Thursday, February 14, 2013

Testimony of Former Slave

Martin Johnson

According to family folklore, Martin Johnson Sr. was a black slave of John Johnson.  John Johnson and his black slaves settled the area around the mouth of Town Creek prior to 1820; his slaves took the last name of Johnson.  Huston’s grandmother Fannie was the daughter of Martin Johnson, Jr.; he was 50 years old in the Census of 1870.  Therefore, Martin Johnson, Jr. was born about 1820 and was probably a slave of the white Johnson Family.  Martin Johnson, Jr. was Huston Cobb’s maternal great grandfather; of course, Martin Johnson Sr. was the father of the younger Martin. 

Martin Johnson, Jr. owned 52 acres of land; Martin bought land and lived Just northeast of the River Road and Second Street. When his son-in-law Tracy Carter lost his place, he and his wife moved in with Martin.  When the gin owner Will Norman’s place was sold, he claimed Tracy Carter’s five acres of land; Tracy thought that he had bought five acres of land in the northwest corner of the junction of the Mt. Stanley Road/River Road and Second Street.  The Johnson family moved to Second Street, and the depression took all their stuff including a 1928 Ford.  Martin and his wife were buried Bethel Community Cemetery; land was sold and Tracy was administrator; Martin lived with Tracy until death when the 52 acres were divided up among the descendants. 

Martin Johnson, Jr. married Caroline who was a mulatto that was half blood black and white woman.  Caroline was the half white mother of Fannie Johnson, who was Huston Cobb’s great grandmother.  Caroline’s mother was a black slave and her father was white; the white father was either an overseer or the slave owner.  Caroline’s mother was a slave and her name was Viney; Viney lived with Martin and Caroline.

Carter Place

Cyrus (Sye) Carter was the great grandfather of Huston Cobb, Jr.; Huston showed me the tombstone of his great grandfather Sye.  Cyrus (Sye) Carter and Mary Alice lived and worked on the Carter Place; they are buried a few miles south of Ford City at Mount Pleasant Cemetery on the County Line Road.  Cyrus Carter was last listed on the 1880 Census; by the 1900 Census, only Cyrus’ wife Mary Alice was listed as the head of the household.  Therefore, Cyrus must have died between 1880 and 1900; Cyrus and Mary Alice had 16 children.

Cyrus Carter’s daddy lived near the Tennessee River and was a slave of the Carter Family; one day, he just disappeared and no one ever knew what happened to him.  Huston Cobb, Jr. said, “My great, great grandfather could have been killed, throwed in the Tennessee River, or could have possibly escaped north, but my family always believed the worse.  We feel he was killed by his slave holder overseer or owner.”

The oldest of the Carter Family was Ammon Carter who was born in Buckingham County, Virginia, in 1765 and died on October 20, 1851, in what was then Lawrence County, Alabama.  In the 1850 Census of Lawrence County, Ammon Carter is listed as being 85 from Virginia.  Ammon is buried just to the north of the Jarmon Plantation Home and just a few yards south of the River Road in the Hatton Baptist Cemetery in present-day Colbert County, Alabama.  Ammon was married to Mary “Polly” Burnett who was also born in Virginia, on August 8, 1773, and died in Lawrence County, Alabama, on October 19, 1837.  Ammon and Mary had the following six children: Joel Walker Jones Carter, Ammon Carter, Jr., David B. Carter, Sabra or Mary Carter, Mahala Carter, and Samuel Carter. 

Joel Walker Jones Carter, son of Ammon Carter,  was listed in the 1860 Census of Lawrence County, Alabama, as being a 65 year old farmer from Virginia and owning 31 black slaves.  His family included Sarah, age 65, from Tennessee; John D., 42 year old farmer from Tennessee; Nancy, age 42, Tennessee; J. N. McCarley, age 29, merchant from Tennessee; Eliza E., age 30, Tennessee; Lern Carter, 27 year old male farmer from Alabama; Anna, age 20, Alabama; P. P., 18 year old male student from Alabama; Alice, age 13, Alabama; J. W., ten year old female, Alabama; Mary, age eight, Alabama; Jere, six year old male, Alabama; and Marcellus, two year old male, Alabama. 

The black Carter Family was the descendants of the black slaves of the white Carter Family who were from Virginia.  The Carter Place was between the River Road and Tennessee River and was north of the Jarman Plantation and present-day Ford City.  

After the Civil War, most of the black families stayed on or near the plantation or farm where they were slaves; this is why Huston’s family is still in the area.  Many of the slaves that were Huston Cobb’s ancestors stayed near where they lived and worked for their owners prior to the Civil War; many times some slaves continued to work for their plantation owners after the war.  

Cyrus’ son Tracy Carter married Fannie Johnson: Tracy and Fannie were the grandparents of Huston Cobb, Jr.  Tracy Carter was a farmer and fired the boiler for the cotton gin on the River Road about a quarter mile north of Second Street.  Tracy C. Carter worked for the Will Norman at the cotton gin and fired gin boiler with wood to make steam to run the mill.

Former Slave--Lila Vinson King

Lila Vinson King was a former slave connected to Huston Cobb’s family by marriage; Lila’s great grandson Walter James King married Mattie Ellen Carter, the sister of Huston’s mother Nazareth Carter. Walter was an overseer for John Fennel; Walter drove the farm truck to carry cotton to the gin and to carry folks to Leighton to Fennel’s store to buy groceries. 

Lila Vinson King tells a firsthand account about some of the Fennel slaves; her account was written on September 1, 1948, by Owen L. Crocker.  At the time of the interview, Lila was 110 years old and she was assisted by her son Fred King.  The complete story is as follows:  “This was told to Owen L. Crocker by Aunt Lila King assisted by her son Fred-written up September 1, 1948.

Aunt Lila King-Lazily winding from the little old southern town of Huntsville, Alabama, the picturesque highway, General Joseph Wheeler, crosses, then follows westward the beautiful Tennessee River.  On, or near, this highway are the great Wheeler and Wilson dams, the birthplace of the famed Helen Keller, the home of General Joseph Wheeler of Civil War fame, and the Civil War battlefield of Town Creek.  Every mile of the road is full of historical interest; every foot is filled with ancient lore.  Here and there are seen old slave towers, relics of by-gone days—grim reminders of humanity in bondage.

Living in a modest little home on this highway between the LaGrange Mountains and the Tennessee River is a former slave, Lila King Vinson, known to the whites and blacks alike as “Aunt Lila.”

Let us turn back the pages of time to that day when the slave woman, Carrie Vinson, persuaded her master to purchase Mose Napper for her to marry.  Mose was bought in/from North Carolina by the “Speculators” and sold/at Kiddie Carter to the Vinsons.  From that marriage were several children, but this story concerns only one, Lila Vinson, born August 12, 1838—one hundred ten years ago.

As “Aunt Lila” sits in her rocking chair, sewing on her apron and eagerly answering your questions, you are amazed at her active mind, her firm and steady voice, as she rethreads her needle without the aid of glasses.  Her memory is so clear that she recalls one hundred years ago as if it were only yesterday. Many people only half her age are not so well preserved.  Four years ago she fell and broke her leg while trying to get the mule out of the garden, but the cast itched so badly that she tore it off causing her leg to become twisted, which permits her to only hobble around.

The first twenty-seven years of her life were spent in slavery along with approximately one hundred others on the same place.  Good mules on the farms were treated with more consideration, given better things to eat, and brought more money in a trade.  Every slave was kept busy from daylight to dark and later, plowing the fields, picking cotton, tending the cattle, and the various tasks around the farms.  Overseers made sure that these tasks were performed, or that severe punishment was inflicted.

Uncle Bust King, an old and feeble slave, was made to pick cotton down in the swamps where the water was knee deep. This was done by the light of pine torches.  He fell out—with pneumonia.  The overseer whipped him and made him go back to work—and to die.  He had just “fessed” religion, and his last words were “Jesus, draft this cloud back, for such as these won’t do to burn.”  The slaves made a pine box, painted it black with soot and buried him.

As a very small child Lila was made to knit.  She was made to stand on one foot behind her mistress for hours at a time and if she once put her raised foot down, she got a whipping.  She also had to rake leaves and help haul them off to the farms.  Sometimes the piles of leaves would be almost as high as the shade trees.  Invariably, when she helped load up the wagons next day with leaves, there would be hundreds of snakes crawling, “working like maggots” in the leaves.  A long house was used to take the babies to while the women were working in the fields.  Very old, feeble women fed (slopped) the babies.  Sometimes the mothers would moan and cry for their babies, but the overseers would whip them and make them go on to work.  Oft times the mothers were sold or traded, leaving the babies in the “slop” house.

“Aunt Lila” clearly remembers slave George Fennel.  Because of a little infraction of a rule, George had a stick run under his knees, his arms tied around it, kicked over, and whipped with a rawhide whip until he passed out, but they kept on beating him.  His body was a solid mass of bloody meat, his back “laid open” in slits.  And there was Mae Hunter’s son who was tied over a barrel, and ridden with spurs like a horse.

Then there was old George who tried to run away.  They “sicked” the blood hounds on him.  (Usually the dogs tore the slaves up and ate them.)  Old George carried a grass scythe with him, and when the dogs cornered him, be began to swing the blade.  “Dog legs, heads, and guts shore was scattered around there.”  The overseers came up on him, carried him back to the house and whipped him.

Sometimes, Lila would go with the boys to haul water from the Blue Hole, a large bottomless, beautiful pool.  Aunt Timmey’s son backed the wagon into this pool and was never seen again.  (This same pool is used to this day for watering the stock in the pasture.”

A note (or pass) was required for any slave to leave the place for any reason.  To leave without this pass meant a sure whipping.  This rule was true in every case, even to church, to the next farm, or wherever it might be.  Many slaves would live and die on the place, unless traded or sold, without ever having been one mile off the premises.

One of “Aunt Lila’s” first whippings was administered to her when she was old enough to walk good.  She was dropping corn in the field, planting the check system, but she was dropping it where it would later have been plowed up.

The slaves lived in small stalls, just room enough for a bed, a fireplace on which to cook, and a table.  This was the home of one family.  Hogs were killed and distributed among them.  “Aunt Lila” remembers that the insides of the hogs were eaten just as they were because, in her words, “The black folks were no better that the hogs they ate.”

Snuff was made by grinding the dried tobacco leaves in the coffee mill, chewing tobacco was made by putting sorghum molasses between several layers of tobacco leaves, putting them under the fence rails to press, and letting them stay there for some time.

One of the most cruel taskmasters was Granville Pillars who married Aunt Lila’s mistress, Miss Lucy.  His delight was to torture everybody—even his wife, actually beating her and literally throwing her across the room by the hair on her head.  He “sicked” the dogs on the slave girls and was amused when the dog “Lela” chewed parts of the flesh from their bodies.  He shot and killed “Aunt Lila’s” brother, Tuskee, for coming over on his property hunting a cow.  The KKK, however, put an end to his cruelty by killing him, shooting his tongue off first.

In the 1850’s the slaves heard and passed on the word that they would be freed.  There arose a mighty controversy.  The cry was heard “You shall be free,” but another was, “You shan’t be free.”  This spread like wild fire, and then it happened—the great Civil War of 1860-1865.  The North against the South, father against son, brother against brother—the fought each other in the bloodiest war this country had ever seen.  There was not first aid to the wounded, you lay where you were hit, twisted, cried, and suffered until you died.

Battles were fought all along the Joe Wheeler Highway.  Markers now depict each battle.  Camps were pitched on the place of “Aunt Lila King’s” folks.  “Aunt Lila” was “thinking herself a grown woman then”—eighty-eight years ago.  Her mother died before peace was made some years later.

The Yankees swept down from the North pillaging, burning, and taking everything.  The whites and colored alike fled to the hills until the army passed over, then more would come.  The people buried all valuables—tar, grease, money, syrup, and meat.  The Yankees went into the smoke houses and threw hams out to the naked colored children.  Hood’s army was after the Yankees at Town Creek.  The Yankees burned the bridge, so the Confederates cut down a large tree across the small creek to use as a foot log (bridge).  That log is still to be seen lying about a foot under the water—hard as a rock—petrified.  Here the battle of Town Creek was fought—a bloody, an awful battle.

The Yankees burned LaGrange Academy, a large school on top of the mountain where “Aunt Lila” waited on the tables.  Miss Hastings tended the school (and drank three cups of coffee each meal).  During the burning everybody carried off everything they could find.  One slave carried off a sack full of stuff.  When he got down to the foot of the mountain, he and “Aunt Lila” found it to be a sack of broken pitchers.  She had carried off a little red chair.

After the Yankees had taken everything, “Aunt Lila” and the others used leaves to wrap the food in before covering it with ashes to cook it.  Times were hard for all.  To add to the confusion, wolves came down from the mountains by the hundreds to feed on the fresh killed meat, whether it was pigs, horses, dogs, or soldiers.

Uncle Billy Yancy was a Negro preacher who held his meetings under brush arbors.  His folks would get filled up with religion and go into wild fits.  Old Martha Franks became so full of religion that she danced around and broke her leg.  The usual method of marrying the slaves was to simply make the man and woman hold hands and jump over a broom stick, and they became man and wife.  “Aunt Lila,” however, met Louie King in the edge of the woods, they got a marriage license at Courtland and were married.  She was permitted to move her bed that night.  She and Louie had nineteen children before he died in 1911 at the age of seventy-four.

Lila’s children are:  Living: Lue Belle, Zella, Charity, Charles, Fred (youngest-age 51, July 31, 1948).  Dead: Cherry (oldest-died 1920, age 57), Ross, Jackson, Louise, Bowlin, Emma, Fanny, Susan, Louie, Mary, Addie, and one set of triplets unnamed.  At a family reunion in 1911 there were sixty-three grandchildren.  In 1941, there were forty-nine great grand children.  No count has been taken since then.

Aunt Lila sits on her porch basking in the warm sun, she recalls over one hundred years—a full century—of life at its worst to a now relative life of ease.  As she watches her children’s, children’s, children grow up free to go and come at will, she remembers those days of slavery—human bondage—when one had to have a pass to go to the adjoining farm.  Those horrible wars, beatings, and mutilated bodies that we only read about are very real, very actual, to “Aunt Lila.”  But she is happy, happy because she has so many friends, both black and white, who bring her gifts almost daily.  Her days are filled with the joy of living.  Let’s hope she has a lot more of them.

This story will also be CONTINUED; stay in touch with my blog on the black, Indian, and plantation history in our area as it unfolds in my new book and on my blogs.  Mr. Houston Cobb, Jr.’s story will be included in my new book which will be called “Black Folk Tales of Appalachia: Slavery to Survival.”


  1. I wonder if these Johnsons are related to me, my Great Grandfater was named John (Houston , I think is his middle name) Johnson... buried at Bethel cememtary, Married Ethel Walker....
    very interesting stuff.. I like local history.

    1. Teresa, Thank you for following my blog; I am not sure if you are related to the Johnsons!

  2. Butch, Thanks so much for your blog. My mother and I have gone to northwest Alabama several times to do family research. Many of the persons you write about are familiar to us. Great work!

  3. Do you have a picture of your grandmother in her youth. Around 30s or 40s? Did she wear lilac color alot? Please contact me at

  4. Do you have Ny pictures of lila in her 30s or 40? Does she have Ny connections to georgia?