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Reconstruction Days – Part 2

By Jack Mayfield

Last week’s column was part one of an incident that happened in Oxford on July 4, 1867.

Former slaves had moved into the area of Oxford that was called Freedman’s Town. One of the slaves, now living in Freedman’s Town, was a 35-year-old man by the name of Jim Neilson. He was owned by W.S. Neilson, the founder of a business that began servicing Oxford in 1839 — Neilson’s Department Store.

The former slaves had planned a Fourth of July celebration to be held in their community. They had invited some of the white leaders of the town, along with some of the former slaves, to address the gathering at the local Cumberland Presbyterian Church, just off the Square on South Street. They had planned to hold the meeting outside in the Freedman’s Town area, but due to heavy rains they moved the event to the largest meeting room in town.

Printed in paper

Jim Neilson’s address to the gathering was written down and published in the local newspaper, the Oxford FALCON, on July 13, 1867. As I stated last week, the speech maybe considered a little paternalistic today, but at the time I am sure what Jim Neilson stated was the way many of W.S. Neilson’s former slaves had felt about their former master. The following is what Jim Neilson stated at the meeting.

At the beginning of Neilson’s address he spoke about their freedom and who had been responsible for that freedom. I left you last week with Neilson’s statement about the Yankees now in Oxford and whether they, the Yankees, had been responsible for the former slave’s freedom.

Jim Neilson is quoted as saying, “If the Yankees did make us free, I don’t believe they intended to do us any good by it, but it was for something else; and I will tell you why I think so.”

He went on to state, “When General Grant’s army was here, I heard several of them say at my old master’s house, that if they believed that the war was carried on to free these damned negroes they would not have left home, and they would not be in the army if they believed so. And I will tell you another thing I saw that makes me think that they didn’t want to do us any good.

“While they were here they made a whole lot of us black ones roll bales of cotton for them at the Depot, and two or three times a day they would make us stand up in a row and call the roll on a piece of paper, and they called me captain of the crowd, and one day a big officer commanded them all come down here — I believe his name was Col. Metcalf — came out while the officer over us was calling the roll, and he told him to make haste and get through, that he was tired of looking at them damned apes — and just then if I could have seen a hole to run into, I would have slipped into it and hid myself — I never felt so mean in all my life; and my friends, I tell you, none of them have any love or respect for us, I have seen enough to know that.

“And now my friends, I will show the conditions the Yankees left us in when they made us free, and tell you a circumstance that took place when I was a little boy. I belonged to a man by the name of Esq. Reedy, of Tennessee. He lived in 12 miles of Murfreesboro, he was a rich man and a good man; he had two plantations; on one, they kept all the old men and the old women and the children, not big enough to work, and on the other all able to do good work, were put; and on this first plantation they could just make enough to support them; and old master and mistress would come there just twice a year to see us, sometimes oftener, in the case of sickness; and as the children become big enough to do good work they were taken to the other plantation.

“The year they took me out, they took eighteen others; and my old mistress told me to stay at the house, and old master gave me a little pony, saddle, and bridle, and told me they were mine, and that I must feed the pony well, and be always ready to ride when I was called. I had to go to town two or three times a week to take letters to the post office, and bring letters and papers from the post office, and to take things to two young mistresses who were living in town.

“Well, one day old mistress called me, and told me to get my pony quick, and I run and soon had my pony saddled and was on him around at the front gate, waiting for orders; I thought I was going to town of course, and very soon an old black woman who stayed at the house came walking out to the gate with a sack in her hand, holding it up, and handling it to me, and I would not take it, because I could see that there was something alive and moving in the sack; but here come old mistress and said: ‘Jim, take that sack of kittens out to the end of the cross lane, and pour them out in the woods, and bring back the sack.’”

“Well, off I went, and when I came to the place 1 mile off, I went out into the woods and poured the kittens down on the ground, and sat on my pony a few minutes and looked at the poor little things squalling and crawling about, and their eyes not open yet. I felt sorry for them, and I got down, made a little stick pen around them, hoping it might do them some good, and jumped on my pony and went off and left them, and I never did know what become of them.

“And now, my friends, that is just the way the Yankees left us free — if they made us free — just the way I left them kittens. They took us from where we had plenty and were doing well, and poured us down and went off and left us, with nothing. They did not tell us to come up to their country and they would give us homes and employment. No, nothing of that sort.

“But our old master told us to come here, I will give you a home for you and your family; here is plenty of land for you to work; I will furnish the land, the tools, the stock and feed for the stock, and I will give you half the crop you make. I was more rejoiced when I heard that, than I was when my old master told me that I was a free man.

“And know, my friends, we all know where our true friends are; the interests of the white folks in the South are our interests; they are the proper ones for us to go to, to advise with about our interests.”

Jack Mayfield is an Oxford resident and historian. Contact him at jlmayfield@dixie-net.com.