Nancy Gardner was born in Franklin in Williamson County, TN. She was interviewed in the 1930s as part of a program run by the federal government WPA's Federal Writers Project that hired writers to interview former slaves. Interviewers, both white and African American, traveled seventeen states interviewing about 2,500 people and took 500 photographs. The interviews were organized by state and published in 1941 as the Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States. Many of the WPA interviewers attempted to transcribe the dialect in which interviewees spoke - which can make reading them sometimes difficult.
I have tried to track down all the slave narratives of people with ties to Williamson County and have compiled them in this blog post.
Below is the interview with Nancy Gardner along with my comments. She was about 79 years old when she was interviewed and living in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Well, to tell you the truth I don't know my age, but I was born in 1858, in Franklin, Tennessee. Now, you can figure for yourself and tell how old I am.
[Based on later records, I actually think Nancy was born a little earlier - at least by 1853.]
I am the daughter of Prophet and Callie Isaiah, and they were natives of Tennessee. There was three of us children, two boys and myself. I'm the only girl. My brothers names was Prophet and Billie Isaiah.
I can't tell you much 'bout work during the slave days because you see I was just a baby you might say when the War broke out. I do remember our Master's name though, it was Dr. Perkins, and he was a good Master.
[I believe that Nancy was enslaved by Dr. Peter Augustus Perkins and his family. He was born in Franklin, Williamson County in 1817. His parents were Nicholas "Bigbee" Perkins and Mary Hardin Perkins, one of the wealthiest couples and largest slaveholders in Williamson County.
Nicholas "Bigbee" Perkins II (1745-1848)
Portrait from Tennessee State Library & Archives
|Mary Harden Perkins (1794-1840)|
Portrait from Tennessee Library & Archives
Dr. Perkins grew up in the Forest Home area of Williamson County. By 1850 he was enslaving 67 people; in 1860 he was enslaving 68 people.
In 1862, Dr. Perkins entered into an agreement to sell 41 people to his brother William O'Neil Perkins. W O'N Perkins was a successful attorney and former County Commissioner of Williamson County. Following the Civil War he would serve as Tennessee's Speaker of the House. In the sale agreement between the brothers, the people to be sold were listed and the list included "Proffit, Caledonia, Proffit Jr., Nancy and Babe." I believe this was Nancy's family - who she described as Prophet, Callie, Prophet Jr, and perhaps Babe was her youngest brother Willie. I think that William O'Neil Perkins had them taken from Dr. Perkins to Memphis where they were sold.]
Ma and pa sure hated to have to leave him, he was so good to dem. He was a rich man, and had a big fine house and thousands of acres of land. He was good to his n*****s too. We had a good house too, better dan some of dese houses I see folks living in now. Course Dr. Perkins n****** had to work, but dey didn't mind 'cause he would let dem have little patches of dey own such as 'tatoes, corn, cotton and garden. Jest a little, you know. He couldn't let dem have much, there was so many on Dr. Perkins plantation. I don't remember seeing anybody sick in slavery time. You see I was just a kid and there's a lot of things I can't remember.
"I don't 'member much about them [her brothers and father] as we was separated when I was seven years old.I'll never forget when me, my ma and my auntie had to leave my pa and brothers. It is just as clear in my mind now as it was then, and that's been about seventy years ago.Oh God! I tell you it was awful that day when old Jeff Davis had a bunch of us sent to Memphis to be sold."
|This ad was placed by a woman looking for her three children who had been sold in Memphis. |
I think it describes a little bit of what Nancy must have gone through being separated from her father and brothers that awful day in Memphis.
[I have seen a few references to Jefferson Davis selling enslaved people or interacting with them. I wonder if his name came to represent any slave trader - like Nathan Bedford Forrest - who it is much more likely that Nancy would have come into contact with in Memphis. However, she was living in Montgomery, Alabama after the War - the original capitol of Jefferson Davis' Confederacy, so it is possible that she was around him there.]
I can see old Major Clifton now. He was a big n***** trader you know. Well, they took us on up there to Memphis and we was sold just like cattle. They sold me and ma together and they sold pa and the boys together. They was sent to Mississippi and we was sent to Alabama. My pa, oh how my ma was grieved to death about him! She didn't live long after that. She didn't live long enough to be set free. Poor ma, she died a slave, but she is saved though. I know she is, and I'll be with her some day.I knowed old Jeff Davis good. Why I was jest as close to him as I am to dat table. I've talked with him too. I reckon I do know dat scoundrel! Why, he didn't want de n****** to be free! He was known as a mean old rascal all over de South.Abraham Lincoln? Now you is talking 'bout the n****** friend! Why dat was de best man God ever let tramp de earth! Everybody was mighty sad when poor old Abraham was assassinated, 'cause he did a mighty good deed for the colored race before he left this world.I wasn't here long during slavery, but I saw enough of it to know it was mighty hard going for most of de n****** den, and young folks wouldn't stand for dat kind of treatment now. I know most of the young folks would be killed, but they jest wouldn't stand for it. I would hate to have to go through wid my little share of it again."
I have not determined how or when Nancy was able to claim her freedom, but she seems to have settled in Montgomery, Alabama. On Christmas Day1869, Nancy Perkins married Bailey Gardner in Mongomery, Alabama. Bailey was a hack driver - he drove a horse and carriage giving rides to people around town for a fare. They appear to have lived a comfortable life. In the 1880s, Bailey's mother lived with them in a home they owned. Nancy worked as a washerwoman and her mother-in-law was a seamstress.
|1880 Federal Census, Montgomery, Alabama|
"It was thirty years before my pa knew if we was still living. Finally in some way he heard that I was still alive, and he began writing me. Course I was grown and married then and me and my husband had moved to Missouri. Well, my pa started out to see me and on his way he was drowned in the Missouri River, and I never saw him alive after we was sold in Memphis."
[I have not been able to find any references to Nancy living in Missouri - perhaps she meant Mongomery? But around this time, she did reunite with family living in Guthrie, Oklahoma. In 1904 she visited her cousin, Cornelius H. Bradley. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for her. She had last seen her father and brothers in a slave pen when she was a child. Her mother had died soon afterward. But here she was, reuniting with living relatives. What a joyous time that must have been for her.
Nancy's cousin had grown up nearby on the extensive Perkins plantations. He was the son of Wallace Bradley (b. 1826) and Margaret Green of Williamson County. Wallace Bradley was enslaved by Nicholas Bigbee Perkins - the father of Dr. Peter Perkins and William O'Neil Perkins. When Nicholas Bigbee Perkins died in 1848, he left his daughter Margaret Perkins Bradley (sister to Dr. Perkins and W O'N Perkins) 40 enslaved people. Named was Wallace -- Cornelius’s father.
In the 1870 Census, Wallace Bradley's family was counted living on or near the former plantation of Nicholas Bigbee Perkins' son Nicholas Edwin Perkins. Cornelius was 16 years old.
Wallace's son Cornelius married his wife Elizabeth Ridley in Williamson County in 1877. Cornelius, Elizabeth, and their son O'Neil (named after the former enslaver?) moved to Kansas and later to Oklahoma where Nancy visited them. Their participation in the Exoduster movement followed the path that so many African Americans from Williamson County took - read more here about this migration. In 1904 trip the visit was reported on in the local newspaper, the Guthrie Progress.]
[It was no coincidence that the paper reported on the reunion. At the time of the visit, Cornelius' son O'Neil was the publisher of the Guthrie Progress newspaper. It was common for formerly enslaved people to publish newspaper ads looking for long-lost family. Since O'Neil was in the publishing business, it makes me wonder if that contributed to the family finding each other again. (You can find my collection of these types of ads for people from Williamson County here.) Sadly, the year after her visit, Nancy's cousin Cornelius died.
|O'Niel Herman Bradley|
Son of Nancy's cousin
In 1911, Nancy's husband Bailey also died and she sold his horses and equipment by placing an ad in the local Montgomery, Alabama newspaper.
Soon after, she returned for another visit with her cousin's family in Oklahoma. In this newspaper clipping, we learn that not only did Nancy have a cousin living in Oklahoma, but she also had an uncle there.
|Judge George Napier Perkins|
Nancy Perkins Gardner's uncle
Photograph, Oklahoma Historical Society
Nancy and Cornelius had an uncle Judge George Napier Perkins. He was an extraordinary man and I will write more about him and the family in a future blog post. Once again, I have to say how wonderful and remarkable it must have been for Nancy to be surrounded by family - and such a successful one. Her cousin's son O'Neil had been elected as the town's Justice of the Peace since her last visit. During her visit, she may have visited other Williamson Countians living in Dover, Oklahoma such as Green Currin's family (see my blog post about him here).
Sadly, during this trip to visit family in Oklahoma, the house that Nancy and her husband Bailey Gardner had worked so hard for was burned down in an arson.
After the fire, Nancy moved to Oklahoma to be closer to her family following the loss of her home and her husband. She seems to have remained close to Cornelius' widow and son O. H. Bradley. By that time, O. H. Bradley was an undertaker and publisher and editor of the Boley Progress, a newspaper for African Americans in the all-Black town of Boley, Oklahoma. O.H. Bradley was even the mayor of Boley in the 1930s.
Video about the history of Boley, Oklahoma
By 1916, Nancy Perkins Gardner moved to Oklahoma City where she worked as a cook - and where she was interviewed about 20 years later when she was in her mid-70s.
|1932 Oklahoma City Directory|
Listing for Nancy Gardner, widow of Bailey
She was living at 501 Missouri Avenue
I am fairly certain that Nancy died in 1944. There is a plot in Block 29, Lot 79 of the Summit View Cemetery in Guthrie, Oklahoma that I believe is hers. Her cousin Cornelius was buried in the adjacent plot- Block 29, Lot 81 in 1904. When his wife Elizabeth died in 1944 and son O'Neill died in 1948 they were buried there as well. Her Uncle Judge Perkins and his wife are buried in a nearby section (Section 2, block 5). (Full cemetery map here.)
|A portion of Summit View Cemetery map showing locations of Judge George Perkins burial (far left) and suspected burial of Nancy Perkins Gardner and Bradley cousins (upper right)|
Nancy Perkins Gardner does not appear to have left any descendants. But her life and her legacy live on through this interview.
Her description of her faith is one of the most beautiful I have ever read.
I joined the church nigh on seventy years ago and when I say dat, I don't mean I just joined the church.I mean I gave myself up to the Heavenly Father, and I've been goine straight down the line for Him ever since do now,You know in those days, we didn't get religion like young folks. Young folks today just find the church and then call theyselves Christians, but they ain't.
I remember just as well when I was converted. One day I was thinking about a sermon the preacher had preached and a voice spoke to me and said,"The Holy Ghost is over your head. Accept it!" Right then I got down on my knees and prayed to God that I might understand that voice, and God Almighty in a vision told me that I should find the church. I could hardly wait for the next service so I could find it, and when I was in the water getting my baptisement, that same voice spoke and said, "Now you have accepted don't turn back because I will be with you always!" O you don't know nothing about thatat kind of religion!
I remember one night shortly after I joined the church I was laying in bed and there was a vine tied 'round my waist and that vine extended into the elements. I could see my Divine Master and he spoke to me and said, "When you get in trouble shake this vine; I am your Master and I will hear your cry."