Henry Clay - Creek Freedman

(Mr. Clay was interviewed in his home in Muskogee Oklahoma in November 1937. His age was estimated to have been 100 years)

I seen a lot of things in my lifetime, and I reckon the more I seen the more I got to gove up my thanks for. I been in this world about a hundred years, I think, for I was a grown man and been a grown man quite a while when the Civil War come along.

I was born in North Carolina, in Jefferson County close to ta little town called Rayville on a big plantation belong to Old Master Henry Clay. He was some akin to the Tillmans in that country and they was sure big rich.

My pappy's name was Solomon Clay and my mammy's name was Hanna. She belong to a Smalls down in South Carolina in Concordia Parish, that was some more kinfolks of the Clays I think because when her an Pappy is freed they go and live with the Smalls until they both die. Old master Clay already dead when the War come along, thought.

I was home with my folks until I was about fifteen years old I reckon and then I was sold to a man name Cheet, Dyson Cheet, and he move to Louisiana close to Texarkansas, but he hire me out to t man name Good man Carter to wlrk on his steamboar for a long long time, maybe four or five years in all, ao I don't know much about Old Master Dyson Cheet.

Then he give me or will me to his boy Tom Cheet and he bring me to the Creek Nation because his wife come from Mississippi, and she is just part Creek Indian so they can get a big farm out here if they want it. That was a pretty place and Ialways will call it home, but I been everywhere since then and I went back and took the name I borned under because I never foget my old Master Hnery Clay,a nd besides Mammy and pappy kept the name of Clay too.

Well I had such a ramblin' time in my life I better start back on the old plantation in North Carolina, and tell what it look like first to give me a better start in my mind, anyway. Mammy and Pappy and me lived in a house close to the big house back there, and Pappy was the coach boy and horse boy. The big house was two stories high with a big porch what run clean to the top, and more window blinds that I ever seen in a house since. Our little house was made of planks, heavy oak lumber all whitewashed with lime, and we had good furnitrue; Old Mistress give us what she was through with. The bed was high like you could hang a curtain on, and had springs like we got today. My grandpa used to live in that house too, before I was born, and aobut hte first thing I remeber was when Old Master sell him and Grandmammy to a lady in town.

Tha tlady lived by herself, and she knowed my grandpappy a long time and wanted to give him a good home and light work, and Mammy say she give a thousand dollars for the two of them.

Grandpappy's name was Uncle Dick Tillman, and Grandmammy's name was Millie Tillman, and they belong to the Tillmans when Old Master bought them long before my pappy was borned. Our little house was full, I'll tell you. Because I had seven sisters while I was there and seven more after I left, but I never did see part of htem little ones. Only the names of some of the big ones come to me; there's Chole, Millie, Rachel, Susanna, and Hannah. That's all I remember.

We eat fish, greens potatoes, sow belly and corn pone mostly, but sometimes in winter we get some fresh beef when they have a neighborhood killing. Everybody go to the field about seven o'clock when the big bell ring, and com ein late by the same bell.

Young slaves that too little for the field work in the Mistress garden, and we get so much for each family to take home from the garden. Old negroes make our clothes from homespoun cotton, and some mixed wool in cold eather. I had one long shirt that had give different colors in the stripes. We wear them logn shirts when we was little boys, without any pants in the summer.

Old Master Clay was good to my folks, and kept on laugning at Mammy on account of so many girl babies. He just say, "Better do better next time" And the next one was a girl too! She never quit work but three days on account of a baby, and when she got back in the field she carry the baby in a red blanket tied to her back. When it git hungry she just slip it arounin front and feed it and go right on picking or hoeing while it have its ninnny.

Old Master was awfully kind and religious. I think he would preach a little sometime or maybe teach Sunday school. I never seen him whip a slave, but he had a whipping machine to scare them with mostly. When he say to the overseer, "Drive them today," he meant we was getting behind the season and he wanted us to hurry up. But the overeseer was a negro too, and he just worked harder and told us to lay into it or he'd tell on us.

Sometimes Old master come to the field in his buggy and talk to us, and one time I seen some neighbor negroes getting whipping in the field, and I asked old Master what that for, and he say" Hoe your row youngun' or you might catch the like of that too."

(...................portions left out of this narrative for the sake of brevity. This narrative in its entirety can be read in the work, , "The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives", published in 1996 by the University of Oklahoma Press.)

When I was about fourteen or fifteen, I went off with Mr. Dyson Cheet to Louisiana and he started to whittle a plantation right out of the woods. All I had to do was cut down trees and rup sprouts all day every day.

I cut cord wood too, to sell to the steamboats, and prtty soon I was hired to work on one of the boats. I guess it had a name but I don't remember it. Boss Man was Mr. Goodman Carter, and he was a good ship master. Us negro boys worked as roustabouts to load and unoad and keep the fire going. The boat run from Alexandria Louisiana, down the Red River to the Mississippi, and then up to St. Louis and back to Alexandria again.

I was on that boat quite a long time, and then Old Mater's boy Tom Cheet marry a part Creek woman and I got to live with them. They settle south of where Muskogee is now about two miles from the Honey Springs town. That was a good plantation, too, and they had good double log houses and lots of stock.

I lived in a caibn with a stick and mud chimney, and I had to keep putting out the fire where it set the sticks of the chimney until I daubed it all good with red clay.

Mistress had me help the chilren of the other slaves to make post out of red clay because I was good at it. We made good clay pots and I have made hominy in them like the Creeks make lots of time. We would make the pots and hang them in the chimney to bake, sometimes a whole week, then pick out the ones that didn't crack.

I was a great fellow with the Matser's children because I would make them clay marbles. Roll them and bak them like the pots, and the children and the grown negroes too would play "Sevens" with them on Sunday. It see like the slaves of the Creek county had a better time than most of the negroes in Louisisana, too. They played more and had their own church and peachers.

We went to place where the colored preacher was Reverend Seymour Perry, and we used to baptize in the Elk and sing "Oh I Wish I Could Find Some \secret Place Where I Could Find My God." They sung, "When I come to die I want to be ready" and such songs as that.

The big thing on that plantation was the corn shucking. One every two weeks almost and negroes form other plantations owuld come over to shuck for their masters and then we would to to another shucking the same way. The masters sold lots of corn to the army at Fort Gibson at the start of the War, and I took several loads, but before that we took it to Webbers Falls mostly.

War come along and Master go with the sough side, and I went along to drive a wagon, but I got separated from Master the first thing and ever seen him but once or twice in the War. When they was going to strike a battle somewhere they would come and get us and our wagons and we would haul stuff for several days and nights to some place where they could get it. Then we would go off away from there before they had the battle so they wouldn't get us captured.

I've hauled like that all around Webbers Falls and Fort Gibson and Fort Davis and all over these rocky hills sometimes when we had to take an axe and cut a road at night, but I never seen but one battle and that was just the smooke. We was at a place close to where Braggs is now and we seen the fire when the Yankees burn up Honey Springs.

After the War all the negroes don't know what to do. My old pappy and mammy even come all the way ou here in a ox wagon and then turn around and go back to North Carolina. The couldn't make a living here.

I stayed with Master until he died, and that wasn't very long, and then I married and settled down. Master been trying to get me to marry a long time, and here is how he done it. I never did get along good with these Creek slaves out here and I always stayed around with the white folks. In fact I was afraid of these Creeks and always got off the road when I seen Creek negroes coming along. They would have red strings tied on their hats or something wild looking.

Well young Master say, "Henry why don't you go over to Josh Brooks house and see them folks. His daughther Maggie say to tell you to come on over to church out htere. You got to make some friends out there, so you just go on over and see her. You free now."

Well, I take his good horse and Texas saddle and I ride over that way. Get about there and set down on a log to think about what I going to talk about. Them Creek negroes was so funny to talk to anyways. Well, I set there from in the morning to way in the evening and ever go on to that house. Just turn round and go back.

Young Master say, "What that gal have to say Henry boy?"

"Good things, Boss" I tell him. I sure lied and he knowed it too, for he nearly died laughing. Just he same I went on back and pretty soon I got the gal and married her, and we got some of that Creek money and bought a house close to Honey Springs.

On the boat I learned to fiddle, and I can make an old fiddle talk. So I done pretty good playing for the white dances for a long time after the War, and they sure had some goods ones. Everything from a waltz to a Schottische I played. Sometimes some white people didn't like to have me play, but young Master (I always calle dhim that till he died) would say, "Where I go my boy can go to."

(...................portions left out of this narrative for the sake of brevity. This narrative in its entirety can be read in the work, , "The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives", published in 1996 by the University of Oklahoma Press.)

I been back to Africa since the War, too. Some white people come from Tennessee I think and got up a delegation of negroes ot go back and show the Africans how we are civilized. It was right about the time of statehood, for Oklahoma was a state when I got back.

They took about fifty negreos and I went along. We sailed from New Orleans on a big boat and they was negores from every state in the bunch.

We went ot the Bahama Islands and then on to Africa, and when we got to the jungle camp in Afirca I seen them African Negroes just like they was wild.

They had some little men with scars all over them that they said was cannibals, and they would eat human meat. In one place where we was about a month they had underground jails. Just dug a big hole and put heavy logs over it and irt on that. Then they put the prisoner they got in their wars down in that hole and sold them off to white men that come in ships to get them.

They was still selling them too, but not to men from America any more but from other places. The bunch I was with tried ot tell them it was wrong.

In one place they ate raw meat and we tired to offer them cooked meat and they told the black man that we had along that it was bad for the stomach, so he said.

I don't think we done any good, and still we stayed there in Africa a long time maybe two or three years. When we come back home I just keep on living around one place an other, in Arkansas, Louisisana, Oklahoma and two or three times in Missouri.

We got this little place here and been ehre ever since, and I guess it it my last resting place. I'm glad we are free, and don't have to work any more whether we are sick or not, like in slavery days.

(...................portions left out of this narrative for the sake of brevity. This narrative in its entirety can be read in the work, , "The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives", published in 1996 by the University of Oklahoma Press.)

Everygody should have religion, but you got to go slow, and not try to change the leopard spots quick like them people done in Africa. I don't think they done a bit of good.

Just trust in God and hoe your row and sidestep way from the great temptation that's what I say.

(According to the editors of the book, Mr. Clay's trip to Africa has not been corroborated in other sources, but there were many back-to-Africa movements in the United States in the late 19th century, and early 20th century. The book by Edwin S. Redkay, Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back to Afica Movements 1890-1910, is recommended for further reading. Mr. Clay states that Oklahoma was a state when he returned that that he was away for 2-3 years. That would make his trip having taken place between about 1904-1907. This trip coincides with the period described in Redkay's book. )