Slave Narratives

from the Rawick Papers, Series 5
Henderson, Isabelle
Gilliam, Missouri
Saline County

Geo. K. Bartlett
Kansas City, Missouri
September 8, 1937

Western Historical Manuscripts Collection
University of Missouri Columbia, Missouri

Isabelle Henderson, an ex-slave, at least 90 years old., lives alone in a small, four room, frame cottage in the village of Gilliam, Saline County, Missouri, on a plot of land provided her in the will of her former master, Judge Gilliam.

The cottage was once painted white. The old fashioned green shutters still hang at the windows but time and weather have removed much of the paint.

A tiny porch shelters the front door and there is room at one end a small porch swing.On.the other side a weather'beaten chair affords a resting place. The yard is entirely enclosed by a fancy wire fence. and a concrete side walk leads to the front porch.

An aged Negro woman answered the door when the interviewer knocked and asked for "Isabelle."

"Yes'm", she replied, I am Isabelle Henderson will y ou' come 'in?"

She lead the way to the parlor, a tiny room with a serviceable Brussels rug on the floor and panel, lace curtains at the windows. The only pictures on the walls are enlarged "crayon" photographs of Isabelle's husband and their sons and daughters.

A Bible, yellowed with age, reposes on the small table reserved for prized possessions. Within this Bible is a complete record of births, marriages and deaths among people, both black and white, with whom Isabelle's past life was concerned.

Henderson, Isabelle
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"My work in slave times was in the house of my master and mistress," Isabelle replied in answer to a question.

"I was taught to sew and had to help make clothes for the other slaves. I nursed all the children of my mistress and one time I was hired out to the white preacher's family to take care of his children when his wife was sick."

"I remember j'inin' the white folks church in.old Cambridge. They had a gallery for the slaves." Isabelle grinned, "And sometimes the slaves did funny things."

"There was one old woman named Aunt Cindy", she related. "One Sunday she got 'happy' and commenced shoutin' and throwin' herself about. White folks in the seats below hurried to get out from under the gallery, fearin'.Aunt Cindy, was goin' to lose her balance and fall on them.

Isabelle's speech, even when relating awesome things and doings of the "hants" was almost correct grammatically, attributable to the circumstance that as a slave she had been a house servant, with contacts largely among white people of culture.

Isabelle's most vivid recollection of slave life bears upon incidents growing out of superstition, especially the imagined "hants" that kept Negro folks and some of the whites in a state of fearful expectancy.

Isabelle is a firm believer in "hants" and related several local manifestations with much relish.

"When I was a girl, the adjoining plantation was owned by my master's brother-in-law and on this plantation was the big old tobacco factory

Henderson, Isabelle
Page 3

where the tobacco from several plantations was hung and prized."

"What does prized mean?" "That means prized into casks; packed in tight."

"The slaves on master's plantation said this factory was hanted. None of lem would go near this factory after nightfall. When the nights was still and the moon was full, you could hear lem workin' in the factory. You could hear the ting-ting-ting of the lever all night long and the voices of the slaves a cryin' out and complainin'. An' you knew there wasn't anybody there at all. Jest hants. That's all."

Following the Civil War and freedom, Isabelle was the neighborhood midwife. Once, while attending a white neighbor on the occasion of a birth she had another experience with "hants".

"I was carin' for a lady that had just had a second child", she related. "They 1ived in a cottage with a full basement under it. The father was to take full care of the other child, a little boy, at-night, and they was to sleep in the basement for two or three nights."

Isabelle paused impressively, then went on in an awed tone of voice. "But father couldn't sleep. Somethin' bothered him, as if it was restless spirits abroad."

"Then one mornin' I was standin' by the door., and I heard a voice, low and vibrant, sayin', 'No sleep here! Cant sleep here!' I looked around but there was nobody there but me, and the mother and the two children. Then I knew it was hants."

"Yes'm it was hants. It was proved to me. A few months later the skeleton of a man was found under the basement floor."


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