mr. Bland says that when he became of age his former master gave him a wagon, two mules, a horse and buggy and ten pigs.
Mr. Bland thinks that old age is a characteristic in his family. His grandmother lived to be 115 years old and his mother 107 years old. Although in his 80’s, Mr. Bland is an almost perfect picture of health. He thinks that he will live to become at least 100 years old because he is going to continue to live as sane a life as he has in the past.