During the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Roosevelt established a number of agencies to produce jobs for the unemployed. One of these projects was the WPA’s Writer’s Project that, in part, involved interviews with former slaves and putting their story into print. W. W. Dixon of Winnsboro came to York County and interviewed 88- year-old Benjamin Russell. This column is based on Mr. Russell’s account of slavery.
Benjamin was born and reared on the Nance plantation on Turkey Creek in the southwest corner of the county in the Bullock’s Creek Township. Born about 1847, he said of his parents, “My father was just Baker, my mother [was] just Mary.” His mother, Benjamin was told, was born on the Youngblood place that had been inherited by Benjamin’s mistress, Rebecca Nance. His father lived about three miles away on the Russell plantation and, apparently, became acquainted with Mary at church or on visits to the Nance farm.
Benjamin said that his mother encouraged his father’s attention because he was “religiously inclined, dutiful and faithful as a slave.” These qualifications apparently influenced the decision of Rev. Russell and Mrs. Nance, who both sanctioned their marriage. Baker was freely granted passes to visit his young bride, and, in time, she became pregnant. Mrs. Nance built Mary a log house in which to raise her children. Benjamin, it seems, was especially proud of the fact that their beds were made by the plantation’s carpenter.
Benjamin admitted to Dixon that he had been fortunate to have been part of the Nance plantation, where he and others were treated well, supplied with plenty of food, and given as good medical care as the times provided. “When we were sick she [Mrs. Nance] visited us and summoned a doctor the first thing, but the remedies those days were castor oil, quinine, turpentine, mustard plasters and bleeding.” Since the Nance plantation did not employ a large work force, they had no need for an overseer, so they personally managed their slaves and farm. Mrs. Nance oversaw that meals were properly prepared and served from the “big kitchen.” Milk was plentiful, Benjamin related, and sometimes butter was made available. And each household was allowed to have their own chicken house.
Benjamin must have been a cute little boy and admired by “white folks and visitors” because he said that he was sometimes given coppers (3-cent pieces) or on a good day, a dime or two. With the extra money, he purchased Sunday clothing or firecrackers and candy for Christmas. Saturday afternoons were usually “time off,” which the women used to catch up on their housework and the men used to cut firewood or work their gardens.
The agricultural society operated on the seasons. Intermitted with planting and harvesting were lulls that gave both blacks and whites a time to relax and enjoy life. The most popular lull was “laying-by time” that came late in July and August. At this time the crops were layed-by (plowed for the last time before harvest), and while waiting for the harvest, the time was used to visit friends and relatives, attend revivals, go to singings, and have parties. After the harvest was in and the work was done, most farms observed Christmas with a two-week “vacation.” On the Nance farm, Mrs. Nance gave a big dinner for the farm hands, instructed them in the catechism, and handed out clothing and shoes for the coming year.
The Nance family, like their other Presbyterian neighbors, were strict moralists and saw to it that their children and their slaves exemplified Christian attributes. Walking along the road with a young man greatly displeased Mrs. Nance, who would call the girls to give an account of their action. She questioned, “Who was that young man? How did you come to be with him? Don’t ever let me see you with him again — if you can’t pick a better mate than that, then I will do the picking for you.” Benjamin said, “Sometimes she’d whip the colored children, but only when it was needed for correction.”
Like other plantations with a small number of slaves, Mrs. Nance required the slaves to attend church regularly. At the Bullock’s Creek Presbyterian Church, they sat in the gallery and joined in the singing of hymns and psalms. Rev. R. Y. Russell was Benjamin’s favorite preacher. Russell occasionally held special services for the slaves in the white school during winter. In the summer the slaves pitched a brush arbor of pine tops on the plantation. Slaves enjoyed these arbor meetings and came in large numbers to sing spirituals like “Steal Away To Jesus.”
As relatively “contented” as most of the Nance slaves were, Benjamin was familiar with run-aways and the punishment that ensued. He took a dim view of anyone who, as he said, “Was contrary enough to run away.” It may surprise us that the run-aways sometimes reaped the ire of other slaves. On one occasion a woman by the name of Addie was hired out to work for a nearby MacDonald family, but she chose to ran away. When she returned to the Nance farm, she was met by a receiving committee that promptly pelted her with rocks until she returned to the MacDonald farm. A typical agreement between farmers for hiring out slaves was $65 per year paid to the owner, with the promise of providing shoes and clothing and paying for taxes and all medical bills.
Benjamin was also familiar with the buying and selling of slaves. At least on one occasion, he went to Chester with his young master. At the courthouse he saw slaves “put on the block and auctioned off to the highest bidder just like land or mules and cattle.” Benjamin, no doubt, knew that his own father had been purchased by Rev. Russell when he was only five years old from a group of Virginia slaves.
The law of most Southern states forbade the wholesale education of slaves, but most farmers and planters found it convenient for some of their hands to read, write, and do simple mathematics. Benjamin told Dixon that everyone on the Nance plantation was taught to read, though writing was strictly forbidden. He said, “On one occasion I ran in on my young master, William, teaching my Uncle Reuben how to write. They showed their confusion.” Reverend Russell not only taught his servant, Baker, to read but also to write and interpret the Scriptures. This home schooling would place Baker in the forefront after emancipation.
A lack of education did not deter Benjamin or the other slaves from learning what was going on in local and national affairs. This was especially true on small farms or plantations where slaves were in close contact with the white families and where family members worked alongside their slaves. It seems that the more the owners tried to conceal information from the slaves, the more alert the slaves became. As Benjamin said, “The wider they opened their ears.” Those more likely to hear local gossip and news were the girls who served the meals, as well as personal maids and drivers. These people, on their first opportunity, eagerly shared the news with others on visits to other farms and in town.
Benjamin denied being superstitious himself but agreed that it was common among his people to believe in “ghosts, spirits, haunts, and conjurations.” Superstition, however, was not limited to slavery alone. Many whites believed in “haints,” signs. and omens.
Benjamin recalled an evening on the Nance farm when many of his fellow slaves became excited and fell into fear. William Youngblood was getting ready to leave the next day to join the Confederate Army, and a whippoorwill landed on the windowsill and made his plaintive call, “whip-poor-will.” Benjamin recounted, “All the slaves on the place were frightened and awed and predicted bad luck to Master Will.” It is doubtful that the bird was a prophet, but Will “took sick” in the war, just wasted away, and died. He was brought back in rags toward the end of the struggle.” Military records show that William died of disease at Germantown, Virginia, when he was only 20. His body was returned to the family and was buried in Bullock’s Creek Presbyterian Cemetery.
According to Benjamin, following the Civil War at one of the sumptuous New Year’s dinners during Reconstruction, Rebecca Nance “impressed on us that we were free. Some were sorry, some hurt, but a few were silent and glad. I and many others had been treated well.”
After Emancipation we lose track of Benjamin, except for his interview when he was an old man. His father, however, began a career as a local leader for the newly freed people. Having been taught to read and interpret the Scriptures, his former master recommended him to be ordained. As a Presbyterian minister, Baker established the Blue Branch Presbyterian Church in the Bullock’s Creek Township. The church was conveniently located between the Nance farm and the Russell farm, on what is now Blanton Road.
Blue Branch later became known as the “Mother of churches” because other local churches — Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian — can trace their origins to this little backwoods congregation. Though the church is now defunct, once a year, during what was once laying-by time, a small crowd fills the tiny sanctuary on a Sunday in August and recalls former times.
Editor’s Note: Benjamin Russell’s standard of living was arguably better on the Nance plantation than for most slaves and many poor whites. This is probably why he took such a benign view toward slavery. But he was still a slave, and he was only relatively “content,” not happy or settled with his situation — he could not change his circumstances.
J.L. West – Author
This article and many others found on the pages of Roots and Recall, were written by author J.L. West, for the YC Magazine and have been reprinted on R&R, with full permission – not for distribution or reprint!
Please enjoy this structure and all those listed in Roots and Recall. But remember each is private property. So view them from a distance or from a public area such as the sidewalk or public road.
Do you have information to share and preserve? Family, school, church, or other older photos and stories are welcome. Send them digitally through the “Share Your Story” link, so they too might be posted on Roots and Recall.
User comments always welcome - please post at the bottom of this page.