Prince Johnson

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

I find the WPA slave narratives fascinating, like this interview with Prince Johnson:

Yes, mam, I sure can tell you all about it ’cause I was there when it all happened. My grandfather Peter, Grandmother Millie, my Father, John, and my Mother, Frances, all came from Alabama to Yazoo County, Mississippi, to live in the Love family. There names were Dennis when they came but after the custom of them days, they took the name of Love from their new owner. Me and all of my brothers and sisters were born right there. There were eleven head of us. I was the oldest. Then came Harry, John, William, Henry, Phillis, Polly, Nellie, Virginia, Millie, and the baby Ella. We all lived in the quarters and our beds were home made. They had wooden legs and canvas stretched across. I can’t remember so much about the quarters because about that time the young Miss married Col. Johnson and moved to his place in Carroll County. She carried with her over one hundred head of darkies and our names was changed from Love to Johnson. My new master was sure a fine gentleman and he lived in a big white house that had two stories on it, and big white posts in front. There were flowers all around it that just set it off.

Master took me for the house boy, and I carried my head high. He would say to me. “Prince, do you know who you were named for”, and I would say to him, “Yes sir, Prince Albert.” And then he would say to me, “Well, always carry yourself like he did.” To this good day I holds myself like Master said.

On certain days of the week one of the old men on the place took us house servants to the field to learn us to work. We was brought up to know how to do anything that came to hand. Master would let us work at odd times for out siders and we could use the money we made for anything we pleased. My grandmother sold enough corn to buy her two feather beds. We always had plenty to eat. The old folks did the cooking for all the field hands, ‘cept on Sunday when each family cooked for his self. Old Miss would come every Sunday morning with sugar and white flour. We would most generally have fish, rabbits, ‘possums or coons. Lord Child! those possums was good eating. I can tate them now. Folks these days don’t know nothing about good eating. My master had a great big garden for every body and I ain’t never seen such sweet ‘tatoes as grew in that garden. They were so sweet the sugar would bust right through the peeling when you roast them on the hearth. Old Aunt Emily cooked for all the children on the place. Half an hour by the sun, they were all called in to supper. They had pot licker and ash cake and such things as would make them grow to be strong and healthy. Those children didn’t know nothing about all those fancy ailments what children have now. They ran and played all day in their shirt tails in the summer time, but when winter came they had good warm clothes same as us older ones. One day Master’s children and all the colored children slipped off to the orchard. They were eating green apples fast as they could swallow, when who should come riding up but Master himself. He lined them all up, black and white alike, and cut a keen switch and there was not a one in that line that didn’t get a few licks. Then he called the old doctor woman and made her give them every one a dose of medicine. There wasn’t one of them that got sick. Master and old Miss had five children. They are all dead and gone now, and I am still here. One of his sons was a Supreme Judge before he died. My folks were sure quality. Master bought all the little places around us so he wouldn’t have no poor white trash neighbors. Yes sir! he owned about thirty-five hundred acres and at least a hundred and fifty slaves. Every morning about four o’clock we could hear that horn blow for us to get up and go to the field. We always quit work before the sun went down, and never worked at night. The overseer was a white man. His name was Josh Neighbors, but the driver was a colored man, “Old Man Henry.” He wasn’t allowed to mistreat nobody. If he got too upety they called his hand right now. The rule was if a nigger wouldn’t work he would be sold. Another rule on that place was that if a man got dissatisfied he was to go to old Master and ask him to put him in his pocket. That meant he wanted to be sold, and the money he brought to be put in the pocket. I ain’t never known of but two asking to be put in the pocket, and both of them was put in.

They had jails in those days but they were built for white folk. No colored person was ever put in one of them ’till after the War. We didn’t know nothing about them things. ‘Course old Miss knowed about them ’cause she knowed everything. I recollect she told me one day that she had learning in five different languages. None of us didn’t have no learning at all. That is, we didn’t have no book learning. There wasn’t no teachers or anything of that kind, but we sure were taught to be Christians. Everything on that place was a blue stocking Presbyterian. When Sunday came we dressed all clean and nice and went to Church. There wasn’t no separate church for the colored. We went to the white folks church and set in the gallery. We had a fine preacher. His name was Cober. He could sure give out the words of wisdom. We didn’t have big baptizings like was had on heaps of the places, ’cause Presbyterians don’t go down under the water like the Baptist does. Old Miss wouldn’t stand for no such things as voodoo and “hants”. When she inspected us once a week, you better not have no charm round your heck. She would not as much as let us wear a bag of asafetida, and most folks believed that would keep off sickness. She called such as that superstition and she says we was enlightened Christian Presbyterians and as such we must conduct ourselves. She didn’t want to hear of no stories being told ’bout “hants” and ghosts cause there wan’t no such things. I speck she was right ’cause I ain’t never seed one in all the ninety years I’ve been living. If one of the slaves died he was sure given a grand Christian funeral. All of us mourners were there. Services were conducted by the white preacher. Just before the war came on, my Master called me to him and told me he was going to take me to North Carolina to his brother for safe keeping. Right then I knowed something was wrong, and I was wishing from the bottom of my heart the ‘Publicans would stay out of our business and not get us all ‘sturbed in the mind.

Nobody worked after dinner on Saturday. We took that time to scrub ourselves and our houses so as to be ready for inspection Sunday morning. Some Saturday nights we had dances. The same old fiddler played for us that played for the white folks. And could he play! When he got that old fiddle out you couldn’t keep your foots still. When Christmas came that was the time of all times on that old plantation. They don’t have no such as that now. Every child brought a stocking up to the big house to be filled. They all wanted one of Old Miss’es stockings cause now she weighted near on to three hundred pounds. Candy was put in piles for each person. When their names were called they walked up and got it, and everything there was for him besides. We didn’t work on New Year’s day. We could go to town or anywhere we liked, but we didn’t have no kind of celebration. The most fun a person can have is at a “corn shucking”. You have two captains and they each choose the ones they want on their side. Then the shucking begins. The last one I ‘tended, the side I was on beat by three barrels. We put our Captain on our shoulders and rode him up and down while every body cheered and clapped their hands like the world was coming to an end. You can’t make mention of nothing good that we didn’t have to eat after the “shucking.” I studies about those days now. The big parties at the white folks house, and me all dressed up with tallow on my face to make it shine, serving the guests.

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