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Rebecca Hooks: Ex-Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project 1936-1938
Rebecca Hooks, age 90 years, is one of the few among the fast-thinning ranks of ex-slaves who can give a clear picture of life "befo' de wah."
She was born in Jones County, Georgia of Martha and Pleasant Lowe, who were slaves of William Lowe. The mother was the mulatto offspring of William Lowe and a slave woman who was half Cherokee. The father was also a mulatto, purchased from a nearby plantation.
Because of this blood mixture Rebecca's parents were known as "house niggers," and lived on quarters located in the rear of the "big house." A "house nigger" was a servant whose duties consisted of chores around the big house, such as butler, maid, cook, stableman, gardener and personal attendant to the man who owned him.
These slaves were often held in high esteem by their masters and of course fared much better than the other slaves on the plantation. Quite often they were mulattoes as in the case of Rebecca's parents. There seemed to be a general belief among slave owners that mulattoes could not stand as much laborious work as pureblooded Negro slaves. This accounts probably for the fact that the majority of ex-slaves now alive are mulattoes.
The Lowes were originally of Virginia and did not own as much property in Georgia has they had in Virginia. Rebecca estimates the number of slaves on this plantation as numbering no more than 25.
They were treated kindly and cruelly by turns, according to the whims of master and mistress who were none too stable in their dispositions. There was no "driver" or overseer on this plantation, as "Old Tom was devil enough himself when he wanted to be," observes Rebecca. While she never felt the full force of his cruelties, she often felt sorry for the other slaves who were given a task too heaven to completed in the given time; this deliberately, so that the master might have some excuse to vent his pent-up feelings. Punishment was always in the form of a severe whipping or revocation of a slave's privilege, such as visiting other plantations, etc.
The Lowes were not wealthy and it was necessary for them to raise and manufacture as many things on the plantation as possible. Slaves toiled from early morning until night in the the corn, cotton, sugar cane and tobacco fields. Others tended the large herds of cattle from which milk, butter, meat and leather was produced. The leather was tanned and made into crude shoes for the slaves for the short winter months. No one wore shoes except during cold weather and on Sundays. Fruit orchards and vegetables were also grown, but not given as much attention as the cotton and corn, as these were the main money crops.
As a child Rebecca learned to ape the ways of her mistress. At first this was considered very amusing. Whenever she had not knitted her required number of socks during the week, she simply informed them that she had not done it because she had not wanted to- besides she was not a "nigger." This stubbornness accompanied by hysterical tantrums continued to cause Rebecca to receive many stiff punishments that might have been avoided. Her master had given orders that no one was ever to whip her, so devious methods were employed to punish her, such as marching her down the road with hands ties behind her back, or locking her in a dark room for several hours with only bread and water.
Rebecca resembled very much a daughter of William Lowe. The girl was really her aunt, and very conscious of the resemblance. Both had brown eyes and long dark hair. They were about the same height and the clothes of the young mistress fitted Rebecca "like a glove." To offset this likeness, Rebecca's hair was always cut very short. Finally Rebecca rebelled at having her hair all cut off and blankly refused to submit to the treatment any longer. After this happening, the girls formed a dislike for each other, and Rebecca was guilty of doing every mean act of which she was capable to torment the white girl. Rebecca's mother aided and abetted her in this, often telling her things to do. Rebecca did not fear the form of punishment administered her and she had the cunning to "keep on the good side of the master" who had a fondness for her "because she was so much like the Lowes." The mistress' demand that she be sold or beaten was always turned aside with "Dear, you know the child can't help it; its that cursed Cherokee blood in her."
There seemed to be no very strong opposition to a slave's learning to read and write on the plantation, so Rebecca learned along with the white children. Her father purchased books for her with money he was allowed to earn from the sale of corn whiskey which he made, or from work done on some other plantation during his time off. He was not permitted to buy freedom, however.
On Sundays Rebecca attended church along with the other slaves. Services were held in the white churches after their services were over. They were taught to obey their masters and work hard, and that they should be very thankful for the institution of slavery which brought them from darkest Africa.
On the plantation, the doctor was not nearly as popular as the "granny" or midwife, who brewed medicines for every ailment. Each plantation had its own "granny" who also served the mistress during confinement. Some of her remedies follows:
For colds: Horehound tea, pine top tea, lightwood drippings on sugar. For fever: A tea made of pomegranate seeds and crushed mint. For whooping cough: A tea made of sheep shandy (manure); catnip tea. For spasms: garlic; burning a garment next to the skin of the patient having the fit.
Shortly before the war, Rebecca was married to Solomon, her husband. This ceremony consisted of simply jumping over a broom and having some one read a few words from a book, which may or may not have been the Bible. After the war, many couples were remarried because of this irregularity.
Rebecca had learned of the war long before it ended and knew its import. She had confided this information to other slaves who could read and write. She read the small newspaper that her master received at irregular intervals. The two sons of William Lowe had gone to fight with the Confederate soldiers (one never returned) and everywhere was felt the tension caused by wild speculation as to the outcome of the war.
Certain commodities were very scarce Rebecca remembers drinking coffee made of okra seed that had been dried and parched. There was no silk, except that secured by "running the blockade," and this was very expensive. The smokehouse floors were carefully scraped for any morsel of salt that might be gotten. Salt had to be evaporated from seawater and this was a slow process.
There were no disorders in that section as far as Rebecca remembers, but she thinks that the slaves were kept on the Lowe plantation a long time after they had been freed. It was only when rumors came that Union soldiers were patrolling the countryside for such offenders, that they were hastily told of their freedom. Their former master predicted that they would fare much worse as freemen and so many of them were afraid to venture into the world for themselves, remaining in virtual slavery for many years afterward.
Rebecca and her husband were among those who left the plantation. They sharecropped on various plantations until they came to Florida, which is more than fifty years ago. Rebecca's husband died several years ago and she still lives with her two daughters, who are very proud of her.
American Life Histories from the Library of Congress
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