Slave Testimony: Hettie Watkins, 1853

Louis Watkins was born in the year 1853 on the plantation of Peeler Parker, situated about 15 miles out of Chattanooga, Tennessee, near White Oak mountain. Louis relates that his master was good to him and his overseer never whipped him. He was permitted to go to church with his parents on Sunday, and this day was made a day of rest for the slaves. He had a white tutor who came on Sunday afternoon and taught the slaves in a room in the big house. They were taught to read and write and to figure, and go as far as they were capable. They were encouraged to read books and look at pictures at certain times outside of their work hours. All the slaves were well clothed, fed and housed.

The master kept four grown slaves for the fields and the mistress kept two to do the work in the big house. After the white folks had eaten, the slaves were taken in the big dining room, or rather the kitchen, and served their meal together. They were presided over by a slave woman who was single, and she saw that they got all the substantial food they desired. None needed to leave the table hungry on any pretext. His parents were never sold off of the plantation and none of the others were sold.

His master had a powder mill on the plantation which he conducted as a separate institution. He conducted this enterprise himself and managed it mainly with white help. The subject of this sketch was a boy at the time and ran errands in and out of the powder mill under the watchful eye of those in charge. The lad failed to clean the powder off the soles of his bare feet one time and went to the cottage of his parents and sat down in front of the stove. He stuck his feet too near the grate, a spark flew out, there was a puff of fire and a flash that encircled his bare feet. The callous of his soles was so badly burned that he was compelled to remain in his bed until the new flesh covered his feet. The grime of powder smutting his ankles joined in the ignition leaving behind a generous patch of blisters. Mr. Watkins still recalls this experience as the outstanding event of his slave days.

When he was freed his parents were informed of that fact by their master and was given their choice of remaining on the plantation with wages or to go elsewhere. None went away in any haste, but took time to relocate in the adjoining villages where they found work and wages. Louis was about twelve years of age when his parents went to Coltewah, a small village, to live.

After the War had well passed Louis found work, married and established a home. Three children were born to them. He brought his family to Muncie, Delaware County, in the year 1907. His wife being deceased he resides with his daughter, Hettie, at 813 South Pershing Street, Muncie, Indiana.

* * *

Miss Watkins, while giving the sketch of her father to this writer, related a story of one of her uncles which I regarded as a reflection of that courage with which the colored ex-slave was called upon, on various occasions, to defend his newly acquired rights as an American citizen. By such acts the ex-slave showed he appreciated his freedom, although it was not a point to be proven more than had already been proven by the many who had run away to join the northern army, thus paying for their own freedom.

After the war Miss Watkins uncle, Sidney Graham, lived in Coltewah, Tennessee, and was employed in Peeler Parker’s powder mill on his farm. He was working along with the whites in the mill and by accident allowed some hot water he was handling to splash over one of the white men who was working near him. This caused some confusion and at the close of the day the men who were incensed at this ex-slave remarked that the “Ku-Klux” would call on him that night. Knowing the spirit and feeling of the men, Sidney Graham barricaded his dwelling that night and prepared to make a firm resistance. In the middle of the night the sheeted forms approached the house and a solemn voice called on one Sidney Graham to come forth.

The forms received no answer and growing impatient, hurled themselves against the front door. It did not yield so they concentrated their attacks against the rear door which was at last forced to yield. The room was dark inside and the clansmen applied a torch to a big ball of cotton and threw the blazing brand into the middle of the room. The colored uncle shot and instantly killed the first man that attempted to enter and this tragedy caused the company to remove the body of their dead friend and depart until dawn. In the hours of the night that remained the ex-slave slipped away. Later his family joined him at Nashville, Tennessee, and never afterward was the uncle, Sidney Graham, disturbed or arrested.

Reference: Miss Hettie Watkins, 813 south Pershing Street, Muncie, Indiana.


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