(Mrs. Cora Gillam, Age 86, 1023 Arch Street, Little Rock, Arkansas)
I have never been entirely sure of my age. I have kept it since I was married and they called me fifteen. That was in '66 or '67. Anyhow, I'm about 86, and what difference does one year make, one way or another. I lived with master and mistress in Greenville, Mississippi. They didn't have children and kept me in the house with them all the time. Master was always having a bad spell and take to his bed. It always made him sick to hear that freedom was coming closer. He just couldn't stand to hear about that. I always remember the day he died. It was the fall of Vicksburg. When he took a spell, I had to stand by the bed and scratch his head for him, and fan him with the other hand. He said that scratching pacified him.
No ma'am, oh no indeedy, my father was not a slave. Can't you tell by me that he was white? My brother and one sister were free folks because their white father claimed them. Brother was in college in Cincinnati and sister was in Oberlin college. My father was Mr. McCarroll from Ohio. He came to Mississippi to be overseer on the plantation of the Warren family where my mother lived. My grandmother - on mother's side, was full blood Cherokee. She came from North Carolina. In early days my mother and her brothers and sisters were stolen from their home in North Carolina and taken to Mississippi and sold for slaves. You know the Indians could follow trails better than other kind of folks, and she tracked her children down and stayed in the south. My mother was only part Negro; so was her brother, my uncle Tom. He seemed all Indian. You know, the Cherokee were peaceable Indians, until you got them mad. Then they was the fiercest fighters of any tribes.
Wait a minute, lady. I want to tell you first why I didr get educated up north like my white brother and sister. Just about time for me to be born my papa went to see how they was getting along in school. He left my education money with mama. He sure did want all his children educated. I never saw my father. He died that trip. After awhile mama married a color man name Lee. He took my school money and put me in the cotton patch. It was still during the war time when my white folks moved to Arkansas; it was Desha county where they settle. Now I want to tell you about my uncle Tom. Like I said, he was half Indian. But the Negro part didn't show hardly any. There was something about uncle Tom that made both white and black be afraid of him. His master was young, like him. He was name Tom Johnson, too.
You see, the Warrens, what own my mother, and the Johnsons, were all sort of one family. Mistress Warren and Mistress John- son were sisters, and owned everything together. The Johnsons lived in Kentucky, but came to Arkansas to farm. Master Tom taught his slaves to read. They say uncle Tom was the best reader, white or black, for miles. That was what got him in trouble. Slaves was not allowed to read. They didn't want them to know that freedom was coming. No ma'am! Any time a crowd of slaves gathered, overseers and bushwhackers came and chased them; broke up the crowd. That Indian in uncle Tom made him not scared of anybody. He had a newspaper with latest war news and gathered a crowd of slaves to read them when peace was coming. White men say it done to get uprising among slaves. A crowd of white gather and take uncle Tom to jail. Twenty of them say they would beat him, each man, till they so tired they can't lay on one more lick. If he still alive, then they hang him. Wasn't that awful? Hang a man just because he could read? They had him in jail overnight. His young master got wind of it, and went to save his man. The Indian in uncle Tom rose. Strength big extra strength seemed to come to him. First man what opened that door, he leaped on him and laid him out. No white men could stand against him in that Indian fighting spirit. They was scared of him. He almost tore that jailhouse down, lady. Yes he did. His young master took him that night, but next day the white mob was after him and had him in jail. Then listen what happened. The Yankees took Helena, and opened up the jails. Everybody so scared they forgot all about hangings and things like that. Then uncle Tom join the Union army; was in the 54th Regiment, U.S. volunteers (colored) and went to Little Rock. My mama come up here. You see, so many white folks loaned their slaves to cessioners (Cecessionists) to help build forts all over the state. Mama was needed to help cook. They was building forts to protect Little Rock. Steele was coming. The mistress was kind; she took care of me and my sister while mama was gone.
It was while she was in Little Rock that mama married Lee. After peace they went back to Helena and stayed two years with old mistress. She let them have the use of the farm tools and mules; she put up the cotton and seed corn and food for us. She told us we could work on shares, half and half. You see, ma'am, when slaves got free, they didn't have nothing but their two hands to start out with. I never heard of any master giving a slave money or land. Most went back to farming on shares. For many years all they got was their food. Some white folks was so mean. I know what they told us every time when crops would be put by. They said "Why didn't you work harder? Look. When the seed is paid for, and all your food and everything, what food you had just squares the account." Then they take all the cotton we raise, all the hogs, corn, everything. We was just about where we was in slave days.
When we see we never going to make anything share cropping, mother and I went picking. Yes ma'am, they paid pretty good; got $1.50 a hundred. So we saved enough to take us to Little Rock. Went on a boat, I remember, and it took a whole week to make the trip. Just think of that. A whole week between here and Helena. I was married by then. Gillam was a blacksmith by trade and had a good business. But in a little while he got into politics in Little Rock. Yes, lady. If you would look over the old records you would see where he was made the keeper of the jail. I don't know how many times he was elected to city council. He was the only colored coroner Pulaski county ever had. He was in the legislature, too. I used to dress up and go out to hear him make speeches. Wait a minute and I will get my scrap book and show you all the things I cut from the papers printed about him in those days....
Even after the colored folks got put out of public office, they still kept my husband for a policeman. It was during those days he bought this home. Sixty-seven years we been living right in this place - I guess - when did you say the war had its wind up? It was the only house in a big forest. All my nine children was born right in this house. No ma'am, I never have worked since I came here. My husband always made a good living. I had all I could do caring for those nine children. When the Democrats came in power, of course all colored men were let out of office. Then my husband went back to his blacksmith trade. He was always interested in breeding fine horses. Kept two fine stallions; one was named "Judge Hill", the other "Pinchback". White folks from Kentucky, even, used to come here to buy his colts. Race people in Texas took our colts as fast as they got born. Only recently we heard that stock from our stable was among the best in Texas.
The Ku Kluxers never bothered us in the least. I think they worked mostly out in the country. We used to hear terrible tales of how they whipped and killed both white and black, for no reason at all. Everybody was afraid of them and scared to go out after dark. They were a strong organization, and secret. I'll tell you, lady, if the rough element from the north had stayed out of the south the trouble of reconstruction would not happened. Yes ma'am, that's right. You see, after great disasters like fires and earthquakes and such, always reckless criminal class people come in its wake to rob and pillage. It was like that in the war days. It was that bad element of the north what made the trouble. They tried to excite (incite) the colored against their white friends. The white folks was still kind to them what had been their slaves. They would have helped them get started. I know that. I always say that if the south could of been left to adjust itself, both white and colored would been better off.
Now about this voting business. I guess you don't find any colored folks what think they get a fair deal. I don't, either. I don't think it is right that any tax payer should be deprived of the right to vote. Why, lady, even my children that pay poll tax can't vote. One of my daughters is a teacher in the public school. She tells me they send out notices that if teachers don't pay a poll tax they may lose their place. But still they can't use it and vote in the primary. My husband always believed in using your voting privilege. He has been dead over 30 years. He had been appointed on the Grand Jury; had bought a new suit of clothes for that. He died on the day he was to go, so we used his new suit to bury him in. I have been getting his soldier's pension ever since. Yes ma'am, I have not had it hard like lots of ex-slaves.
Before you go I'd like you to look at the bedspread I knit last year. My daughters was trying to learn to knit. This craze for knitting has got everybody, it looks like. I heard them fussing about they could not cast on the stitches. "For land's sakes," I said, "hand me them needles." So I fussed around a little, and it all came back. What's funny about it is, I had not knitted a stitch since I was about ten. Old mistress used to make me knit socks for the soldiers. I remember I knit ten pair out of coarse yarn, while she was doing a couple for the officer out of fine wool and silk mixed. I used to knit pulse warmers, and "half-handers", - I bet you don't know what they was. Yes, that's right; gloves without any fingers, 'cepting a thumb and it didn't have any end. I could even knit on four needles when I was little. We used to make our needles out of bones, wire, smooth, straight sticks, - anything that would slip the yarn. Well, let me get back to this spread. In a few minutes it all came back. I began knitting washrags. Got faster and faster. Didn't need to look at the stitches. The girls are so scared something will happen to me, they won't let me do any work. Now I had found something I could do. When they saw how fast I work, they say: "Mother, why don't you make something worth while? Why make so many washrags?" So I started the bedspread. I guess it took me six months, at odd times. I got it done in time to take to Ft. Worth to the big exhibit of the National Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. My daughter was the national president that year. If you'll believe it, this spread took first prize. Look, here's the blue ribbon pinned on yet. What they thought was so wonderful was that I knit every stitch of it without glasses. But that is not so funny, because I have never worn glasses in my life. I guess that is some more of my Indian blood telling.
Sometimes I have to laugh at some of these young people. I call them young because I knew them when they were they are already all broken down old men and women feel young inside. I feel that I have had a good
Samuel S. Taylor (November 28, 1941)