Houston County Black Heritage
~ Mose Davis ~
Interview of an ex-slave from the Davis Plantation, Henderson Georgia
Interviewer: Edwin Driskell, Location: Atlanta, Georgia - 1936
Mose Davis, was born on a very large plantation 12 miles from Perry, Georgia. His master was Colonel Davis, a very rich old man, who owned a large number of slaves in addition to his vast property holdings. Mose Davis says that all the buildings on this plantation were whitewashed, the lime having been secured from a corner of the plantation known as “the lime sink”. Colonel Davis had a large family and so he had to have a large house to accommodate these members. The mansion, as it was called, was a great big three-storied affair surrounded by a thick growth of cedar trees.
Note: The Home of Colonel Davis is “The House that “Peter Built”. Peter Davis was the most skilled carpenters on this plantation and was promised his freedom after building the home – but there is no mention of that in Moses’ narrative – that would have been a big event if it happened.
Mose’s parents, Jennie and January Davis, had always been the property of the Davis family, naturally he and his two brothers and two sisters never knew any other master than “The Old Colonel”.
Mr. Mose Davis says that the first thing he remembers of his parents is being whipped by his mother who had tied him to the bed to prevent his running away. His first recollection of his father is seeing him take a drink of whiskey from a five-gallon jug. When asked if this wasn’t against the plantation rules “Uncle Mose” replied: “The Colonel was one of the biggest devils you ever seen—he’s the one that started my daddy to drinking. Sometimes he used to come to our house to git a drink hisself”.
Moses’ father was the family coachman. “All that he had to do was to drive the master and his family and to take care of the two big grey horses that he drove. Compared to my mother and the other slaves he had an easy time,” said Uncle Mose, shaking his head and smiling: “My daddy was so crazy about the white folks and the horses he drove until I believe he thought more of them than he did of me. One day while I was in the stable with him one of the horses tried to kick me and when I started to hit him Daddy cussed me and threatened to beat me.”
His mother, brothers, and sisters were all field hands, but there was never any work required of Mose, who was play-mate and companion to Manning, the youngest of Colonel Davis’ five sons. These two spent most of the time fishing and hunting. Manning had a pony and buggy and whenever he went to town he always took Moses along.
Since no work was required at night, this time was utilized by doing personal work such as the washing and the repairing of clothing, etc.
On the Fourth of July or at Christmas Colonel Davis always had a festival for all his slaves. Barbecue was served and there was much singing and dancing. These frolics were made merrier by the presence of guests from other plantations. Music was furnished by some of the slaves who also furnished music at the mansion whenever the Col. or some of the members of his family had a party. There was also a celebration after the crops had been gathered.
A pool for baptism was filled with well water. The colored pastor performed all baptisms and marriages.
Field hands were roused, every morning by the overseer who rang the large bell near the slave quarters. Women and young children were permitted to remain at home until 9 o’clock to prepare breakfast. At 9 o’clock these women had to start to the fields where they worked along with the others until sundown. The one break in the day’s work was the noon dinner hour. Field hands planted and tended cotton, corn, and the other produce grown on the plantation until harvest time when everybody picked cotton. Slaves usually worked harder during the picking season than at any other time. After harvest, the only remaining work was cleaning out fence corners, splitting rails building fences and numerous other minor tasks. In hot weather, the only work was shelling corn. There was no Sunday work other than caring for the stock.
On this plantation there were quite a few skilled slaves mostly blacksmiths, carpenters, masons, plasterers, and a cobbler. One of Mose’s brothers was a carpenter. All slaves too old for field work remained at home where some took care of the young children, while others worked in the loom houses helping make the cloth and the clothing used on the plantation. Although there was only one distribution of clothing per year nobody suffered from the lack of clothes because this one lot had enough to last a year if properly cared for. The children wore one piece garments, a cross between a dress and a slightly lengthened shirt, made of homespun or crocus material. No shoes were given them until winter and then they got the cast-offs of the grown ups. The men all wore pants made of material known as “ausenberg”. The shirts and under wear were made of another cotton material. Dresses for the women were of striped homespun. All shoes were made on the premises of the heaviest leather, clumsily fashioned and Uncle Mose says that slaves like his father who worked in the mansion, were given much better clothing. His father received of “The Colonel” and his grown sons many discarded clothes. One of the greatest thrills of Mose’s boyhood was receiving first pair of “ausenberg” pants. As his mother had already taught him to knit (by using four needles at one time) all that he had to do was to go to his hiding place and get the socks that he had made. None of the clothing worn by the slaves on this particular plantation was bought. Everything was made by the slaves, even to the dye that was used.
Asked if there was sufficient food for all slaves, Uncle Mose said “I never heard any complaints.” At the end of each week every family was given some fat meat, black molasses, meal and flour in quantity varying with the size of the family. At certain intervals during the week, they were given vegetables. Here too, as in everything else, Mose’s father was more fortunate than the others, since he took all his meals at the mansion where he ate the same food served to the master and his family. The only difference between Week-day and Sunday diet was that biscuits were served on Sundays. The children were given only one biscuit each. In addition to the other bread was considered a delicacy. All food stuff was grown on the plantation.
The slave quarters were located a short distance below the mansion. The cabins one-roomed weatherboard structures were arranged so as to form a semi-circle. There was a wide tree-lined road leading from the master’s home to these cabins. Furnishings of each cabin consisted of one or two benches, a bed, and a few cooking utensils. These were very crude, especially the beds. Some of them had four posts while the ends of others were nailed to the walls. All lumber used in their construction was very heavy and rough. Bed springs were unheard of—wooden slats being used for this purpose. The mattresses were large ausenberg bags stuffed to capacity with hay, straw, or leaves. Uncle Mose told about one of the slaves, named Ike Davis, whose entire family slept on bare pine straw. His children were among the fattest on the plantation and when Colonel Davis tried to make him put this straw in a bag he refused claiming that the pine needles kept his children healthy.
The floors and chimneys on the Davis Plantation were made of wood and brick instead of dirt and mud as was the case on many of the other surrounding plantations. One window (with shutters instead of window panes) served the purpose of ventilation and light. At night pine knots or candles gave light. The little cooking that the slaves did at home was all done at the open fireplace.
Near the living quarters was a house known as the “chillun house.” All children too young for field work stayed at this house in the care of the older slave women. There was no hospital building on the premises. The sick had to remain in their individual cabins where they too were cared for by slaves too old for field work.
Only one family lived in a cabin. Mose’s mother and father each had a separate cabin. He did not explain the reason for this but said that he was made to live in his father’s cabin. Whenever he could, (usually when his father was away with the Colonel for a day or two) he stayed in his mothers cabin. “The only difference between the houses we lived in during slavery and those that some of us live in now who said is that we had more room there than we have now.” He says that even the community cook house was larger than some of the living quarters of today. All cabins were white washed the same as the other buildings on the plantation, and the occupants were required to keep the interiors and the surrounding clean at all times. The overseer’s cabin was located a short distance away from the slave cabins, so that it would be easier for him to keep check on his charges.
There was little if any sickness but Colonel Davis employed a doctor who visited the plantation each week. On other occasions the overseer administered such remedies as castor oil, turpentine, etc., and the slaves had remedies of their own. For stomach ache they used a tea made of Jimson weeds. Another medicine was heart leaf tea. Manual and religious training were the only types allowed on the plantation. Trades like carpentry, blacksmithing, etc. were learned from the white mechanics sometimes employed by Colonel Davis. All slaves were required to attend church and a special building was known as “Davis’ Chapel.” A Negro preacher officiated and no white people were present. Uncle Mose doesn’t know what was preached as he and Manning always slipped into town on Sundays to see the girls. Uncle Mose says he and Manning were together so much that occasionally they even slept in the same bed,—sometimes in Manning’s house and sometimes at his own house.
Book learning was prohibited in any form. Sometimes Mose tried to persuade Manning to teach him to read and write but Manning always refused. Moses’ cousin who was taught to read and write forged Colonel Davis’ name to a check and drew the money from the bank before the handwriting was discovered. For this act he was given a sound whipping and assigned to hard labor by the master, and, said Uncle Mose, “he didn’t even have the pleasure of spending one penny”. When asked if his cousin was arrested and placed in jail he replied that the jails were not for the slaves, as their punishment was usually left to their individual masters. When his cousin was whipped this was an exception to “The Colonel’s rule”; he was entirely against any form of whipping. His usual method of punishment was to cut off individual privileges for a limited amount of time (in proportion to the nature of the offense), along with an assignment of extra heavy work. The fame of the “Paddle-Rollers” was widespread among the slaves, but none of Colonel Davis’ servants attempted to run away or leave the plantation often without the required pass (if they did they were never caught).
There was very little talk on the plantation about the actual beginning of the Civil War. Slaves were very guarded in their talk as they feared the master’s wrath. Uncle Mose thought little or nothing about the War and had even less to say. When the Yankee soldiers came to the plantation they drove wagons to the smoke house and took all the meat away. “The funny part about it was that “The Colonel” had taken shelter in this particular house when he saw the Yankees coming,” said Uncle Mose. “He didn’t have time to hide any of his other belongings.” When the soldiers had left, The Colonel looked around and said to Manning and Mose: “Just like I get that, I guess I can get some more.”
Uncle Mose says that when freedom was declared, his father came rushing to their cabin waving his arms like a windmill, shouting: “Boy we is free—you can go and git yourself a job ’cause I ain’t goin’ to hitch up no more horses”. Some of the slaves remained on the plantation where they worked for wages until their deaths. His father was one of them and after his death, his mother moved to another plantation to live with another son. Meanwhile Mose started traveling from place to place as soon as he was told that he was free to go as he pleased. He paid one visit to the plantation when he learned of his father’s death. He then asked Manning, who was operating the plantation, for the ox that had belonged to his father and when Manning refused to part with this animal, he made a secret visit back, that night, and took the animal away. He has not been back since.
At this time Mr. Davis stretched himself, saying: “Well, I guess that’s about as straight as I can get it—Wish that I could tell you some more but I can’t.” Smiling broadly, he bade the interviewer a pleasant good-bye.