AUTHOR: Barbara Krebs
[This is in response to a] post of June 13 on the Tyrrell County Genealogy page [on Facebook] asking for Civil War era stories. The following is from a story that my grandmother used to tell me in my childhood during the 1960s, one which I repeatedly asked for. I think, as a child, I was fascinated by the fact that my grandmother had actually talked to a woman who had been a slave. Later, as an adult, I was fascinated with why an elderly black woman had taken the time to talk to a young white girl about her days as a slave.
As a little background, my grandmother, Alethia Jones Snell, was born on August 20, 1912. So since she was told this story as a child, my best guess is that the slave woman, Prusha, was probably born circa 1840s and was talking to my grandmother shortly after WWI or in the early 1920s. [Grandmother pronounced it “Prushey.”] Prusha’s name, and the name of her master, Mr. McCleese, are the only names I’m certain about in the following story. Prusha’s husband, I’ll call Jim, so he has a name.
One other caveat: I am telling this story as closely to the way that my grandmother told me as I can recall, which may include factual errors or regional differences. For example, my grandmother always specifically said that when Prusha and Jim got married, they “jumped over the broom backwards.” Having gone to some black weddings where this tradition was included, I noted that they jumped over the broom forward and I’ve found no mention of the backward jump, though you can find plenty of references to broom jumping in general (and the illustrations show people jumping forward).
And, finally, though I have no historic documents to back this up, and it relies on oral tradition, I have no doubt Prusha existed. Perhaps some enterprising person can research Tyrrell County’s records for a man with a last name of McCleese who owned slaves in the Gum Neck community. Perhaps that might bring at least a listing of her and her husband in property records. [See death certificate below, found after originally publishing this story.]
But whether or not one can find an historic record of Prusha, I would like very much for her to get her due. Sadly, while there is so much history about the plantation owners, the stories of the people who toiled in slavery on these plantations are scarce. It is time for Prusha’s voice to be heard and acknowledged, and for a small part of her story to be told.
Prusha’s Story as Told to My Grandmother and Then Passed on to Me
Prusha was a slave who lived and worked for a man named Mr. McCleese. One day as she was working outside, she saw that her master was approaching the gate with his horse and cart. She ran to open the gate for him, and when she did, he told her.
“You better look up, Prusha, for I’ve brought you a husband.”
Glancing up she saw that there was indeed a passenger with her master and he was the darkest black man she had ever laid eyes on. And possibly the homeliest. And though she knew the master was teasing her, her first thoughts were that she would have nothing whatsoever to do with this ugly black man.
However, Jim, as he was called, wasn’t put off by her silence and he smiled at the young girl as they passed onto the farm.
After that, Jim took every opportunity he could find to help Prusha out with her chores, hauling water for her or whatever mundane task would help her. But she was having none of it. Indeed, she went out of her way to be curt and dismissive to demonstrate just how little she thought of him.
Nevertheless he continued to show her kindness, despite her rebuffing his efforts, until one day he asked, “Prusha, why you treat me so mean? I ain’t never done nothing but help you, and you ain’t never done nothing but treat me with contempt!”
At that point Prusha started to feel ashamed of herself because Jim was only speaking the truth. And so from that time forward, she was much kinder to him. Well, one thing led to another and eventually she proved her master’s words to be true. They got married, which in those days was to jump over the broom backwards. After marriage, came kids, and sometime in all this, a war.
But if there was a war, the slaves saw little evidence of it, as their lives continued on in the same way they always had. But eventually the war ended and Master McCleese told them they were free.
For Prusha, Jim and the children this meant little as they remained working for Mr. McCleese, though now they got paid a bit for their work. But the one thing that did change eventually was that they were asked to get married legally.
And though Prusha had always done what the white man told her to do, for once, she rebelled. “I’m already married,” she thought. “I got the husband and kids to prove it.” But Mr. McCleese was adamant that they needed to do it up properly or they would be in trouble with the law. Still she resisted.
And eventually, they were in trouble with the law. The sheriff came looking for them and neither a last-minute plea by Jim nor Mr. McCleese could change her mind. And so she and Jim were carted off to jail.
At first, it wasn’t too bad. She and Jim shared a cell, and were treated okay – people would check in occasionally to see if they had changed their minds but the answer remained, “No, we’re already married.”
After a few days of this, the sheriff asked Jim to come out of the cell. “Are you sending us home?” Prusha asked.
“No, just moving Jim to another cell,” he replied. “You’re not married so you can’t stay together.”
This was hard, but Prusha remained stubborn and decided to wait it out. But now she didn’t have Jim for company and her children were being cared for by others. A few more days passed and Jim was allowed to visit.
“Prusha,” he said. “We can’t win this one. We gotta get married the white man’s way or we’re going to stay here forever.”
Finally, Prusha saw the wisdom of his words and gave in. They were “properly” married and were finally allowed to go home.
And this is where my grandmother always ended the story. I wish, as a girl, I had asked her more questions about Prusha’s life. Obviously, she lived well into old age to have been around to tell my grandmother this story. And Prusha obviously also remained in the Gum Neck community because that is where my grandmother lived until she moved to town (Columbia) as a young woman in her 20s.
But what else might she have told my grandmother if I had thought to ask? Or maybe that is all there is. Maybe this is the only story she ever told my grandmother – maybe it was Grandmother’s favorite story too, so whenever she saw Prusha, this particular story was requested, just as I did many years later.
These are, of course, answers I’ll never have, but I hope someday someone digs into old records and maybe a few more details of Prusha’s life will come to light.
Edited later to add: Prusha and Jim had 10 children, and she was listed on Census records from 1880 to 1920.