Tom Hawkins – ‘She Beat On Them for Most Anything’

What follows is an interview of former slave, Tom Hawkins. It was conducted in 1938 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Mr. Hawkins, interviewed in his mid to late 70s when he lived in Athens, Georgia. After a short introduction by the interviewer, Mr. Hawkins tells his own story.

Tom was nowhere to be seen when the interviewer mounted the steps of his cabin. Daisy, his wife, was ironing on the back porch and when she learned the object of the proposed interview, she readily agreed to induce Tom to talk. She approached a basement door and called: “Tom, here’s one of them government ladies what’s come to hear you talk about slavery days.”

Tom reply: All right, Miss Daisy, I’s coming.”

The old man soon appeared feeling his way with his cane carefully before each hesitant step. Tom is blind. Established comfortably in his favorite chair, he talked freely.
– Introduction written by the interviewer, Sadie B. Hornsby.

Setting the Scene

I was born on Marse Johnny Poore’s plantation about four miles from Belton, South Carolina. Marse Johnny owned my Ma, Morning Poore, and all three of her children. ((John Poore was born in 1831. He was married to Anna Marie Holland Poore. I’ll try to keep track of the genealogy in the footnotes, but no promises. You can try to suss it out yourself here.)) There was me and Johnny, and Mollie. My Pa was Tom Hawkins and he was named for his owner.

The Hawkins plantation was about a mile from the Poore place. After Ma married Pa, they each one had to stay on with their own Marster. They couldn’t stay on the same plantation together. I don’t remember much about Grandma Jennie Poore, except that she was the cook at the big house. Grandpa Wade Poore was the blacksmith and Marse Johnny got a big price when he sold him to Dr. Chandler.

Some of the slaves made themselves corded beds and others just made makeshifts. The beds and cabins was good enough for the Niggers then, because they never had knowed no better. Gangs of slaves slept together like hogs in them dirt-floored log cabins.

Female Servants Using Brooms of Bambusa on Latimer’s Plantation, Belton, South Carolina, 1899.  This plantation was near to the Poore Plantation.
Female Servants Using Brooms of Bambusa on Latimer’s Plantation, Belton, South Carolina, 1899. This plantation was near to the Poore Plantation.

She Would Hit Me

Children what was big enough to do anything had to work. I was a mighty little chap when they started me in as houseboy. I slept on the trundle bed in Miss Annie’s room. ((Miss Annie refers to Anna Poore, John’s wife. Anna Poore had been married before, having three children to her first husband, including children named Johnny and Anna Poore. To make matters more confusing, she was married to John Poore’s younger brother, Hugh Clement Poore, who died in 1840.)) In the daytime my little trundle bed was rolled back out of sight under Miss Annie’s big old four poster tester bed. ((A canopy bed.))

I kept a fire burning in her room winter and summer. Night times she would call me. ‘Tom! Tom!’ Sometimes I was so sound asleep I didn’t answer. Then pop, she would hit me on the head with her long stick. Then I knew it was time to fire up her pipe. She smoked that pipe a powerful lot after Marse Johnny died. ((John Poore died in March of 1874. Mr. Hawkins memory is jumping around in time a bit.))

Grown slaves made a little money, but I never got none till after the war. I didn’t have no cause to want to money. Miss Annie, she give me everything I needed.

Plenty of Good Things to Eat

Oh, but us had plenty of good things to eat on the Poore plantation – meat and bread with lots of turnips and potatoes. About once a month they give us lallyhoe. They calls it molasses now. Us ate our breakfast and dinner out of wooden bowls. Under a long shed built next to the kitchen was a long trough. At night they crumbled cornbread in it, and poured it full of buttermilk.

Grown folks and children all gathered around that old trough and ate out of it with their wooden spoons. No ma’am, there weren’t no fighting around that trough. They all knew better than that.

Us got possums and rabbits the best ways us could – catch them in traps, hit them with rock, and trailed them with dogs. Us liked possums baked with potatoes, but most of the rabbits was stewed with dumplings. All our cooking was done on big open fireplaces. They didn’t fry nothing them days; leastwise they never give the slaves no fried victuals.

Grown folks seined for fish in Big Crick and Saluda River at night, because they couldn’t get away form field work in the day. ((“Seining” for fish is fishing with the use of a drag net.)) Children caught a heap of fish with hook and line. The river and crick both run through Miss Annie’s plantation so us didn’t have to ask for a pass every time us went fishing. Us always had to have a pass if us left the plantation for anything for the patterollers was apt to get you and look out then, for you was sure to get a larruping if they caught you off from home without no pass. ((“Patterrollers” (sometimes “patty rollers”) was what many slaves called “patrolers” – slave hunters. “Larruping” means a “beating.” It’s originally from the Dutch “larpen,” meaning a thrashing.))

Almost Nothing to Wear

There weren’t but one garden on the Poore plantation, and it was big enough to feel all the white folks and slaves too. Two whole acres of that garden was sowed down in turnips.

Children didn’t wear but one piece of clothes in summer; that was a shirt. In winter they doubled up on us with two shirts. I remember how them shirt tails used to pop in the wind when us run fast. Us children used to tie up the tobacco, what us stole from Miss Annie, in the under-arm part of the long loose sleeves of our shirts. Us didn’t get no shoes for our foots, winter or summer, till us was ten years old.

Marse Johnny Poore, he was killed in the war and then Old Mistress, she was our Miss Annie, looked after the plantation till her only child, young Miss Ann, married Marse Tom Dean. ((John Poore, son of Anna Poore and her first husband, Hugh Poore – John’s younger brother, was a sergeant in the 1st South Carolina Rifles, but he did not die during the war. Tom Dean (actually John Thomas Dean, was a major in the 4th South Carolina.)) Then he helped Miss Ann tend to her business. They was mighty good to us. Miss Annie done her own overseeing. She rode over that plantation once or twice a day on her horse.

Our white folks lived in a big old two-story house what set off from the road up on a high hill in a big oak grove. Miss Annie’s own room was a shed room on that house. The upstairs room was kept for company. Uncle Wade Norris Poore was Miss Annie’s carriage driver. The carriage was called a Surrey then.

Her Own Whupping Boss

There was about four or five hundred acres in our plantation. Miss Annie kept about a hundred slaves. She was all the time selling them for big prices after she done trained them for to be cooks, housegals, houseboys, carriage drivers, and good wash women. She worked 75 slaves in her fields.

Her Niggers was waked by four o’clock and had to be in the field by sun-up. They come in about dark. After supper, the men made up shoes, horse collars, and anything else like that what was needed; the women spun thread and wove cloth.

Miss Annie was her own whupping boss. She beat on them for most anything. She had a barrel with a pole run through it, and she would have a slave stretched out on that barrel with his clothes off and his hands and feet tied to the pole. Then Miss Annie would fire up her pipe and set down and whup a Nigger for an hour at a time.

Miss Annie would pull my ears and hair when I didn’t do to suit her, but she never whupped me. Miss Annie didn’t need no jail for her slaves. She could manage them without nothing like that, and I never did hear of no jails in the country around where us lived.

Yes Ma’am, I saw Old Miss sell the slaves what she trained. She made them stand up on a block, she kept in the back yard, whilst she was auctioning them off. I saw plenty of traders go by our place in wagons that had something to eat and bedding in, and their slaves was walking along behind the wagon, going on to be sold, but there weren’t none of them in chains.

There weren’t no schools where slaves could get book learning in them days. They weren’t even allowed to learn to read and write. When Dr. Cannon found out that his carriage driver had learned to read and write whilst he was taking the doctor’s children to and from school, he had that Nigger’s thumbs cut off and put another boy to doing the driving in his place.

Old Time Religion

Washington Church was the name of the meeting house where us Niggers on the Poore plantation went to church with our white folks. Couldn’t none of us read no Bible and there weren’t none of the niggers on our plantation ever converted and so us never had no baptizings.

The preacher preached to the white folks first and then when he preached to the Niggers, all he ever said was: ‘It’s a sin to steal; don’t steal Marster’s and Mistress’ chickens and hogs’ and such like. How could anybody be converted on that kind of preaching? And besides, it never helped none to listen to that sort of preaching, because the stealing kept going on every night. I never did se no funerals in them days.

Niggers didn’t run to no North. They run to the South, because them white folks up North was so mean to them. One Niggers, named Willis Earle, run off to the woods and made himself a den in a cave. He lived hid out in that cave about fifteen years.

Weekends and Holidays

Old Miss give them that wanted one a cotton patch and she didn’t make her slaves work in her fields after the dinner bell run on Saturdays. The men worked in the patches of their own on Saturday evening whilst the women washed the clothes and cleaned up the cabins for the next week.

Saturday nights they all got together and frolicked; picked the banjo, and drunk whiskey. Didn’t none of them get drunk, because they was used to it. There was barrels of it where they stilled it on the place. On Sundays us went from cabin to cabin holding prayer meetings. Miss Annie appointed different ones to look after the stock every Sunday.

Big times was had by all at Christmas time. The eats weren’t no different, except they give us sweet bread and plenty of lallyhoe what was made on the plantation. Us had two weeks vacation from field work and they let us go rabbit and possum hunting. Us had a grand time clear up to New Years Day.

Cornshuckings and Quiltings

Oh, us did have one more big time at them cornshuckings. The corn was hauled to the crib and the folks was invited in the afternoon before the cornshucking started that night. When the men got to shucking that corn, the women started cooking and they got through at about the same time. Then us eat, and that was the best part of the cornshucking fun. Cotton picking was held on moonshiny nights. They picked cotton till midnight, and then they had a little shaking of the footses till day.

Mens had good times at the quiltings too. The white folks always give them a little something extra to eat at them special times. But the women that was the cooks at the big house tied sacks around their wastes under their skirts, and all through the day, they would drop a little of this, and some of that in the sacks. When they poured it out at night, there was plenty of good something to eat.

The men kept the fire going and if they got hold of a tallow candle they lit that to help the women see how to quilt. Most of the quilting was at night and nearly all of them was in winter time.

The best game us had was marbles, and us played with homemade clay marbles most of the time. No witches or ghosties never bothered us, because we kept a horseshoe over our cabin door.

Miss Annie doctored us. In summer, she made us pull up certain roots and dry special leaves for to make her teas out of. Horehound, boneset, and yellow root was the main things she used. She made a sort of soda out of the white ashed from the top of a hickory fire and mixed it with vinegar for headaches. The black ashes left on the bottom of the hickory fire was leached for lye, what was boiled with grease to make our soap.

Free At Last!

I will never forget the day they told us that war was over and us was free. One of the women what was down by the spring washing clothes started shouting: ‘Thank God-a-Mighty I’s free at last!’ Marse Time heard her and he came and knocked her down. It was about October or November before he ever told us that us was free sure enough. ((New of the war’s end probably arrived in South Carolina in May – after Johnston’s surrender. The owners squeezed another full season out of their slaves by hiding it until autumn.))

The Poore Family grave marker in Poore Cemetery, Belton, South Carolina.
The Poore Family grave marker in Poore Cemetery, Belton, South Carolina.

That same woman fainted dead away then because she wanted to holler so band and she was scared to make a sound. The Yankees come through soon after that and said us was free and invited all the Niggers that wanted to, to go along with them.

I never will forget how bad them Yankees treated Old Miss. They stole all her good horses, and her chickens and they broke in the smokehouse and took her meat. They went in the big house and took her nice quilts and blankets. She stood all of that with a straight face but when they found her gold, she just broke down and cried and cried. I stayed on and was Miss Annie’s houseboy long as she lasted. I was 21 when she died. ((Anna Marie Holland Poore died July of 1880. This would mean that Mr. Hawkins was born in 1859, which would have made him 79 years old at the time of the interview – not 75, as his age was given.))

Life After the War

Then night riders done plenty of whipping on our plantation. ((Night riders were Klan members, etc.)) It was a long time before Niggers could get enough money to buy land with and it was a good twenty years before a school was set up for Niggers in our settlement.

I think Mr. Jefferson Davis and Mr. Lincoln was both of them doing their best to be all right. Booker Washington, he was all right too, but he sure was a ‘maybe man.’ He might do right and then he might not. ((It’s interesting to note the variety of opinions blacks in the 1930s had of Booker T. Washington. He favored education rather than political action against Jim Crow laws.))

Yes Ma’am, if Old Miss were living, I’d rather have slavery days back, because then you knew you was going to have plenty to eat and wear, and a good place to sleep even if Mistress did make you work mighty hard. Now you can work your daylights plum out and never be sure about getting nothing. ((Many former slaves held this opinion. It’s not a testament to how good they had it in the slavery days, but how bad the Jim Crow days had become.))

The first time I married, me and Adaline Rogers stood up by the side of the big road whilst the preacher said his marrying words over us, and then us went on down the road. Me and Adaline had six children: Mary, Lucy, Annie, Bessie, John and Henry Thomas.

After my Adaline died, I married Daisy Carlton. I didn’t have no wedding neither time. Me and Daisy just got a horse and buggy and dive up to the house where the Justice of the Peace lived, and he joined us in matrimony. Then us got back in the buggy and went back down the big road.

How I Really Joined the Church

Tom began telling why he joined the church, when Daisy interrupted. ‘Now Tom,’ she said, ‘you just tell this white lady what you told me about how come you joined the church.’ ‘Now, Miss Daisy,’ pleaded Tom, ‘I don’t want to do that.’

Daisy snapped: ‘I don’t care what you don’t want to , you is going to tell the truth, Tom Hawkins.’

At that, Tom giggled and began:

Well, Miss, it was like this. I went to church one night feeling mighty good. I went up and kneeled at the altar where they was praying for converts, and a good looking yaller gal was kneeling right in front of me. I accidentally touched her on the leg. I sure didn’t mean to do it. In that excited crowd most anything was apt to happen. ((A “yaller gal” was a woman who was mostly white, but considered black due to the “one drop” laws. Much was made of this term in vaudeville and pulp fiction novels.))

That gal, she kicked me in the eye, and bruised up my face. My nose and eyes started dripping and I hollers out real loud: ‘Oh Lord have mercy!’ Then I staged a faint.

The brothers of the church took me outside. They was sure I had got religion. By that time I was so ashamed of myself, I went back inside the meeting house and joined the church, because I didn’t want nobody to know what had done happened.

I decided them and there to change my way of living. Next time I saw that yaller gal I asked her why she kicked me in the face, and she said: ‘Next time you do what you done then, I’s going to kill you, Nigger.’

Yes Ma’am, I thinks everybody ought to be religious.

One of the many pieces of music (and pulp novels) devoted to the "Yaller Gals."
One of the many pieces of music (and pulp novels) devoted to the “Yaller Gals.”

The unedited transcript is available here.

For more information on my own process for handling slave narratives, see this.

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