February is Black History Month so this month we will visit with several of our county’s African American residents and their contributions to our collective history.
In the summer of 2007, my wife and I vacationed in East Tennessee and while there we visited Greeneville and the home of President Andrew Johnson.
In the home’s museum and gift shop I looked for some book on local or state history to read. I chanced upon a small volume of “slave narratives,” put together by the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.
The volume was a collection of interviews of former slaves, all who were in their 70s, 80s and 90s when their recollections were written down. I knew that the book would give me some insights into that dark shadow on our nation’s history.
One interview I was reading was from a man identified only as Mr. Reed of Nashville. In the first of his interview he told the interviewer, “I was a boy in slavery. Now, you talk about hard times, I have had hard times.”
His story was fascinating, but I let out an audible gasp when he mentioned being stopped one evening by a man who asked Mr. Reed who he was and where he was from. He told the man, “Reed is my name, and I’m from Hartsville, Tennessee!”
I couldn’t believe my luck that I would stumble on the firsthand history of a former slave from my hometown! Especially since there were several volumes of slave narratives and I had only purchased one.
Since this I have purchased other volumes, but Mr. Reed is the only interview I have found of a former resident of our county.
So, what did Mr. Reed have to say about slavery?
Well, it was indeed “hard times.”
Reed was fortunate that he and his parents and siblings were kept together and never sold or separated. But that doesn’t mean that his life was easy.
Mr. Reed spoke of going barefoot. In fact, he never had a pair of shoes till he was free. He had to walk and work outside in winter and frosty weather and walk on the cold ground. He told of how he would disturb the hogs from their sleep so he could stand on the ground where they had been lying, because the earth beneath them would be warm!
The family that owned Reed and his parents would cook a roast or a ham or a chicken. But Reed said that all he got for supper was “potlikker!” Pot liquor is the broth or water left over in the pot from cooking or boiling the meat!
He was made to work from an early age. One job he spoke of was pulling tobacco worms from the farm’s tobacco patch. If he missed a worm and the owner found it, he would make the young Reed bite its head off as punishment. Needless to say, the young barefoot boy was careful to not miss any more tobacco worms!
Freedom came when he was still very young.
Now Reed never named the white family that owned he and his parents and brothers and sisters, but he gave me a clue. He told the interviewer, “I am going to tell you another thing. A Negro has got no name. My father was a Ransom and he had an uncle named Hankin. If you belong to Mr. Jones and he sell you to Mr. Johnson, consequently you go by the name of your owner. Now where you got a name? I was first a Hale, then my father was sold and I was a Reed.”
So, the people who owned Mr. Reed were evidently named Reed, a name he kept after emancipation.
In freedom, besides getting a pair of shoes Mr. Reed got an education. He learned to read and write.
He tells the interviewer, “The first… school I went to was after the war… we used to carry our dinner and stay there from eight to four.”
I can imagine that he attended the first school for African Americans in Hartsville, the old ‘School in the Woods” which was a church one day a week and a school five days a week!
The interview ended with Mr. Reed saying that he had lived and worked in Nashville for the last 40 years. But nowhere in the interview did he mention his first name.
I so wanted to know more about this Trousdale County native, but I didn’t have much to go on — until last year!
Next week: The elusive Mr. Reed has a name!