Slave Narrative of Jesse Williams

Interviewer: W. W. Dixon
Person Interviewed: Jesse Williams
Location: South Carolina
Age: 83

At the end of one of the silent streets of west Chester, S.C., that prolongs itself into a road leading to the Potter’s Field and on to the County Poorhouse, sets a whitewashed frame cottage. It has two rooms, the chimney in the center providing each with a fireplace. A porch, supported by red cedar posts, fronts the road side. In this abode lives Jesse Williams with his daughter, Edna, and her six children. Edna pays the rent, and is a grenadier in the warfare of keeping the wolf from the door.

“You say I looks pretty old? Well, you’s right ’bout de old part but I’s far ‘way from de pretty part. I got a hand glass in my house and when I shaves on Sunday mornin’s, I often wonders who I is. I doesn’t look lak me. My best friend couldn’t say I got much on looks, but my old dog rap his tail on de floor lak he might say so, if him could speak.

“I’s been off and on dese streets of Chester for eighty-three years. I was born a slave of Marse Adam C. Walker and my old miss was Mistress Eliza, dat’s his wife.

“My pappy name Henry and mammy name Maria. I can see them plowin’ in de field right now. Mammy plowin’ same as pappy and me runnin’ ‘long behind, takin’ de dirt off de cotton plants where de twister plow turnt de clods on de plants. Then, when dat cotton field git white and red wid blooms in summer and white agin in de fall, I have to shoulder my poke and go to de field and pick dat cotton. I ‘members de fust day dat I pick a hundred pounds. Marse Adam pull out a big flat black pocket-book and gived me a shinplaster, and say: ‘Jesse, ever time your basket h’ist de beam of de steelyards to 100, you gits a shinplaster.’ I make eighty cents dat year but I have to git up when de chickens crow for day and git in de field when de dew was heavy on de cotton. Does I think dat was cheatin’? Oh, no sir! I wasn’t ‘ceivin’ old marster. Him wink at dat, and take a pound off for dew. I’d a made more money but they took me out de field in November, to drive de mules to de hoss-gin. Dat was play work, just a settin’ up dere and poppin’ de whip.

“Marster live in a big two-story, eight-room house. De kitchen was out from de house. After Christmas, dat year, I was house boy and drive de buggy for Miss Eliza when her want to go visitin’. I was fed well and spent my money for a knife, candy, and firecrackers.

“My marster and missus have chillun. They was Peter, Jerry, Miss Elnora, and Miss Sallie, dat I play wid in slavery time.

“De Yankees didn’t come as far up as Chester. They branched off down ’bout Blackstock, took de sunrise side of dat place and march on ‘cross Catawba River, at Rocky Mount. I stay on wid Marse Adam and Miss Eliza, after freedom. I marry a handsome gal. Yes, sir, she dark but not too shady. I harks back to them days, as I sets here in dis rocker a talkin’ to you. Did I tell you her name? Her name just suit her. Not Jane, Polly, Mag, Sallie, and de lak of dat! Them was too common for her. Her name Catherine, dat just fit her. Us have ten chillun and her and all them ‘cept me and three chillun done gone over to Jordan. Dere was just one thing ’bout Catherine dat I’s dubious ’bout. She lak to dance, and I was too clumsy for to ever cut a double shuffle. I ‘spect I cut a poor figure at de frolics us went to. Does you think burnin’ a candle for her would do any good at dis late day? Why I ask you dat? Well, I has heard them say dat white folks does dat sometimes for deir gone-on ones. My daughter, Edna say: ‘It might do you good and it could do mama no harm.’ I b’longs to Mount Moriah Church in dis very town of Chester. De preacher am Rev. Alexander. He ‘low it was superstition to burn dat candle but if I live I’s gwine to light one nex’ Christmas.

“Us had a good marster and mistress. They was big buckra, never ‘sociate wid poor white trash. They wore de red shirt. De time come ’round when they send me to Marse Will Harden and he pass me on to go see Marse Judge Mackey, who live here then. Did I know Judge Mackey? Sho’ I did! While he was a settin’ up dere on de bench in de court house, he have all de people laughin’. One time de father of Marse W.B. Lindsey beat up a Radical nigger and de case come up befo’ him for trial. Great ‘citement ’bout it, over de whole county. Court house packed dat day. Solicitor rise and say: ‘Please your honor, de ‘fendant, Lindsey, put in a plea of guilty.’ You might have heard a breast feather of a chicken fall, so very still was de people in dere, though de niggers and ‘publicans was a grinning wid joy. Then Judge Mackey ‘low: ‘Let de ‘fendant stand up.’ Wid a solemn face and a solemn talk, him wound up wid: ‘Derefore, de court sentence you to de State Penitentiary at hard labor for a period of ten years (Then him face light up, as he conclude), or pay a fine of one dollar!’ De white folks holler: ‘Three cheers for Judge Mackey!’ De judge git up and bow, and say: ‘Order in de court.’ As dere was no quiet to be got, clerk ‘journed de court. De judge take his silk beaver hat and gold headed cane and march out, while de baliffs holler: ‘Make way! Make way for de honorable judge!’ Everybody took up dat cry and keep it up long as de judge was on de streets. Oh, how dat judge twirl his cane, smile, and strut.

“Did I ever see a spirit? ‘Spect I has and I sho’ have felt one more than once. ‘Spect I was born wid a caul over my eyes. When de last quarter of de moon come in de seventh month of a seventh year, is de most time you see spirits. Lyin’ out in de moon, befo’ daybreak, I’s smelt, I’s heard, I’s seed and I’s felt Catherine’s spirit in de moon shadows. I come nigh ketchin’ hold of her one night, as I wake up a dreamin’ ’bout her but befo’ I could set up, I hear her pass ‘way, through de treetops dat I was layin’, dreamin’ under.

“Then another time, I was settin’ here ’bout four o’clock in de moonlight a lookin’ ‘cross de street to de town hall. I see sumpin’ rise and jump upon dat rock a lyin’ dere ‘ginst de town hall. It was de figger of a man. Who it was I don’t know, though they de call de rock de ‘Aaron Burr Rock’, ’cause he made a speech standin’ on dat rock, long befo’ I was born. De people in de library can tell you ’bout dat speech. Maybe Dr. Lathan tell you ’bout it. Him ninety-five years old dis last past twelfth day of May and knows all ’bout de days dat are gone.

“I live wid my daughter, Edna, and I just can make it back dere from de post office every day.”

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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