Free People of Color, North Carolina, Oral History, Paternal Kin

Lewis & Mag’s children, part 1: sons.

Lewis and Margaret Balkcum Henderson had nine or so children in Sampson County before shifting a few miles north into Wayne County, where they settled with other free-issue families near a tiny crossroads town called Dudley.  Before the Civil War, Margaret bore Lewis T. (1856), James Lucian (1858), Isabella J. (1860), Ann Elizabeth (1862), and Caswell C. (1864), and after, Mary Susan (1868), Carrie (1870), Sarah Daisy (1872), and Loudie (1874).

Of Lewis T., Isabella and Mary Susan, there is not enough known to talk about; they died as children.  But Lucian was my grandmother’s favorite great-uncle; the only one of Lewis and Mag’s children to stay in Dudley and farm.  He and his wife Susie (born a McCullin) had only one child, a daughter Cora Q., who died early and is remembered only by her headstone in the cemetery of the Congregational Church.  (I am endlessly fascinated by the Q.  What could it possibly have stood for?) Lucian so impressed my grandmother that she named her firstborn son after him. He is gone, but my cousins Lucian Jr., the III and the IV, remain.

My grandmother said:

Uncle Lucian, now he look more like an Indian to me than anybody.  Didn’t have too much hair, but what he had was straight and was that brownish color like it was fair.  We’d come down there and stay with them.  Get off the train and run all the way down there to their house.  That wont nothing.  And they had two beds in that front room.  One on one side and one on the other’n, and they slept on that one side, and me and Mamie slept in the other’n.  In the same room.  ‘Cause it wasn’t no door to it, and the fireplace was in the front room.  I don’t think they ever had a lamp or no light.  We’d go to bed with the chickens and get up with the chickens.  ‘Cause time it’s day, Uncle Lucian was up.  A’nt Susie couldn’t cook.  Because she couldn’t be over the stove, she’d fall out if she was over the stove.  She never left the house that I know of.  ‘Cause she had this thing, that, her head shook all the time.  I said to Mama Sarah, I said, “That thing’s gon shake her head off.”  I told Mama, “She’s gon shake her head off.”  She said, “It was a palsy, that’s how come.”  So Uncle Lucian always got up and cooked breakfast.  And, Lord, I used to love to go down there.  We would get up early mornings, and Uncle Lucian would cook breakfast and, honey, that old ham where he cooked you could smell a mile!  Honey, you could smell that ham before you even got there.  It was on the highway, and we didn’t go all the way ‘round the bend and come up the road.  We’d come down over the fence and come down the cornrow and come up to the house.  And he’d make rice, and it would be that ham gravy.  And the biscuits, they looked like they’s hamburg muffins, the biscuits was so big.  And you talking ‘bout good.   Ooo, you’d be ‘bout to have a fit, it smelled so good. Cooking ham and rice, and had to have ham gravy, just pour water in there from frying.  Great big old milk biscuits.  You eat one of them — you couldn’t even eat a whole one, ’cause they was so big.  And cooked on a little old bitty tin stove, a four-cap stove — the burner wont no more than bigger than that — where you had to put two, three pieces of wood in the stove, and the pipe run right straight up in the house.  Yeah, I thought that was some good days and some good food.  Look like to me, I thought it was the best.  We had good food at home, but seem like down there, it just taste better.  We didn’t have no ham everyday like they had down there, and by him having and curing it, the way they cured ham, his was different from what we had.  Like with that pepper and salt and stuff and seasoning outdoors.  And every one they’d kill, he’d get the hog and cook ‘em and hang ‘em in his packhouse. 

But every great-uncle was not as favored as Lucian.  There was also Caswell, from whom my father gained his middle name, but about whom my grandmother was ambivalent.  Caswell was in New York City by 1890, where he was a white man on his job with the Customs House, but moved among colored folks at home in the Tenderloin and later in Harlem and the Bronx:

Uncle Caswell come to Wilson visiting Mama Sarah.  He didn’t never bring his wife down there ‘cause he was passing for white, and she was kind of brown-complexioned.  But he’d leave our house, and he would go and get a paper every morning down there to Cherry Hotel.  Walk down there for the exercise and get that paper.  He’d go in the hotel there and ask for a paper and talk to the people, and they all said, “Who is this white man?”  And then he’d come all the way back a different way, then walk back down Green Street and come on home, so they wouldn’t know he was crossing the tracks.   And so he wanted Mamie, he didn’t want me, he wanted Mamie to come stay with him and his wife.  And he was gon send her to school and take care of her.  He’d buy all her clothes and everything.  But me, he ain’t said nothing ‘bout me.  But Mama said, “Naw, you can’t. I don’t want her to go to New York.  ‘Cause she don’t know nothing ‘bout New York, and, too, that would leave Hattie down here by herself.”  She said, “They’s gon stay, she gon stay with me ‘cause I promised Bessie that I’d take care of them as long as I lived.  I promised Bessie I’d keep ‘em together.  But if you want to give her something, or help me out with her, buy ‘em clothes or something like that, you can.”  So I didn’t like that. He ain’t said nothing ‘bout me.  But then they said I liked to read, and so he saved the papers where he was taking, and he would send ‘em in the mail to me.  But he sent Mamie candy.  And I told him I wont no goat!  Uncle Caswell didn’t like me.  And I started to tell him he was down there trying to be cute, playing, wanting folks to think he was white.  Passing for white.  Well, he could pass for white.  Least that’s what he was doing up in New York.  ‘Cause he was working at the roundhouse, had a good job.

——

Interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson; all rights reserved.

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13 thoughts on “Lewis & Mag’s children, part 1: sons.

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