Person Interviewed: Mariah Callaway
[TR: A significant portion of this interview was repeated in typescript; where there was a discrepancy, the clearer version was used. Where a completely different word was substituted, ‘the original’ refers to the typewritten page.]
Mrs. Mariah Callaway sat in a chair opposite the writer and told her freely of the incidents of slavery as she remembered them. To a casual observer it will come as a surprise to know the woman was blind. She is quite old, but her thoughts were clearly and intelligently related to the writer.
Mrs. Callaway was born in Washington, Wilkes County, Georgia probably during the year 1852, as she estimated her age to be around 12 or 13 years when freedom was declared. She does not remember her mother and father, as her mother died the second day after she was born, so the job of rearing her and a small brother fell on her grandmother, Mariah Willis, for whom she was named. Mrs. Callaway stated that the old master, Jim Willis, kept every Negro’s age in a Bible: but after he died the Bible was placed upstairs in the gallery and most of the pages were destroyed. The following is a story of the purchase of Mrs. Callaway’s grandfather as related by her.
“My grandfather come directly from Africa and I never shall forget the story he told us of how he and other natives were fooled on board a ship by the white slave traders using red handkerchiefs as enticement. When they reached America, droves of them were put on the block and sold to people all over the United States.
The master and mistress of their plantation were Mr. Jim Willis and Mrs. Nancy Willis who owned hundreds of acres of land and a large number of slaves. Mrs. Callaway was unable to give an exact number but stated the Willises were considered wealthy people. On their plantation were raised sheep, goats, mules, horses, cows, etc. Cotton, corn and vegetables were also raised. The Willis family was a large one consisting of six children. 4 boys and 2 girls. Their home was a large two-story frame house which was set apart from the slave quarters.
Slave homes on the Willis plantation differed in no respect from the usual type found elsewhere. All homes were simple log cabins grouped together, forming what is known as slave quarters.
The Willis family as kind and religious and saw to it that their slaves were given plenty of food to eat. Every Monday night each family was given its share of food for the week. Each grown person was given a peck of corn [TR: meal on original page] and three pounds of meat; besides the vegetables, etc. On Tuesday morning each family was given an ample amount of real flour for biscuits.
Many of the slave families, especially Mrs. Callaway’s family, were given the privilege of earning money by selling different products. “My grandfather owned a cotton patch,” remarked Mrs. Callaway, “and the master would loan him a mule so he could plow it at night. Two boys would each hold a light for him to work by. He preferred working at night to working on his holidays. My master had a friend in Augusta, Ga., by the name of Steve Heard and just before my grandfather got ready to sell his cotton, the master would write Mr. Heard and tell him that he was sending cotton by Sam and wanted his sold and a receipt returned to him. He also advised him to give all the money received to Sam. When grandfather returned he would be loaded down with sugar, cheese, tea, mackerel, etc. for his family.”
When the women came home from the fields they had to spin 7 cuts, so many before supper and so many after supper. A group of women were then selected to weave the cuts of thread into cloth. Dyes were made from red shoe berries and later used to dye this cloth different colors. All slaves received clothing twice a year, spring and winter. Mr. Jim Willis was known for his kindness to his slaves and saw to it that they were kept supplied with Sunday clothes and shoes as well as work clothing. A colored shoemaker was required to keep the plantation supplied with shoes; and everyone was given a pair of Sunday shoes which they kept shined with a mixture of egg white and soot.
The size of the Willis Plantation and the various crops and cattle raised required many different types of work. There were the plow hands, the hoe hands, etc. Each worker had a required amount of work to complete each day and an overseer was hired by slave owners to keep check on this phase of the work. “We often waited until the overseer got behind a hill, and then we would lay down our hoe and call on God to free us, my grandfather told me,” remarked Mrs. Callaway. “However, I was a pet in the Willis household and did not have any work to do except play with the small children. I was required to keep their hands and faces clean. Sometimes I brought in chips to make the fires. We often kept so much noise playing in the upstairs bedroom that the master would call to us and ask that we keep quiet.” Older women on the plantation acted as nurses for all the small children and babies while their parents worked in the fields. The mistress would keep a sharp eye on the children also to see that they were well cared for. A slave’s life was very valuable to their owners.
Punishment was seldom necessary on the Willis plantation as the master and mistress did everything possible to make their slaves happy; and to a certain extent indulged them. They were given whisky liberally from their master’s still; and other choice food on special occasions. “I remember once,” remarked Mrs. Callaway, “my aunt Rachel burned the biscuits and the young master said to her, “Rachel, you nursed me and I promised not to ever whip you, so don’t worry about burning the bread.” My mistress was very fond of me, too, and gave me some of everything that she gave her own children, tea cakes, apples, etc. She often told me that she was my mother and was supposed to look after me. In spite of the kindness of the Willis family there were some slaves who were unruly; so the master built a house off to itself and called it the Willis jail. Here he would keep those whom he had to punish. I have known some slaves to run away on other plantations and the hounds would bite plugs out of their legs.”
The Willis family did not object to girls and boys courting. There were large trees, and often in the evenings the boys from other plantations would come over to see the girls on the Willis plantation. They would stand in groups around the trees, laughing and talking. If the courtship reached the point of marriage a real marriage ceremony was performed from the Bible and the man was given a pass to visit his wife weekly. Following a marriage a frolic took place and the mistress saw to it that everyone was served nice foods for the occasion.
Frolics were common occurrences on the Willis plantation, also quilting parties. Good foods consisting of pies, cakes, chicken, brandied peaches, etc. “Dancing was always to be expected by anyone attending them,” remarked Mrs. Callaway. “Our master always kept two to three hundred gallons of whisky and didn’t mind his slaves drinking. I can remember my master taking his sweetened dram every morning, and often he gave me some in a tumbler. On Christmas Day big dinners were given for all of the slaves and a few ate from the family’s table after they had finished their dinner.”
Medical care was promptly given a slave when he became ill. Special care was always given them for the Willis family had a personal interest in their slaves. “On one occasion,” remarked Mrs. Calloway, “the scarlet fever broke out among the slaves and to protect the well ones it became necessary to build houses in a field for those who were sick. This little settlement later became know as “Shant Field.” Food was carried to a hill and left so that the sick persons could get it without coming in contact with the others. To kill the fever, sticks of fat pine were dipped in tar and set on fire and then placed all over the field.”
Religion played as important part in the lives of the slaves, and such [TR: much?] importance was attached to their prayer meetings. There were no churches, provided and occasionally they attended the white churches; but more often they held their prayer meetings in their own cabins. Prayers and singing was in a moaning fashion, and you often heard this and nothing more. On Sunday afternoons everyone found a seat around the mulberry tree and the young mistress would conduct Sunday School.
Concerning the Civil War, Mrs. Callaway related the following story:
“When the war broke out my mistress’ home became a sewing center and different women in the neighborhood would come there every day to make clothes for the soldiers. On each bed was placed the vests, coats, shirts, pants, and caps. One group did all the cutting, one the stitching, and one the fitting. Many women cried while they served [TR: sewed?] heart-broken because their husbands and sons had to go to the war. One day the Yanks came to our plantation and took all of the best horses. In one of their wagons were bales of money which they had taken. Money then was blue in color; of course, there was silver and gold. After taking the horses they drank as much whisky as they could hold and then filled their canteens. The rest of the whisky they filled with spit. The master didn’t interfere for fear of the long guns which they carried.”
After the war some of the slaves left the plantation to seek their fortune; others remained, renting land from the Willis family or working with them on a share crop basis.
As a conclusion Mrs. Callaway remarked: “My folks were good and I know [HW: they’re] in heaven.” Mrs. Callaway is deeply religious and all during the interview would constantly drift to the subject of religion. She is well cared for by her nine children, six girls and three boys.
James (Jim) H. Willis, slave owner
The last census before the Civil War provides the best example of Jim Willis as a slave owner. It shows he had 54 slaves enumerated in the 1860 slave census.
The 1860 census did not list the slaves by name unfortunately. Based on the age of Mariah we can assume she was one of the three girls aged 6-8 enumerated below.