This is an extract from "Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves" prepared by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of Georgia, and first published in 1941. Only a small number of the FWP/WPA Slave narratives mention hoodo or conjure, and those are the only interviews collected in this archive. The entirety of the Georgia Slave Narratives can be found elsewhere on the web, as noted below.
Two interviews of Mrs. Celestia Avery by Minnie B. Ross were printed in "Slave Narratives." The first, conducted on November 30 and December 2, 1936, gave Mrs. Avery's account of conjure among the slaves. The second, conducted on May 8, 1937, was a personal history of Mrs. Avery's life. The chronological order of the interviews has been reversed in order to begin by setting the scene with a full picture of Avery's early life, allowing the more specific material on hoodoo and conjure to come to the fore in the second section. There is internal evidence that the dates may have been transposed or a typographical error made as well, for in the original book, the 1937-dated interview is referred to as having come before the 1936-dated one. There are other typos in the work, which bears signs of not having been professionally edited before publication.
Because the interview subject used terms unfamiliar to modern readers and employed spellings not commonly found in the literature of hoodoo, a few explanatory notes have been added [in brackets].
[Part One: Biographies of Celestia Avery and Sylvia Heard]
[HW: Dist. 5 Ex Slave #1 [Ross]
"A FEW FACTS OF SLAVERY"
As Told by CELESTIA AVERY -- EX-SLAVE
[MAY 8 1937]
Mrs. Celestia Avery is a small mulatto woman about 5 ft. in height. She has a remarkably clear memory in view of the fact that she is about 75 years of age. Before the interview began she reminded the writer that the facts to be related were either told to her by her grandmother, Sylvia Heard, or were facts which she remembered herself.
Mrs. Avery was born 75 years ago in Troupe County, LaGrange, Ga. the eighth oldest child of Lenora and Silas Heard.
[She was born circa 1862, during the Civil War].
There were 10 other children beside herself. She and her family were owned by Mr. & Mrs. Peter Heard. In those days the slaves carried the surname of their master; this accounted for all slaves having the same name whether they were kin or not.
The owner Mr. Heard had a plantation of about 500 acres and was considered wealthy by all who knew him. Mrs. Avery was unable to give the exact number of slaves on the plantation, but knew he owned a large number. Cotton, corn, peas, potatoes, (etc.) were the main crops raised.
The homes provided for the slaves were two room log cabins which had one door and one window. These homes were not built in a group together but were more or less scattered over the plantation. Slave homes were very simple and only contained a home made table, chair and bed which were made of the same type of wood and could easily be cleaned by scouring with sand every Saturday. The beds were bottomed with rope which was run backward and forward from one rail to the other. On this framework was placed a mattress of wheat straw. Each spring the mattresses were emptied and refilled with fresh wheat straw.
Slaves were required to prepare their own meals three times a day. This was done in a big open fire place which was filled with hot coals. The master did not give them much of a variety of food, but allowed each family to raise their own vegetables. Each family was given a hand out of bacon and meal on Saturdays and through the week corn ash cakes and meat; which had been broiled on the hot coals was the usual diet found in each home. The diet did not vary even at Christmas only a little fruit was added.
Each family was provided with a loom and in Mrs. Avery's family, her grandmother, Sylvia Heard, did most of the carding and spinning of the thread into cloth. The most common cloth for women clothes was homespun, and calico. This same cloth was dyed and used to make men shirts and pants. Dye was prepared by taking a berry known as the shumake berry and boiling them with walnut peelings. Spring and fall were the seasons for masters to give shoes and clothing to their slaves. Both men and women wore brogan shoes, the only difference being the piece in the side of the womens.
One woman was required to do the work around the house there was also one slave man required to work around the house doing odd jobs. Other than these two every one else was required to do the heavy work in the fields. Work began at "sun up" and lasted until "sun down". In the middle of the day the big bell was rung to summon the workers from the field, for their mid-day lunch. After work hours slaves were then free to do work around their own cabins, such as sewing, cooking (etc.)
"Once a week Mr. Heard allowed his slaves to have a frolic and folks would get broke down from so much dancing" Mrs. Avery remarked. The music was furnished with fiddles. When asked how the slaves came to own fiddles she replied, "They bought them with money they earned selling chickens." At night slaves would steal off from the Heard plantation, go to LaGrange, Ga. and sell chickens which they had raised. Of course the masters always required half of every thing raised by each slave and it was not permissible for any slave to sell anything. Another form of entertainment was the quilting party. Every one would go together to different person's home on each separate night of the week and finish that person's quilts. Each night this was repeated until every one had a sufficient amount of covering for the winter. Any slave from another plantation, desiring to attend these frolics, could do so after securing a pass from their master.
Mrs. Avery related the occasion when her Uncle William was caught off the Heard plantation without a pass, and was whipped almost to death by the "Pader Rollers."
["Pader Rollers" are Patrollers, men who hunted runaway slaves.]
He stole off to the depths of the woods here he built a cave large enough to live in. A few nights later he came back to the plantation unobserved and carried his wife and two children back to this cave where they lived until after freedom. When found years later his wife had given birth to two children. No one was ever able to find his hiding place and if he saw any one in the woods he would run like a lion.
Mr. Heard was a very mean master and was not liked by any one of his slaves. Secretly each one hated him. He whipped unmercifully and in most cases unnecessarily. However, he sometimes found it hard to subdue some slaves who happened to have very high tempers. In the event this was the case he would set a pack of hounds on him. Mrs. Avery related to the writer the story told to her of Mr. Heard's cruelty by her grandmother. The facts were as follows: "Every morning my grandmother would pray, and old man Heard despised to hear any one pray saying they were only doing so that they might become free niggers. Just as sure as the sun would rise, she would get a whipping; but this did not stop her prayers every morning before day. This particular time grandmother Sylvia was in "family way" and that morning she began to pray as usual. The master heard her and became so angry he came to her cabin seized and pulled her clothes from her body and tied her to a young sapling. He whipped her so brutally that her body was raw all over. When darkness fell her husband cut her down from the tree, during the day he was afraid to go near her. Rather than go back to the cabin she crawled on her knees to the woods and her husband brought grease for her to grease her raw body. For two weeks the master hunted but could not find her; however, when he finally did, she had given birth to twins. The only thing that saved her was the fact that she was a mid-wife and always carried a small pin knife which she used to cut the navel cord of the babies. After doing this she tore her petticoat into two pieces and wrapped each baby. Grandmother Sylvia lived to get 115 years old.
Not only was Mr. Henderson cruel but it seemed that every one he hired in the capacity of overseer was just as cruel.
[If the reader is confused by the sudden appearance of a "Mr. Henderson," so is this archivist. In previous paragraphs the slave owner was repeatedly called "Mr. Peter Heard."]
For instance, Mrs. Henderson's grandmother Sylvia, was told to take her clothes off when she reached the end of a row.
["Mrs. Henderson's grandmother Sylvia" is even more unexpected. I believe the interviewer meant to write "Mrs. Avery's grandmother Sylvia Heard."]
She was to be whipped because she had not completed the required amount of hoeing for the day. Grandmother continued hoeing until she came to a fence; as the overseer reached out to grab her she snatched a fence railing and broke it across his arms. On another occasion grandmother Sylvia ran all the way to town to tell the master that an overseer was beating her husband to death. The master immediately jumped on his horse and started for home; and reaching the plantation he ordered the overseer to stop whipping the old man. Mrs. Avery received one whipping, with a hair brush, for disobedience; this was given to her by the mistress.
Slaves were given separate churches, but the minister, who conducted the services, was white. Very seldom did the text vary from the usual one of obedience to the master and mistress, and the necessity for good behavior. Every one was required to attend church, however, the only self expression they could indulge in without conflict with the master was that of singing. Any one heard praying was given a good whipping; for most masters thought their prayers no good since freedom was the uppermost thought in every one's head.
On the Heard plantation as on a number of others, marriages were made by the masters of the parties concerned. Marriage licenses were unheard of. If both masters mutually consented, the marriage ceremony was considered over with. After that the husband was given a pass to visit his wife once a week. In the event children were born the naming of them was left entirely to the master. Parents were not allowed to name them.
Health of slaves was very important to every slave owner for loss of life meant loss of money to them. Consequently they would call in their family doctor, if a slave became seriously ill. In minor cases of illness home remedies were used. "In fact," Mrs. Avery smilingly remarked, "We used every thing for medicine that grew in the ground." One particular home remedy was known as "Cow foot oil" which was made by boiling cow's feet in water. Other medicines used were hoarhound tea, catnip tea, and castor oil. Very often medicines and doctors failed to save life; and whenever a slave died he was buried the same day. Mrs. Avery remarked, "If he died before dinner the funeral and burial usually took place immediately after dinner."
Although a very young child, Mrs. Avery remembers the frantic attempt slave owners made to hide their money when the war broke out. The following is a story related concerning the Heard family. "Mr. Heard, our master, went to the swamp, dug a hole, and hid his money, then he and his wife left for town on their horses. My oldest brother, Percy, saw their hiding place; and when the Yanks came looking for the money, he carried them straight to the swamps and showed than where the money was hidden." Although the Yeard [TR: typo "Heard"] farm was in the country the highway was very near and Mrs. Avery told of the long army of soldiers marching to La Grange singing the following song:
"Rally around the flag boys, rally around the flag,[This song, "The Battle-Cry of Freedom," was famous among the Union troops. George F. Root composed it in 1861. Mrs Avery had it almost right. The original lyrics are:
joy, joy, for freedom."
Yes, we'll rally round the flag, boys, we'll rally once again,In 1864 new lyrics were added in support of the re-election campaign of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson and the continuing battle for Emancipation:
Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom;
We will rally from the hillside, we'll gather from the plain,
Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom.
The Union forever, hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with the traitor and up with the star;
While we rally round the flag, boys, rally once again,
Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom.
We are springing to the call of our brothers gone before,
Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom;
And we'll fill the vacant ranks with a million free men more,
Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom.
We will welcome to our numbers the loyal, true and brave,
Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom;
And altho' they may be poor, not a man shall be a slave,
Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom.
So we're springing to the call from the East and from the West,
Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom;
And we'll hurl the rebel crew from the land we love the best,
Shouting the battle-cry of Freedom.
Oh, we'll rally round the cause, boys, we'll rally in our might,The melody is quite stirring, in a Celtic sort of way, and the composer, George F. Root, is justifiably famous for this and his other Civil War anthems, "Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! (The Boys are Marching)," "The Vacant Chair," and "Just Before the Battle, Mother."]
Singing the holy cause of free men,
We will battle for our Union, the sacred cause of right,
Singing the holy cause of free men.
For Lincoln and Johnson, hurrah, boys, hurrah!
Down with rebellion and on with the war,
While we rally round the cause, boys, we'll rally in our might,
Singing the holy cause of free men.
When the war ended Mr. Heard visited every slave home and broke the news to each family that they were free people and if they so desired could remain on his plantation. Mrs. Avery's family moved away, in fact most slave families did, for old man Heard had been such a cruel master everyone was anxious to get away from him. However, one year later he sold his plantation to Mr George Traylor and some of the families moved back, Mrs. Avery's family included.
Mrs. Avery married at the age of 16; and was the mother of 14 children, three of whom are still living. Although she has had quite a bit of illness during her life, at present she is quite well and active in spite of her old age. She assured the writer that the story of slavery, which she had given her, was a true one and sincerely hoped it would do some good in this world.
[Part Two: Celestia Avery on Conjuration, November 30 and December 2, 1936]
Minnie B. Ross [interviewer]
[MRS. CELESTIA AVERY] [interviewee]
In a small house at 173 Phoenix Alley, N.E. lives a little old woman about 5 ft. 2 in. in height, who is an ex-slave. She greeted the writer with a bright smile and bade her enter and have a seat by the small fire in the poorly lighted room. The writer vividly recalled the interview she gave on slavery previously
[Obviously the dates do not make sense -- the first interview was said to have occurred in 1937, this one in 1936, yet the other is referred to as the "previous" interview. Perhaps 1936 is a typo for 1938?]
and wondered if any facts concerning superstitions, conjure, signs, etc. could be obtained from her. After a short conversation pertaining to everyday occurrences, the subject of superstition was broached to Mrs. Avery. The idea amused her and she gave the writer the following facts: As far as possible the stories are given in her exact words. The interview required two days, November 30 and December 2, 1936.
"When you see a dog lay on his stomach and slide it is a true sign of death. This is sho true cause it happened to me. Years ago when I lived on Pine Street I was sitting on my steps playing with my nine-months old baby. A friend uv mine came by and sat down; and as we set there a dog that followed her began to slide on his stomach. It scared me; and I said to her, did you see that dog? Yes, I sho did. That night my baby died and it wuzn't sick at all that day. That's the truth and a sho sign of death. Anudder sign of death is ter dream of a new-born baby. One night not so long ago I dreamt about a new-born baby and you know I went ter the door and called Miss Mary next door and told her I dreamed about a new-born baby, and she said, Oh! that's a sho sign of death. The same week that gal's baby over there died. It didn't surprise me when I heard it cause I knowed somebody round here wuz go die." She continued:
"Listen, child! If ebber you clean your bed, don't you never sweep off your springs with a broom. Always wipe 'em with a rag, or use a brush. Jest as sho as you do you see or experience death around you. I took my bed down and swept off my springs, and I jest happened to tell old Mrs. Smith; and she jumped up and said, 'Child, you ought not done that cause it's a sign of death.' Sho nuff the same night I lost another child that wuz eight years old. The child had heart trouble, I think."
Mrs. Avery believes in luck to a certain extent. The following are examples of how you may obtain luck:
"I believe you can change your luck by throwing a teaspoonful of sulphur in the fire at zackly 12 o'clock in the day. I know last week I was sitting here without a bit of fire, but I wuzn't thinking bout doing that till a 'oman came by and told me ter scrape up a stick fire and put a spoonful of sulphur on it; and sho nuff in a hour's time a coal man came by and gave me a tub uv coal. Long time ago I used ter work fer some white women and every day at 12 o'clock I wuz told ter put a teaspoonful of sulphur in the fire."
"Another thing, I sho ain't going ter let a 'oman come in my house on Monday morning unless a man done come in there fust. No, surree, if it seem lak one ain't coming soon, I'll call one of the boy chilluns, jest so it is a male. The reason fer this is cause women is bad luck."
The following are a few of the luck charms as described by Mrs. Avery:
"Black cat bone is taken from a cat. First, the cat is killed and boiled, after which the meat is scraped from the bones. The bones are then taken to the creek and thrown in. The bone that goes up stream is the lucky bone and is the one that should be kept." "There is a boy in this neighborhood that sells liquor and I know they done locked him up ten or twelve times but he always git out. They say he carries a black cat bone," related Mrs. Avery.
[The black cat bone rite is notoriously cruel and inhunane, for the cat is generally boiled alive. Two uses are generally ascribed to the bone: invisibility with respect to the law and the power to force a straying lover to return.]
"The Devil's shoe string looks jest like a fern with a lot of roots. My mother used to grow them in the corner of our garden. They are lucky.
[The Devil's Shoe String Root is just as popular in conjure today as it was during Avery's lifetime.]
"Majres (?) are always carried tied in the corner of a handkerchief. I don't know how they make 'em.
["Majres" is probably a mis-hearing for mojo or mojo hands. In parts of Africa such as Tanzania, magical packets of this sort are still tied up in the corner of a cloth garment rather than placed in a drawstring bag.]
"I bought a lucky stick from a man onct. It looked jest lak a candle, only it wuz small; but he did have some sticks as large as candles and he called them lucky sticks, too, but you had to burn them all night in your room. He also had some that looked jest lak buttons, small and round."
[I suspect these were prepared Mullein stalks, which are also called "Witches' candles." The stalks are pithy and can be dried, dipped in oil, and will burn as long as any candle. Mullein has a number of uses in hoodoo in addition to is use as a source of light.]
The following are two stories of conjure told by Mrs. Avery:
"I knowed a man onct long ago and he stayed sick all der time. He had the headache from morning till night. One day he went to a old man that wuz called a conjurer; this old man told him that somebody had stole the sweat-band out of his cap and less he got it back, something terrible would happen. They say this man had been going with a 'oman and she had stole his sweat-band. Well, he never did get it, so he died.
[This headache trick is an old and common spell. Compare it with the several sweat band tricks for coercive love referrenced in Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic page 149 under "Personal Concerns" and the spell to run a man stark crazy with his hat on page 174 under "Salt."]
"I had a cousin named Alec Heard, and he had a wife named Anna Heard. Anna stayed sick all der time almost; fer two years she complained. One day a old conjurer came to der house and told Alec that Anna wuz poisoned, but if he would give him $5.00 he would come back Sunday morning and find the conjure. Alec wuz wise, so he bored a hole in the kitchen floor so that he could jest peep through there to der back steps. Sho nuff Sunday morning the nigger come back and as Alec watched him he dug down in the gound a piece, then he took a ground puppy, threw it in the hole and covered it up. All right, he started digging again and all at onct he jumped up and cried: 'Here 'tis! I got it.' 'Got what?' Alec said, running to the door with a piece of board. 'I got the ground puppy dat wuz buried fer her.' Alec wuz so mad he jumped on that man and beat him most to death. They say he did that all the time and kept a lot of ground puppies fer that purpose." Continuing, she explained that a ground puppy was a worm with two small horns. They are dug up out of the ground, and there is a belief that you will die if one barks at you.
[A Ground Puppy -- also called Mud Puppy, Ground Dog, or Water Dog -- is usually a kind of salamander. In parts of the South, however, the common Mole-Cricket, Jerusalem Cricket, or Potato Bug is also called a Ground Puppy. (And note that this so-called Potato Bug Cricket is not the same as the Colorado Potato Beetle that also bears the name Potato Bug.)]
Mrs. Avery related two ways in which you can keep from being conjured by anyone.
"One thing I do every morning is ter sprinkle chamber-lye [HW: (urine)] with salt and then throw it all around my door. They sho can't fix you if you do this.
[The use of both urine and salt for protection is very common in hoodoo and other forms of folk magic]
Anudder thing, if you wear a silver dime around your leg they can't fix you. The 'oman live next door says she done wore two silver dimes around her leg for 18 years."
[For more early accounts of the use of a silver dime for protection, see these other southern-spirits pages: "Voodooism in Tennessee" by Sallie M. Park (1889) and Sam Jordan: Silver Dime For Protectionrom the "Oklahoma Slave Narratives" (1930s)]
Next is a story of the Jack O'Lantern.
"Onct when I wuz a little girl a lot of us chillun used to slip off and take walnuts from a old man. We picked a rainy night so nobody would see us, but do you know it looked like a thousand Jack ma' Lanterns got in behind us. They wuz all around us. I never will ferget my brother telling me ter get out in the path and turn my pocket wrong side out. I told him I didn't have no pocket but the one in my apron; he said, 'well, turn that one wrong side out.' Sho nuff we did and they scattered then."
Closing the interview, Mrs. Avery remarked: "That's bout all I know; but come back some time and maybe I'll think of something else."
This material is reprinted from
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