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This is an extract from material collected by the United States Government during the 1930s for the Federal Writers' Project. Explanatory material appears [in brackets].
Gertrude Vogler [interviewer. Interviewers for the FWP were often local young writers and journalists who had no steady employment due to the Great Depression. They were often given a list of questions to ask, particularly concerning the ex-slave's memories of social and economic conditions before, during, and after Emancipation, but also touching on folklore, folk music, and folk magic.]
Mrs. Duncan [interviewee. Mrs. Duncan's age at the time of the interview is not given, so an estimate of her age is as follows: Emancipation became a reality for all in 1865, and after that time, Mrs. Duncan's mother married a man who did not want the children in the home. Her mother gave her sister and her some bare necessities and sent them away to live with a relative. The journey would have been too arduous for a small chid, so it is likely that she was at least 10 years old when she left her mother, and would therefore have been born before 1855. This means that she would have been in her early 80s when the interview took place]
"After the War was over mammie's old man did not want us with them, so he threatened to kill us. Then my old mammie fixed us a little bundle of what few clothes we had and started us two children out to go back to the Campbell family in Albany.
[Here the story of Mrs. Duncan goes into stealth mode, as she describes what happened, but does not give the reasons for it. However, taking her bare-bones narrative at face value, it seems to be a sad and unspoken truth that Mrs. Duncan and her sister were the mixed-race children of an enslaver with the surname Campbell, and their step-father did not want them around as visible reminders of how his wife had been treated by the Campbell family, so he forced her to send them "back" to the Campbells.]
The road was just a wilderness and full of wild animals and varmints. Mammie gave us some powder and some matches, telling us to put a little down in the road every little while and set fire to it. This would scare the wild animals away from us.
["Powder and matches" refers to gunpowder and matches."]
"We got to the river at almost dark and some old woman set us across the river in a canoe. She let us stay all night wit her, and we went on to 'Grandpap Campbell's. (We always called him grandpap instead of master, as the others did.) When he saw us comin' he said, 'Lawd have mercy, here comes them poor little chillun'.
[The fact that their parentage was known is evident in the description of Mr. Campbell: "We always called him grandpap instead of master, as the others did." They were fortunate in that their biological grandfather was kind enough to care for them. However, the question of wether Mr. Campbell was white or black is not settled, for although it was uncommon, there were a few black slave-owners of black slaves in Kentucky before the Civil War. However, all things considered, it is most likely that Grandpap Campbell of Albany, Kentucky, was a white man, and likely a descendant or collateral relative of the John Campbell family of that town.]
"I stayed with them that time until I was big enough to be a house girl.
[Although slavery was abolished, there was no education or chance for a trade or career offered to Miss Campbell; she was expected to become a domestic servant or "house girl." She would have been old enough for this occupation around the age of 14 to 16, depending on her maturity.]
"Then I went to live with the Harrison family in Albany; and I lived with them till I married old Sam Duncan and come to Wayne County to live.
[n County, Kentucky provided more soldiers for the Union Army than any county of any free state. The town of Albany is 6 miles North of the Tennessee state line. It is now 98% white. Wayne County, also on the border with Tennessee, is adjacent to Clinton County, directly East.]
I've raised a family of nine children and have thirty-seven grand children and twenty great grand children.
"Every one of my children wears a silver dime on a string around their leg, to keep off the witches spell.
[Wearing a silver dime on a string around the ankle is one of the oldest conjure remedies known. It is used to ward off evil spells laid down by means of foot track magic.]
One time, before my daughter Della got to wearing it, she was going down the road, not far from our house, when all at once her leg gave way and she could not walk. Of course I knowed what it was. So I went after Linda Woods, the witch doctor. She come with a bottle of something, all striped with all colors, but when you shake it up it was all the same color.
[The liquid that was "striped with all colours" but could be shaken up to blend into one colour is the earliest documentation of a popular formulation for hoodoo rubs, washes, waters, and perfumes in which coloured liquids of various specific gravities, such as oil and water, are layered in a bottle and then shaken before use. Two of the most common surviving examples are Peace Water and Double Luck Perfume Oil.]
She rubbed her leg with it and told me to get all the life everlasting (a weed you know) that I could carry in my arm, and brew it for tea to bathe her leg in. Then pour it in a hole in the ground, but not to cover it up. Then not to go down the same road for nine days.
[Life Everlasting is a common name for any one of several small yellow or white flowers with stiff petal-like bracts in the Daisy family. They are widely believed to promote longevity, and with this goal in mind, they may be carried on the person, or brewed into a tea or a bath for use in curing aches and pains to prevent sickness.]
"We did all she said, and her leg got all right as soon as we bathed it. But she did not wait nine days, and started down the road the next day. The very same thing happened to her again. Her leg give way under her and she could not walk a step.
"I went after Linda Woods again. This time she said, 'D—m her, I told her not to go over that road for nine days.' But she came with the striped bottle and destroyed the witch spell again, telling her this time if she went over the road again for nine days that she would remain a cripple all her life, for she would not cure her again.
"Della stayed off that road for nine days, this time, and all the family have worn the silver dime around their legs ever since.
"Another time my old man Sam got down in his back. Well, he went to Henry Coulter (he was another witch doctor). He just shot in the back with a glass pistol, and cured him. Of course there was not any bullet in the pistol, but it cured him.
[A glass pistol is actually a small whiskey bottle. The earliest examples date back to the 1880s and were made in the form of revolvers. Later examples were shaped like automatic pistols. Glass pistols were manufactured by glass companies and sold in bulk to whiskey distributors, who passed them on to tavern keepers who filled them with a fine quality of spirits and gave them out as birthday presents or complimentary gifts to good customers. When Prohibition came to America, the brown glass pistols were replaced with clear glass ones, and were filled with rainbow nonpareils as treats for children. Because they are bottles, glass pistols are also useful as bottle-spells, and it is likely that Henry Coulter's glass pistol was not empty, but that it contained an analgesic herbal tincture, which would have been symbolically "shot" at the pain, and that this might have been followed by a dose of the herbal medicine contained within the bottle.]
He could draw a picture of a chicken on a paper and shoot it, and a chicken would fall dead in the yard, yes sir. I've seen him do it. Old Henry is dead now though. When he died he had a whole trunk full of the queerest looking things you ever seen. And they took it all and buried it. Nobody would touch it for anything.
"I always keep a horse shoe over my door to keep the spirits away.
[Nailing a used horseshoe above the door to keep off witches or evil spirits is an old European folk-custom. When the purpose is protective, the shoe is generally hung with the open end or "points" facing down, like many other charms against the evil eye that provide a cover or roof which is evocative of the shape of the female genitals. Among the Irish, when the charm is nailed with the open end or "points" upward, like a cup, the intention is to capture and retain good luck for the household.]
We live very close to the graveyard, and my boy Ed said he had been seeing his brother Charley in his room every night. If he was livin' right, he would not be seeing Charlie every night. Charlie never bothers me. He was my boy that died and is buried in this graveyard above our house."
[The name of Mrs. Duncan's son was spelled both ways -- Charley and Charlie -- in the original document. Fear of the dead coming to take away the living is not uncommon when dreams of the dead repeat for many nights in a row. The fact that Ed, who was not "living right," was seeing Charlie "every night" in his dreams foretold the danger of death; hanging the horseshoe prevented that from happening. Charlie may not have been thought to be an evil spirit, because Mrs. Duncan, who loved Charlie and was probably living right herself, said, "Charlie never bothers me."]
This material is reprinted from
From Interviews with Former Slaves
Typewritten records prepared by the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938
Assembled by the Library of Congress Project of the
Work Projects Administration for the District of Columbia,
Sponsored by the Library of Ccongress
Prepared by The Federal Writers' Project of The Works Progress Administration For the State of Kentucky
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