|Charlotte Story Perkinson|
Upon her arrival in Raleigh, Perkinson encountered the peculiar lifestyle of the post-Civil War South. Freed slaves were still alive and able to tell their story about slavery before and after the war, about re-invented slavery under "Jim Crow," and its eerie dichotomy of racial paternalism mixed with, at times, the violent underpinnings of resistance to change.
This resistance has become a North Carolina tradition, never more obvious than in today's controversial battle over education, voting laws, teacher's rights and so many other issues that should not really be issues. North Carolina has always been the quintessential "stick in the mud," refusing to change, especially when it comes to race. Furthermore, North Carolinian conservatives react strongly and defiantly when pressed into a corner. Whether as Southern Democrats or, now, as Republicans, conservatism in North Carolina has always been about maintaining the "peculiar institution," or at least keeping it's memory... its "heritage" alive.
My grandfather, an elderly Baptist minister from Union County, even in 1933, must have read State's Progress, not one of the most popular newspapers in North Carolina, I'm sure... it ran for just over one year. Grandpa was a well-read gentleman. He also read the liberal Charlotte Observer. He collected newspaper clippings and various historical and fascinating tidbits in a scrapbook that I still have in my possession. In it, he placed this article "'Black Mammy' Tells Graphic Story of Slavery," from the 19 March 1933 issue of the Charlotte Observer. The title does not do it justice... it's not simply about the old slavery days, but also about the story of a woman who saw horrors all about her, happening to others in her position, and a woman still capable of pride about her life as a slave and ex-slave. It's a bittersweet and eerie story about herrenvolk mentality, psychology, and denial. It instantly caught my attention.
|Article written by Charlotte Story Perkinson titled "Black Mammy' Tells Graphic Story of Slavery," Charlotte Observer (North Carolina), 19 March 1933|
Ironically, my grandfather passively held more in common with Josiah W. Bailey than his opponent, Furnifold M. Simmons, even though Bailey was the more conservative candidate in 1930. He probably voted for Simmons, however. Fifty-seven years of age in 1930, Bailey graduated from Wake Forest College in 1893 and immediately afterward had become editor of the Biblical Recorder, the weekly newspaper of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, a paper that my grandfather wrote for on occasion.
Charlotte S. Perkinson served as Simmons' campaign manager. She supported the man responsible for the disenfranchisement of North Carolina's black citizens during the 1898 radical conservative takeover (then, calling themselves "Democrats") of the state that, with few exceptions, still maintains power today (now, calling themselves "Republicans"). That Perkinson was a liberal and wrote this article is a strange contradiction and tells us about the overall conservative nature of the state, not unlike today's far-right trends.
Then again, many things about North Carolina have been a strange contradiction. Race relations are foremost on the list. The Biblical Recorder's current editor, Tony W. Cartledge stated that "Bailey was sometimes hard to figure out. In North Carolina, he was considered to be a progressive Democrat, but in Washington, he opposed Roosevelt's New Deal and helped compose what became known as the 'Conservative Manifesto.'" "Progressives" in the South of this time, especially in North Carolina, were the conservatives of the nation, due almost exclusively to issues of race and bitterness over the old conflict in the 1860s.
When she came to North Carolina, Charlotte Perkinson had bumped into this "Solid South," a term that described the former member states of the Confederacy and their political ideology since the Civil war. This state might have been thought the champion of that "Solid South," what with the number of troops that it supplied to the Confederacy in that age-old conflict that is politically still raging today. Southerners of this breed draw together to resist almost any change, especially involving race relations. They resisted Northern legislators long after losing that war. Perkinson had arrived after Simmon's anti-African-American activities of 1898 and, perhaps did not join with him in those sentiments. Also, she was staunchly prohibitionist and the more conservative Bailey supported a "wet" (anti-prohibitionist) Catholic for president. Simmons would have been her obvious choice, but also obviously not for racial reasons.
Initially, at the beginning of the ironically-named "Progressive Era," (lots of irony in politics) there was great violence, which North Carolina characteristically experienced in the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, the only coup d'etat to ever occur in the United States. Nothing half-done here! Hundreds of African-Americans died in that grave injustice when conservatives took over the city government at gunpoint. Furthermore, lynchings occurred all across the United States after Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. "Separate but equal" was the law of the land and that repressive scoundrel "Jim Crow" moved into the neighborhood and would repress the African-American for more than half a century by 1930 (legally, it continued until 1954). This was the political climate that encouraged and in which flourished the Ku Klux Klan. For North Carolina, to name one state, these were the white-supremacist champions and redeemers of conservative Southern Democratic government who rebelled again after their abrupt release from justice, Reconstruction... a federal policy which had forced observance of civil rights on the South for twelve years following the war. They're still very much an active entity today, ever growing in response to the election of the first African-American president.
The violence ended, to be replaced with stringent paternalism... but only after a certain event that occurred in the first two decades of Perkinson's time in Raleigh.
Perkinson came to North Carolina at an ominous period in its history. She arrived before Congress's many years of failed attempts to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1917 and before a Southern bloc of conservative Senators filibustered and killed the Anti-Lynching bill during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (Northern) Democratic administration. None of these attempts (begun in 1909) during the period known as the "nadir of American race relations" ever passed. None of them ever became law. To this date, no federal anti-lynching legislation has ever been passed. Only a Congressional "apology" for slavery in 2005! Not exactly the "penitent" bunch, I assure you.
For North Carolina specifically, it's reigning conservative Southern Democrats had become kings with virtually no opposition at the polls for more than a century. Until Brown v. Board in 1954 and the Civil Rights Act in 1964, finding a Republican in the South was nearly impossible. Afterwards, Republicans slowly took over the already quite conservative South, as Lyndon B. Johnson predicted after the Civil Rights Act. By 1980, but especially after 2008, the Southern Democrat had suddenly and almost completely disappeared, to be replaced with... solid Republicans in the "solid" South! By 2012, North Carolina was at the top of that conservative Republican list and the only battleground state of eleven to vote for Mitt Romney (Republican) over the first African-American president Barack Obama (Democrat).
In 1900, 90% of African-Americans lived in the South. Moving away from oppression seemed reasonable. Not surprisingly, 1.6 million blacks left from the fourteen traditional states of the South to northern cities in the "Great Migration"(1910–1930), resulting in a 37-point drop... their reaction to a "progressive" South. Historian James Gregory Bennett calls this the first phase of the Southern Diaspora, similar to the massive Biblical exodus from bondage as Egypt slaves. Only after this migration did the violence fade away... did Pharoah relent on the whip. Still, lynchings were not the only type of violence that they had experienced. There were subtle forms that neither made the news nor affect the statistics.
Still, 53% of African-Americans surprisingly remained in the South after migration and, nevertheless, the lynchings nearly stopped (as the graph clearly shows)... the obvious violence had still faded. This enigma must have intrigued the veteran political activist Perkinson, who interviewed many ex-slaves around Raleigh whenever possible. Always the investigator, Perkinson was determined to arrive at the truth of their existence and learn the reasons why they remained in such a repressive atmosphere yet, somehow, got along.
North Carolinians of varying hues in the 1930s didn't exactly "get along" equally, but not as would appear from the apparent lack of resistance. The herrenvolk, or "master race" finally won the Civil War in the "progressive" North Carolina of the 1930s. Such irony in these politics!
Perkinson certainly met with resistance from her subjects during the search. She found that many ex-slaves would lie to her for fear of being punished for blabbering to an "outsider."
The atmosphere was adversarial, yes, still wrapped in the ideological enigma of a conservative "Solid South" that permeated the state after the war, after the immense resentment of Reconstruction, and before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The South was still immersed in "Jim Crow," Plessy v. Ferguson, the segregationist laws and practices that kept ex-slaves poor, submissive, and "in their place," especially after Bennett's "Great Migration." Predominantly, Perkinson found a passively aggressive environment, one in which she said "there is still a great tendency among these old darkies [a typical reference of the day] to say only those things pleasant to the ears of former slave owners."
Was this a detente reached at gunpoint or was it more subtle? What exactly must these ex-slaves fear?
She interviewed many elderly ex-slaves whose memory of events were "blurred," she wondered whether by age or fear, suspecting that it was intentional, to avoid retribution. Their fearful resolve was difficult to overcome. She gave up on hearing "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth" and tried to read between the lines... that is, until she met Sally Parham.
Sally surprised her. Perkinson believed her to be the most candid ex-slave that she had yet interviewed in North Carolina. Sally was the former property of one Asa Parham from a large plantation five miles from the small town of Oxford on the Oxford-Henderson road in Granville County. It was in the small farming community of "Tabb's Creek."
Also surprising and contrary to other interviewees, Sally proudly preferred the honorary title of "Black Mammy." Thus, the title of Perkinson's newspaper article, "'Black Mammy' Tells Graphic Story of Slavery." The title, however, was too simple... it did not represent the content at all! It only expressed the mechanics, not the fruit of her discovery.
As the interview wore on, however, Perkinson must have begun to realize that Sally's answers and joyful affirmations betrayed a deep sense of denial, a disassociation from reality, made possible, perhaps, by the comparably comfortable circumstances in which she found herself throughout her long life, even before the Great Migration.
Asa Parham, by Sally's description, of course, was one of the "good masters." He was born in 1792, in Granville County upon the very plantation where Sally was also born. He married Delia Hawkins Reavis on 22 March 1824 and had four boys and one daughter between 1829 and 1841. According to 1860 slave census records, Asa owned twenty-four of them, ranging in age from 1 to 78. The female slave listed as 27 years old was Sally, born in 1833.
Sally, since her birth, had always lived on Asa's plantation, even for sixty years after his death in 1870. She cared for five generations of his family and was proud of it. It was on this plantation that Charlotte Perkinson interviewed the proud old "Black Mammy," still living there so long after emancipation.
Sally's exuberant tale exposed that the life of a slave was far from ideal, even wretched. Fortunately for her, perhaps, she merely witnessed the horrors and, therefore, did not mind telling the stories. She seemed unaffected by a life in which she apparently did not belong. Sally openly exposed to Perkinson a "most revealing description of the slave 'speculator,' of how crime was punished, of the 'pattyrollers,' and of many other subjects not often touched upon." Perkinson listened intently to Sally's story.
Reflected in the interview, Sally's earliest memories were of as a little girl in the "big house" being trained as a house servant. She remembered trying to resist returning to the slave quarters when her mother came to fetch her and was dragged down the front steps. "My head counted those steps," as she jokingly told Perkinson, "and I'll never forget them!" This kind of treatment from Sally's own mother may have shocked Perkinson. She may have thought it only a joke, an exaggeration. The remaining details perhaps gave her a different perspective.
Nevertheless, Sally felt special. She reflected on how she would sometimes accompany her master's children to school, with a "pass" from him, and could sometimes bring home books, like the "Blue Back Speller." From this book, Sally learned to spell and pronounce some words. She was quite proud of knowing the alphabet, which she repeated in its entirety for her interviewer. Most slave owners preferred not to educate their slaves for fear of them gaining confidence and independence, eventually revolting.
Sally was more than happy to relate all the details of a slave's life. A "pass," she said, was vital to prevent a slave from being caught off the plantation by a "pattyroller," slang for "patrol," a gang of five to six white men designated by the local government to prevent slaves from gathering at night and possibly organize a revolt. "If a slave went courting or to a candy stew or a prayer meeting," they had to have a note or pass saying where they were going and why, otherwise they were beaten and sent back to the plantation. Perkinson was told by her informant that slaves "feared and hated 'pattyrollers' intensely."
Always in intimate identification with her former owner's family, Sally told Perkinson that slave owners seldom had respect for the patrol as well. Giddily, she related how the slave and white children alike would play pranks on these "pattyrollers." She related how "one night they stretched ropes across the lane leading to the negro quarters and then hid and waited for the gallop, gallop of the night patrol." She heard each horse fall with a "heavy thud" as the ropes tripped them. Needless to say, she remarked smiling, "there were no boys of either color visible when once the riders and horses set out again upon their spying errand."
About her own family, Sally was perhaps more reticent. She only married once, having "higher ideals" in that regard, as she told it, "patterned after the white folks." Her husband's name was Harry, a slave of Asa's younger brother, Albert Parham, who lived on the neighboring plantation. Being perhaps less candid for the only time during the interview, she turned her words away from her husband. Perhaps aware of Sally's subtle deflection from an emotional subject, Perkinson informed her reader that "marriage in slavery days was hardly more than an agreement to live together." Of course, in this case, they were barely allowed even that. The capitalistic requirements of the peculiar institution was conducive to polygamy, "inasmuch as the more children a slave woman had, the more value she was to her master." It was just a business, still, one aspect that she may have deeply regretted. Some emotion peeked through Sally's glittering facade.
This aspect of slave breeding explains the thirteen babes and adolescent slaves (54% of the total) living on Asa Parham's plantation in 1860. The master needed his female slaves to produce babies... more slaves to continue working the plantation, for sale, or trade. That was the business, like breeding cattle. The idea of the "marriage" itself was incidental. If this bothered Sally, it was isolated and personal, less candid. She merely showed a glimpse of her discomfort as she talked around the subject of her husband, Harry.
Sally did, however, relate the details of a dark incident that affected her brother-in-law's family, a "particularly pathetic scene that had fixed itself upon" her memory, as Perkinson perhaps encouraged, thirsty for detail. This involved an aspect that Perkinson called the "most despicable aspect of slavery, the thing which aroused the abolitionist the most," the slave trader, the slave driver, or the "speculator."
Surely, this affected Sally. It had to.
Continuing from a detached aspect, however, Sally casually informed her interviewer, this middle-aged white Yankee reporter, that the "speculator" was the "most abominable species of humanity." As though giving a scholarly presentation, she told that they "trafficked in black flesh." They "sold and bought men and women and children for profit." Slaves hated to see the "speculator's" wagon pull up, she said, "covered with canvas and drawn by several mules." "Into it were herded," as Sally calmly related, "much as sheep or dogs might be, often as many as 17 unwashed and half-clad negroes." Such an event strongly affected Harry's brother, Tom and his family.
Sally, however, spoke of it as normal, matter-of-fact...
One day, she told, a speculator arrived at Albert Parham's farm. Tom watched in horror as his wife and children were loaded into the "speculator's" wagon. He begged his reluctant master to sell him, too, so as not to split them up. His master replied that Tom was a good worker and he would not let him go. This incident might have emotionally defeated Tom, had it not been for the "speculator's" insistence upon buying Tom as well. Albert Parham finally gave in... for the right price.
When Perkinson inquired as to why Tom's wife and kids were sold in the first place, Sally replied that they had "Injun" blood, which was thought undesirable. As in the business of animal husbandry, breeding was essential to profit and Indians were considered poor or problematic workers. "The blackest skin brought the best price," Sally said.
At this point in the interview, the proud old slave woman, "Black Mammy," might have reached her core sense of inhumanity and injustice. If so, Perkinson saw no sign of it.
The most chilling tale was yet to come. How were slaves punished for severe crimes?
Sally then spoke of two slaves, Joe and Martha, who hated their master intensely and decided to murder him by pouring scalding hot coffee down his throat, which killed him almost instantly. Sally verbally reprimanded them for their actions, which was "in no way" justified, she said.
Sally told that the local community decided to make examples of Joe and Martha by holding a public execution in the old courthouse square at Harrisburg Creek and every slave from far and wide was forced to watch. Sally was piled into a wagon crowded with slaves and she and her mother became afraid and started screaming. Her mother finally calmed down, but not young Sally. Sally said her master told her mother to "let the little fool out" and she did not attend the hanging.
Her mother, however, did and told Sally about it. So, she knew that when they arrived at the courthouse, her mother saw Martha, "sitting on her coffin with a rope around her neck," suckling a newborn baby that she had while in jail awaiting her execution. A large gathering of the community of Tabb's Creek turned out. As her death approached, Martha began to sing:
"I'se travellin to the grave, my Lawd,
To lay this body down."
"Sister, you'd better watch and pray,
I'm huntin for Jesus night and day..."
At that point, someone in the crowd hollered out "You ought to a thought a that 'fore you scalded your moster."
Then, Martha handed her baby to a nearby slave woman and kept singing until the "suddenly taughtened rope" choked off her voice. The image of a recently alive woman hanging from a rope with a broken neck and her crying newborn nearby is strikingly horrible and difficult to bear. Still, Sally went on with her casual recollection...
Sally informed Perkinson that when "a slave killed a white man, he was dealt with in short order." Sally almost made the horrifying seem civilized by saying that the state was required to pay the slave's owner for the financial loss, "the same way that a corporation nowadays has to pay damages for injury to property, perhaps for running over a horse or cow."
Sally understood business and the place of a worker in the master's business. After all, slaves were nothing more than expensive farm implements. They had been considered such since 1671 in Carolina... almost 200 years before the war. The business model went back a few decades further. There was a long tradition of chattel slavery used for the lucrative sugar production reaching back to the 1640s in Barbados, founders of Carolina.
As horrible as the story already read, there was yet more to come. Sally told about another slave who had been branded on each palm for his crimes. The painful branding was done as he was forced to slowly recite "The Lord save the State - the Lord save the State - the Lord save the State" three times while the hot branding iron seared deep wounds into his palm flesh. If he said it too quickly, they made him stop and begin again. Unable to use his hands for a full year after this brutal treatment, his owner had little use for him and sold him. Few farmers had ever broken a plow on purpose, or maimed a horse out of spite. Why destroy this slave's usefulness? This type of "conditioning" never made the papers or official records. The hidden fears were revealed in Perkinson's interview.
Sally disassociated herself from the horror that she witnessed every day. She saw herself as not "white," but not a slave, either. She lived like Cinderella in a castle. Clearly, her master treated her with uncommon compassion. Sally saw herself as somehow different from other slaves and, therefore, exempt from the punishment and the horrid treatment that they usually received. She cared for and protected her master's family and their belongings during the war, proud of the way she fooled the Yankees by placing molasses jars in front of the whiskey and buried his money all around the yard until he and his boys came home from the war.
After the war was over, emancipated slaves in the South had to deal with Southern revenge, the KKK, hatred, mobs, and lynchings. So, the horrors of which Sally spoke had not included those later events, the assuredly more intense violence. The events that she described involved slavery before and during the war... they occurred before emancipation... before the real dangers began!
Sally's subtle deception tainted the historical value of her testimony. The images they invoked contrasted strongly with the words themselves, the terrifying life of a typical slave as she saw it... as she felt it... from afar. Did Sally realize that she regaled a life that, for others, was a literal hell on Earth? She may not have seen herself as a slave at all, but a part of Asa's natural family, always a child... though with limited rights. Sally would never have left the South like the 37% that fled from 1910-1930! After all, she had a home in the "castle."
Charlotte Perkinson perhaps had achieved that for which she had searched; she understood Sally Parham much better by the end of the interview. The ex-slaves who remained in the South, perhaps, were not as confident or independent as the people who fled in the Southern Diaspora. Many found it easier to accept the terrible life that they had known so well rather than the life in the unknown... and they mentally compensated. As Perkinson listened to Sally, she began to glimpse the reason that "Black Mammy" spoke so freely of slave mistreatment, all the while living into a ripe old age in the very house in which she was born a slave, was freed, and yet remained until her death.
Perkinson interpreted the experience from a standpoint of a front-line war reporter, buried within a highly-reactive culture, but also from the restrictions of 1928. These horrors were perhaps too vivid for print. After all, the KKK was at the height of their power then. "They are those of old slavery time," Perkinson justified, "when the finest points of etiquette were observed by the white people, and whose manners were imitated by the house servants, generally."
Perkinson commented further, "Even now, the old woman feels it within her province and a part of her duty to the old family, to admonish and advise her young mistress, when occasion demands, and most of all to tell her 'bout the way her family did and lived befor' de war.'" Such devotion... to please the white establishment who certainly would be reading the paper.
Sally became a member of the white church, "Tabb's Creek Baptist Church," constituted just before the Revolution. She was baptised in Cheatham's Pond with whites and slaves, only praying in private, "no one dar' but me and Gawd!" Living together was normal to her, but keeping their distance was only right, she also believed. Sally witnessed the "not unusual" practice of mulatto children born of the masters and their slave mistresses and felt it was the greatest cause of "unhappiness and misery for both races."
Unabashedly, she repeated the mantra of the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist, abhorring miscegenation of the races, or "race-mixing," as it was called. "Gawd" never intended that! Sally might say.
|Modern Tabb's Creek Baptist Church. Photo taken by Pat Garrett, Brittany & Ross Cifers. From "Find-a-grave" website.|
Any group of people politically consist of about 20-60-20%; 20% are those who will go one way that will be good for them, the other 20% are those who will never advocate for themselves... the 60% in the middle are those that must be "convinced." It's simple human nature. In this case, it worked out about half and half after the "convincing." 53% stuck around.
Sally was one of those who, like Patty Hearst in the 1970s, identified with her captors and began working with them, supporting them, even defending them. In a way, she was strong-willed, but used that strength to re-enslave herself.
For Sally, it was an easy pattern for her to fall into, Asa Parham being such a relatively nice guy. Still, when you belong to the dominant demographic and have never suffered the centuries-long dehumanization of being a slave, you can afford to be a little nicer.
In her defense, Asa was, indeed, one of the "good" ones, again, relatively speaking, and times have changed since Sally's days, especially after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Again, it's a slow process and it's not nearly over. With each successive generation, a little more of the fervent belief passes into the ether of historical memory. The fact that African-Americans remained in the South is actually facilitating that change. Peaceful movements like Martin Luther King Jr.'s in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, etc. are changing American society for the better... never more apparent than today. One day, skin color, or relative melanin pigment production, will not matter. Phenotypical differences may actually become respectable and not debilitating.
Still, the realities of "separate but equal" kept the status quo for nearly 100 years in North Carolina and it certainly will not end overnight... especially when the strongest opposition initially fled north. The ghost of "Jim Crow" haunts us still. Changing that for good will yet require many more years, decades, or even a century! Yes, social progress is a slow process.
Richard and Charlotte Perkinson left Wake County for Mecklenburg in 1940. At least Perkinson lived long enough to see the Civil Rights Act passed, hear Luthur's "I have a dream..." speech at the Lincoln Memorial, passing away in 1970. She witnessed a future that she helped to create. Nice legacy!
Perkinson's cultural examination revealed the barriers and the horrors that Sally witnessed during her life that should have made any former slave reject that kind of life. Being a slave was obviously no badge of honor. Then again, Sally had not met Martin Luthur King, Jr., nor W.E.B. Dubois. She had no examples in that regard. Might she have changed her opinion if she had? Well... probably not this proud ex-slave, indoctrinated since birth to believe that it was her God-given rightful place. She had only her delusion to support her. That was the reality in the South of Sally's post-migration day... the day that the South finally recovered their lost territory... the day the violence stopped, the battle had ended... until 1964, and again in 2008.
As Grandpa knew, Charlotte Story Perkinson certainly got a story from 102-year-old Sally Parham, even if not the one she had expected. As Sally would say, it was "the Gawd's truth!" Well, almost.
------------------------------ Afterward about Charlotte's son Richard Terrell Perkinson Jr.:
Richard was born September 23, 1908, a year after his parents' marriage in 1907 and while they still lived in Plymouth, New Hampshire. On the 9th of April 1934, at the age of 25, the young farmer was shot by 63-year-old William Lonnie Collins of Raleigh with a shotgun before Collins turned the gun on himself:
|The Robesonian (Lumberton) 12 Apr 1934|
Quite the lady, indeed!
|Richard T. Perkinson and his daughters, ca 1930|