Frances could remember the days when she wasn't free. Some seven decades after she received her freedom, she sat down in her home on Bridge Street in Athens with Sadie B. Hornsby to relate her memories of the days when she lived in one room log cabin with a stick and mud chimney. Frances never forgot the day she was free to go were ever she wanted to, when she wanted to. This is her story, in her own words, a woman's story of slavery as she saw it. They are her words, written long ago in interpretation of her own simple dialect.
"I was born way off down in Twiggs County 'bout a mile from the town of Jeffersonville. My Pa and Ma was Otto and Sarah Rutherford," Frances recalled. There were nine children and parents living in a meager hut they called their home. "Our bedsteads was made out of rough planks and poles and some of 'em was nailed to de sides of de cabins," Frances remembered. The mattresses were stuffed with wheat straw while it was in season. "When dat was used up us got grass from de fields. Most any kind of hay was counted good 'nough to put in a slave's mattress," Mrs. Willingham said. "Dey let us mix some cotton wid de hay our pillows," she added.
In her four years of slavery, Frances was somewhat exempt from toiling in the fields. "Us chillun never done much but play 'round de house and yards wid de white chillun. I warn't but four years old when dey made us free," she reminisced.
Frances could still remember her grandmothers and aunts. "I remember once Grandma Suck, she wes my Ma's mammy, come to our house and stayed one or two days wid us. Daddy's Ma was named Puss." Both of her grandmothers were field hands, but her mother worked in the house carding and spinning threads. Her aunt Phoebe weaved the threads onto cloth and her Polly sewed the cloth into threads.
As a child, Frances never had any money. "Nobody never give slave chillun no money in dem times. I never had none 'til atter us had done been give our freedom." But, she did see the money that her master Elisha Jones had. " I used to see Old Marster countin' of it, but de slaves never did git none of dat money. "
Frances spoke somewhat highly of her master. " Our Old Marster was a pow'ful rich man, and he sho' b'lieved in givin' us plenty to eat. It warn't nothin' fine, but it was good plain eatin' what filled you up and kept you well. Dere was cornbread and meat, greens of all sorts, 'taters, roas'en-ears and more other kinds of veg'tables dan I could call up all day. Marster had one big old gyarden whar he kept most evything a-growin' 'cept cabbages and 'matoes. He said dem things warn't fittin' for nobody to eat."
Jones trusted Otto enough to let him go hunting on his won. One delicacy in Frances' family was possum. Her family had to cook everything in an open fireplace. I've seen Ma clean many a 'possum in hot ashes. Den she scalded him and tuk out his innards. She par-boiled and den baked him and when she fetched him to de table wide a heap of sweet 'taters 'round him on de dish, dat was sho' somepin good to eat," Mrs. Willingham fondly recalled.
As a child slave, her clothes were at least decent. In summer, the girl slaves wore homespun dresses, with full skirts sewed tight to fit their waists and fastened down on their backs with buttons made out of cows and rams horns. "Our white petticoat slips and pantalettes was made on bodices. In winter us wore balmorals what had three stripes 'round de bottom, and over dem us had on long sleeved ap'ons what was long as de balmorals. Slave gals' pantalettes warn't ruffled and tucked and trimmed up wid lace and 'broidery lak Miss Polly's chilluns' was," Frances concluded.
The adult slaves on the Jones' plantation wore rough brogan. Frances and the other children wore the hand me down shoes that the Jones children had outgrown. "Dey called 'em Jackson shoes, 'cause dey was made wid a extra wide piece of leather sewed on de outside so as when you knocked your ankles 'gainst one another, it wouldn't wear no holes in your shoes. Our Sunday shoes warn't no different from what us wore evvyday," Frances said.
Elisha and Mary Jones were wealthy by most standards. In the year before the Civil War began, Jones owned $20,000 worth of real estate and $36,500.00 of personal property including slightly more than fifty slaves.
"Marse Lish Jones and his wife--she was Miss Polly--was our Marster and Mist'ess. Dey sho' did love to be good to us. Dey had five chillun of deir own, two gals and three boys. Dey was: Mary, Anna Della, Steve, John, and Bob. 'Bout deir house! Oh, Missus, dat was somepin to see for sho'.
Frances remembered the Jones's plantation house near the Town of Marion, then the capital of Twiggs County. "It was a big old fine two-story frame house wid a porch 'cross de front and 'round both sides. Dere was five rooms on de fust floor and three upstairs. It sho' did look grand a-settin' back dar in dat big old oak grove," the old slave woman looked back.
Mrs. Willingham vividly recalled her old master, "Old Master had a overseer but he never had no carriage driver 'cause he loved to drive for himself so good." Willingham said that she never saw her master do anything except drive his carriage, walk a little and eat all that he wanted to because he was rich man and didn't have to do anything. She recalled that the plantation was very large and although she couldn't remember just how many slaves lived and worked there, she did remark, "Dat old plantation was plumb full of 'em."
Field work was hard. ""Our overseer got all de slaves up 'fore break of day and dey had to be done et deir breakfast and in de field when de sun rise up," Willingham remembered. The slaves would work all day past twilight before they came back to their quarters to eat supper and rest.
Whippings on the Jones place were somewhat rare, at least Frances never saw one. She did remember the dime when she climbed on top of the porch of the big house and flapped her arms and crowed like a rooster. " Dey told me to come on down, but I wouldn't mind nobody and kept on a-crowin' and a-flappin', so dey whupped me down," Willingham remarked.
Frances and the other slaves, although a few miles from the nearest battle at Griswoldville, saw the war coming to an end. Although she was barely four years old, she told her interviewers, "Mercy me! I'se seed plenty of dem yankees a-gwine and comin'. Dey come to our Marster's house and stole his good mules. Dey tuk what dey wanted of his meat, chickens, lard and syrup and den poured de rest of de syrup out on de ground.," Mrs. Willingham remembered.
Free from all the helpless despair of seemingly eternal bondage, Frances Willingham was no better off than she was before she was granted her freedom. She had little that she could truly call her own. Slaves had their freedom, but had little choice of where to go and how to scratch out a living. Many of the things the former slaves had provided for them were now gone or beyond the reach of their somewhat less than meager incomes would allow. Although legally free, many of the slaves remained on the plantations and continued to see their former masters as still their masters.
Education was almost nonexistent in those days for black children. "I ain't never been to school a day in my life, 'cause when I was little, black children weren't allowed to read and write," she remembered.
Going to church was different too. Before the war, slaves and their masters worshiped in the same church. After the war, congregations were ironically segregated. "Colored folks had their own church in a settlement called John the Baptist," Willingham remembered in recalling that she and the other children loved going to baptisms. "Day took dem converts to a hole in de crick what day had got ready for dat purpose. De preacher went fust, and den he called for de converts to come on in and have deir sins washed away," she said.
Funerals were primitive as well. Willingham explained that Elijah Jones had set apart a burying ground for his slaves adjoining his own family's cemetery. "Us didn't know nothin' 'bout no fun'rals. When one of de slaves died, dey was put in unpainted home-made coffins and tuk to de graveyard whar de grave had done been dug. Dey put 'em in dar and kivvered 'em up and dat was all dey done 'bout it," Willingham recalled.
Frances reminisced about a single wedding on her master's plantation. She never forgot the day when Miss Polly gave her one of little Miss Mary's dresses to wear to the wedding. "Only dey never had no real weddin'. Dey was jus' married in de yard by de colored preacher and dat was all dere was to it," she recollected.
Frances Willingham fondly recalled Christmas times in her youth. She remembered going to bed early because she and the other children were afraid that Santa Claus wouldn't come to see them. "Us carried our stockin's up to de big house to hang 'em up. Next mornin' us found 'em full of all sorts of good things, 'cept oranges. I never seed nary a orange 'til I was a big gal," she reminisced.
Food was plentiful in holiday times. "Miss Polly had fresh meat, cake, syrup puddin' and plenty of good sweet butter what she 'lowanced out to her slaves at Christmas. Old Marster, he made syrup by de barrel. Plenty of apples and nuts and groundpeas was raised right dar on de plantation. In de Christmas, de only work slaves done was jus' piddlin' 'round de house and yards, cuttin' wood, rakin' leaves, lookin' atter de stock, waitin' on de white folks and little chores lak dat," she remembered. Hard work resumed on the day after New Year's Day.
Medical care, although primitive at best, was available, if only on a limited basis. Of those days, Willingham recalled, "White folks was mighty good and kind when deir slaves got sick. Old Marster sont for Dr. 'Pree (DuPree) and when he couldn't git him, he got Dr. Brown. He made us swallow bitter tastin' powders what he had done mixed up in water. Miss Polly made us drink tea made out of Jerusalem oak weeds. She biled dem weeds and sweetened de tea wid syrup. Dat was good for stomach trouble, and us wore elder roots strung 'round our necks to keep off ailments," Mrs. Frances remarked.
The women of Frances Willingham's day had little rest, even after leaving the fields. She recalled that when the slaves came in from the field, the women cleaned the houses after they eat and washed clothes early in the morning so that they would be dry for the next day. She remembered that the grown men would eat, sit around and talk to other men and then go to bed.
Saturday nights were a time to frolic. Quitting time came around three or four o'clock in the afternoon. "Sadday nights de young folks got together to have deir fun. Dey danced, frolicked, drunk likker, and de lak of dat. Old Marster warn't too hard on 'em no time, but he jus' let 'em have dat night to frolic. On Sunday he give dem what wanted 'em passes to go to church and visit 'round," she reminisced.
Jones allowed his workers little rest from the time crops were planted until they were harvested. "My master did allow us slaves to have cornshuckin's, cornshellin's, cotton pickin's, and quiltin's," said Mrs. Willingham. Jones's groves of pecan, chestnut, walnuts and other trees were lucrative . When all the nuts were gathered, Jones sold them to the rich people in the cities. Afterwards, he gave his slaves a big feast with plenty to drink. After a long celebration, Jones allowed the slaves a few days to recover before resuming their grueling duties.
In her final years, Frances Willingham reflected on her freedom, "Me, I's so' glad Mr. Lincoln sot us free." She believed that if she was still a slave, that she work just the same, sick or not. "Now I don't have to ax nobody what I kin do. Dat's why I's glad I's free," Willingham concluded.
After leaving the Jones plantation, Frances moved to Putnam County, Georgia, where she married Green Willingham, of neighboring Jasper County. "I didn't have no weddin'. Ma jus' cooked a chicken for us, and I was married in a white dress. De waist had ruffles 'round de neck and sleeves," she said as she looked back to her wedding day.
Frances Willingham lived a long life. She worked hard to provide for her seven boys and ten girls. Then as she got older she did all she could to look after her 19 grandchildren and 21 great grandchildren.
In this month of March when we celebrate Women's History Month, let us look back and reflect on all the Frances Willinghams of the world, who toiled and worked with little rest to provide for their families as best as they could.