Interviewer: Geneva Tonsill
Person Interviewed: Julia Brown (Aunt Sally)
Date of Interview: July 25, 1930 [TR:?]
Location: 710 Griffin, Place, N. W., Atlanta, Georgia
Ah Always Had A Hard Time
Aunt Sally rocked back and forth incessantly. She mopped her wrinkled face with a dirty rag as she talked. “Ah wuz born fo’ miles frum Commerce, Georgia, and wuz thirteen year ole at surrender. Ah belonged to the Nash fambly—three ole maid sisters. My mama belonged to the Nashes and my papa belonged to General Burns; he wuz a officer in the war. There wuz six of us chilluns, Lucy, Malvina, Johnnie, Callie, Joe and me. We didn’t stay together long, as we wuz give out to different people. The Nashes didn’t believe in selling slaves but we wuz known as their niggers. They sold one once ’cause the other slaves said they would kill him ’cause he had a baby by his own daughter. So to keep him frum bein’ kilt, they sold him.
“My mama died the year of surrender. Ah didn’t fare well after her death, Ah had sicha hard time. Ah wuz give to the Mitchell fambly and they done every cruel thing they could to me. Ah slept on the flo’ nine years, winter and summer, sick or well. Ah never wore anything but a cotton dress, a shimmy and draw’s. That ‘oman didn’t care what happened to the niggers. Sometimes she would take us to church. We’d walk to the church house. Ah never went nowhere else. That ‘oman took delight in sellin’ slaves. She’d lash us with a cowhide whip. Ah had to shift fur mahself.
“They didn’t mind the slaves matin’, but they wanted their niggers to marry only amongst them on their place. They didn’t ‘low ’em to mate with other slaves frum other places. When the wimmen had babies they wuz treated kind and they let ’em stay in. We called it ‘lay-in’, just about lak they do now. We didn’t go to no horspitals as they do now, we jest had our babies and had a granny to catch ’em. We didn’t have all the pain-easin’ medicines then. The granny would put a rusty piece of tin or a ax under the mattress and this would ease the pains. The granny put a ax under my mattress once. This wuz to cut off the after-pains and it sho did too, honey. We’d set up the fifth day and after the ‘layin-in’ time wuz up we wuz ‘lowed to walk out doors and they tole us to walk around the house jest once and come in the house. This wuz to keep us frum takin’ a ‘lapse.
“We wuzn’t ‘lowed to go around and have pleasure as the folks does today. We had to have passes to go wherever we wanted. When we’d git out there wuz a bunch of white men called the ‘patty rollers’. They’d come in and see if all us had passes and if they found any who didn’t have a pass he wuz whipped; give fifty or more lashes—and they’d count them lashes. If they said a hundred you got a hundred. They wuz somethin’ lak the Klu Klux. We wuz ‘fraid to tell our masters about the patty rollers because we wuz skeered they’d whip us again, fur we wuz tole not to tell. They’d sing a little ditty. Ah wish Ah could remember the words, but it went somethin’ lak this:
‘Run, Niggah, run, de Patty Rollers’ll git you,
Run Niggah, ran, you’d bettah git away.’
“We wuz ‘fraid to go any place.
“Slaves ware treated in most cases lak cattle. A man went about the country buyin’ up slaves lak buyin’ up cattle and the like, and he wuz called a ‘speculator’, then he’d sell ’em to the highest bidder. Oh! it wuz pitiful to see chil’en taken frum their mothers’ breast, mothers sold, husbands sold frum wives. One ‘oman he wuz to buy had a baby, and of course the baby come befo’ he bought her and he wouldn’t buy the baby; said he hadn’t bargained to buy the baby too, and he jest wouldn’t. My uncle wuz married but he wuz owned by one master and his wife wuz owned by another. He wuz ‘lowed to visit his wife on Wednesday and Saturday, that’s the onliest time he could git off. He went on Wednesday and when he went back on Saturday his wife had been bought by the speculator and he never did know where she wuz.
“Ah worked hard always. Honey, you can’t ‘magine what a hard time Ah had. Ah split rails lak a man. How did Ah do it? Ah used a huge glut, and a iron wedge drove into the wood with a maul, and this would split the wood.
“Ah help spin the cotton into thread fur our clothes. The thread wuz made into big broaches—four broaches made four cuts, or one hank. After the thread wuz made we used a loom to weave the cloth. We had no sewin’ machine—had to sew by hand. My mistress had a big silver bird and she would always catch the cloth in the bird’s bill and this would hold it fur her to sew.
“Ah didn’t git to handle money when I wuz young. Ah worked frum sunup to sundown. We never had overseers lak some of the slaves. We wuz give so much work to do in a day and if the white folks went off on a vacation they would give us so much work to do while they wuz gone and we better have all of that done too when they’d come home. Some of the white folks wuz very kind to their slaves. Some did not believe in slavery and some freed them befo’ the war and even give ’em land and homes. Some would give the niggers meal, lard and lak that. They made me hoe when Ah wuz a chile and Ah’d keep rat up with the others, ’cause they’d tell me that if Ah got behind a run-a-way nigger would git me and split open my head and git the milk out’n it. Of course Ah didn’t know then that wuzn’t true—Ah believed everything they tole me and that made me work the harder.
“There wuz a white man, Mister Jim, that wuz very mean to the slaves. He’d go ’round and beat ’em. He’d even go to the little homes, tear down the chimneys and do all sorts of cruel things. The chimneys wuz made of mud ‘n straw ‘n sticks; they wuz powerful strong too. Mister Jim wuz jest a mean man, and when he died we all said God got tired of Mister Jim being so mean and kilt him. When they laid him out on the coolin’ board, everybody wuz settin’ ’round, moanin’ over his death, and all of a sudden Mister Jim rolled off’n the coolin’ board, and sich a runnin’ and gittin’ out’n that room you never saw. We said Mister Jim wuz tryin’ to run the niggers and we wuz ‘fraid to go about at night. Ah believed it then; now that they’s ‘mbalmin’ Ah know that must have been gas and he wuz purgin’, fur they didn’t know nothin’ ’bout ‘mbalmin’ then. They didn’t keep dead folks out’n the ground long in them days.
“Doctors wuzn’t so plentiful then. They’d go ’round in buggies and on hosses. Them that rode on a hoss had saddle pockets jest filled with little bottles and lots of them. He’d try one medicine and if it didn’t do not [TR: no?] good he’d try another until it did do good and when the doctor went to see a sick pusson he’d stay rat there until he wuz better. He didn’t jest come in and write a ‘scription fur somebody to take to a drug store. We used herbs a lots in them days. When a body had dropsy we’d set him in a tepid bath made of mullein leaves. There wuz a jimson weed we’d use fur rheumatism, and fur asthma we’d use tea made of chestnut leaves. We’d git the chestnut leaves, dry them in the sun jest lak tea leaves, and we wouldn’t let them leaves git wet fur nothin’ in the world while they wuz dryin’. We’d take poke salad roots, boil them and then take sugar and make a syrup. This wuz the best thing fur asthma. It was known to cure it too. Fur colds and sich we used ho’hound; made candy out’n it with brown sugar. We used a lots of rock candy and whiskey fur colds too. They had a remedy that they used fur consumption—take dry cow manure, make a tea of this and flavor it with mint and give it to the sick pusson. We didn’t need many doctors then fur we didn’t have so much sickness in them days, and nachelly they didn’t die so fast; folks lived a long time then. They used a lot of peachtree leaves too for fever, and when the stomach got upsot we’d crush the leaves, pour water over them and wouldn’t let them drink any other kind of water ’till they wuz better. Ah still believes in them ole ho’made medicines too and ah don’t believe in so many doctors.
“We didn’t have stoves plentiful then: just ovens we set in the fireplace. Ah’s toted a many a armful of bark—good ole hickory bark to cook with. We’d cook light bread—both flour and corn. The yeast fur this bread wuz made frum hops. Coals of fire wuz put on top of the oven and under the bottom, too. Everything wuz cooked on coals frum a wood fire—coffee and all. Wait, let me show you my coffee tribet. Have you ever seen one? Well, Ah’ll show you mine.” Aunt Sally got up and hobbled to the kitchen to get the trivet. After a few moments search she came back into the room.
“No, it’s not there. Ah guess it’s been put in the basement. Ah’ll show it to you when you come back. It’s a rack made of iron that the pot is set on befo’ puttin’ it on the fire coals. The victuals wuz good in them days; we got our vegetables out’n the garden in season and didn’t have all the hot-house vegetables. Ah don’t eat many vegetables now unless they come out’n the garden and I know it. Well, as I said, there wuz racks fitted in the fireplace to put pots on. Once there wuz a big pot settin’ on the fire, jest bilin’ away with a big roast in it. As the water biled, the meat turned over and over, comin’ up to the top and goin’ down again, Ole Sandy, the dog, come in the kitchen. He sot there a while and watched that meat roll over and over in the pot, and all of a sudden-like he grabbed at that meat and pulls it out’n the pot. ‘Course he couldn’t eat it ’cause it wuz hot and they got the meat befo’ he et it. The kitchen wuz away frum the big house, so the victuals wuz cooked and carried up to the house. Ah’d carry it up mahse’f. We couldn’t eat all the different kinds of victuals the white folks et and one mornin’ when I was carryin’ the breakfast to the big house we had waffles that wuz a pretty golden brown and pipin’ hot. They wuz a picture to look at and ah jest couldn’t keep frum takin’ one, and that wuz the hardest waffle fur me to eat befo’ I got to the big house I ever saw. Ah jest couldn’t git rid of that waffle ’cause my conscience whipped me so.
“They taught me to do everything. Ah’d use battlin’ blocks and battlin’ sticks to wash the clothes; we all did. The clothes wuz taken out of the water an put on the block and beat with a battlin’ stick, which was made like a paddle. On wash days you could hear them battlin’ sticks poundin’ every which-away. We made our own soap, used ole meat and grease, and poured water over wood ashes which wuz kept in a rack-like thing and the water would drip through the ashes. This made strong lye. We used a lot ‘o sich lye, too, to bile with.
“Sometimes the slaves would run away. Their masters wuz mean to them that caused them to run away. Sometimes they would live in caves. How did they get along? Well, chile, they got along all right—what with other people slippin’ things in to ’em. And, too, they’d steal hogs, chickens, and anything else they could git their hands on. Some white people would help, too, fur there wuz some white people who didn’t believe in slavery. Yes, they’d try to find them slaves that run away and if they wuz found they’d be beat or sold to somebody else. My grandmother run away frum her master. She stayed in the woods and she washed her clothes in the branches. She used sand fur soap. Yes, chile, I reckon they got ‘long all right in the caves. They had babies in thar and raised ’em too.
“Ah stayed with the Mitchells ’til Miss Hannah died. Ah even helped to lay her out. Ah didn’t go to the graveyard though. Ah didn’t have a home after she died and Ah wandered from place to place, stayin’ with a white fambly this time and then a nigger fambly the next time. Ah moved to Jackson County and stayed with a Mister Frank Dowdy. Ah didn’t stay there long though. Then Ah moved to Winder, Georgia. They called it ‘Jug Tavern’ in them days, ’cause jugs wuz made there. Ah married Green Hinton in Winder. Got along well after marryin’ him. He farmed fur a livin’ and made a good livin’ fur me and the eight chilluns, all born in Winder. The chilluns wuz grown nearly when he died and wuz able to help me with the smalles ones. Ah got along all right after his death and didn’t have sich a hard time raisin’ the chilluns. Then Ah married Jim Brown and moved to Atlanta. Jim farmed at first fur a livin’ and then he worked on the railroad—the Seaboard. He helped to grade the first railroad track for that line. He wuz a sand-dryer.”
Aunt Sally broke off her story here. “Lord, honey, Ah got sich a pain in mah stomach Ah don’t believe Ah can go on. It’s a gnawin’ kind of pain. Jest keeps me weak all over.” Naturally I suggested that we complete the story at another time. So I left, promisin’ to return in a few days. A block from the house I stopped in a store to order some groceries for Aunt Sally. The proprietress, a Jewish woman, spoke up when I gave the delivery address. She explained in broken English that she knew Aunt Sally.
“I tink you vas very kind to do dis for Aunt Sally. She neets it. I often gif her son food. He’s very old and feeble. He passed here yesterday and he look so wasted and hungry. His stomick look like it vas drawn in, you know. I gif him some fresh hocks. I know dey could not eat all of them in a day and I’m afrait it von’t be goof [TR: goot? or good?] for dem today. I vas trained to help people in neet. It’s pert of my religion. See, if ve sit on de stritcar and an olt person comes in and finds no seat, ve get up and gif him one. If ve see a person loaded vid bundles and he iss old and barely able to go, ve gif a hand. See, ve Jews—you colored—but ve know no difference. Anyvon neeting help, ve gif.”
A couple of days later I was back at Aunt Sally’s. I had brought some groceries for the old woman. I knocked a long time on the front door, and, getting no answer, I picked my way through the rank growth of weeds and grass surrounding the house and went around to the back door. It opened into the kitchen, where Aunt Sally and her son were having breakfast. The room was small and dark and I could hardly see the couple, but Aunt Sally welcomed me. “Lawd, honey, you come right on in. I tole John I heard somebody knockin’ at the do’.”
“You been hearin’ things all mornin’,” John spoke up. He turned to me. “You must’ve been thinkin’ about mamma just when we started eatin’ breakfast because she asked me did I hear somebody call her. I tole her the Lawd Jesus is always a-callin’ poor niggers, but she said it sounded like the lady’s voice who was here the other day. Well I didn’t hear anything and I tole her she mus’ be hearin’ things.”
I’d put the bag of groceries on the table unobtrusively, but Aunt Sally wasn’t one to let such gifts pass unnoticed. Eagerly she tore the bag open and began pulling out the packages. “Lawd bless you, chile, and He sho will bless you! I feels rich seein’ what you brought me. Jest look at this—Lawdy mercy!—rolls, butter, milk, balogny…! Oh, this balogny, jest looky there! You must a knowed what I wanted!” She was stuffing it in her mouth as she talked. “And these aigs…! Honey, you knows God is goin’ to bless you and let you live long. Ah’se goin’ to cook one at a time. And Ah sho been wantin’ some milk. Ah’se gonna cook me a hoecake rat now.”
She went about putting the things in little cans and placing them on shelves or in the dilapidated little cupboard that stood in a corner. I sat down near the door and listened while she rambled on.
“Ah used to say young people didn’t care bout ole folks but Ah is takin’ that back now. Ah jest tole my son the other day that its turned round, the young folks thinks of the ole and tries to help ’em and the ole folks don’t try to think of each other; some of them, they is too mean. Ah can’t understand it; Ah jest know I heard you call me when Ah started to eat, and tole my son so. Had you been to the do’ befo’?” She talked on not waiting for a reply. “Ah sho did enjoy the victuals you sent day befo’ yistidy. They send me surplus food frum the gove’nment but Ah don’t like what they send. The skim milk gripes me and Ah don’t like that yellow meal. A friend brought me some white meal t’other day. And that wheat cereal they send! Ah eats it with water when Ah don’t have milk and Ah don’t like it but when you don’t have nothin’ else you got to eat what you have. They send me 75¢ ever two weeks but that don’t go very fur. Ah ain’t complainin’ fur Ah’m thankful fur what Ah git.
“They send a girl to help me around the house, too. She’s frum the housekeepin’ department. She’s very nice to me. Yes, she sho’ly is a sweet girl, and her foreman is sweet too. She comes in now ‘n then to see me and see how the girl is gittin’ along. She washes, too. Ah’s been on relief a long time. Now when Ah first got on it wuz when they first started givin’ me. They give me plenty of anything Ah asked fur and my visitor wuz Mrs. Tompkins. She wuz so good to me. Well they stopped that and then the DPW (Department of Public Welfare) took care of me. When they first started Ah got more than I do now and they’ve cut me down ’till Ah gits only a mighty little.
“Yes, Ah wuz talkin’ about my husband when you wuz here t’other day. He wuz killed on the railroad. After he moved here he bought this home. Ah’se lived here twenty years. Jim wuz comin’ in the railroad yard one day and stepped off the little engine they used for the workers rat in the path of the L. & M. train. He wuz cut up and crushed to pieces. He didn’t have a sign of a head. They used a rake to git up the pieces they did git. A man brought a few pieces out here in a bundle and Ah wouldn’t even look at them. Ah got a little money frum the railroad but the lawyer got most of it. He brought me a few dollars out and tole me not to discuss it with anyone nor tell how much Ah got. Ah tried to git some of the men that worked with him to tell me just how it all happened, but they wouldn’t talk, and it wuz scand’lous how them niggers held their peace and wouldn’t tell me anything. The boss man came out later but he didn’t seem intrusted in it at all, so Ah got little or nothing fur his death. The lawyer got it fur hisse’f.
“All my chilluns died ‘cept my son and he is ole and sick and can’t do nothin’ fur me or hisse’f. He gets relief too, 75¢ every two weeks. He goes ’round and people gives him a little t’eat. He has a hard time tryin’ to git ‘long.
“Ah had a double bed in t’other room and let a woman have it so she could git some of the delegates to the Baptist World Alliance and she wuz goin’ to pay me fur lettin’ her use the bed, but she didn’t git anybody ‘cept two. They come there on Friday and left the next day. She wuz tole that they didn’t act right ’bout the delegates and lots of people went to the expense to prepare fur them and didn’t git a one. Ah wuz sorry, for Ah intended to use what she paid me fur my water bill. Ah owes $3.80 and had to give my deeds to my house to a lady to pay the water bill fur me and it worries me ’cause Ah ain’t got no money to pay it, fur this is all Ah got and Ah hates to loose my house. Ah wisht it wuz some way to pay it. Ah ain’t been able to do fur mahse’f in many years now, and has to depend on what others gives me.
“Tell you mo’ about the ole times? Lawd, honey, times has changed so frum when Ah was young. You don’t hear of haints as you did when I growed up. The Lawd had to show His work in miracles ’cause we didn’t have learnin’ in them days as they has now. And you may not believe it but them things happened. Ah knows a old man what died, and after his death he would come to our house where he always cut wood, and at night we could hear a chain bein’ drug along in the yard, jest as if a big log-chain wuz bein’ pulled by somebody. It would drag on up to the woodpile and stop, then we could hear the thump-thump of the ax on the wood. The woodpile was near the chimney and it would chop-chop on, then stop and we could hear the chain bein’ drug back the way it come. This went on fur several nights until my father got tired and one night after he heard it so long, the chop-chop, papa got mad and hollered at the haint, ‘G—- D—- you, go to hell!!!’ and that spirit went off and never did come back!
“We’d always know somebody wuz goin’ to die when we heard a owl come to a house and start screechin’. We always said, ‘somebody is gwine to die!’ Honey, you don’t hear it now and it’s good you don’t fur it would skeer you to death nearly. It sounded so mo’nful like and we’d put the poker or the shovel in the fire and that always run him away; it burned his tongue out and he couldn’t holler no more. If they’d let us go out lak we always wanted to, Ah don’t ‘spects we’d a-done it, ’cause we wuz too skeered. Lawdy, chile, them wuz tryin’ days. Ah sho is glad God let me live to see these ‘uns.
“Ah tried to git the ole-age pension fur Ah sho’ly needed it and wuz ‘titled to it too. Sho wuz. But that visitor jest wouldn’t let me go through. She acted lak that money belonged to her. Ah ‘plied when it first come out and shoulda been one of the first to get one. Ah worried powerful much at first fur Ah felt how much better off Ah’d be. Ah wouldn’t be so dependent lak Ah’m is now. Ah ‘spects you know that ‘oman. She is a big black ‘oman—wuz named Smith at first befo’ she married. She is a Johns now. She sho is a mean ‘oman. She jest wouldn’t do no way. Ah even tole her if she let me go through and Ah got my pension Ah would give her some of the money Ah got, but she jest didn’t do no way. She tole me if Ah wuz put on Ah’d get no more than Ah wuz gittin’. Ah sho believes them thats on gits more’n 75¢ every two weeks. Ah sho had a hard time and a roughety road to travel with her my visitor until they sent in the housekeeper. Fur that head ‘oman jest went rat out and got me some clothes. Everything Ah needed. When Ah tole her how my visitor wuz doin’ me she jest went out and come rat back with all the things Ah needed. Ah don’t know why my visitor done me lak that. Ah said at first it wuz because Ah had this house but honey what could Ah do with a house when Ah wuz hongry and not able to work. Ah always worked hard. ‘Course Ah didn’t git much fur it but Ah lak to work fur what Ah gits.”
Aunt Sally was beginning to repeat herself and I began to suspect she was talking just to please me. So I arose to go.
“Lawsy mercy, chile, you sho is sweet to set here and talk to a ole ‘oman lak me. Ah sho is glad you come. Ah tole my son you wuz a bundle of sunshine and Ah felt so much better the day you left—and heah you is again! Chile, my nose wuzn’t itchin’ fur nothin’! You come back to see me real soon. Ah’se always glad to have you. And the Lawd’s gonna sho go with you fur bein’ so good to me.”
My awareness of the obvious fulsomeness in the old woman’s praise in no way detracted from my feeling of having done a good deed. Aunt Sally was a clever psychologist and as I carefully picked my way up the weedy path toward the street, I felt indeed that the “Lawd” was “sho goin'” with me.