The Life & Times of Grandison Harris

Episode I: My Life in Slavery


by Terence L. Johnson

Former Professor, African and African American History

Former Field Archivist

United States


Link for Citation Purposes:


Author's Note: The following story is based on accounts of real events from various newspaper and journal articles. Many scenes in this story have been dramatized with fictional accounts.  Whenever possible, every attempt has been made to maintain the integrity of the events as they have been reported. 


Chapter 1: My Life in Slavery


My name is Grandison Harris. It is the year 1883, and I am Colored and I am laying on the ground. I look up and see that the palm oil lamplight grew dim. I see a faint shadow hanging over my person. I put my hand on my neck. I realize that I am bleeding because a Colored man slipped behind me and cut my throat with a razor.  I feel the blood flowing. Wind is jetting over my long black frock coat.  My derby hat is blowing down the road.  I feel my body growing cold.  Another important matter that I need to convey to you is that I was once a slave in Charleston, South Carolina and I spent some time in Arkansas.  As I lay on the cold ground, bleeding to death, I think that I hear my mother calling me.  I look to my side and for a moment, I think I can see my father smiling, coming to take me home.


Then I think back to my youth.


I think back to how we Negroes lived in Arkansas before we fought for our freedom. My life in Arkansas was much like the average life of a slave. It was not uncommon for a slave to live in a one-room hut with walls whitewashed on the outside and plastered on the inside.  We had one window that we closed with wooden shutters.  I saw rows and rows of these huts where I lived. Our floors were made of hardened dirt. In the winter, I slept on a bed of straw near a chimney fire. We had the hearth or fireplace for cooking our meals. In the back of our hut, we had a small garden and a small pen that we used to raise a few chickens.


There were all sorts of things one would learn being a slave.  One thing that all slaves learned about was punishment.  Slaves that misbehaved or tried to run away might be put in a cat-haul.  Let me explain the cat-haul. They would put a bad slave on the ground and fasten a cat on their back with stakes and cords, and the cat would claw the man or woman as it tried to escape.   A slave could also be punished by getting a flogging. Sometimes the misbehaving slave might be forced to eat all the worms he failed to pick off tobacco leaves.  Other male slaves who didn’t do what the master told them to do could be forced to do women’s work, such as washing clothes or being denied passes to social events off the plantation that might be held on another plantation. 


Slave men and women were a lot like white people.  They could get their hearts to do good or to do evil.  I recall some slaves talking about what happened in Augusta, Georgia in the year 1836.  


Dr. Ford, of the Chemical Chair of the Georgia Medical College in Augusta, Georgia examined the contents of the deceased, Mrs. Marry Murren, a sixty-year-old white woman, who resided in Augusta for about 40 years.  Dr. Ford discovered through numerous tests that arsenic was found in her stomach and in the gruel. This gruel, a mixture of mashed-up food, was also given to another slave owner by the name of Mr. William Bryson. 


In the case of the State vs. Katey, a slave, I discovered the slave Katey claimed to have purchased arsenic to kill rats from Hewson and Bacon, a store located in Augusta, Georgia.  But according to the testimony of Amy, another slave, Katey felt that she led a life in which she lived in terror and confusion. After Katey gave the food to Mrs. Murren, Mrs. Murren puked and later died.


What was that terror?  It was not clear what it was, but a Negro woman who was a slave could face many horrors.  These horrors might include any number of attacks on her person; verbal or physical. 


With the death of these keepers of slaves, Negro slaves had to be exacted with an economic retribution. Mrs. Murren and William Bryson’s slaves had to be sold to satisfy the condition of court justice and compensate for the loss of two White lives.  The slaves to be put on the chopping block included: 


Daniel; age about 16 years, Henry; age about 14 years, Josephine; age about 10 years old, Jim; aged about 5 years old, and a 12-month-year-old child, were all sold at the lower Market House in Augusta.  These young children were sold and purchased as one might sell a dog, a goat, or some mule.  They were disposable people devoid of personhood.


The court sentenced Amy to be hung on a Friday in April of 1836.


The slave Katey was hung a month later after she gave birth, for poisoning Mrs. Murren.


Studying the bodies of cats and dogs was not enough for the mad doctors; they needed a human body and the Negro was the closest thing to a White man.


The court ordered that the bodies of Amy and Katy be delivered over to the Medical College of Georgia for the purpose of dissection.  The use of the enslaved population’s bodies was a common practice of the medical profession of my time.  It occurred more often than people might have thought. Even after slavery was over, Colored bodies were in high demand for experiments intent on finding out about the mysteries of life and death. 


It is possible that the book Frankenstein, by Mary Shelly, was based on the activities of grave robbers who worked in partnership with mad doctors intent on learning about God’s secrets regarding the existence of the human soul. Shelly wrote the book in 1818, when the prospects of understanding how the body worked had become a goal of science.


I remember life was hard for everyone.  Negroes had it hard. The new interest in the human body by doctors made life even harder for Negroes.  But let me first further relate the condition of Negroes in slavery.


 We slaves got a little of everything.  If we were small children we got two long shirts, but no pants or shoes.   When we got a little bit older, we got coarse sackcloth that the older women made into shirts, pants, and dresses.  We then got one pair of shoes.  The sackcloth and the shoes would last a year until our masters allotted us more of those items.


Besides picking cotton, hemp, tobacco, and rice we slaves might serve as butlers, parlor maids, cooks, washerwomen, gardeners, coachmen, wagon drivers, carpenters, masons, millers, smiths, spinning girls, or weaving girls. 


But we slaves did not all sit around on plantations filled with fear and pain.  No one should be viewed as a victim. We were not victims. We were the people who created our own societies. 


Slave communities on plantations had their men and women, who carried knowledge that they had learned from their elders. Some of them learned how to cast out evil spirits from homes and demons that might be hovering around the bodies of those who were cursed.  Some men and women, from many of our tribes, knew how to interpret people’s dreams and how to make folk medicines that cured illnesses. High on the ranks among the slaves were the root doctors and conjurers; the healers who knew the African secrets of relieving rheumatism, and remembered the old African cures for smallpox. Among the healers were root doctors who cultivated evil and knew how to use herbal poisons to murder their enemies.


We Colored also created Negro secret societies that were a combination of ancient slaves practices that came from Africa and some practices from Europe and the tribes of Arabia. These Negro secret societies would try to cultivate good, while others sought power by cultivating all sorts of methods of violence. Thus, some Negroes sought to kill Whites in acts of revenge.


Even while enslaved, some of my kind began to create a sense of their own civilization. While my family and I remained in slavery, some slaves escaped into swampland and forested country and built villages and towns. They lived among the Indians and traded logs for food with some of the White farmers who worked on plantations. The White people called the Negroes and the Indians who lived in the swamps, the Cimarron or Seminole, which meant wild or savage. Even though they lived in a savage land of the swamps among bugs, bears, bobcats, and snakes, these Negroes managed to survive many decades in those swamplands, until freedom came to them.  


On slave plantations, when a slave died, we held our funeral rites in the custom of those Negroes who came to America from across the ocean.  We buried our dead and then a month later often celebrated our loss by singing, dancing, praying for the departed, and taking in alcohol on their behalf. We often put flowers on the graves along with things like small bottles of liquor, and bowls of food; rice, grits, or corn. We slaves recognized the fact that the dead spirit sometimes had to be helped to leave the world of the living and return to their maker through fervent prayer.   


Those of us who remained in captivity remembered the type of dances some of our old family members kept from Africa; the old home of the colored. We mingled those movements with Irish dance steps and thereby created the Juba. When Juba was meant a Negro dance, one would pat the hands on the knees, then strike the hands together. Then we would strike our right shoulder with one hand, then the left with the other hand while all the while keeping time with our feet as we would continue to sing songs and then again continued tapping on the different parts of our body. When chores were over and on Saturday nights, one might see a crowd of people dancing in concert as they patted parts of their bodies to a song that went like this:


“Juba dis an’ Juba dat, Juba kills the yeller cat! Juba!—Juba!

Juba up an’ Juba down, Juba shoot an’ miss de ground, Juba!—Juba!”


Juba was not just a dance or song.  It was neither merely meant a competition of body movements.  It was not even always performed for mere entertainment.  Juba was also a name used for a female for someone born on Monday. It was also the name that slaves use to mean leftover food. Juba, when it was referred to as a dance, could also be a term used when slaves were able to get into a spirit trance in order to receive messages from God. 


Because we were considered property, White masters determined if and when we slaves might marry. When a slave was to be married, the bride and the groom jumped backward together over a broom. Sometimes after this was done, a White master would read the scriptures in their presence to make the marriage sacred.


In many ways, we slaves became like our White masters.  We seldom took baths and when we did, we soaked ourselves once a month, and sometimes even once a year.  As slaves, we ate whatever the master could provide for us or whatever we might grow around our huts.


We took traditions from our people and mingled them with the traditions of the White people and the Indians.  We took on the dress of the Whites and came to value the teachings of Christ. We ate native foods like yellow corn, white grits, and the yellow and orange pumpkin crops. We slaves even adopted the vice of taking in our mouth and nose of the tobacco plant. 


          But we also produced new traditions when we mingled some of our speech from Guinea with that of our masters.  We Negroes brought to this land crops like coffee, okra, yams, and our knowledge of rice cultivation. 


With the additions of these words, we Negroes helped create the type of English spoken here in America. So everyone, White or Negro, now uses the words ‘guys,’ ‘alright,’ and ‘O.K.” 


But we kept our sacred burial customs and beliefs. When we buried our dead in wooden boxes. We would put items, like cigars and pots in those very boxes so that their souls would continue to enjoy the material comforts that they had enjoyed when they were alive. White funerals were sad occasions, but Negro funerals of my time used sacred rites that served to frighten the demonic spirits that clung to the living, while at the same time, ushering in the deceased into the light of heaven with dances, songs, festive food, and fervent prayer.


Slave communities had their men and women who carried knowledge that they had learned from their elders. Some men could fashion spiritual powers into strong iron metal.  Some women knew how to interpret dreams. Then we had evil ones who knew how to poison others with herbs and make it look like the deceased natural deaths.  Higher on the ranks among the slaves were the conjurers; the healers who could cure an assortment of ills that White men did not seem to be able to cure.   

Now I did not stay among my people in Arkansas for long.


When I was a young man, I was sold from Arkansas to South Carolina and later into  Augusta, Georgia. In many ways, the story of my adult life began in Augusta, Georgia. It begins in the presence of White men of science.




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