In honor of Black History Month, this February we are releasing a special four-part series that highlights African American experiences in Southern Appalachia. Our second week features excerpts from interviews conducted in 1977 and 1981 with Carrie Stewart, of Franklin, North Carolina. Carrie was born in 1878, and shares stories of slavery passed to her through her grandparents and father. To read the rest of Carrie’s story, pick up a copy of Foxfire 8.
Carrie Stewart Transcripts:
Carrie Stewart (CS): And I remember all that, way back then, because see I was born the 28th of November, eighteen and seventy-eight.
CS: And my mother, my mother’s been dead since nineteen and twelve. My daddy died in nineteen and ten, and my mother died in nineteen and twelve—just two years difference. Uh-huh, that’s been a long time.
Foxfire (FF): What was her name?
CS: McDonnell. M-C-D-O-N-E-double L. McDonnell.
FF: Were they from up here? Were they from Franklin?
CS: Yes, uh-huh. Yeah I was born and reared right here in Franklin.
FF: And your father?
CS: Well, yes, I reckon he was. I don’t know, I really just don’t know. My father was born way back then when they sold children, you know, put ‘em on—he said he remembered being sold. They were buyin’ slaves, you know? Now like if this white man owned a woman, and he’s gonna buy a woman so he can raise children just like a man buyin’ and raisin’ cattle. He’d pick out a woman that he knew, as they said, fertile, you know. And if he saw a woman that had several children, he’d buy her, ‘cause he knew he’d have children. And they said, my daddy told us, if they got a woman that had several children, why they’d take care of her just like she was a queen. I said that’s pitiful. And my daddy said, that they had—just like they have these auction sales, you know? And said they’d have a block out there, a stool or somethin’, and they’d all crowd around. And they’d put that boy up there and examine him, and if he seemed to be well-made and strong and all, then they’d go to biddin’ on him. The highest bidder got him. I said, “Well I declare, that was terrible.”
FF: Did he know who it was?
FF: Did he know who it was?
FF: Who bought him?
FF: Who was the man that bought him?
CS: McDonnell. There was two white McDonnells—one…let me see, I forgot the names now, but there was two white McDonnells that were brothers. And one bought my daddy and one bought my daddy’s uncle. And I said, and we are so mixed up, I don’t know who my relatives is and who aren’t. See my mother, my grandmother—she wasn’t a slave, she was a bound girl. See way back then, white men would want a girl and they’d bind her to this man, a Reverend C.D. Smith. Her name—she married way back then, she married a Carpenter. But they didn’t live together but a little bit because she said she couldn’t stand his way and so she wasn’t married long. So she went by this white man’s name, Smith. And so, his sons—he had several sons, Dr. Frank Smith, Mr. Charlie Smith, Canaro Smith—lot of those Smith men. And this Mr. Charlie Smith, after I was grown though, he had a store in town. And when my mother’d go in the store, he’d tell ‘em, “Wait on my kinfolks, that’s my kinfolks!” It would just embarrass momma so. He was very nice. Yeah my grandmother was bound to Smiths. And my grandmother’s daddy, they said he bought his freedom. I never could understand how that works. He wasn’t a slave anymore, said he bought his freedom. I don’t know, I planned to ask somebody that knew but I don’t know who knows.
FF: What was his occupation?
FF: What was his occupation?
CS: My daddy?
FF: Your granddaddy.
CS: Oh, he was a farmer. He farmed.
FF: The grandfather who bought himself out of slavery.
CS: Yeah, bought his freedom they said. I don’t know what that means or how it goes, but I heard my daddy say that my granddaddy bought his freedom so he’s no more a slave. He could kind of engineer his own business and all like that. He didn’t have to go ask questions, this, that, and another. They gave him privilege, you know, so to engineer his own business. And I said, well, that was given him a chance. That was years and years ago. Let me see, I think about five or six generations of my family. Just my immediate—let’s see, I have children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren.
FF: Do you really?
CS: Mhm, yes.
CS: Yes, I have five generations. Me and my daughter, and my granddaughter, and my great-granddaughter, and my great-great. Yeah, and you know, I’ve seen all of ‘em. I’ve seen that whole generation. Yeah.
FF: That’s great. That really must be nice for you.
CS: I’ve lived to be enough. If I live to see November, I’ll be ninety-nine years old.
CS: I had a wonderful teacher. A Reverend Kennedy. And now, you didn’t pass up anything halfway; you had to know it. I remember we wore out the page in a book almost learnin’ the multiplication table.
CS: That was the hardest table. But he made us stay right there ‘til we learned that table. So you see in the fives and the tens and we could just go and rattle those, but we couldn’t keep up with the others. But he made us stay right there ‘til we learned that multiplication table. So I said, I could get that most any time, yeah because we had to learn it. And you know, I’m proud of it too. I’m proud of it, ‘cause he let us went on and I got the arithmetic to see what eight times seven was, and all like that. We couldn’t do it. So I said I’m very proud of it.
FF: That’s the teacher that boarded with you?
CS: Yes. I said well, I don’t know, and I get aggravated when I think about it, that I wasn’t more strict on making my children learn things like that. You see, a mother, she had a baby this year. Then in two years, she had another baby—didn’t have time to teach arithmetic. I could’ve did better than what I did, but this teacher of mine, Reverend Kennedy, he lived to see me married and some of my children. And he said, “Now, keep your children busy. Your boys—give your girls a needle and thread.” Said, “They may not sew good, but give them two or three pieces of cloth and let ‘em sew it together. And if they don’t sew it straight, make them take it out and go over it again. And he said, then you first, you baste a line there—long stitches—and let ‘em sew. And see if they sew right by that. If they don’t, pull it out and start again. And even at the table—he boarded with my parents, he wasn’t married then—they would eat, you know, way back then children didn’t go to the table with the old folks. They played, they’d eat when they could reach across the table and all that. He would come in you know and say, “Alright, sit down, take your arms off the table. Lay your wrists up there. Put your knife on the back of your plate. Spoon down, eat with your fork.” I would say, “I wish mama would tell him to go on about his business.” “Pull your chair up close to the table.” And he’d make us do that. And you know, now, if I sit down to a table crossways, I think of that. I get tickled. I say, “Well, Reverend Kennedy would say, ‘Alright Karen, sit up to the table close.’” And don’t brush crumbs off on the floor. If you have any crumbs, let ‘em come in your hand, put ‘em on your plate. And when you leave the table, put your knife and fork on the ?. Oh, he was very strict. And I don’t know, I said, “I guess it was the very thing.” His daughter lives in Asheville now. His oldest daughter. She laughs—I told her, “I got all my table manners and manners from your father.” She said, “I know, he used to make me so mad before he died.” He lived to be, I think he was ninety-nine or something like that. He was very, very strict.
FF: How many years did he teach you?
CS: Well, as long as I went to school. I went to school—I married when I was eighteen. And I went to school off and on until I married. Yeah I married, let’s see I quit school in the spring, and I married the next June. June.
FF: Did you start to school when you were about six years old?
CS: That’s right, six years old. I started school. And I remember we had these little half-gallon tin buckets, you know? I don’t guess you ever seen one. I have a little one in yonder now, but it’s flowered and pictured all over. But these were little tin half-gallon buckets. They held a half gallon. And our parents would put our dinner in that bucket, and lid on it you know? Yeah we’d go ahead, see all them little tin buckets at school—children with their dinner. And some children’s parents—one lady, they didn’t have but one child. And they was pretty—we called it high up—and she’d have, you know she’d have biscuit bread, you know, and cake and tea cakes. And we, where our parents had big families, maybe we’d have cornbread made for the day and they’d cook peas and beans and things. They’d have a couple beans in there. Oh, such things like that you know. I think about that and it just tickles me. And she wouldn’t give us, she would not—and we’d rush through that and go where she was.
FF: You’re the oldest one of the ten?
CS: Oldest one of the ten. The oldest and the youngest is living.
FF: You had ten children?
CS: Yeah, I had ten children. Twins made the ten. I had nine confinements. I had twin babies. The little girl didn’t live but just a little while. And the boy lived to be seventy-seven years old. He died here this year. He lived to be seventy-seven.
FF: Now that was your son?
CS: That was my son, yeah. Yeah my, let me see, my oldest son’s dead, and my second daughter is dead. Let me see, I think I have four living. Bella, Gertrude, Emily, and George. I have four children living. And I waited twelve years and had my last baby. Dr. Lyle told me—that was my doctor way back then—he told me that, he said now—you know, I used to suffer with sick headache. And he said, “Carrie, you’re going through the change.” And he said, “This headache will torment you right much, but it’ll quit after a while. It might take a year, it might take two,” but he said, “In the wind-up, you’ll most likely have a little one.” And sure enough, in twelve years, I had my baby. And he was spoiled to death. You see the rest, the one next to him was twelve years older than him. And he just thought he was it.
CS: And the county, used to have a three-month school way years ago. And I never did go to but one, ‘cause we lived so far and we children were so small, and we lived so far that we couldn’t go. Our parents had no way to get us there. So we didn’t go. And so I never went to anything but the Episcopal school. Nine months. I ought to be highly educated. We’d start in August and we’d end in up in the last of May, or first of June.
FF: What did you all do, as young people, for courting and for games and parties and such?
CS: Oh, well, we had little social parties, you know. Not many had games. We’d have what they called cake walks. Some of them would play the harp and some of them would pick the banjo. And them that could dance would dance, and them that couldn’t dance would keep time to the music. And we called it cake walks, you know. We’d have parties and meet, you know, and they’d pick the banjo and play the fiddle and, oh, we’d have ourselves…but then, our parents, we had a certain time to come back home. We couldn’t go and stay all night. We’d go, and when this hour come, we had to go home. So we didn’t stay all night like they do now. I remember one time we went to a cousin of mine and there was a crowd of us there. And everybody was sick, ‘cause the time was out and they was havin’ such a good time. No I never did care nothin’ about dancin’ the sets, ‘cause too much swingin’ around for me.
FF: But you weren’t taught that it was sinful or wrong were you?
CS: Oh, no, no. No, I liked to go and I liked when they had what they called cake walk and they’d have two and two and play music and walk, you know, march to a tune. I didn’t mind that. But a crowd get out and dance and a man called it—what they called ‘called it’—I wasn’t in that at all. But, whew! Some of those girls could dance. My, my.
FF: How ‘bout singing?
CS: Singing! Oh well we’d have that Sundays. You know, we wasn’t supposed to do anything on Sundays as much as we done in the week. We’d have singings a lot of Sunday afternoons. At one church later on, why we had—and Wednesday nights we’d have prayer meeting and have singings.
FF: But, so, the songs you were singing were usually religious songs?
CS: Oh yes. Indeed. We wouldn’t dare sing anything else in church.
FF: Well, at other times, did you sing other things?
CS: Oh yes, during the week, when we was home, we could sing whatever wanted. Let me see there’s one song I never will forget: “Down the road, down the road”—I forget how it goes now—and one of ‘em called “Cripple Creek.” I can’t think about it now, but one they called “Cripple Creek.” And one goes down the road, down the road. I forget how they go now, but they used to sing ‘em.
FF: Yeah? Did you all have a piano or an organ in the house?
CS: Well, they had a little organ, but we didn’t have one for years. But they had banjos, you know, and fiddles. They had that for music. They didn’t have—
FF: And you sing to ‘em?
CS: Yeah. And those fellers, they could pick and sing. Oh! It was terrible. I had a brother-in-law, one, he could pick the banjo and his brother could play the fiddle. That was beautiful music. Mr. Lee Crawford—there was a man there, I was married then, I had my children, grown-up children—Mr. Lee Crawford. That was the man my husband worked for. He had a boy named Gilmer. Well he just had one child at that time. And Gilmer liked music. And so he used to come up to my house and bring Gilmer so he could hear the music. And Gilmer and my son that died here a week or two ago, they loved to dance together. And both of them could dance—oh! They sure could.
FF: Did they buck dance?
CS: Yes, indeed. Indeed, they could buck dance, both of them. They used to face each other and just dance. And you know, that way of dancing I think is very pretty too. Everything’s so quiet, and somebody called the set and the dancing going round—swinging the partner and cage the bird. I don’t know what all else was to it. And it was very, very pretty.
FF: Did you all have things like thrashin’ parties and big party after you finished shucking corn or anything?
CS: Well, no, I remember they’d have cornshuckin’s in the fall of the year. Men would gather corn and put in a great big pile, you know? And then they’d send out word “cornshuckin’ tonight.” And then they’d have supper, and lot of them would have a dance afterwards.
FF: Now was this, did white and colored both go?
CS: Yes, yes. White and colored both go together.
FF: There was no segregation?
CS: No, no there wasn’t no segregation to it. They would just, I don’t know, they enjoyed bein’ together to have a big time, I reckon. No, they didn’t do like they do now about things. And it isn’t as bad now as it used to be, since they integrated the schools and things, it isn’t as bad. No, they’d go white and colored. And I remember they’d have a red ear of corn in the pile somewhere. And I forgot how they done that, the one that got the red ear of corn. One that shucked ‘til they found the red ear of corn. There was some kind of prize to that.
FF: What did you parents used to do with you all?
CS: What did they do? Oh my daddy farmed. They farmed, my daddy farmed. They used to raise corn and stuff like that. And we children, we worked on the farm. We hoed corn, you know, pull fodder and pick peas and beans, like that. On the road from here to Georgia, after you cross the bridge somewhere over here, on the left-hand side of the road there, I remember picking peas there when I was a girl. Picked peas there, we’d go like this mornin’ and pick peas and have a great big sheet and we’d spread it out and pick the peas and put them on there—and the sun was hot, you know—in the fall of the year, and they’d dry. And we’d get it full and in the middle of the afternoon, sit down and have sticks and beat ‘em out—we called it beatin’ them out. Take the hulls all off, and sack them up, and sack up the peas and we’s ready to go home then. Clay peas.
And in fodder time, people was pullin’ fodder and we was pickin’ peas. I don’t see why people don’t raise more of those now, they’re high. They were clay peas. We called ‘em cow peas, but they were clay peas. I like ‘em, a lot of people don’t like ‘em, but I like ‘em. I think they cook ‘em to death and then warm ‘em tomorrow. I think it’s better to cook ‘em fresh. I like ‘em. I haven’t seen any in a long time. But they’re very good. But we used to have beans to pick. And then at night, before we children would go to bed, we’d be playing around there and they’d bring in a big bag of beans and put ‘em down. All of us get on our aprons, we’d shell beans, you know.
CS: No, people don’t farm and raise stuff like they used to. Nothin’ like it. It wasn’t nothin’ to see a lot of children in the field with their hoes, man a’plowin’ and them hoein’ corn.
FF: The girls and the boys?
FF: The girls and the boys were hoeing?
CS: Yes, yes indeed
FF: Do you think that families used to be closer than they are now?
CS: Think what?
FF: That families used to be closer?
CS: Well, yes, they did in a way. Because, I don’t know, children didn’t get out and roam where they please and just run everywhere. Now like if I lived here and you lived up yonder on the hill or somethin’, you didn’t go up there and to them people’s house any time you wanted to. If you went up there to play, I let you go and play, now well you stay an hour. When that hour’s up, you come back home. They didn’t just step out and go like they do now. Every child, when he was away from home, his parents knew where he was. Yeah. But now, why you can’t keep up.
FF: What kind of toys did you have when you were small?
CS: Why, we didn’t have any toys except what the—I don’t remember us having any toys except what the boys would make. They’d make little sleds, you know, and things like that. But I don’t remember any toys.
FF: Did you have dolls?
CS: Yeah, we had dolls. But the dolls had a china head and china hands, and the rest of it was cloth—filled with excelsior, I mean, ground chaff—like a wood ground up fine. And they was cloth and they was filled with that. The legs and the whole body. And the head, it’d just sit on there, you’d sew it on to that. And the arms, you sew this, sew them on there. And they had china arms and china feet and legs. And china head. Now that’s the way our dolls were. And then we’d dress ‘em to suit ourselves.
FF: How much education did your parents have?
CS: Well, I guess, just about enough to read and write intelligently. I guess—wouldn’t you say that Gertrude?
Gertrude: I don’t know about them.
CS: My mother—my grandmother could read nicely. But, as I say, she was bound to a white minister. And they taught her to read, yeah.
FF: But a lot of colored people didn’t get—that were your grandmother’s age—did not get to read or write.
CS: No, no, you’re right. No, I knew several that couldn’t read. But my grandmother, she was bound to this white minister, and they taught her to read. My grandmother could read.
FF: And she taught her children?
CS: Yes, my daddy and mother both could read. Yeah. ‘Cause she’s reared, and she’d write with them all the time. And of course she married, but her husband—they didn’t agree or something—she didn’t live with him long. And so she lived with these white people. And so her daughter, she reared her you know. So she learned to read and write. These white boys and girls taught her how to read. My mother and grandmother both could read. And father too.
CS: I remember way back then when they’d have a dinin’ room, and white folks would have a great big dinin’ room, and kitchen, and the colored that worked for ‘em—and I didn’t blame ‘em much in a way—when they got through eatin’ dinner, then they’d take all the food in the kitchen and put it on the table in there and the hands would eat in there. They didn’t eat in the dining room at’all.
FF: What do you think about having lived so long and being so healthy?
CS: Well, sometimes I think to myself, “Well, I have tried to live right.” And treat my fellow man right.
FF: Is life in general better now than it used to be?
CS: Do what?
FF: Do you think that times are better now?
CS: Well, in a way they are and—in some ways they are and in some ways they are not. I don’t know. Sometimes I think they’re better and sometimes I don’t know. In some ways they’re better. In some ways they’re better.
FF: Like what?
CS: I don’t know, it’s just according to the reaction or the way people feel toward each other, I think. Now you take some people, they’re just as nice and respect you, and respect maybe the colored—that is if the colored is anybody intelligent, they respect them and go right on. And think there’s nothing to it. And some, why, they’d kick ‘em out of the way if they could. Well you couldn’t blame ‘em in a way. Because, I don’t know, intelligence demands intelligence, I think, or somethin’. Anybody that wants to be somebody, wants to stand for something. They don’t have any time to take up with somebody that is down and don’t want to be up and do any kind of thing—they don’t have any time. If they can’t help ‘em, they just got to go on and leave ‘em. And that’s the best way, I reckon.