County: Pearl River
Title: Mississippi Slave Narratives from the WPA Records
Submitter: MSGenWeb Slave Narrative Project
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From the WPA Slave Narratives:
Jeff Rayford age 96
Old uncle Jeff makes a touching picture as he steps along on his walking cane. He dresses neatly in blue shirt and gray trousers and always wears suspenders. He weighs 200 pounds, and his thick bushy, fussy hair is graying, although he is only ninty-six years old. Think of that, born in 1840 and doesn't even cover his sparkling grayish brown eyes with glasses. Has not been obliged to wear false teeth either, he practically has his full set of permanent teeth.
He seems to be very happy as he comes in to get his small check the Mississippi State Relief gives him to care for his needs in old age. He can be heard talking and laughing.
When I told Uncle Jeff that I wanted a picture of him for my county history, he replied that he had never had one made in his life and he bet it would be a pretty one. Following is an account of his life in Pearl River County as he related it.
"Life in Pearl River County before 1890."
I was born right over here on Ball Hill by the road to Col. Byrd's old home. The old house has rotted down. The spot where the old red dirt chimney has fallen down is the only mark left. A pine tree grew up in the middle of the old fallen chimney, and was later cut down and carried to Columbia to Governor Hugh White's saw mill.
My mother was bought in Mobile as a slave and was owned here by a Mrs. Howard. My mother reared five children and it just so happened that Mrs. Howard had five children. So each one of Mrs. Howard's children was given a negro child as a slave. It fell my lot to live with Mrs. Kennedy, where I remained until the slaves were freed.
(Here I interrupted him and asked him where his father came from. He immediately replied that he didn't know who his father was or anything about him. Said the colored people lived like stock in those days - they never married.)
My master was good to me. When the war (Civil War) came on it was bad times. I remember how the men would hide out to keep from going to war. I cooked and carried many a pan of food to these men in Pearl River swamp. This I did for one man regularly. All I had to do was to carry the food down after dark, and I was so scared I was trembling, and while walking along the path in the swamp, pretty soon he would step out from behind a tree and say: "Here Jeff" and then I would hand it to him and run back to the house.
One day soldiers passed with wagons for four days going through to Mobile. At that time the river road was the best road around.
We had no matches for fire, we used flint and steel. The first cotton gin I ever saw was operated by a horse. Some people separated the cotton from the seed by hand. The cloth was spun and woven. Some was bought in Gainesville, where they went over by cart and bought "nit" and "lice" cloth (salt and pepper I should think) for men's pants. Later gingham could be bought. This was considered very fine cloth then.
Sometimes we had biscuits on Sunday, but one reason I am living and am healthy is the food that I was raised on. We ate corn bread, meat, greens and peas. People eat too much flour now and they use self-rising flour, which is most unhealthful. The best way to make biscuit is with plain flour, soda and clabber, or put a little vinegar in your soda and it will foam up and cook quick.
I know a case where a negro slave sold for $100. Simon and Hezekiah Wheat sold him. Some of the men living around us at that time were: Joe Wheat, Billy Wheat, another Joe Wheat, Kedden Byrd, and Peter Harvey's granddad.
I remember when a Mr. Cooper, would take his cart and go out and gather herbs for medicine. Medicine now days is too weak. It has too much water or alcohol in it and not enough medicine. Costs lots too. We used Sampson's snake root, black snake root, fever grasses, tree barks and other medicines made from native trees and herbs.
We used parched meal for coffee. Our corn meal was ground by a water mill. You see we even made what dye was used. Gall berries dyed black. Two colors of thread were used to make pants and I mean this kind made good warm ones. Wool was sold at Gainesville.
I never went to school colored folks had no schools long ago.
I knew Poplar Jim Smith for whom Poplarville was named. I used to play with his boys. We played all day and when we went in to eat we knew to carry a load of wood.
People used to cook on the fire places. That was the best cooking in the world. Food tasted better. They sometimes made dirt ovens and used them to cook bread and sweet potatoes in.
When the war was over the slaves couldn't do without their masters because they had nothing on which to live and the masters needed the slaves, so when they were freed most of them stayed on and farmed for their masters on shares. This gave the negroes a chance to have something for themselves.
I have cooked and logged when they floated the logs down the creeks to Pearl River. I have cut many logs for Mr. Ben Wheat and others. Folks don't work as hard as they used to work, neither did we have the opportunities then that the folks of today have. This is a good county and the colored people ought to be happy with their churches, schools, homes and many other good things.
Now Uncle Jeff had talked with me until his shirt was wet with perspiration so I asked him what he thought was responsible for his long healthy life and he replied: "Miss it would take a long time to tell you that, but the people of today just live too fast, too much to do and worry about.
Too nervous and their food is different. They ought to eat what we ate, corn bread, meat, peas, greens and other farm products. They eat too many biscuits now.
He says he lives with John Farr, but that he really ought to go to his children, who are living out side of the county.
Transcribed by Ann Allen Geoghegan
The Federal Writer’s Project of
The Works Progress Administration
For the State of Mississippi