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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Martha Harrison - "N****** Ain't Scared of White Folks Now"

Martha Harrison grew up in the Hillsboro (now called Leiper's Fork) area of Williamson County, Tennessee and was born around 1849.  In 1932, when she was an elderly woman she was interviewed by researchers from Fisk University in Nashville.  The details of her interview were published in the 1940s in a book called "The Unwritten History of Slavery."  Her interview was entitled, N****** Ain’t Scared of White Folks Now” and appeared beginning on page 55 of the book.  It provides a window into her life as an enslaved person living here in the years just before the Civil War as well as her life during Reconstruction and later in Nashville.  Martha's interview was one of four that I have identified in the book with local ties.  Other enslaved people from Williamson County were also interviewed elsewhere. You can read about them here.

Using clues Martha Harrison left behind in her interview, I have been able to locate her family in written records and further flesh out her biography.  In italics below is Martha's interview; in some places my comments appear in brackets within her statements. This is her story.

Enslaved by Bennett and Cunningham families.
"First my owner was a Buford, then she married a Cunningham, and I went with her to him. He's the one that owned me in slavery time. That's how come I don't know my age; they would keep it in the Bible and wouldn't give it to the mothers."
I suspect that Martha is either confused about the last name of her first enslaver or perhaps it was transcribed incorrectly.  I believe that Martha and her mother were initially enslaved by the family of George Bennett (not Buford) - including his daughter Bethenia. Bethenia Bennett married Thompson Cunningham in 1834 - both of whom died during the Civil War, and I think that is who she is speaking of when she said:
"I was a great big girl, though, when the War ceased; it went on four years. . . . And do you know, the Lord took that thing [Cunningham] away before the war ceased. She died during the War and he died the year after the War."
The Fisk interviewers described:
Parents of Martha Harrison were slaves belonging to a family of Bufords [Bennetts?] in Hillsboro, Tennessee. Father was sold away from the family down into Mississippi, when the children were quite small. Some years later he came back to see them. It seems that he ran away [was sold away?] after a fight with the overseer. There were twelve children in the family, of which Martha is the only one living. 
Mrs. Harrison was born a slave. She does not know her age, but has a vivid memory of the Civil War and several years before the War. She was perhaps ten or twelve years old when it ended. She belonged, with her mother, to the Buford [Bennett?] family. One of the daughters of the family [Bethenia Bennett] married a Cunningham [Thompson Cunningham] and Martha and her mother were given to her as a wedding present. They took the name of Cunningham, which she bore until she married George Harrison in 1877.

Childhood in Slavery. In her interview, Martha described her life in bondage such as how she was forced to work for the Cunninghams by participating in farm work and childcare, as well as helping with other domestic work. She also described what she ate, how she dealt with lice infestations, whippings and beatings of enslaved people and rumors of the Civil War. 

James Hopkinson's Plantation. 
Edisoto Island, SC
Planting sweet potatoes. ca 1862

"Mammy and Sis and me was setting out 'taters, ..."

African American boy, possibly a slave, holding two buckets]
Isaac Haas, photographer & dealer in stereoscopic views,
Green Cove Springs, Fla.

"I didn't do nothing but play and pick up chips for old Aunt Fanny." 


"She [Aunt Fanny] fed us. They had these round wooden bowls, and Aunt Fanny would take that and pour licker [pot likker] in it, and put bread in it for the chillen to eat. It was a great big bowl, big as that dish pan there. That's what we had for dinner, and milk and bread for supper. Mistress would say, "Go pick up some chips for old Aunt Fan to put on the lid," and I would run and break out to get the chips first, 'cause I was crazy about white bread, and when we all got back with the chips, Mistress would give us some white bread, but she would make me wait till they all got there. I liked it 'cause Mammy and them didn't get white bread but once a week - that was Sunday, and the rest of the time they had just corn bread or shorts. I was so foolish! When she died (Mistress) it liked to killed me; I just cried and cried, and Mammy say, "What's the matter with you, gal?" I said, "Ole Miss is dead, and I won't get no more white bread." she said, "Shet you mouth, gal." I thought when she died she carried all the white bread with her.  Folks was saying, "Look at that po' little n***** crying 'bout her Mistress," but I wasn't crying 'bout Mistress, I was crying 'cause the white bread was gone. [Bethenia Cunningham died in April 1863]"

Lice and Healthcare. 
"The place was full; times sho' was hard, sho' as you born. Chillen was just as lousy as pigs. They had these combs that was just like cards you "card" cotton with, and they would comb your head with them. That wouldn't get the lice out, but it would make it feel better. They had to use larkspur to get 'em out; that would always get lice out of your head. But there wasn't no chillen would get sick before the War. I reckon the lice musta kept 'em healthy."

The population of Enslaved People on the Cunningham Farm. 
"I couldn't tell you how many n****** he did have; he had so many and his wife had so many."

In the 1850 Slave Census Thompson Cunningham was listed as enslaving 10 people. 

By 1860 he was holding about 30 people, including mostly young children (like Martha) and babies, in bondage. At this time, just before the Civil War broke out, Thompson Cunningham was a fairly well-to-do farmer living in the First District of Williamson County. He reported $15,000 in real estate and $55,000 in personal estate - which would include the value of the people he enslaved. He had tripled the number of those people he enslaved in the past ten years. 
"The white folks was crazy ‘bout their n***** babies, ‘cause that’s where they got their profit. An old white woman would come there and look after them.  . . "
1860 Federal Census, Williamson County, District 1
Page 49 - Entry for Thompson Cunningham family, George Bennett, and neighbor - Peter King, an overseer

Living in the white Cunningham household was Thompson and Bethenia Bennett Cunningham and their three children. Also living with them was George Bennett, Bethenia's brother.  Listed next door, and perhaps living on the property, was the family of Peter King, an overseer whom I believe was working for the Cunninghams.

Treatment of the Enslaved. Both Thompson Cunningham and an overseer - perhaps Peter King - were described by Martha in her interview:
". . . he was mean as he could be. He had an overseer that went ‘round and whipped the n****** every morning, and they hadn’t done a thing.”
According to the interview, Martha's father killed one of his overseers and was sold to Charles Merrill, a Franklin slave trader, as punishment. Merrill took Martha's father to Mississippi where he was sold again. 
. . .  “so when old Charlie Merrill, the n***** trader, come along, they sold my daddy to him, and he carried him way down in Mississippi. Ole Merrill would buy all the time, buy and sell n******* just like hogs. They sold him Aunt Phoebe’s little baby that was just toddling long, and Uncle Dick – that was my mammy’s brother.”
"The way they would whip you was like they done my oldest sister. They tied her, and they had a place just like they're gonna barbecue a hog, and they would strip you and tie you and lay you down. I never seed no buttons like they have now till after the War. We had cloth buttons, and old Aunt Fanny had told marster that my sister wouldn't keep her dress clean, and that's what they was whipping her about. So they had her down in the cellar whipping her, and I was real little. I couldn't say, "Big Sis" but I went and told Mammy, "Old Master's got "Big Jim" down there in the cellar beating her. And Mammy got out of bed and went in there and throwed Aunt Fan out the kitchen door, and they had to stop whipping Big Sis and come and see about Aunt Fan. You see, she would tell things on the others, trying to keep from getting whipped herself. I seed Mistress crack her many a time over the head with a broom, and I'd be so scared she was gonna crack me, but she never did hit me, except slap me when I'd turn the babies over. I'd get tired and Mammy's out, though. Old Miss would be setting there just knitting and watching the babies."
Willis Winn, Age about 115. 

Between 1936 and 1938. 
Retrieved from the Library of Congress, 
Example of horn used to call enslaved to work.

"They had a horn and every woman could tell when it was time to come and nurse her baby by the way they would blow the horn."

Working in Childcare.  

"They had cradles for the little n***** babies, and long before the War I was big enough to rock them babies, . . . Lawd, there was so much carried on in that place. I don't know whether any of the Cunningham n****** living now, but me or not. Yes, when I'd get tired, I would just ease that baby over and MIstress would slap me so hard; I didn't know a hand could hurt so bad, but I'd take the slap and get to go out to play. She would slap me hard and say, "Git on out of here and stay till you wake up" and that was just what I wanted, 'cause I'd play then."  [Vergy Andrews, who was enslaved in Franklin near the intersection of Down's Boulevard and Boyd Mill Pike, tells a similar story of being required to take care of the enslaved babies when she was a young girl.]

"Them doctors helped me, but they done made me eat Jordan off the cross. Yes, they took us to the camp meetings; the white folks had the meetings; they would carry you there to show you to their friends. "I'll show you my n******," they would say to each other, and they would come around and look at each others n*******. They would just shout and sing, and when Mammy would see 'em she'd say, "Some poor woman is gonna get it." Because they would shout like that and then go home and beat anybody that hadn't done things just like they wanted them done."
"Aunt Phoebe did (have prayer meetings). She would turn the kettle down and just sing and pray, and sometimes she would be happy and just moan, and I'd say, "Mammy, what's the matter with Aunt Phoebe?" and she'd tell me to hush.
I remember a song:
Sleepy creature, sleepy creature
Ther's something to do 'sides sleeping."

Violence and Rape.  
"When the white folks was beating and slashing up colored people; I remember that all right. Old Buford - his darkies had chillen by him, and Mammy wouldn’t
do it; and I’ve seen him take a paddle with holes in it and beat her, and everywhere it hit it raised a blister, then he would take a switch and break them blisters."

[Note: this type of punishment may have been used rather than whipping because it left fewer marks and preserved the value of the enslaved people.]
"When he [Buford or perhaps Bennett or Cunningham?] was dying they said he was calling Uncle Dick, and just twisting switches in his hand and doing like he was cutting his throat. They said he told them to bring him seven thousand dollars, “to pay my way out of hell,” but he couldn’t get out of hell, the way he beat my mammy.”
"I look at it now and sometimes n****** so bad; the bad ones ought to be back in slavery; but these n****** ain't gonna take nothing off these white folks. They ain't scared of white folks; some folks think that 'cause you been a slave you ought to be scared of white folks now; but I ain't scared of 'em; and I never was scared of 'em, 'cept ole Mistress till she died."
"I never went to school a day in my life; what I learned to read I learned myself."
Rumors of Civil War. 
"Old Cunningham would come in and tell ole Miss that they was gonna have a war to free the n******, and I heard 'em talking, but I didn't know what they was talking  'bout. Mother come in with her steers, from hauling rails, and I told her what they said, and she made like it wasn't nothing, 'cause she was scared I'd tell them if she made like it was important. I said, "Mammy, Old Cunningham come in and say there's gonna be a war to free the n******, and I don't know what he was talking about, but old Mistress said, "I don't want want to live to see the n****** free," and old Cunningham said, "I want to see how the n****** will act when they're free." 
Life During the Civil War.  
"You know over in Franklin where the Baptist Church is on Hardbargain is where the Fort was during the War [she may be referring to Fort Granger], and they set right there and spied the rebels in the houses and shelled them. They got old Cunningham and dared him to say a word. They just stripped him - took everything he had. They camped right there on our place, and when they would blow the bugle I just thought that was the prettiest blowing I ever heard. Ole Cunningham had two girls and one boy, and he was just sitting down this a way (with head in hands) and they was in different rooms. Them Yankees took everything but what Mammy got. She was smart; we had the cradle that would set under the bed, and she pulled it out and filled it full of meat, so Mammy had plenty for her chillen after they left. After they had done took everything from ole Cunningham, Joe [Cunningham - Thompson's son] watched 'em out of sight and come back to tell his papa they had gone. And he called, "Papa, Papa, get up now, they're gone. " and the old man didn't say a word, so he shook him, and he was dead, when the Yankees left. They took all his money and everything. When I heard they was buying that money I went to get mine, but it had done tore all to pieces down in the bottom of the trunk."

Thompson Cunningham died on June 2, 1862.  During the Civil War, another person Thompson Cunningham enslaved  - a 12-year-old boy named Osborn - went to war as Thompson Cunningham's son William's body servant in the Confederate Army.  I have already chronicled Osborn Cunningham's story here.

Emancipation and Reconstruction.  

It is not clear exactly how Martha gained her freedom - although she does give a clue that it did not come quickly or easily.
“Lawd, the times we did have, I know that when the War got over and we got free they put me in the field to work.”

Martha Harrison's interview described that she met and married a man named George Harrison around the end of the War.  Interestingly, in the records, it appears that her husband's name was Charles - not George - Harrison.  It is not clear to me if this difference was due to an error, or an intentional change.
Dating and Marriage.  Interviewer: George Harrison was born a slave also, in Franklin, Tennessee. He belonged to a family of Harrisons. He was somewhat older than Martha, and was almost a young man when the War ended.
I have determined that Charles was born about 1852 to Daniel Harrison and Eliza Lockridge.  He was the third of seven children and the oldest boy.  In the 1870 Census, I found him living with his parents and siblings in District 4 of Williamson County, near Triune. His father was farming and his mother was keeping house. The oldest children were working as domestic servants.
Interviewer:  Martha met George in Franklin one Sunday when she went to attend a "Big Meeting" at the church. They saw each other on several occasions and finally married. 
Interviewer: They lived in Franklin, a while, moved to another town and worked in a family.
I have not been able to locate George/Charles and Martha in Franklin in the immediate post-War years. 
Interviewer: They moved to Nashville and settled at the same address where she now lives [River Street]. She brought her mother with her, and she lived with them until she died, at the age of 103.
I believe that Martha's mother was a woman named Cecelia Merritt who was born around 1838 in Tennessee. Cecelia and her sister Nancy both moved to Nashville along with Martha and her family.
Interviewer: Three children were born to [Martha and Charles] - two were stillborn, and one, a daughter [Celia, b. 1877], lived to be grown. 
"My children all went to school, though, and my girl that died was sho' smart in her books, too."
In 1891, Charles and his brother Eli were counted in an enumeration of adult men in District 8 of Williamson County.

Tennessee, Enumeration of Male Voters, 1891
A portion of record showing Charles Harrison, age 40, and his brother Eli

Interviewer: . . . Sally [Celia, b. 1877], married an Armstrong [Plummer Armstrong in 1895 in Williamson County] and was the mother of three children. 
By the 1900 Census, Charles and Martha were living in Nashville.  Charles was farming.  Living with them was their married 26-year-old daughter Celia Harrison Armstrong and her husband Plummer Armstrong. Also living with them was Josie Boyd, a 14-year-old niece (the daughter of Martha's aunt Nancy), and 9-year-old Lula Harrison (whom I suspect may have been Celia's daughter from a previous relationship).

I have not been able to learn much about Lula, but in 1907, when she was 16 years old, she was working as a cook at 50 University Place along with Martha. The family was living on River Street (also sometimes called Locust) west of Driftwood.

1907 Nashville City Directory
The extended family remained in the River Street area for the next several decades.  River Street was in the 13th District near the intersection of Wharf and Fillmore Streets in south Nashville. This is in the vicinity where I-24 crosses over the Cumberland River today.  In 1904, a lime plant was constructed on the street. In an article describing the plant's construction, the neighborhood was described as including a quarry and railroad tracks. The area was called Hell's Half Acre due to the high poverty rate.

Portions of 1897 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee.
Images 153 & 154, Library of Congress
In 1911, Martha's 37-year-old daughter Celia was murdered by a woman in the neighborhood - the result of a dispute that involved her grandmother Cecilia Merritt. At the time, she and her family were living on "Tin Cup Alley" in Hell's Half Acre very near her parents, and perhaps with her grandmother.  She was buried in the Greenwood cemetery, but I have not located her headstone.
Nashville Banner
December 9, 1911

Saturday, July 15, 1905
Martha and Charles remained living on River Street where Charles was a laborer and Martha worked as a cook. 

Nashville City Directory, 1912
"My husband never did like for me to work; he used to ask me how come I work when he was doing all he could do to give me what I wanted. "Looks like you don't 'preciate what I'm trying to do for you." But I'd say, "Yes, I do, honey, I just help you 'cause I don't want you to break down. If you put a load on one horse it will pull him down, but two horses call put it just as easy."
In 1915, it appears that Celia Merritt, Martha's mother, was living with them on River Street.

1915 Nashville City Directory

Interviewer: . . . Two [of Celia and Plummer Armstrong's three children] died, and one lived to reach maturity. She [the surviving child, Fannie Lou, b. 1901], married a Batey [Monroe Batey in 1920 when she was 18 years old], and also had three children. . . . 

In the 1920 Census, taken in January of that year, Martha and her husband Charlie were living with their granddaughter Fannie and her 1-month-old son Willie D.  I believe that this little boy was later called Charlie after his great-grandfather. I also believe that his father was Monroe Batey, whom Fannie married later than year in a ceremony performed by the Rev. A. D. English.

Fannie Lou Armstrong and Monroe Batey's marriage license
October 1920
Nashville, Davidson County, Tennessee
In 1921, Charlie's sister Beatrice was born, and in 1923 the siblings were joined by baby of the family Lizzie Lou. Sadly, however, in 1924 Fannie - the children's mother and Martha's granddaughter - died of tuberculosis. At the time she was working in a tobacco factory. Fannie, her husband and children were living with Martha at the time of her death. Around the time that Fannie died, her husband Monroe Batey also died along with their two-year-old daughter Beatrice; they all were struck down by tuberculosis.  Martha and Charlie were left to raise the couple's two surviving children Charlie and Lizzie Lou.

In 1926, Martha's aunt Nancy Merritt died while she was living her at the Harrison's home on River Street. 
Nashville Tennessean
February 17, 1926
In 1927, Martha's husband Charles Harrison passed away at the family home at 45 River Street in Nashville.  It must have seemed unbearable for Martha.  His obituary said he was 59 years old, but he was likely in his 80s. 
Charles' funeral was held at New Hope Baptist Church in Nashville and he was buried at Greenwood Cemetery, but his headstone has not been located.
Interviewer: Her husband died about four years ago, from heart trouble. He was sick for some time, and at his death left nothing except the home to his widow. She had been married for fifty-one years.

1930 Census.  In 1930, Martha was still living in the family home on River Road with her great-grandchildren - Charlie Batey and his sister Lizzie Batey. Martha owned the home, which was valued at $700, and she was supporting the family as a laundress.
1930 Federal Census
Davidson County, Nashville District 43
Page 17, River Road
Entry for Martha Harrison living with grandchildren Charlie Batey and Lizzie Batey

"Yes'm they're in school (great-grandchildren) (wouldn't keep 'em out for nothing. . . "

April 1932 Interview. In April 1932, "Negro Health Week" was held in Nashville.  I think that Martha Harrison may have been identified as a possible subject for her interview at a health clinic during this week based on this notation in her interview:
Patient was brought to the clinic by two of her neighbors. Did not have money to enter, and was allowed to enter and referred to Social Service. She was examined in the clinic. Diagnosis: chronic gastritis; chronic articular rheumatism, chronic valvular heart disease.
Visited by Interviewer in September 1932.  Following this initial contact, it appears a though the Fisk University researchers followed up with Martha to continue an interview at her home on River Street on September 15, 1932. At the time of the interview, Martha would have been about 83 years old.
(9.15.32) A visit was made to the home of the patient. River Street is a short, very rough gully through which it is impossible to drive, and almost impossible to walk. Inquiry was made for her. She is well and affectionally known as "Aunt Martha" by children and grown-ups in the neighborhood. Her house is the last one on the street, at the foot of the hill. The yard is small and overgrown with trees and shrubbery, so that the house is partly hidden from view. It is old and unpainted. The ceilings are low, and it is crowded with various old articles of furniture. The three of them sleep in one room, the boy occupying a small bed alone, and the girl shares the large bed with her great-grandmother. They seem to be bright, smart children. She says the girl can cook, and helps in many ways. She accuses the boy of being lazy. He was, however, at the time of the visit, washing clothes, and had several of his pals helping him. 
There were some neighbors to see her. She was worrying because she was not able to keep her house clean and wash her bedding. There seemed to be two other rooms, a back porch, and a front porch. What the other rooms are used for was not found out. She has never asked for charity and is not known to any of the other agencies. 
Charlie, age 11, and Lizzie Lou, age 8 are living with Mrs. Harrison, their great-grandmother, and are being cared for entirely by her. 

May 1939.  Sadly, just a few years after this interview, in May 1939, Martha's great-grandson Charles Batey died. His death certificate says that the cause of death was undetermined, but he did die at St. Thomas Hospital. At the time of his death, he was living at the family home on River Street and was working as a laborer. 
Martha and Lizzie were left alone.

1940 Census.  The following year, according to the Census, they were still living on Locust Street, another name for River Street. Lizzie was supporting the pair by working as a cook for a private family.

1940 Census, Davidson County Nashville Ward 14

Emancipation Day Celebration - January 1, 1944.  On New Year's Day 1944, Martha Harrison was among a group of "ex-slaves" treated to a dinner in honor of surviving former slaves.  They were attending an Emancipation Day celebration held in Nashville in honor of the 80th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. She was listed as being 84 years old but was likely closer to 95. Also celebrated that day was Palmyra Claybrooks who had also been enslaved in Franklin as a child.

Sunday Jan_9__1944
Frustratingly, I have not been able to find the conclusion to Martha Harison's story.  No obituary or death records have been uncovered.  I do not know her final chapter.

I hope that this post serves as a kind of memorial to her long, and at times difficult and tragic life.  I find some comfort in knowing that her voice will live on forever through her interview with the Fisk researchers.  The glimpse she left behind, into a time of incomprehensible violence and cruelty, and unimaginable strength and fortitude, should serve as a reminder of why we cannot ever let this part of our history be repeated nor forgotten. 

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