Plantation Life — "Since Dis Time."
FOR more than eighteen hundred years, the whole civilized world has reckoned all time from the year of our Lord. Even the scoffing unbeliever, as he dates his letters each day, acknowledges the fact that Jesus was born 1800 years ago. It remains for the negro of the South to be now the only exception to this rule. The war between the States was for him the beginning of time. To the period prior to that he rarely, if ever, refers, and then in a shamefaced way as if he hated to think of any other condition of life than that which he now enjoys — Abraham Lincoln's Proclamation began for the Negro
4"Dis time," and whenever he is questioned as to his age, or any event of interest in his life, the reply is always so many years before or since "dis time."
Plantation life before "dis time" is to me a sealed book, but my observations and experiences on a plantation for ten years past have been many and varied. Some of these are here given. The Negro quarters are generally well built, weather-boarded cabins, containing two rooms each. They are built up high from the ground, and have galleries running the length of the house, a thing almost indispensable in this climate. There are two long rows of houses, each with a small yard in front and a garden at the back. Between the two rows of houses lies the "Quarter Street." At one end of this street is the plantation store, the church, and the blacksmith and the carpenter shops. In the midst of the Negro quarters stands a house, larger and rather better built than the rest, with larger yard and garden, and a general air of being better than its neighbors. That is the home of the planter and his family. Such close proximity to the colored population has its drawbacks, but it also affords ample opportunity for seeing the peculiarities of the Negro in his own home. Indeed, the roughness and unavoidable hardships incident to plantation life are often in a great degree atoned for by the exquisite bits of humor which constant intercourse with this race affords. It has been many years since the planter was considered
5anything more than a boss, to be obeyed under pain of dismissal; to be feared and respected, and in a certain rough way to be friends with. Not so with the planter's wife. The old idea of a mistress still clings to her. She is called the "white woman at the house," but is treated like the mistress of the old times. If a child is sick, she must be sent for, at an hour, to prescribe for and " 'tend on it." If a wife is beaten (by no means an unusual event), into her ear is told the sorrowful story, and her sympathy and protection are claimed as a right. If there is a wedding she must take a cake and give both her advice and more substantial aid. Should that greatest delight of a Negro's heart, a funeral, be the excitement, she must send the clothes for the dead. I might, just here, I think, be well to give an account of a most interesting funeral which came under my notice.
It was early morn, and the late January sun had not yet risen, when the solemn tolling of a church bell broke upon the stillness of the hour, repeating the oft-told story that another soul had passed away. Soon through the semi-darkness was seen first one and then another half awakened Negro coming out of their cabins, and, with awe-stricken but eager faces, all going in one direction to Uncle Isaac's house, for he had been dying for days, and the tolling bell had announced his death, thereby giving the most unalloyed happiness to his friends and acquaintances.
6For many years Uncle Isaac had been the head man on the plantation, both before and since "dis time." By industry, perfect honesty and frugality, he had accumulated quite a little property, and his funeral must therefore be very grand, and far beyond the ordinary, simple burying. The old man was laid out by his afflicted widow, assisted by ten able-bodied men and women. He was dressed, not in clothes furnished by the "white woman at the house," but in a suit of white linen clothes which had been kept for years for the occasion, and his head was covered with a white cloth. Having made him thus as unnatural in appearance as possible, the whole neighborhood was invited to look at him, and all agreed that he looked "too sweet to go in the ground, God knows he do." As the day wore on the excitement in the quarters increased. Men hurried to and fro, women busied themselves washing their best clothes and cleaning up their houses ready for the funeral, and even the children stopped making mud-pies for once and stood in groups, talking in suppressed tones about the great event of the next day.
The coffin could not be procured except in a town many miles away, therefore it was late at night before the "wake" began. In solemn, silent procession the old man was carried from his cabin to the church, where were assembled all of the Negroes on the place to do honor to him who had been their friend and fellow-laborer for sixty-five years.
For twelve long hours, with unabated energy and strength, did that assembly sing, shout, weep, wail, mourn and pray, while the interest was kept up by the occasional fainting of one or more of the exhausted sisters. During all these hours etiquette required the widow to sit by the coffin and unceasingly weep. The failure to do this would have brought down upon her the everlasting contempt of the community.
The morning of the funeral dawned bright and clear, and by sunrise the preparations began. Two of the friends of the deceased were selected to dig the grave, which superstition prevented being done the day before. To leave a grave open all night would bring pestilence and death to all the plantation. So strong is this feeling that on one occasion, when a grave had been dug and the friends of the deceased decided to take the body to another place for burial, a log of wood was put into the empty grave and covered up before night set in. Those who had kept watch in the church during the night went to their homes to put on their Sunday clothes and for a little while the old man was left in peace and quiet. Presently the crowd began to gather. From far and near they came, all trying to look sad, but in vain. It was bliss to each one of them, and he or she who wailed and moaned the loudest was invariably the happiest. The widow had a seat of honor in the middle of the one aisle, and as she sat alone in her glory all
8eyes were turned upon her in the effort to find out whether she was really sorry or not. She wore on the occasion a black dress, a white apron, a large lace collar fastened with a bow of blue ribbon, a black hat, adorned with blue ribbons and many feathers and flowers, and over all a black net veil, which shaded, but did not conceal, her face. All the congregation walked to the grave, not in procession of two and two, but all in a crowd together, with no sort of order. The widow rode in triumph in the wagon which carried the corpse. Her veil was thrown back, and she wore an expression of perfect resignation as she looked around at the crowd who could not ride. The grave, as is the custom on plantations, was large enough for "Jumbo," and the filling of it gave ample time for a second sermon and several prayers and wailing hymns. The short winter day was almost gone before the final prayer was said and the crowd "exmissed to report to their houses in peace." The widow led the crowd coming from the grave, seated in the wagon with the minister and as many more of her friends as it would accommodate, all of whom seemed equally as jubilant now as they had been mournful in going to the cemetery.
There are no drones on a plantation. Every one must work, from the planter, who follows his "hands" from daylight until dark, to the boys and girls of ten years old who "tote water" in the field. A large bell, which can be heard for miles, is rung at
9daylight, and in a short time all hands are in the cotton fields. Only a few old women and children are left in the quarters. The old women cook for the laborers and the children quarrel and fight and worry the old women. At eight o'clock a call for "buckets more" is heard all over the quarter street. This means that it is time to send the field hands their breakfast. A number of small boys collect the tin buckets containing the breakfasts and carry them in a cart to the field. Said small boys invariably make their own breakfast en route out of those buckets which look most promising. The Quarter street is a queer place. It is at once the Broadway and the Five Points of a plantation. In it the Negroes walk and talk, quarrel and fight, gamble and play, sing and dance, preach and pray, and mourn and shout. In it they live and laugh, and in it they sicken and die. It is a home for the mongrel curs and stump-tail dogs; a temporary abiding place for stray cats of every color, size or condition; the pasture ground of hogs, and the playground of children. It is the general receptacle for old shoes, tin cans, chicken feathers, old rags, dead cats and rats, barrel hoops, broken crockery, worn-out clothes, fish skins, etc. A walk through the Quarter street any bright Sunday morning affords an opportunity for witnessing many and varied scenes in plantation life. Here is a group of men throwing dice; there is another group playing cards for five cents a game, with all the eager excitement of men
10who stake as many thousands on the turn of a card. Further on a ring-play is in progress, which is worth stopping to look at. A number of men and women join hands in a circle, while one woman stands in the centre with a man's hat on her head. Each man, in turn, dances around her, and he who kicks the hat off her head, without kicking her down, is the successful knight, and dances with her several times around the ring, keeping perfect time to the gay tune which the others pat and sing.
Stopping a few moments at the church door, we hear the preacher, with the orthodox nasal twang, exercising his lungs in preaching the glories of heaven, which, from his standpoint, he alone, of all his congregation, will ever enjoy, and with ever-increasing volume of voice portraying the horrors of hell, where he evidently expects to send his flock. Ever and anon, a sister or brother "bears witness" by exclaiming; "I tell you so, folks;" "Look out, dar; take in your foot;" "Draw up your shoestrings tight, he's treading on your corns now." These "witness bearers" are often so loud and frequent in their ejaculations that even the stentorian tones of the preacher are drowned. If there is danger of such a catastrophe, he raises his hand, as if in prayer, and when quiet is restored, he says: "A little more manners, brothers and sisters, if you please," and then the service goes on as before.
A "Noration" was given out one Sunday morning
11that there was to be a baptizing that day. Prompted by a desire to see what I have so often heard of, I walked to the bank of the lake where the ceremony was to take place. Seating myself on a log, I awaited with what patience I could command the gathering together of the congregation. Negroes have no idea of time, and on this occasion made us wait two hours beyond the one specified. At last, away off in the distance we heard the solemn notes of a funeral dirge, accompanied by the sound of the tramping of many feet, and soon a procession came in sight. They marched from the church to the water, two and two, all singing, not together, but each one on his particular favorite key. It was meant for a hymn, and it was solemn, weird and unearthly in its want of time and harmony. The minister, wearing a black gown, girded at the waist with a cord, led the procession, and on each side of him walked the candidates for baptism. They wore their shabbiest clothes, and white bandages were on their heads. There was an entire absence of excitement which was surprising, and in the quiet of the lovely winter morning the whole scene was impressive.
The earnestness with which the preacher read a few passages from the "Service for Baptism of Adults," subdued the smile which his absurd mistakes would otherwise have made irrepressible. The short service over, the minister walked with firm and unfaltering steps into the water. Then turning to
12the people he extended his arms and said, "Come and be baptized in the name of the Lord." The first sister was led to him by two of the deacons. When she came within reach of his extended hands, she shouted, "Thank God! — farewell sinners!" and was baptized forthwith. Just here all solemnity ended.
To describe that woman's proceedings after she came out of the water, is beyond the power of my pen. She wept and wailed, shrieked, screamed and shouted, tore her clothes, rolled on the ground, and gave every appearance of being possessed of devils. She was seized by four stout women, mothers in the church they are called, and carried off still kicking and yelling like a Comanche Indian. She set an example which the rest of the candidates readily followed, and soon that religious service by the lake side was changed to a scene like bedlam, from which, terrified and disgusted, I made my way as fast as possible to the quiet of my own fireside. I was told afterwards that "those sisters did surely come through beautiful."
Among the characteristics of the Negro race their reckless improvidence is one of the most striking. They literally take no thought for the morrow, and are epicureans without ever having heard of Epicurus. If they have enough to eat and a stick of wood for to-day, it matters not what of want the morrow threatens. If they make good wages one week, with the folly of children it is all spent in ginger-snaps and
13cheese on Saturday night, and Sunday finds them begging an advance of bread and meat from the plantation store to supply their daily food. If their cabins leak and it is suggested that they mend the roof, like the "Arkansaw Traveller," the reply is, "Can't work in the rain, and when it don't rain it don't leak." During the cotton picking season, when their wages are often from ten to twelve dollars per week, they rarely ever save enough for winter clothes, saying, "We might die before winter; might as well eat while we is here." I think in a measure our climate is responsible for this improvidence. It is so easy to live where it is so rarely cold, and there is but one month in the year, January, when it is really too cold for cabbage and potatoes to be left unprotected, and these two vegetables are the chief food of the negroes. The most efficient workmen on a plantation are utterly demoralized by cold. The August sun may shine with a fierceness which drives the white man, faint and staggering, into the shade; but the negro basks delightfully in the beams and works without a murmur, and when his hours of rest come, from twelve to two o'clock, he often lies down just where he stops work and sleeps with the sun blazing in his face. But let there be a fall of the mercury down to 35°, and the Quarters look like a deserted village. Not a door or window is open; not a sign of life, except the blue smoke curling out of each chimney and the occasional sound of the ax of some pater-familias
14whom the necessities of the case have driven to the neighboring woods to replenish the scanty supply of fuel. So long as the cold lasts, just so long does the whole population hover over the fire, seemingly powerless to move, and no inducement can be offered which will compensate them for leaving the house.
The negroes naturally love coon-hunting, fishing, dancing, gaming, big meetings and funerals, and they will risk anything to secure the enjoyment of any one of these pleasures. They will work twelve hours and dance the other twelve, or, quite as readily, sing dirges over the dying or hold a wake over the dead; and when the morning comes they go off to work again, apparently unwearied after the night of unrest. Plantation life has for the Negro much of work and of hardship, but also much of play and merriment. When the day's work is done he has opportunity for amusements with his companions. To the planter himself it is all work and no play. Living as a general thing many miles from a town, or even a neighbor, and thus cut off from all intercourse with the white race, he has no resources for recreation except within himself. He spends the day in the field, doing that most trying of all things to an active man, watching other people work. When he comes home at night, the stables have to be visited, the accounts looked over, the payrolls made out, the sick people attended to, and the
15complaining ones settled, so that by ten o'clock, utterly worn out in mind and body, he goes to sleep, only to begin again the same routine the next day. Sunday is to the planter really a day of rest. It is his day for reading the Bible, newspapers, magazines or anything for a diversion from the affairs that have engrossed him during the week. The day is spent with his family, and is really the only time when he can thoroughly enjoy any domestic life without fear of interruption.
In the winter, hunting affords some variety to this monotonous life. Game is generally plentiful in swamp lands, and most of the planters are good hunters. Boating and fishing are also indulged in to a moderate extent, although of late years the frequent overflows have made boating too much a matter of necessity for it to possess the same attractions as formerly. To be at all successful, a Southern planter must know much besides how to till the soil. He must be a good book-keeper, must have some knowledge of machinery, must know enough of civil engineering to keep his drainage in proper condition, and enough of medicine to keep mules and people alive until a doctor can be sent for. He must also have the power to govern men. The discipline on a plantation is somewhat like that in an army. There must be absolute obedience on the part of the laborer, and perfect justice and firmness on the part of the planter in compelling that obedience. If the