History in any form has a fascination for thoughtful readers, but after all, the greatest interest is in people, their various customs, manner of life, and home influences. Everything centers around man; the world was made for the happiness and comfort of God’s crowning creation–the human being. In view of
this fact, the writers compiling this county history have listed in this chapter all available material pertaining to human interest, customs, dress, religious observances, folk tales, legends, and other features which influence the life of the community.
Each county has customs particularly its own, yet in a general way all Mississippi history of this character is much the same. African-Americans with their superstitions, as slaves on southern plantations, have left an influence that only time can dispel. And the romance of Indian legends never fail to add a mystery and charm. Furthermore, the white people have adopted certain community customs that make them different from other people. This chapter portrays a cross-section of the general folklore and folk customs of Quitman County.
——————–Hattye B. Sturkey
Observing Particular Days
All citizens of Lambert, both young and old, enter into the patriotic celebration of Memorial Day on May 30. Mrs. G.L. Wilson, of Lambert, who is interested in
the celebration of National holidays, appoints committees to arrange for the flowers, program, etc. Led by the Boy Scouts, a parade is formed, and this proceeds to the cemetery; the iron gate is decorated with U.S. Flags, and little boys and girls, dressed in red, white, and blue distribute beautiful wreaths to those marching in. After the crowd assembles, a local pastor reads the scripture lesson and pays a tribute to the memory of our dead. While national airs, accompanied by the local band, are being sung, wreaths are placed on the graves, beginning with the soldiers. After the graves are decorated, buglers sound “Taps,” and everyone returns to the Methodist church, where a program of sacred music is rendered by the leading musicians of the town and community.1
It is customary with people who are blessed with this world’s goods to provide material things as well as amusement to those who are less fortunate. In accordance with such a position, Quitman County has instituted the custom of having a Christmas tree for the unfortunate tree in Marks, the county seat, each year. Attractive gifts, consisting of toys, clothing, etc., are wrapped, tagged and placed on a huge beautifully and lighted tree on a vacant lot next door to the theatre. After the packages are unwrapped, Christmas carols are sung. This happy event is brought to a close when the theatre manager presents all children present a free ticket to the show.2
Customs and Superstitions
In a slender volume entitled “Walk God’s Children’, Lucile Donaldson Goodlett, devotes one section to the superstitions of African-Americans. A quotation from one of these poems shows the efficacy of the black mammy’s charms.
“Ole Ma’m Pattie settin’ in de sun,
Counting’ her conjuh tricks one by one;
Mumberlin’ dis an’ mumberlin’ dat
Tellin’ de chillun to ‘Scat, yo’ brat,’
Aint’t no knownin’ how old is she
Say she reckon she ninety-free,
A houn’ dog toof an’ a sack uv bone,
Dead mans ashes an’ wishin’ stone,
Ain’t no tellin’ who she hate,
She notch her stick and wait an’ wait
She watch yo’ step an’ watch yo’ ways
An’ set yo’ time for certain days.
She take off warts an’ take off moles
An’ bury de charm in crawfish holes.
But eny ole time yo’ cruss huh will
She bury yo’ luck on Dead Man’s hill
Yo’ keep on goin’ but yo’ ain’t so spry
When de sign turn seben
Yo’ pine and die.”
Mrs. Gladys Donaldson, Second, tells us of an interview with her wash woman, Freddie Garrett, in which Freddie says: “Honey, us black folks is more superstitious than white folks.” “Then she regaled me for an hour with some of her superstitions,” said Mrs. Donaldson. “She warned me never to step over a rag left in my floor or yard, but pick it up and bury it before it brought ill luck, as it was a sure sign of a conjurer’s work.”3
An African-American midwife, Susie Douglas, is very superstitious. She begins telling her patients certain things to do and not to do, immediately after the child is born; she firmly believes that it will die if its hair and finger nails are
trimmed before it is one year old, and so protests this. She says that if the nails get very long, one must chew them off. Another belief is that if the inside of a baby’s mouth is rubbed with a piece of fat meat, which is then given to a dog to eat, the infant will not have thrush.
Though some people will not admit any acceptance of the superstitions which have been their heritage from the dear old “Black Mammy” because it might affect a lack of intelligence, there is no doubt but that the influence of Aunt Eliza, Aunt Effler, and Aunt Rebecca will live on through many years to come.
That a woman with a new baby must not leave the house until the baby is at least a month old, and that when she goes out of the house she must return through the same door of her exit, otherwise the baby will die within three months is a superstition now, and though it is not really believed, there is felt an urge
to come back into the house in accordance with this subconscious impression.4
Superstition of the Davis Family
For the last twenty or thirty years an African-American family by the name of Davis has lived in Belen. Aunt Savannah, the head of the family, is eighty-six years old and has been the “black mammy” of the town. Her mother, 106 years old, makes her home in Memphis.
Aunt Savannah’s youngest daughter had two sons, Long John, so-called because of his height, six feet and three inches, and Lonnie, seven. Long John died May the second, and a big funeral was held for him; on the night of his death, African-Americans could be heard moaning and crying. Not long after his death, his little brother became seriously ill with malarial fever, but no doctor was called.
Vague rumors began to be whispered around — Long John had come back for his brother — “The Lord need them both,” it was said. The child grew thinner and thinner and his appetite was completely gone, his mother and grandmother were unable to tempt him with any food. He would say, “Go away and leave me along, to way and leave me along,” and lie staring at the ceiling.
On September 8, the wails of the African-Americans were heard again, moaning the death of the child. “John did come after him, he came back after him.” Superstitions of this type often arise.
Superstitions of this type often arise, and it is impossible to convince anyone of the fallacy of it.5
Table and Dress Customs
In one large family who lived in Marks many years there was the custom of having the servants in the house come to the dining room to enjoy the devotional and historical program which is always given before Thanksgiving dinner is served. There is, perhaps, a song of patriotism, a story of Pilgrims, and various original speeches of thanks given by the members of the family, and then the chapter is read and prayer said, as the servants stand like sentinels near the foot of the table until the close.6
The many lakes in Quitman County furnish an abundance of small fish and this may suggest the popular social custom of fish fries. During the summer months groups of congenial people plan to spend a day on the banks of some lake to have dinner together. Those who are the best fishermen are detailed to produce that part of the repast, while different members of the party bring baskets of edibles, such as, potato salad, pickles, cole slaw, and corn balls, that are made by pouring boiling water over meal and making into small balls and frying to a golden brown. Also, cakes, pies, and hot coffee are served.
In Quitman County the crops, meaning cotton, are “laid by” about the first of August, and the intervening time which ensues until harvest season, is regarded as a rest period. To the tenants on the large plantations there is a red-letter day–that of the barbecue. As a token of appreciation and a reward for good labor, the landlord gives a big spread to which everyone on his place is invited. Two days before this occasion, the slaughtering of beeves, pigs, goats, and sheep begins. This creates quite a bit of excitement on the place, while a certain selected few build the barbecue pit and make up the sauces, etc. The meat is parboiled the day before the feast and then placed on rocks over the fire with about four people doing alternate duty all through the night as re-fuellers and basters. Oak wood is preferred as it furnishes a better flavor. About twelve o’clock of the appointed day, the tenants, mostly African-American, begin to emerge from their cabins and assemble on the barbecue grounds, which is usually under a group of trees and near a well or pump. Then the meat, along with quantities of sliced bread, pickles, cole slaw, ice cream, and cold lemonade in a keg or barrel, is spread on the long narrow table made of two planks nailed at intervals to wood horses. As everyone is gathered at the table to eat to his own content, a blessing is asked by someone, and many expressions of gratitude are expressed by the partakers of the occasion.7
Another social custom particularly enjoyed is that of the “pounding.” Usually this is brought about by some member of a missionary circle, ordinarily the president, who suggests that each member and invited friends bring a pound of food to the home of one of their members at an appointed time. After all are gathered there, everyone enjoys about an hour of wholesome fun. Usually, the meeting is brought to a close by the serving of delicious refreshments.8
In addition to the most familiar religious denominations of the county–Methodist, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Catholics–two others have a very good following, the Jehovah Witness and the Holiness Church. In the latter two, the customs are unusual in many ways.
The churches first mentioned carry out the usual customs of their separate denominations, such as observance of special days, revival meetings, and all-day assemblies.
African-American Religious Customs
About a week before the revival meeting begins, the church calls a council meeting and no one but the members can attend. The purpose of this meeting is to report any sin that has been committed among them; each member accused has to repent, or he is immediately turned out of the church.
The revival opens, and each night the preacher announces, “If there are any sinners, stand up.” The ones who care to repent, stand up, and the preacher asks them if they will accept the anxious seat of mercy? Usually the ones that stand up accept the mercy-seat that is located on the right side of the church at the front. Each night after service, religious leaders come around the mercy-seat and sing and pray for sinners. All during the meeting, shouting is going on by the religious members as well as the people on the mercy-seat. The shouting of some is so loud that the church calls a committee to serve in holding them. The meeting closes on Sunday morning after Sunday School, and over half who accept the mercy-seat join. Each “mourner” is then given permission to name the person he wants to pray for him.
After Sunday School, the crowd meets at the nearest bayou or lake, where shouting is heard throughout the Baptismal service. Each person to be baptized has on a white gown, and after the baptizing, they re-dress and return to the church, where they are given fellowship–every member shaking hands with them. Following this, each new member is given a leader whose duty is to see that the candidate comes to church regularly and also collects his money for the pastor on “Pastorial day.”9
In a certain part of Quitman County there is a group of boys and girls (or should we say, young men and women) who look forward to Sunday as a day of social diversion. Bright and early they dress in their best, gather at some appointed place and walk in a group to the community church, carrying their lunches. After Sunday School or preaching services they spread their dinner together. Then they go to the home of some favorite friend, or to a grove nearby and play games and sing until time for the evening services, after which they go to their respective homes. It might be added that, however, much this may smack of rural life, it is at least the result of a wholesome attitude.
The first Sunday in September is set aside by the people of Walnut for an all-day singing from the song book called “Old Harp.” Car and truck loads of people come from Calhoun City, Bruce, Water Valley, Crowder, and various other towns. The crowd begins to gather about nine o’clock and by twelve approximately fifteen hundred people are on the ground. The singers meet in the Baptist Church and the singing master, with the use of a tuning fork, pitches the tune. At the noon-hour the ringing of the church bell brings the people to the lawn, where a delicious dinner is served on long tables; dinner is furnished by those who attend this all-day meeting. This is a time when relatives and friends meet and talk over old times, and young people take advantage of this day to see their sweethearts. About four o’clock in the afternoon the crowd begins to scatter and all return to their respective homes.10
Though the custom of having log rollings on a co-operative basis was instituted during the days when this county was almost a forest, it is still a means of social contact for the communities where there is yet new ground to be cleared. The men of the neighborhood are invited or notified to come to so-and-so’s farm on a certain day to roll logs, which they have previously cut down with axes. They come early and stay till “sundown” which is quitting time; in the meantime great piles of logs have been made and are burning. Log-rolling day is a great day for the strong man of the community to “show off,” as there is usually some game planned to give him a chance to perform some feat involving real muscle. He is awarded with a prize, which is sometimes the biggest drink of cider. At noon they all come “to the house” for dinner which has been prepared by the housewife with the help of several neighboring women, which is always a feast, consisting of barbecued pig, beef, chickens, lake trout, vegetables, cooked and raw, home-made light bread, corn-pones baked in a dutch oven, cakes, pies, and boiled custard or ice cream. Often, there is iced lemonade served, and sometimes it is thought a bit of whiskey makes the men work better. When the first log-rolling is over, they plan where to go next, and on and on, so that all who need help may get it. In the afternoon, the women quilt.8
Just as the log-rollings are held in the spring of the year, so must follow cotton pickings in the fall. The purpose of these days is to mix work with pleasure, by coming together on one man’s farm to help him “gather” his crop, and to a big dinner. Cotton pickings are usually planned in rounds and on a co-operative basis. But sometimes it happens that a family is unfortunate in having sickness or death, and the whole community will join in picking their cotton as a token of good will and a spirit to help their fellowman. They take their own dinners and usually enough to serve the other family for days.8
A railroad chute for coal in Lambert is believed by the African-Americans to be haunted. The coal is drawn up in buckets by chains that fit in cog wheels; when the chute is almost empty and the buckets get free from coal, the cogs slip and make a screeching noise. As the African-Americans pass by and hear this weird sound, they begin to run and scream that a ghost is after them. The reason they fear this place is because so many African-Americans have been shot and hung there.
1. Dan Ashford, Lambert, Mississippi
2. Mrs. M.J. Claussen, Lambert, Mississippi
3. Mrs. Gladys Donaldson, Second, Pontotoc, Mississippi
4. Susie Douglass, Marks, Mississippi
5. Lara Alice Bryan, Marks, Mississippi
6. Mrs. Blanche Denton, Jackson, Mississippi
7. R. M. D’Orr, Marks, Mississippi
8. Mrs. Leon Odom, Marks, Mississippi
9. Mr. R. D. Charan, Belen, Mississippi
10. Mrs. E. Tidwell, Lambert, Mississippi
Works Progress Administration for Mississippi, Source Material for Mississippi History, Quitman County, Vol. LX, Compiled by State-Wide Historical Research Project, Susie V. Powell, State Supervisor, Illustrated 1936-38, pages 97-105.
Photo of Fally Theatre provided by Marks the Good Old Days at Facebook.
Photo of Lambert Cemetery provided by Donald Gordon Dalrymple.
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