‘Aunt’ Martha Graham: Born a Slave in Cumberland County

by | Aug 5, 2016 | Cumberland, Union

According to an undated article from The Fayetteville Observer, at the time of its publication (circa mid to late 1970s), 117-year-old ‘Aunt’ Martha Graham was Cumberland County’s oldest resident. ‘Aunt’ Martha “live[d] with her [then] 97-year-old daughter, Mrs. Carolina Morrison, on Route 3” and was the “matriarch of six generations living…in Cumberland County.” The author of the article, Pat Reese, stated, “Aunt Martha Graham probably is the oldest living resident of Cumberland County. The wizened but still remarkable old Negress says she’s 117 years-old—and there’s sufficient evidence to verify her recollections of long-forgotten incidents of Civil War days.” Reese reported that, although Mrs. Graham’s hearing was poor and a hip injury hampered her walking at the time of her interview, she was a “bright conversationalist” who enjoyed reminiscing about her experiences during the Civil War—perhaps because she was freed at its conclusion.

‘Aunt’ Martha was born a slave “on the David Gillis farm (today known as Gillis Hill) several hundred yards from Galatia [Presbyterian] Church.” Reese stated that Martha “learned her age as a youngster by markings on the tombstone marking her mother’s grave in the old Gillis family cemetery.” It was common for slave owners to further dehumanize their slaves by denying them information pertaining to their birthdays and, sometimes, their parentage, so it is not surprising that Martha found a creative way to keep track of her birthdays. Martha remarked, “Old [David] Gillis wouldn’t let us go no farther than the grave yard. He made us stay out of the apple orchard when it was green—we knew he’d git [sic] at us about that orchard when it was green. Me and Jessie [her brother] stayed out of that orchard.”

Martha told Reese, “Old Gillis spoiled us children. Wouldn’t let us do nothing to hurt ourselves at all. He raised my mammy from a child and he’d holler after her for whipping us. He made my mammy give us plenty of milk. … He wouldn’t let us eat the snow, said it made your throat sore, but he’d make my mammy give us plenty of milk.” This portrayal of slavery was typical of slave narratives: A narrative often depicted a slave owner as a mixture of a concerned patriarch and a dominator who maintained his ‘property,’ allowing its listeners/readers to respond to it based on their own views of the institution of slavery, and thereby protecting the former slaves from retributive backlash for documenting their experiences. It is also worth mentioning that, while slave oral history interviews may be biased, we know that written accounts of slavery by slave owners themselves were biased as well, since they usually wanted to minimalize their involvement in all of the horrible aspects of the institution.

Reese stated the Martha’s “recollections of incidents during the latter part of the Civil War [were] vivid.” Martha recollected the day Union soldiers visited the Gillis farm: “Them Yanks they came riding in on horses and they killed all the turkeys and pigs. …Yes, I remembers [sic] they took all the grain and killed all the chickens and they killed the turkeys and hogs. One of them bent his old head down and rode his horse right in the house and my mammy was cooking.” Martha, according to Reese, smiled at that memory, then continued, “They [the Yankees] never hurt none of us though. They never hurt old Gillis neither [sic]. That one [who] came in the house took a pot away from my mammy and he turned it up to his head and drunk out of it. He scared us bad.”

At the age of nineteen, as a freed woman, “Martha married Henry Graham…and on her twenty-first birthday gave birth to her first child, Mrs. Carolina Morrison.” According to Reese, at the time the article was written, “[t]he youngest of Aunt Martha’s lineal descendants [was] eight-months-old Anthony Dwane Parker, son of Alice Parker…[of] Spring Lake.” Martha was his great-great-great grandmother.

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