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Thursday, September 5, 2019

Millie Simpkins "Black Mamie" 1837 - 1938: In Her Own Words

Millie Simpkins was born around 1837 in - I think - either Franklin County or Williamson County, Tennessee. She was enslaved by Sarah "Sallie" Ann Ewing - a young, wealthy white woman from Williamson County, Tennessee. 

Millie's interview with WPA researchers in the 1930s described a life in slavery that included a separation from her first husband, sale at the Nashville slave market, her forced labors, and also life as a free person during Reconstruction. Millie was about 100 years old - perhaps as old as 109 - when she was interviewed by writers with the Federal Writers Project at her daughter Amanda's home in North Nashville.  For clarity I have re-typed her interview and eliminated phonetic dialect that was used in the original.  I have also rearranged some of the text - but eliminated none - so that it flows in chronological order.  Additionally, I have added some annotations to provide additional information that I have researched about her life.  Those appear in smaller font and indented. At the end is the original copy of her interview.  

1004 10th Avenue, North
Nashville, Tennessee

I claim to be 109 years old and was born in Winchester, Tennessee.  My mother was named Judy Ewing and my daddy was Moses Stephens and he was "free born." He was the master's stable boy and followed the races. He ran away and never came back. I was next to the oldest of four children. 

I remember when the stars fell [the November 1833 Leonid meteor shower]. I was small but the old folks ran out and looked at them, came back set down and cried. They thought it meant the world was coming to an end. The people were scared when they saw the comet with the long tail [Halley's comet 1835]. They thought it was a sign of war.
It is possible that Millie saw the Leonid Meteor shower in 1833.  She was almost certainly about 100 years old in the mid 1930s when she was interviewed for the Federal Writers Project so she could have been a small child when the meteor shower occurred. 
My master was Boyd Sims and my misses was Sarah Ann Ewing Sims. My first missus was very rich. She had two slave women to dress her every morning and I brought her breakfast to her on a silver waiter. She was married three times. Her second husband was Joe Carter, and the third was Judge Gault.
In a strange coincidence, another person I have researched and written about was also enslaved by Sarah "Sallie" Ann Ewing's family.  Andrew Ewing was the 1st Sergeant of the 12th US Colored Infantry and his pension records described in detail his early life as a Ewing slave and even included a statement by Sallie herself.  When she was 15 years old, Sallie Ewing married Boyd McNairy Sims, who was a lawyer and rich planter.  This is the man Millie refers to as her master in the above passage. Sims died in 1850, and Sallie was left a widow at the age of 23. In 1853 Sallie married again to State Senator Joseph W. Carter from Winchester, in Franklin County, Tennessee. Sallie Ewing Carter became famous during the Civil War for assisting her cousin Adelicia Acklin (widow of notorious slave trader Isaac Franklin) to sneak her cotton out of Nashville and sell it for an enormous sum. Sallie was an ardent Confederate and is purported to have hung the first Confederate flag in Franklin and was the founder of the Franklin, TN chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  Her daughter chaired the committee that erected the Confederate Monument in the Franklin public square

Food. Some masters fed their slaves meat and some wouldn't let them have a bite. One master we used to hear about would grease his slaves mouth on Sunday morning and tell them if any body asked if they had meat to say "yes, lots of it."

Punishment. When they got ready to whip them they put them down on a pit without any clothes, stand back with the bull whip and put the blood out. I remember the n****** would run away and hide out.

Social Gatherings. The only fun the young folks had was when the old folks had a quilting. While the old folks were working on the quilt the young ones would get in another room, dance and have a good time. They have a pot turned down at the door to keep the white folks from hearing them. The white folks didn't want us to learn nothing and if a slave picked up a little piece of paper they would yell "put that down you - you want to get in our business."

Religion. The white folks wouldn't let the slaves pray, if they got to pray it was while walking behind the plow. White folks would whip the slaves if they heard them sing or pray.

Music. Some songs I remember are:

"Dark was the Night"

"Good Ole Daniel"

Wonder where is good old Daniel
Way over  in de Promise Land
He was cas' in the lions' den
Way over in the Promised land

By and by we'll go and meet him
Way over in the Promised Land

by and by we'll go and meet him
Way over in the Promised Land

Wonder where the Hebrew children
Way over in the Promised Land

They come through the fiery furnace
Way over in the Promised Land

By and by go and meet them
Way over in the Promised Land

Wonder where is doubting Thomas
Way over in the Promised Land

Wonder where is Sinking Peter
Way over in the Promised Land

Hired Out. The young slaves were hired out to nurse the white children. I was hired as nurse girl at seven years old and started cooking at ten. I never had a chance to go to school. . . .My misses used to hire me out to hotels and taverns.
I have written about the practice of hiring out enslaved people in this post.
1844.  I was here [Nashville] when Henry Clay and James K. Polk was running [for President of the United States in 1844]. I was hired at the old City Hotel over on the River. I was dining room servant there. My master would have me sing a song for him about Democrats:  "Hooray the country is rising; rise up and drown old Clay in his poison." 

I guess old Clay was a right good fellow but he played cards with the n****** in the cellar.
In this image, the City Hotel can be seen behind the Davidson County courthouse.
The City Hotel was on the East side of the public square and overlooked the Cumberland River. 
I was a big girl when they built the Capitol. I played on the hill before it was built and I toted blocks from there when it was being built.
The cornerstone of the Tennessee state capitol was laid in 1845 and the building was completed fourteen years later in 1859. Millie would have been about 7 to 10  years old in 1845.  

Tennessee State Capitol during the Civil War. Photo by George N. Barnard.

My first missis [Sallie Ann Ewing Sims Gault] sold me because I was stubborn. She sent me to the "slave yard" at Nashville. The yard was full of slaves. I stayed there two weeks before master Simpkins bought me. I was sold away from my husband and I never saw him again. I had one child which I took with me.
I believe Millie gave birth to her first child Thomas and then they were both sold in Nashville.
Sold to a Slave Trader. The slave yard was on Cedar Street. A Mr. Chandler would bid the slaves off, but before they started bidding you had to take all of your clothes off and roll down the hill so they could see that you didn't have no bones broken, or scars on you. (I wouldn't take mine off.) If nobody bid on you, you was taken to the slave mart and sold. I was sold there. 

Memphis Avalanche, March 6, 1888
An article from 1888 described the destruction of the old slave mart in Nashville. 

Historic Marker in downtown Nashville on the site of the Slave Market.

Map of the City of Nashville, 1831
Tennessee State Library and Archives
This map shows the location of the market house (slave market) on the public square in Nashville.

A bunch of them was sent to Mississippi and they had their ankles fastened together and they had to walk while the traders rode.

A page from Lewis Miller's Sketchbook of Landscapes in the State of Virginia.
"Slave Trader - Sold to Tennessee"
When I was sold to master Simpkins, my second mistress made me a house slave and I worked only at the big house and my work was to nurse and dress the children and help my missus in her dressing.
I believe that Millie was enslaved by Orman Allen Simpkins, his wife Nancy Reeves (Millie's second mistress) and their children in the northwest part of Davidson County along the Cumberland River. 
This portion of an 1871 map shows District 23 and 25 along the north side of the Cumberland River in the Bordeaux/Whites Creek Pike vicinity of Nashville today; this is where I believe Millie may have been enslaved by the Simpkins family initially. 
Portion of Map of Davidson County Tennessee,
from actual surveys made by order of the county court of Davidson County, 1871
Library of Congress
This next map is a further close-up highlighting the land owned by (presumably white) Simpkins family members.  Included among their assets is a mill. 
Portion of Map of Davidson County Tennessee,
from actual surveys made by order of the county court of Davidson County, 1871

Properties owned by Simpkins family are circled
In 1870, George and Millie's sons
Thomas and Moses were working as farm laborers in District 23 for white Simpkins land owners.
Library of Congress

In 1857, Omand Simpkins died and his will mentions leaving "one negro man named George" to his son Jonathan. I believe that Millie and George married and had several children together. He also bequeathed "one negro woman named Milly and her four youngest children, to wit, Amanda, Ben, Rosanna and Jim" to his daughter Martha Ann.  I believe these people were Millie and George and some of their children. In other records, I found Millie with children named Amanda and Rose Anna, however I could not find Ben or Jim - who may not have survived.
Item 3 of the 1857 will of Ormand Allen Simpkins, Davidson County, Tennessee
He left to his son Jonathon H. "Tobe" Simpkins some land on the waters of the Harpeth River and "one negro man named George." I believe that was George Simpkins, Millie's husband
Item 5 of the 1857 will of Ormand Allen Simpkins, Davidson County, Tennessee
He left to his daughter Martha Anne "one negro woman named Milly and her four youngest children, to wit, Amanda, Ben, Rosanna and Jim? " Following Martha Anne's death, Millie's children and grandchildren were to be divided among Martha's heirs.
In total, Simpkins provided for the transfer of 22 people in his will: 
- to his wife, he gave "Isham, Delia, Julia, Sara, Charles, Berry and Rose"
- to his son Williamson, he gave "one negro man by name of Dennis"
- to his son John, he gave "one negro man named Henderson" and "one negro man named George".
- to his son Allen he gave "one negro woman by name Amanda and her child Bekkie"
- to his son James he gave "one negro woman by name Holland her two youngest children Dick and John"
- to his daughter Martha Ann Duke he gave "one negro woman named Milly and her four youngest children Amanda, Ben, Rosanna?, and Jim."
- to his daughter Rhoda Ann Duke he gave "two negro women named Violet and Polly"

I believe that Millie and her children were transferred into the estate of Martha Ann Duke's husband William Duke. In the 1860 Census, William Duke was enslaving eight people in District 23 of Davidson County:

1860 Slave Schedule, District 23, Davidson County, Tennessee
entry for William Duke, husband of Martha Anne Simpkins
Among these people could be
"Milly [31 year old female] and her four youngest children,
to wit, Amanda , Ben, Rosanna and Jim"
Mille's husband George may have been first enslaved by a man named "Mr. Kennedy" and may have used the name "Berry Kennedy" early in his life.
A letter from Millie Simpkin to a pension examiner explaining a discrepancy in her husband George's name - explaining that he may have used the name Berry Simpkins or Berry Kennedy before and during the Civil War.

Civil War. I was living in Dickson County when Fort Donelson was taken [February 1862]. 
I believe that at some point, Millie and her children were transferred to the control of Omar Simpkins' son Jonathan who was living across the Cumberland River in Dickson County on the land he had inherited from his father near the mouth of the Harpeth River. This might have reunited her with her husband George. This historic marker about the Harpeth Shoals describes the significance of this area during the War. Nearby was Montgomery Bell's iron factory and the Cumberland Furnace. Both relied on large numbers of enslaved laborers.
I saw the first gun boat that came up the Cumberland River. I was standing in the door when I saw it coming, but it didn't take me long to get back in the back of the house. I was scared they would shoot.

Gunboats on the Cumberland River, near Nashville [Tennessee], Carondolet in front
Metzner, Adolph, artist
7 April [18]62.
My master ran a ferry and after the gun boats came up the river, he got scared and gave my old man [her husband George] the ferry and when the [federal] soldiers came to take Fort Negley he let them cross the river.

A man at Ashland City that made whiskey would have Mr. Simpkins bring a load of logs up to Ashland City and then bring a load of whiskey down and hide it so the yankees wouldn't get it.

My master had a fish trap at the mouth of Harpeth River and when the gun boat passed they shot through the trap.

I was right here when the Civil War was going on, and the soldiers was dressed up and beating the drums.
The First Union dress parade in Nashville. The 51st Regiment Ohio volunteers, Col. Stanly Mathews on dress parade in Nashville, Tuesday, March 4th 1862 / sketched by A.E. Mathews, 31st Regt. O.V.U.S.A. Library of Congress
Sometime around 1863, Millie and her husband George appear to have been married in Dickson County. According to two statements she gave in a pension application later in her life, a man named Rev. Oliver Royster (?) married them. Interestingly, in one statement, Millie said she was using the last name of Carter - perhaps for Joe Carter, the second man who married Sallie Ewing her enslaver. 

Emancipation & Reparations.

No honey, we didn't get nothing when we were freed. Just drove away without nothing to do with. We got in a waggon and drove to another man's plantation. My old man [her husband George Simpkins] made a crop there. 
Some of the slaves might have got something but I don't know nobody that did. 
On January 4, 1866, George Simpkins entered into a labor contract in Dickson County for the coming year with Jonathon H. Simpkins - the man to whom he had been given a few years earlier. George was provided five acres of land for "his services" and those of his family which included at that time "Millie, Cinda [8], Henry [7], Thomas [6] Kate [5] & Tabbey [4]". Jonathan Simpkins was obligated to provide "victuals, house and fuel and no more." George Simpkins was responsible for providing his family with clothing and medicine. However, since he was not being paid under this contract it is not clear how he was supposed to do that.  

Records of the field offices for the state of Tennessee, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1872, Letters sent, Aug. 1865-Nov. 1867, May 1868-Jan. 1869; Special orders issued, Nov. 1865-Apr. 1867; Annual report, Sept. 1867 [NARA M1911 roll 13]
1866 Freedmen's Labor Contract
I suspect that Millie and George stayed in the Dickson area over the next several years but I have not found the family in the 1870 Census. I did find two of their oldest sons Thomas and Moses working as farm laborers for Jonathan Simpkins' brother in District 23 of Nashville. 

In 1860 and 1870, Jonathan Simpkins was living in the Danielsville area of Dickson County. I believe this is the area where Millie, George and their family lived immediately before and after the Civil War.
Map showing the location of Danielsville in Dickson County, Tennessee
Move to Nashville. In the 1880 Census, Millie and George were living in District 25 of Davidson County with 12 of their children, aged from 22 to one month. George was working as a servant, and the records noted that he had consumption. He was probably not able to do much physical labor. Millie was keeping house and five of the older children were farming - Henry (21), Moses (18), Tallie (15), Julie (12) and Manda (11). 

Reconstruction. I was scared to open my door after dark on account of Ku Klux Klan, they was red hot.

I have never voted but I have electioneered for them. Have never had any friends in office.

The only thing I remember about the Reconstruction time was some of the white didn't want the n****** to vote.

I have cooked ever since I was freed. I stayed in Henry Gables kitchen five long years, . . .

I suspect that Millie may have been working as a cook for Henry Gables,
an architect
 in Nashville in the late 1880s.
1888 Nashville City Directory

In early September 1893, George was shot and killed while he was poaching corn from another man's farm.



By 1900, a widowed Millie was living with one of her youngest daughters 19-year-old Artie and son in law Felix Buchanan.  The couple had a young son George - presumably named after his grandfather.  Also living with them were two teenagers Lewis and Mary (Millie and George's youngest children).  The extended family was renting their home at 252 North Cherry Street in Nashville. All of the adults could read and write.  Felix was working as a fertilizer laborer and Artie was a laundress. Millie was a cook and her son Lewis was a bricklayer and daughter Mary was attending school.
Portion of 1900 Federal Census showing Millie Simpkins and her family.
Ward 1, Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee
In 1906, Millie had moved to Buchanan street - which was very close to her previous home on Cherry Street.
1906 Nashville City Directory
Millie was widowed and living at 705 Buchanan Street
The following year, her nephew died in Nashville and Millie received his grieving sister at her home on Buchanan Street in Nashville. I am still working to determine the exact relationship between Millie and the McEwens.

Nashville Globe, 16 Aug 1907

The following spring, Millie applied for a pension claiming that George had served in the US Army during the Civil War. 

The following fall, her application was denied because no evidence could be found of her late husband's service. 

In late 1909, Millie's son in law Felix Buchanan died leaving her daughter Artie a young widow with two young sons. In the 1910 Census, taken in April of that year, Millie was living with Artie and her two grandsons - George (10) and Felix III (3).  Also living with them was Millie's granddaughter Lillian Buchanan (8) from Millie's daughter Amanda.

1910 Census, Ward 1, Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee
Millie was listed as working as a cook in a private family.  
Just a few months later, Artie died - leaving George and Felix orphans. I imagine that Millie assumed the primary responsibility for the boys - at least temporarily.

In 1913, Millie was still trying to obtain a pension.

January 30, 1913 Postcard from Millie Simpkins, mailed from 415 Howard St, Nashville, Tennessee

In 1919, Millie's grandson (by her daughter Julia) set sail for France as part of the US forces fighting in World War I.
Arthur Lee Thomas (1895-1954) served in World War I. His mother was Julia Simpkins, Millie's daughter. Julia married 
Millie may have attended one of the parades to see the soldiers off to war - such as this large demonstration at Union Station for the African American soldiers.


By 1920, Millie's granddaughter Lillian had moved back in with her mother Amanda who was living at 903 10th Avenue North in Nashville. Mattie was supporting her children by working as a laundress. 

Millie had moved in with her daughter Julia and son-in-law George Thomas. George was a laborer for the city sewer system and the couple had three children- Andrew 27, Juanita 21 and Lee 16.  Andrew and Lee worked in a brick yard. The family was living on 6th Avenue North.

In 1930, Millie was living with Mattie at what would become the family home for decades at 1004 10th Avenue North. They were renting for $18 per month. Along with Amanda and Millie was Millie's great-great granddaughter Rosie Sneed. Additionally, living in the home was Annie Buchanan - Mattie's daughter/Millie's granddaughter. 

1930 Census - District 112, Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee
Millie was interviewed around 1937 when she was about 100 years old in this home on 10th Avenue North.

I stay here with my daughter. That is the only support I have since I had those strokes and been unable to do for myself. . . .since I have had those strokes it has broke me up until I can't do anything. I belong to the Methodist church. I think the young people are terrible, and this white and black marriage should not be allowed.

Millie attended the Salem AME Church on the corner of 4th Avenue North and Buchanan. This church is still in existence at the same location.

I'm the mother of 14 children, seven boys and seven girls.

Based on the clues she gave, and using public records, these are the names of Millie's children.
  1. Thomas  - listed on the labor contract in 1866
  2. Lucinda - listed on the labor contract in 1866, 1880 census
  3. Henry- listed on the labor contract in 1866, 1880 Census
  4. Moses (Tate?) -named after Millie's father, in 1880 Census
  5. Tally  - listed on the labor contract in 1866, in 1880 Census
  6. Julie - in 1880 Census, death certificate listed George as her father
  7. Amanda "Mattie" - listed in 1857 will, in 1880 Census, death certificate listed her parents
  8. Zolicofer (Ben?)- listed in 1857 will, in 1880 Census
  9. Catherine (Kate) - in 1880 Census
  10. Anna (Roseanna) - listed in 1857 will, in 1880 Census
  11. George Jr. - in 1880 Census
  12. Artie - in 1900 Census, listed parents on death certificate
  13. Lewis - in 1900 Census
  14. Mary - in 1900 Census
Just a year or so after she told her story to the interviewers, Millie died at her daughter Mattie's house in Nashville. On July 19, 1938 at 10:45 am, the life of an incredible woman came to an end at the same location where she was interviewed by the WPA Writers. 

The Nashville, Tennessean July 20, 1938
On her death certificate, Millie's occupation was described as a cook. One interesting thing about the information provided was that her father's name was given as Moses Taborne; in the WPA interview, she described him as "Moses Stephens." In 1910 and in 1948 when her daughters Artie Simpkins Buchanan and Mattie Simpkins Buchanan died, Millie was called Millie Taborne.  On the 1910 death certificate, Millie was the informant which makes me believe that information is correct. I am not sure what accounts for the discrepancy. 

Millie was buried at Mt. Ararat cemetery (today's Greenwood Cemetery) - although no headstone for her has been identified.

Millie Simpkins death certificate
Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee
I have read Millie Simpkins' interview many, many times.  Her description of being sold in downtown Nashville has haunted me - and motivated my research.  I feel privileged to be able to tell her story as best I can piece it together here.  Below are copies of the full interview with Millie Simpkins as they appeared in her own words.


  1. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this and post it!

  2. Thank you for sharing Ms Millie's life. Very good and helpful research.