Here to return to
COTTON PATCH LIFE IN TENNESSEE
I WAS only a short distance from Memphis, yet the region was almost as raw and rustic as if there had not been a large town within a hundred miles. To be sure great fields of corn and cotton were numerous; but I did not have to go far to strike the forest, and only a few decades have passed since the woodland was nearly omnipresent. The trees have been laid low to make fence rails and railroad ties, and to supply fuel for the old, wood-burning locomotives. Much of what was cut was ruthlessly wasted or sold for a song. “If the timber was standing now that was hyar twenty years ago,” said one man, “we’d all make our fortunes handling it. Why, I’ve chopped down a coon tree and let it lie and rot that’d be worth forty dollars to-day.”
The spring was backward, but the corn had been planted and was beginning to come up, and the cotton fields had been ploughed and ridged and much of the seed was in. On my first day, work was pretty much at a standstill, for a heavy rain the previous night had converted the fields into mud and bog.
A Negro Cabin
I started out for a ramble, and as long as I kept to the “pike” the travelling was fairly good; but as soon as I turned off on to a dirt road I was in sticky red clay, and had to pick my route with caution. There were more blacks than whites in this region, and the country was dotted over with their cabins. Many of the huts were made of logs, and they were all primitive. Some were so rudely constructed, and so open to the onsets of the storms, you wondered how they could be used for dwellings. The old lanes along which these homes were scattered were very wild and picturesque. There were stumps in them and occasional large trees, while along the fences grew briers and bushes. Frequently they were hardly more than a cart track wide, and were so rough and rutted as to be practically impassable for a Christian vehicle. In explanation of the badness of these byways, I was told that only negroes lived along them; and that therefore the local authorities never troubled themselves to “work” the roads. “Dey think anything will do fo’ colored folks,” was one negro’s comment.
A rural delivery route ran through the district, and nearly every dwelling had its metal box set out by the roadside on a post. The white people owned their boxes at a cost of a dollar and thirty cents; but they told me that the negroes mostly rented theirs from a Memphis daily newspaper, and paid sixty-five cents a month for box and paper. A representative of the paper had explained to the negroes that they could not have boxes except on these conditions, and that if they were without a box they could only get their mail by going to Memphis for it. Many of them did not want the paper and could not afford the expense, but they were too inexperienced to comprehend the swindle or to know what to do about it. The colored families are apt to take a religious weekly, and every negro has thoughts and opinions on the topics of the time, especially on those that affect his own race; but, as one of them said, “Hit doan’ do to talk much or we git into a heap er trouble. We low-born, an’ the white folks are not likin’ us to say anything.”
The commonest type of negro home in the neighborhood was a long, single-story structure, with a kitchen at one end and sleeping apartments at the other, and an open passage-way between, known as “the entry.” This entry served to separate the heated kitchen from the rest of the dwelling, and was a combination of porch, shed, and open-sided room for work and loitering. Its walls and roof made a handy hanging-place for all sorts of articles. The chimneys were outside at the ends of the house. They were usually of wooden slats thickly bedaubed with a mixture of clay and dry grass. “De clay an’ grass chimney ain’ ve’y endurable,” I was informed, “an’ in about fo’ years dey have to be built over.
The Sitting Hen’s Prison Coop
Toward noon I passed through a long stretch of woodland. Off among the trees I could hear the ding-dong of cowbells, the cooing of turtle-doves, the drumbeat of the “peckerwoods,” and the trilling and twittering and whistling of a multitude of other birds. The wind rustled softly through the new foliage and the air was permeated with the odors of spring. Here and there were dashes of dogwood bloom, and patches of May-apple were coming into flower on the ground. I stopped for dinner at a farmhouse. The place was a half-wild sort of a ranch, the house badly out of repair, and in the home yard roamed numbers of turkeys, ducks, hens, goats, and hogs. Two of the older girls had been busy that morning picking up the dry last year’s stalks in the corn field and piling them to burn. One of the boys, about ten years old, had been ploughing with a mule.
We ate in the hot and grimy kitchen. Pork and mustard greens, corn-bread and coffee, were chief on the bill of fare. The farmer suggested I might prefer milk instead of coffee, and he poured a glass for me; but one taste was enough. The children of the family drank it freely, and the man also took a tumblerful. As he finished it he casually remarked that the milk was a little sour. I wondered that he said “a little,” for it was half curdled.
He entertained me very handsomely and exemplified what he called “the old-fashioned Southern hospitality,” that was “glad to see you come, and sorry to see you go.” He observed further, that “Befo’ the war nothing gave a man more pleasure than to do honor to his guest. You were treated with special respect, even at the hotels. Why, I used to know a landlord who, after a man registered, always wrote in front of the signature ‘Capt.,’ ‘Maj.,’ or ‘Col.,’ so that no one stopping at his hotel failed to have a military title. He was a genuine polished old-style gentleman, and his guests was all treated like they was persons of distinction.”
My host said he was going fishing later in the day. “This is just the right time of year for it,” he declared.
you know. Every old colored woman gets her hook and line ready when the dogwood blossoms, and so do all the rest of us.”
By night, when I returned to my boarding-place, the weather had turned cold, and the next day was so chilly and clouded I stayed indoors most of the time. A rude wind buffeted the trees and soughed wearily about the house, and I sat beside the kitchen fireplace to enjoy the grateful heat of the brisk fire that was kept burning there. The gloomy skies and the bleak and boisterous wind seemed to put my landlady in a mood for telling ghost stories. “The first thing I remember of my childhood,” said she, “is of sitting out on the porch of a moonlight night and hearing the darkies tell about the witches. When I went to bed I was so scared thinking a witch might come through the keyhole, I jus’ couldn’t sleep.
“The niggers have a lot of queer ways. They take poisonous snakes’ heads and pound ‘em up with other poisonous things to put in hoodoo bags; and then they hide the bags under the doorstep, or in the bed of the person they want to harm. Once I was sick for a long time and no one could make out what the trouble was. At last the house burned and most everything in it; but we saved my feather bed, and I tore it up to make pillows. Inside I found a hoodoo ring made of feathers twisted into a band or ring fifteen inches across, and tied to it was a hundred or more little bags. I put it in the fire, and after that I got well. I ‘spose I’d been inhalin’ the poison.
“When you was in Memphis did you see Brinkley Hall? I went to school there. Well, one night my room-mate and me was sitting together with a lighted lamp on our table. Suddenly some one blew out the light, and the lamp chimney went on the floor and was smashed. We was all in darkness, and we ran to the door. It was a door that never would close tight; but it was tight shut now and we couldn’t get out. We heard some one walking in the room over the broken glass of the lamp chimney, and we began to scream. The girls in the rooms near us came to our door, and we told them what had happened, and how we couldn’t get out. They laughed at us, but when they listened and heard the footsteps they went to shrieking. That brought the principal running up the stairs, and he opened the door; but there was nothing to see only some broken glass on the floor and us two girls limp with fright.
“After that all sorts of things happened at the school. The girls used to hear the noise of water falling on the floor, and bells would ring with no one ringing them; and there was one scholar named Flora Robinson who would go into a trance, and see a little girl in a pale pink dress who kept following her. Once the little girl had her take a pencil and write, and the writing said that if Flora’s folks would dig in a certain place they’d find jars with papers in ‘em showing that Brinkley Hall belonged to the Robinsons. So her folks got some men to dig in that place, and a few feet down they came to a brick wall, and they tore that to pieces and found three glass jars, and they could see money and papers inside. They decided to let the jars stay right there till next day when they would open ‘em before proper authorities. A man stood guard; but during the night he was knocked on the head, and the jars was stolen. So much had happened that the school broke up, and Brinkley Hall with its forty rooms is vacant yet.
“Another strange thing in my own experience happened after my husband died. He was very fond of music, and in his last sickness he said if he could return to earth he would make his presence known by playing the piano. One day just at supper time, after he’d been dead about two weeks, I heard the piano play. All the children heard it, too, and we jumped up from the table, scared to death. I said I never would want to use that piano again, and I sent it to Memphis to be sold.”
On the Porch
My landlady in concluding urged me to call on a negro family by the name of Houston that lived next door and ask them what they knew about witches and other occult things. Their house was in a yard full of trees, and its aspect was rather pleasant from a distance, but when I got a close view I found it was shabby and decrepit. I was welcomed into the kitchen, a dismal place that gloomy day in spite of the flames flickering in the fireplace. The floor sagged dubiously, the ceiling was brown with smoke, and panes were missing from the windows, and the holes stuffed with rags. Newspapers were pasted in a queer motley over the walls. The room had two beds. On one of them lay a gun. A sick girl was in the other, and the rest of the family sat in a circle at the borders of the rough, deepworn hearth doing very little except to spit into the fire at frequent intervals. Mrs. Houston and her two daughters each had a wad of snuff inside of her under lip. My landlady had mentioned that a pedler of spectacles had recently been along. “He had two qualities,” said she, “one for white folks at a dollar and a half, and one for darkies, with brass bows, at seventy-five cents. Houston bought a pair for himself, and a pair for the old woman. He wanted his oldest girl to have a pair, too, because they were fashionable, but she wouldn’t.”
Sure enough, when I entered the kitchen, Mr. Houston went to the window-sill and got his spectacles, and handed his wife hers, and they both put them on. We were soon talking about the mysteries, and Mr. Houston said: “De witches ride our horses at night. In de mornin’ we’ll find der manes and tails full of witches stirrups — de ha’r all twisted and tangled up. It couldn’t twis’ itself up dataway, an’ yo’ cain’t pick de ha’r straight in an hour. You have to cut it. You can lock yo’ horses up an’ tie ‘em tight as yo’ please; but it make no dif’runce, de witches git ‘em an’ use ‘em jus’ de same. Sometimes, too, de witches come in de house when you asleep an’ ride you, an’ you wake up all tired an’ lame.”
“I doan’ min’ de witches so much as de conjurations,” remarked Mrs. Houston.
“Well,” said the man, “if yo’ find a conjure thing, all yo’ got to do is to put some silver money in yo shoes, an’ you c’n walk over it widout gittin’ any harm.”
“But it ain’ often yo’ find it befo’ hand,” she objected, “an’ I doan’ want to keep money in my shoes all de time.”
“My oldes’ girl, Em’line, was tricked once,” the man went on. “She’d have a pain in her breast, an’ nex’ minute de pain would be in her side, an’ den in her back — de pain keep movin’ aroun’ all over her an’ was worryin’ her to death. We went after a medical doctor, and when he see her he turn white an’ scratch his haid an’ look like he scared. He did de bes’ he could fo’ her, but ev’y bit er de medicine what he give her she throwed up. We tried some mo’ doctors, an’ dey ev’y one give her a round er medicine; but none of ‘em couldn’t help her. She had spells like she was dyin’ an’ got black under her eyes an’ round her lips, an’ she said it no use to sen’ fo’ any one else. But we went an’ got a hoodoo doctor from Memphis. Soon as he come he say to her, ‘Who you shuck hands wid?’
“She tol’ him she ain’t shuck hands wid nobody; but he say some one had hol’ er her hand shore, an’ he describe de man, an’ she know who de man is. He a feller what been wantin’ to marry her. We try to raise our children nice an’ ‘spectable, an’ we want ‘em to keep de bes’ company dar is, an’ dat feller too no account. So she wouldn’t have him. She say she ain’t shuck hands wid him; but one day she climbin’ up a bank, an’ dat man had caught her by de arm an’ holp her up, an’ no sooner did he do dat dan she fin’ herse’f havin’ de trembles. De hoodoo doctor he listen an’ lif’ his eyebrows; but he ‘pear not to be sati’fied yit. He look aroun,’ an’ he say, ‘Dar somethin’ bad in dis hyar house;’ an’ he ask Em’line, ‘Whar dose pillows on yo’ bed been to?’
“Den he took ‘em an’ rip ‘em open, an’ dar was a conjure thing big as yo’ fis’ in each one. It was a piece er cloth wid wax on both sides, an’ all kind er feathers quirled aroun’ and aroun’ in de wax. De hoodoo doctor pass one to me, but when I took it in my han’ a cramp run plumb up in my shoulder. I couldn’t hol’ it. Nex’ thing, de doctor look at de bottles er medicine on de table, an’ set ‘em all aside, an’ tol’ us not to use ‘em no mo’. Den he give Em’line a little shot er quicksilver an’ she swallow it an’ was cured. I done heard that quicksilver is death fo’ a well person to take any of it; but if yo’ been conjured it ketch de pizen an’ doan’ hurt yo’ none.”
“Yo’ c’n tell whether yo’ been tricked,” said Mrs. Houston, “by takin’ a piece er silver money an’ sleepin’ wid it in yo’ mouth. If yo’ been conjured, de silver, in de mornin’, be jus’ as black as a coal wid spots er yaller like copper on it.”
“De hoodoo doctor charge ten dollars fo’ what he done,” Mr. Houston resumed. “Dat a heap to pay, an’ yit, if I was took sick bad, I shore would send fo’ him.”
“De same feller what trick Em’line made de attemp’ atterward to conjure de whole chu’ch,” said Mrs. Houston.
“Yes,” observed Mr. Houston, “I see him put a little mess under de chu’ch doorstep an’ bury it. I didn’t know certain what he doin’, but I step aroun’ it when I went in. Yuthers, dey step over it, an’ dey git conjured. Our preacher man, he git conjured, too, an’ no sooner is he preachin’ dan he make out like he mighty happy, an’ he put his arms round de sisters an’ hugged ‘em. I reckon if he hadn’t been wearin’ a silver watch which kind er protect him, he’d been killed. My nephew was took sick at de same time right dar in meetin’, an’ I tol’ him what de matter was. So he jump on a mule an’ rode as fas’ as he could to de doctor to git himself worked on. Atter meetin’ I took a stick an’ pull de conjure thing out from under de doorstep, an’ de nex’ Sunday we discuss de matter in de chu’ch to see what we better do about de feller; but he had skipped, an’ he ain’ been round hyar since.”
“I mighty glad he gone, too,” Mrs. Houston commented. “De way he done trick Em’line give me de worst scare I had since freedom. Yas, dat de bigges’ shakeup I ever expe’ence, excep’ in de war when dey had a battle near whar I lived. Oh, my Lord, how dey fought! We’d hear de guns a-firin’ fast as dey could pop, an’ once in a while a big cannon would bang. De Southern soldiers went marchin’ past, back an’ forth, an’ dey go all through people’s fields. Lord ‘a’ mercy! dey’d throw down de fences dat was in de way, an’ make a wide dusty road right through de green fields. Den de Northern soldiers come, thousands an’ millions of ‘em, I reckon, an’ dey took all our horses an’ mules, an’ all de hams out er our smoke-houses. Some er de white folks would hide der things, but de Northern soldiers would git hol’ er de darkies an’ threaten to kill ‘em if dey didn’t tell whar de things was. Dey begun to build forts, an’ dey tell de planters to sen’ der darkies to help. One mighty mean man said he wa’n’t gwine have his darkies workin’ fo’ de North. So dey took his two sons an’ put dem at diggin’. Dat make him think he made a mistake, an’ he didn’t was’e no time in bringin’ de darkies to take his sons’ place.”
“I holped de Republican party build dem breastworks,” declared Mr. Houston. “Dat de fust work I done fo’ de Republican party. It wa’n’t long befo’ de Rebs had been run out from aroun’ hyar. De cars kep’ comin’ all de time loaded inside an’ outside wid Republican party soldiers, an’ in der uniforms dey look jus’ like bluebirds. Some colored men jine de Republican party army an’ went to fight, an’ dey want me go too; but I’d got a wife, an’ I didn’t want to be separate from her an’ perhaps never see her again. Besides, I didn’t know whether de North gwine beat, though it look mo’ bad fo’ de South all de time. Yit I kep’ out er de army way to de end, becaze I reckoned if de Republican party win, I be free whedder I fight or not. If she git licked I better not be too much mix up in de rumpus.”
Explaining the Situation
Back of the village to the east was a wide expanse of corn and cotton fields extending over to some woods along a creek. Bordering the woods were frequent cabins, and these were connected with the village by irregular paths skirting the ditches and edges of the fields and occasionally taking a straight cut across the cultivated grounds. Most of this land rented for five dollars an acre. Corn and cotton were the chief crops, but some of it was planted to potatoes and pease. In good weather the region is very busy with men, women, and children intent on earning the money to pay the rent and get a living for themseves. They begin to put in the cotton seed when the scrub hickory buds; and a white man told me that negroes depended so much on nature thus to indicate the proper time, that “If the scrub hickory didn’t never bud they wouldn’t never expect to plant.”
A month later the cotton is ready for its first “chopping” — that is, hoeing. They start picking in September, and money is then more plentiful than at any other season. Most of the negroes, in addition to caring for their own crops, do a good deal of picking for the whites. The pay is fifty to seventy-five cents a hundred, and the day’s labor begins as soon as the dew dries and ends a half hour before sunset. “It’s fun to any one to pick cotton,” an old woman said to me. “I’ve picked over two hundred in a day many a time, and nursed my baby and milked my cow and cooked dinner fo’ me an’ my ole man an’ three chillen. De men de bes’ pickers. Some of ‘em certainly can snatch it. De women gits tired in de back, an’ de men dey hol’ out longer. When dere’s a prize offered I seen men pick much as four hundred pounds er dis yer big boll cotton in one day.”
The fields are at their whitest just
after the first frosts. Then all the bolls open and the cotton patches look as
if there had been a fall of snow. The frost also loosens the cotton and makes
picking easy. The work goes on for many weeks, and there is some desultory
gleaning all through the winter. One famous cotton picker is “Uncle Henry,”
reputed to be over a hundred years old. He never cuts his finger nails, because
he wants them to grow long, so he can have their aid in getting the cotton
quickly out of the bolls. I called on him one day at his house, and as I
approached I heard him singing a curious negro hymn.
His home was on the edge of the woods, a whitewashed log dwelling with a huddle of little outbuildings and fenced enclosures roundabout. Uncle Henry was sitting by the kitchen fire entertaining several grandchildren. The grizzled old negro looked to be about fourscore; but he had no doubt he was entitled to thirty years more, and said there were lots of colored people one hundred and twenty and one hundred and twenty-five years of age. He remembered distinctly the “falling of the stars” in 1833, and any negro whose memory has that span is a patriarch of his race. Aside from the war, that is the greatest event of modern times in the chronicles of the colored folks.
“I was about ten years ole, I reckon,” said Uncle Henry, “and I was out playin’ hide and coop wid a parcel er white boys, an’ we thought it was a snowstorm at de start. Den, de fust news I knew my mammy an’ missis was a-hollerin’ an’ cryin’, ‘Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy!’ an’ sayin’ it was de end er de worl’. My missis made noise enough, I can tell yo’ dat. I never heared such a voice as dat woman had. One er our men was name Dave Tucker, an’ he was de only man on de place what could hive bees. When de bees swarmed he bleeged to come, an’ my ole missis could holler an’ call him from five miles away.
“Dat night I speakin’ about it appear like ev’y star in de sky was a-fallin’. Some er de boys try to cotch ‘em in der hats, but de stars go out befo’ dey git to de groun’. Dey lit up de whole earth, an’ as dey fell dey made a sissin’ soun’ like de soun’ er draps er water thrown on a hot skillet. My oldes’ brudder, he’d been out ‘mongst de gals dat night, an’ he was on his journey home when he heard de roarin’ er de stars a-fallin’, an’ he thought de whole elements was burnin’ an’ de judgment come. He reckoned his time was out, an’ de got down den an’ dar on his knees an’ he prayed, ‘O Lord, come quickly, come quickly, I greatly need yo’!’
“Dem dat hadn’t never prayed in der lives prayed a li’l’ bit dat night, an’ I hear tell er one man — an’ he was a ve’y ole man too — he ain’ been use to prayin’, an’ he try to say de Lord’s Prayer; but when he git to, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,’ he kind er mixed, an’ he say instead, ‘Lord, kick ‘em as dey come!’ Yas, it scare us all, an’ in less’n two weeks ev’ybody, white an’ black, got religion. Dar was mo’ religion dan enough.”
When I left Uncle Henry one of his grandsons became my guide on the uncertain paths that linked cabin to cabin and connected them with the village. He told me about a gun he had, and how he had shot rabbits and tried to shoot ducks.
“What’s that bird we hear in the tall trees just ahead?” I interrupted.
“Dat’s a kind er a li’l’ ole bird call’ a wren,” was the reply.
Then he pointed out a redbird and some “jay birds,” and said, “De redbird de prettiest bird we got. Dar’s lots er birds hyar — peckerwoods an’ sapsuckers an’ yallerhammers an’ robins; an’ dar’s de rain crows what set up in de trees an’ holler when it’s fixin’ for to rain; an’ a li’l’ ole speckle bird call a thrush. Some er de birds are good to eat, an’ in de winter time I knock ‘em down wid a stick. Dey roun’ stumps atter something to feed on, an’ it so col’ dey won’t hardly fly. Yo’ be astonish’ how col’ it is hyar sometimes; but in summer, it often so hot we cain’t scarcely stay in our clothes. We gwine along de bottoms near de crick now. Yo’ hear all dat hollerin’ over dar? Dat de spring frogs. Dey a li’l’ muddy color frog no bigger dan de end er my thumb. Dey de firs’ frog in de spring. De toad frog an’ de bullfrog doan’ come until it git right warm.”
The boy was surprisingly keen in his knowledge of the little creatures of the fields and woods. He was himself a child of nature, a companion of the wild, whose world was narrow, but not by any means uninteresting. Nor was he at all unusual. Most of the blacks are well versed in this sort of lore, and in a simple way the field, the forest, and the air serve them for the information and entertainment which most of us go to books to gain.
The labor of the families who depended on the cotton patches for a living did not seem to me to yield very satisfactory returns. Few are able to attain a safe prosperity, and poverty stalks along behind most, ever threatening to drag them off their little holdings. Such conditions were often revealed to me by my chance acquaintances. For instance, I one day stopped a negro who was driving a farm cart through the spring mud of the highway and asked directions. While we were talking a colored woman came plodding along and spoke to the man. “Hit been a long time since I seen you, Brother Bealy,” said she. “How yo’ gittin’ on?”
“Well,” he replied, “I had a hard expe’ence dis las’ winter wid de rheumatism; but hit has let up on me some now.”
“Yo’ luck sholy have been bad, Brother Bealy,” said the woman sympathetically.
“I done met some heavy ole jars, Sister Larkin,” he admitted. “Las’ year de secon’ time I been sol’ out on account er mortgages. Hit quite a th’owback for me. I got six chillen an’ a wife a-swingin’ on top er me, an’ hit no easy matter to pay my rent and all de yuther expenses.”
“Yas, to take keer er yo’ fambly, yo’ oblige to hit hard an’ often,” was the woman’s comment; “but if yo’ keep up heart, de Lord, He boun’ to pull you through.”
The man removed his hat and rubbed his head thoughtfully. “I gwine to stick to my work long as I c’n move,” he said; “and I’m gwine to pay all my honest debts from a nickel up. God knows I am.”
“Dat right, Brother,” the woman responded heartily, “an’ doan’ let any mo’ mortgage be put on yo’. Dar’s a heap er people you an’ me have knowed roun’ hyar have got in debt till dey owed two or three hundred dollars, an’ den dey so discourage dey lef’ de country. Dese lenders keep puttin’ on per cent and per cent, an’ hit jus’ nacherly ruins dem dey lends to.”
“Yes,” agreed the man, “fifteen per cent and ten per cent and de principal, too, been mo’ dan a good many could stan’ under. Dey done all dey could, an’ at las’ dey give up ev’ything but de shirt on der back, an’ some of ‘em pull dat off an’ say, ‘Hyar, take dat too.”‘
The man gathered up his reins preparing to drive on. “We been havin’ pretty tolerable rough weather,” said the woman.
“We certain have,” was the man’s response, “an’ dat big win’ las’ night done shook my ole shack till I thought de house blow to pieces.”
“Hit took off de las’ er de apple bloom,” the woman added, looking off over the landscape. “De trees look now like we have apples to bet on hyar mont’ atter next.”
“What yo’ hear from yo’ son in Texas, Sister Larkin?” asked the man.
“I plumb worried about him,” she replied. “De las’ news I heard he got de terrified fever.”
They discussed this typhoid (?) fever, and then the man resumed his journey. I went on in company with the woman. She called my attention to the poor repair of the fences along the way, and told about “a no fence law” passed a few years before which obliged every one to keep their stock from running at large. Previously the crops had to be fenced, and the cattle and hogs were turned loose and went where they chose, and they “pretty nigh picked up der own livin’.” But this wicked and incomprehensible law made it necessary to take care of them and feed them, and that didn’t pay.
In concluding her remarks the woman philosophized thus: “Times have been; times will be; times wear out same like ev’ything else. De ways dey use to do ain’ like de ways dey do now. Dese days, if yo’ doan’ take keer er yo’ cattle dey’re ketched an’ yo’ have to pay three or fo’ dollars to git ‘em ag’in.”
The black cotton workers have their troubles, but they have their pleasures, too; and one of the chief of these pleasures is a debating society. This met every Saturday night in a spare room of a certain log cabin. The apartment was fitted up with a few benches and some boards laid on blocks, and it was pretty sure to be packed full. The discussions were very earnest and aroused much interest. “Las’ Saturday,” said a member of the society, “de question was, ‘Which is de bes’ beneficial, education or money?’ Three fighted fo’ education and three fighted fo’ money, and education whooped. Anudder time we debate, ‘Which has de deepes’ effec’ on a person’s min’, what he see, or what he hear?’ Nex’ time de question gwine be, ‘Which done de mos’ fo’ de people — war or de ministry?’”
The negroes found delight in exercising their intellects at the debating society; but in the case of the whites, nothing appealed quite so strongly as the pleasure of satiating their stomachs at a barbecue. “Our barbecues are the biggest thing yet,” I was told. “We most always have a neighborhood barbecue in August or September, and we have ‘em at election speakin’s, and Sunday-school picnics. When I was a boy we had one on the Fourth o’ July. Everybody was bound to get done cultivating his corn and cotton by then so as to be ready to celebrate. Yes, you’d drive your mule till it didn’t have any tail to get done by the Fourth. The way we fix for a barbecue is to begin to get ready the day befo’. The meat is roastin’ all night. We have plenty of different meats — shoat, calf, kid, and goat, and we roast the whole animals. A trench is dug, and oak bark coals put in. Then sticks are laid across for the meat to rest on. Some white man has charge, but the niggers keep the fires goin’ an’ do the basting and the rough work.
“The next day everybody comes. There’s a detail to do the carving, and we all step up and get what we want and go and sit down by some tree to eat it. Of course there’s potatoes and cornmeal lightbread, and pickles and cake, and there’s ice cream, and there’s pure, genuine, strong coffee that the old ladies make, in abundance. Then there’s fried chicken, if any one is fastidious enough to want it, and some enterprising fellow is likely to bring half a dozen bottles of beer and invite his special friends out to his buggy to drink it. But the best thing to my thinkin’ is the shoat. A man hasn’t got any part in the resurrection until he’s eaten barbecued shoat.”
The narrator’s enthusiasm was quite superlative, and I have no doubt that the barbecues for the whites and the debating society for the blacks do much to brighten an otherwise somewhat sober existence.
NOTE. — To see something of rustic Tennessee with ease and comfort it is perhaps best to take a good-sized town as a base where one can live at a first-class hotel. Rations and housing for the traveller out in the country have a somewhat doubtful character. But from any large town one can go by train, or drive, and soon get into the cotton country and observe the people’s homes and their work. Interest largely centres in the life one sees, for the landscape of the cotton regions is apt to be monotonous and devoid of charm.