Search This Blog

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Pricilla Holland Gray - "When freed, our white folks didn't give us nothing."

Around 1937, an elderly woman from Williamson County named Pricilla Gray was interviewed at her home at 807 Ewing Ave., Nashville, Tennessee by writers with the federal Works Project Administration. Her interview was part of the Ex-Slaves Interview project undertaken by the WPA. Pricilla's interview appears on pages 24-26 of the WPA Slave Narratives compilation.  Her interview is just one of several former slaves from Williamson County that I have identified.  You can read more here.

Like most of the other interviews in this collection, Pricilla's was typed phonetically to capture the dialect of the time. (You can read more about this here.)  I have edited the interview to remove the dialect but keep her meaning as accurate as possible. Additionally, I have rearranged some of her statements so they discuss her life in chronological order. The original portions of the interview are copied below in large print italics. I have added my own comments and additional information in brackets.

807 Ewing Ave.
Nashville, Tenn.

I think I am 107 Years old. Was born in Williamson County before the Civil War.
[As incredible as it seems, I believe Precilla's description of her age is accurate.  In the 1870 and 1880 Censuses - the woman I have identified as Pricilla gave her birth year as 1830.  That means if she was interviewed in 1937, she was 107 years old as she stated.]
My mammy died when I was young but my daddy lived to be 103 years old. 
My first master and missus was Amos and Sophia Holland . . . 
[Amos Holland was born in 1809 in Maury County, Tennessee, the son of Major James Holland and Sarah Gilbert. In 1896, the Nashville Daily American ran a long article ostensibly about the death of a woman enslaved by Major James Holland's family. However, the article actually spent most of its time laying out the history of the Holland and Gilbert families. The article described how Major James Holland "removed his negroes and household effects to Tennessee in 1807 or 1808."  Holland had a plantation built on a large Revolutionary land grant in Maury County. The article said it was a "pretentious dwelling house" with "many outhouses" - i.e., cabins for the slaves, etc.  Major Holland had several children including two sons Amos and James Jr. Priscilla was born around 1830. In the 1840 Census, Amos Holland was counted as enslaving 56 people; 10-year-old Priscilla would have likely been among them.]

My first mistress [Amos Holland's wife Sophia Stewart Holland] had three looms and we had to make clothes for everyone on the plantation. I was taught to weave, card, spin and knit and to work in the fields.

[Below is a video that shows what Pricilla's loom for weaving could have looked like.]

I was afraid of the tobacco worms at first but Aunt Frankie went along by me and showed me how to pull the worm's head off. I have hoed tobacco until 9 o'clock at night. Our master whipped us when we needed hit. I got many a whipping.

Master Amos was a great hunter and had lots of dogs and me and my cousin had the job of cooking dog food and feeding the dogs. One day the master went hunting and left three dogs in the pen for us to feed. One of the dogs licked out [got out] of the pen and we got a bunch of switches and started wearing the dogs out [beating them]. We thought the master was miles away when he walked up on us. He finished wearing the bunch of switches out on us. That was a whipping I'll never forget. 

[Amos Holland died in 1849; Priscilla was probably around 19 years old.]
. . . and he made a will that we slaves were all to be kept among the family and I was hired from one family to another. 

Item 6 of Amos James Holland's will, dated June 26, 1849.
"I will that there be no sale of any property that I now may have." 
Since the enslaved people under his control, including Priscilla, were considered property, 
they were not allowed to be sold.
For further discussion of the process under which Priscilla  
would have been rented out to family members, please see this post.

I was owned under the "will" by Haddas [?] Holland, Missis Mary [Holland] Haddox . . . and then Missis Cynthia [a niece of Amos Holland] married Sam Pointer and I lived with her 'til freedom was declared.

When I was hired to Missis Cynthia, I worked in the field until she started to raise children and then I was kept in the house to see after them [Cynthia Holland 's first child was born in 1860.]. Missis had a lot of cradles and they kept two women in that room taking care of the babies and little children belonging to the slaves. Soon as the children were seven years old they started them to 'knitting'.
Slave made furniture for white children
Courtesy The American Civil War Museum, photography by Alan Thompson
[Priscilla went to live with Cynthia Holland, Amos Holland's niece, upon Cynthia's marriage to Samuel A. Pointer. That marriage happened in March 1851 when Priscilla was 21 years old. During the years that Priscilla describes being a "house slave" and helping to care for the Pointer's children, she was probably a young mother herself. Her children Edna (b. 1852), Mollie (b. 1855), Caroline (b. 1857) and Robert (b. 1860) may have been among those "babies and little children" that were cared for in the room that she mentioned. They all lived on the Pointer plantation southeast of Thompson's Station.]

A portion of 1878 De Beers Map of Williamson County, Tennessee
Land owned by Samuel A. Pointer is highlighted.
Master Sam Pointer, husband of Missis Cynthia, was a good man and he was good to us and he fed and clothed us good. We wore yarn hoods, shawls, and pantalets which was knit things that come from your shoe tops to above your knees.

[In 1860, when Priscilla was 30 years old, a federal census was taken of those enslaved on the Pointer plantation. Samuel Pointer was a large slave holder. He had twelve slave cabins on his property and was enslaving 79 people. Samuel Pointer reported that his real estate holdings were worth about $95,000 and his personal property - which included the value placed on those he enslaved - was worth about $85,000. Pointer was employing two overseers on his farm as well.]
Samuel A. Pointer's slave holdings were so large
that he employed two men - F. F. Hampton and Samuel Allen - as overseers in 1860.
The master was also a religious man and he let us go to church. He willed land for a colored church at Thompson Station. I belong to the foot washing Baptist, called the Free Will Baptist. The master bought my husband William Gray and I married him there.

Have gone to lots of [church] camp-meetings. They have lots of good things to eat and feed everybody. They'd have big baptizings down at the Cumberland River and many things.

Never knowed of any plantation [illegible; possibly "men"] be divided. Don't remember about slave uprisings and n******s voting and was not old enough to remember the stars falling.

Songs we use to sing was, "On Jordan's Bank I Stand And Cast a Wistful Eye" and "Like Drops of Sweat, Like Blood Run Down, I Shed My Tears."

I try not to think 'bout the old times. It's been so long ago so I don't remember any tales now.

I've had a lot of good times in my day. Our white folks would let us have "barn dances" and we'd have a big time.

Civil War. When the Civil War was starting there were soldiers and tents everywhere. I had to knit socks and help make soldiers coats and during the war, the master sent 100 of us down in Georgia to keep the Yankees from getting us and we camped out during the whole three years.

Emancipation and Reconstruction. When freed, our white folks didn't give us nothing. We got away and hired out for anything we could get. 

I never went to school a day in my life, married before freedom and when I got free, had to work all the time to make a living for my two children. 

I remember the Klu Klux. One night a bunch of us went out, they got after us. We waded a big creek and hid in the bushes to keep them from getting us.

[The Ku Klux Klan was especially active in Williamson and Maury Counties in 1867 and 1868.]

Report of evidence taken before the Military committee in relation to outrages committed by the Ku Klux klan in middle and west Tennessee, Tennessee. General assembly. Senate. Committee on military affairs. 1868
[In 1870, following the Civil War, Priscilla and her husband William Gray were counted in the federal census living in District 3 of Williamson County. I think perhaps they had moved to the (white) Gray farm near Leiper's Fork where William was farming and had accumulated $125 in assets. William was 44, Priscilla was 40 and they had 7 children - Edna Inez 18, Mollie 15, Caroline 13, Robert 10, Henry 6, Jennie 3, and Elizabeth 3 months.]

[In the 1880 Census, the family was still living in District 3. William was 53 and Priscilla was 50. Their oldest four children were out of the house; living with them were Henry 16, Jennie 13, Elizabeth "Lizzie" 10 and Manny 7.]

Portion of 1878 Map of Williamson County, Tennessee
District 3, showing the Gray Farm. I think Priscilla and William Gray were living in this area.

I have never voted and I think that is a man's work. Don't believe in signs, I have always thought what is going to be will be, and the only way to be is the right way.

[At some point between 1880 and 1900, Pricilla and William's marriage ended. It is not clear if this was due to William's death or due to a separation.  I found a man I believe to be Priscilla's husband, William Gray, working in 1900 near where the family was living in 1880 and he described himself as divorced. Pricilla had moved to Nashville and was describing herself as widowed. She was using the name "Paralee" and was living with her daughter Maggie and a granddaughter named Paralee.]

1906 Nashville Directory
[In 1910, Priscilla "Paralee" was living with her daughter Maggie and sister Annie. Paralee was a cook, her daughter was a laundress and her sister was a sick nurse.]

A portion of 1910 Federal Census, Ward 16, Nashville, Davidson County
Priscilla "Paralee" was living with her daughter Maggie and sister Annie. 
Ever since slavery I've cooked for people. I cooked for Mr. Lea Dillon fifteen years. 

Union Station Hotel, built 1900
Pricilla worked here for four years.
Worked at the Union Depot four years. Five years for Dr. Douglas at his Infirmary [probably Dr. Henry Douglas] and I cooked for and raised Mrs Grady's baby. Have worked for different folks over town to make my living. . . . All the ex- slaves I know have worked at different jobs like I has.

[In 1930, Priscilla was living with her daughter Maggie. They were renting on Fogg Street near Fort Negley and paying $10 per month.  Maggie was supporting the pair as a laundress.]

1930 Federal Census, Nashville, Davidson County

[In the 1935 City Directory, Pricilla appears living at 807 Ewing Avenue in Nashville - where she was interviewed a few years later.]

Entry for Priscilla (Parolie) Gray in the 1935 Nashville City Directory
Her name is listed as Parolie, she is listed as the widow of William and was denoted as "c" for colored.

At the time of the Interview (Ca 1937): Guess the reason I have lived so long was because I took good care of myself and wore warm clothes and still do, wearing my yarn petticoats now. Have had good health all my life. Have took very little medicine and the worst sickness I ever had was small-pox. I've been a widow 'bout 70 years.

One [of my children] lives in California and I live with the other, together with my great, great, grandson, five years old, in Nashville. . . . I ain't been able to work for eight years. Don't know how much I weigh now, I have lost so much. (The interview notes that she weighs now at least 250 pounds).

[On April 10 1940, Priscilla was living on Ashe Street near Vine and Ewing in the Fort Negley area. She was living with her granddaughter Martha Brown and daughter Maggie Donovan.]

1940 Federal Census, Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee

[Nine days later Maggie died. Priscilla was listed as the informant on the death certificate. She gave her maiden name as Priscilla Haddox. Haddox was one of the last names of the people she was hired during slavery. Maggie was buried in Mt. Ararat (today's Greenwood) cemetery.]

[Unfortunately, I have not identified a death certificate or gravesite for Priscilla.  I have to assume, based on her age, that she died sometime in the 1940s. I welcome any information from readers who can help complete this part of her story.]

Federal Writers' Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 15, Tennessee, Batson-Young. 1936.
Manuscript/ Mixed Material. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,
(Accessed September 28, 2016.)

Interview with Pricilla Gray
 at her home at 807 Ewing Ave. Nashville, Tenn. Pricilla's interview appears on pages 24-26 of the WPA Slave Narratives compilation.

I think I'se 107 Y'ars ole. Wuz bawn in Williamson County 'fore de Civil wah. Guess de reason I hab libed so long wuz cose I tuk good keer ob mahself en wore warm clo'es en still do, w'ar mah yarn pettycoats now. Hab had good health all mah life. Hab tuk very lettle medicine en de wust sickness I eber had wuz small-pox. I'se bin a widah 'bout 70 years.

Mah mammy d'ed w'en I wuz young but mah daddy libed ter be 103 y'ars ole. I nebber went ter schul a day in mah life, ma'ied 'fore freedum en w'en I got free, had ter wuk all de time ter mek a libin' fer mah two chillen. One libes in California en I lives wid de uther, tergedder wid mah great, great, grandson, five y'ars ole, in Nashville.

Mah fust marster en missis wuz Amos en Sophia Holland en he made a will dat we slaves wuz all ter be kep' among de fam'ly en I wuz heired fum one fam'ly ter 'nother. Wuz owned under de "will" by Haddas Holland, Missis Mary Haddock en den Missis Synthia Ma'ied Sam Pointer en I libed wid her 'til freedum wuz 'cleared.

Mah fust mistress had three looms en we had ter mek clothes fer ev'ery one on de plan'ashun. I wuz taught ter weav', card, spin en 'nit en ter wuk in de fiel's. I wuz 'feared ob de terbacker wums at fust but Aunt Frankie went 'long by me en showed me how ter pull de wum's head off. Hab housed terbacker till 9 o'clock at nite. Our marster whupped us w'en we needed hit. I got menny a whuppin'.

Marster Amos wuz a great hunter en had lots ob dogs en me en mah cousin had de job ob cookin' dog food en feedin' de dogs. One day de marster went huntin' en lef three dogs in de pen fer us her feed. One ob de dogs licked out ob de pan en we got a bunch ob switches en started wearin' de dogs out. We thought de marster wuz miles 'way w'en he walked up on us. He finished wearin' de bunch ob switches out on us. Dat wuz a whuppin' I'll nebber fergit.

W'en I wuz heired ter Missis Synthis, I wuked in de fiel's 'til she started ter raise chillens en den I wuz kep in de house ter see atter dem. Missis had a lot ob cradles en dey kep two 'omen in dat room takin' keer ob de babies en lettle chillens 'longin' ter dere slaves. Soon as de chillens, wuz seven y'ars ole, dey started dem ter 'nitty'.

Marster Sam Pointer, husband of Missis Synthis, wus a good man en he wuz good ter us en he fed en clothed us good. We wore yarn hoods, sha'ls, en pantletts which wuz 'nit things dat kum fum yo shoe tops ter 'bove yo knees.

De marster wuz also a 'ligious man en he let us go ter chuch. He willed land fer a culled chuch at Thompson Station. I 'longs ter de foot washin' Baptist, called de Free Will Baptist. De marster bought mah husband William Gray en I ma'ied 'im were.

W'en de Civil wah wuz startin' dere wuz soldiers an tents eve'ywhar. I had ter 'nit socks en he'ps mek soldiers coats en durin' de wah, de marster sent 100 ob us down in Georgia ter keep de Yankees fum gittin' us en we camped out durin' de whole three years.

I member de Klu Klux. One nite a bunch ob us went out, dey got atter us. We waded a big crik en hid in de bushes ter keep dem fum gittin' us.

Hab gon' ter lots ob camp-meetin's. Dey'd hab lots ob good things ter eat en fed eberbody. Dey'd hab big baptizin's down at de Cumberland Riber and menny things.

W'en freed, our white folks didn't gib us nuthin'. We got 'way en hired out fer an'thin' we could git. Nebber knowed ob any plantashuns [TR: illegible; possibly "men"] be divided. D'ant member 'bout slave 'risings en n******s voting en wuz not ole er'nuff ter member de sta'rs fallin'. Songs we use'ter sing wuz, "On Jordan's Bank I Stand en Cast a Wistful Eye en Lak Drops ob Sweat, Lak Blood Run Down, I Shed mah Tears."

I try not ter think 'bout de ole times. Hit's bin so long ago so I don' member any tales now.

I'se had a lot ob good times in mah day. Our white folks would let us hab "bran dances" an we'd hab a big time. I has nebber voted en I think dat ez a man's wuk. Don't b'leeve in signs, I hab allus tho't whut ez gwine ter be will be, en de only way ter be ez de rite way.

Eber since slavery I'se cooked fer peeple. I cooked fer Mr. Lea Dillon fifteen y'ars. Wuked at de Union Depot fer y'ars. Five y'ars fer Dr. Douglas at his Infirmary en I cooked fer en raised Mrs Grady's baby. Hab wuked fer diff'ent folks ovuh town ter mek mah livin'. I ain't bin able ter wuk fer eight y'ars. Dunno how much I weigh now, I hab lost so much. (she weighs now at least 250 pounds).

All de ex-slaves I know hab wuked at diff'ent jobs lak I has.

No comments:

Post a Comment