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Darshell Silva

oral historian and centenarian, was born a slave in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to parents who were slaves brought to the United States from Barbados. She was moved to Dunk's Ferry in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, when she was ten years old to be with her master, of whom no information is available. There Alice lived as a slave, collecting ferry fares for forty years of her life.

Alice was a spirited and intelligent woman. She loved to hear the Bible read to her, but like most other enslaved people she could not read or write. She also held the truth in high esteem and was considered trustworthy. Her reliable memory served her well throughout her long life.

Many notable people of the time are said to have made her acquaintance like Thomas Story founder of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane which was the precursor to ...

Article

William E. Lightfoot

Piedmont-style guitarist, was born near Collettsville in the African American community of Franklin, an Appalachian hollow not far from the John's River in upper Caldwell County, North Carolina. Her grandfather Alexander Reid and father Boone Reid, both born in Franklin, played the banjo in the old-time clawhammer manner, with Boone going on to become an accomplished musician who also played fiddle, harmonica, and guitar, on which he used a two-finger-style approach. Boone Reid had absorbed many kinds of music of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, including Anglo-American dance tunes, lyric folksongs, ballads, rags, religious music, and published pieces that had drifted into folk tradition—popular Tin Pan Alley songs old minstrel tunes and Victorian parlor music Boone and his wife Sallie who sang instilled their love of music in their eight children a process that led eventually to the formation of a Reid family string band that played after ...

Article

Jeremy Rich

legendary hero of the Afro-Brazilian community, is believed by many to have been born in the kingdom of Kongo in Central Africa in the early eighteenth century. With few written sources available about his origins or his life that could help confirm the many stories told about Rei in later years, it is difficult to determine with precision many of the narratives that emerged about him. According to many stories about Rei, he was a leader of his people in Kongo and was captured by African rivals. These enemies sold him to a visiting Brazilian slave ship, which brought Rei and his unfortunate companions across the Atlantic to the Minas Gerais region of southern Brazil. His wife and most of his family were said to have died during the long voyage. Only one son was believed to have survived.

During the early eighteenth century Brazilian prospectors discovered large deposits of ...

Article

Marcie Cohen Ferris

businesswoman, chef, restaurateur, and community activist, was born Mildred Edna Cotten in Baldwin Township, Chatham County, North Carolina. The youngest daughter in a family of seven children, she was raised by her father Ed Cotten, a farmer and voice teacher. Council's mother Effie Edwards Cotten, a teacher trained at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, died at age thirty-four when her daughter was twenty-three months old. Mildred Council was nicknamed “Dip” by her brothers and sisters because her long arms allowed her to reach deep into the rain barrel and retrieve a dipper full of water, even when the barrel was low.

Council recalled as a significant moment the day in 1938 when her father asked her to stay home and “fix a little something to eat” while the rest of the family worked in the fields (Mama Dip's Kitchen, 2).

From a young age Council ...

Article

Kwasi Konadu

Ghanaian indigenous healer and blacksmith, was born in 1913, three years after an outbreak of yellow fever in the Gold Coast colony (present-day Ghana), to Yaw Badu of Nkoranza and Akosua Toa, into a Bono (Akan) family in Takyiman. Nana Donkor’s early years and socialization in a family of well-respected healers and blacksmiths were significant to his eventual vocation, for he engaged matters of spirituality and healing from a very early age, and his family nurtured and supported those interests.

Kofi Donkor’s path as a prominent healer was suggested by the very circumstances of his birth. After Kofi Donkor’s two elder sisters were born, the next five children died shortly after birth. This troubled Yaw Badu and Akosua Toa greatly, and so they consulted an obosom (pl. abosom a spiritual agent often viewed as a child of the Akan Creator Both parents made several ritual sacrifices and as ...

Article

Steven J. Niven

, blacksmith and hero of the 1811 Richmond Theatre fire, was born a slave at the Piping Tavern near the Pamunkey River in King William County, Virginia. The names of his parents are unknown, though his mother appears to have been a slave of the keeper of the Piping Tavern. What little is known of Hunt's life comes from a brief biographical sketch published in Richmond, Virginia, on the eve of the Civil War by Philip Barrett, a white journalist. A transcription of Hunt's reminiscences accounts for much of this sketch of the “meritorious old negro” (5), in which Barrett urges his fellow, predominantly white citizens of Richmond to be profoundly grateful for Hunt's long years of service to the community. Hunt, in Barrett's view, was a man of “high integrity” whose bearing and words betrayed his “true, generous-hearted, disinterestedness” (4).

Hunt arrived in Richmond in the first decade ...

Article

Joe  

Glenn Allen Knoblock

survivor of the battle of the Alamo, was a slave about whom little is known. He was living with his master in Harrisburg, Texas, in May 1833 and was sometimes rented out as a laborer. One man that rented him was a young lawyer named William Barret Travis. Having arrived in Texas in 1831, Travis was undoubtedly in need of hired help while establishing his law practice. He purchased Joe on 13 February 1834, while living in San Felipe. The time that Joe was owned by Travis, though short, came during the most legendary time in Texas history.

Joe's specific activities from 1834 to 1836 are unknown that Joe would remain a slave he likely knew well as his master was occupied during his first years in Texas working to gain the return of runaway slaves harbored at the Mexican garrison at Anahuac However Joe s ...

Article

John Garst

“steel-driving man” and legendary hero, may have been a historic person born a slave in Mississippi, Virginia, or some other Southern state. In ballad and legend he is simply “John Henry,” but “John Henry” is a common combination of given names, so Henry may not have been his surname.

Songs about John Henry were collected as early as 1905. In 1916 the former West Virginia governor W.-A. MacCorkle confused him with John Hardy, an African American gambler and murderer who was hanged in Welch, West Virginia, in 1894 and is the subject of his own ballad. By the mid-1920s the ballad “John Henry” was being recorded commercially by Riley Puckett (1924), Fiddlin' John Carson (1924), and other white “hillbilly” performers, and shortly thereafter recordings by such African American bluesmen as Henry Thomas (1927) and Mississippi John Hurt (1928 began ...

Article

Donna Tyler Hollie

chef, restaurant owner, author, and teacher, was born in Orange County, Virginia. She was one of eight children, three sons and five daughters, born to Eugene and Daisy Lewis. Her community, called Freetown, was established by her grandfather, Chester Lewis, a farmer, and other freedmen after the Civil War. Her grandfather's home was the site of the community's first school.

Although little is known about Lewis's formal academic education, she learned to cook by observing and assisting her mother and paternal aunt, Jennie These women cooked in the tradition of their African forebearers using seasonal ingredients frying in oil flavoring vegetables with meat improvising and relying on their senses to determine whether food was appropriately seasoned and thoroughly cooked For example whether a cake was done could be determined by listening to the sound made by the cake pan Wonderful dishes were created ...

Article

Caryn E. Neumann

a self-taught folk artist, was born with a veil as the second youngest of nine children in Baldwyn, Mississippi, to the farmers Richard Pierce, a former slave, and Nellie Wallace Pierce. Among African Americans, a baby born with a veil, a thin membrane covering the child's head, is blessed with the ability to prophesy and is viewed as being chosen by God to be religious.

By the age of eight, Pierce was already carving. Having a favorite uncle who carved and getting some rudimentary knowledge of carpentry from growing up on a farm undoubtedly had a great deal to do with Pierce's avocation. By his teenage years, Pierce had already decided that he would not be a farmer. He laid track for the railroad but sought a trade that would give him independence. Accordingly, he apprenticed with a local barber. On 26 September 1920 Pierce became ...

Article

Lisa E. Rivo

quilt maker, was born a slave, probably in Georgia. Her maiden name is unknown, as are the names and occupations of her parents. As is often the case with little-known historical figures, most of the details of Powers's life have been gleaned from tax and census records. Before the Civil War, Harriet married Armstead Powers, a farmer who lived in Clarke County, Georgia. The date of their marriage is unknown, but it appears that two of the couple's children were born into slavery (Amanda in 1856 and Leon Joe in 1860) and several more were born after Emancipation (including Alonzo in 1865, Nancy in 1866, Lizzie in 1868, and Marshall in 1872). The Powerses, neither of whom could read nor write, found moderate success as farmers, and the 1870 census lists Armstead as a farmhand and Harriet as keeping house Sometime in ...

Article

Kathleen Thompson

Quilts and the act of quilt making have played important roles in the history of African America. Rife with symbolism, quilts represent comfort, resistance, self-expression, poverty, and a dozen other aspects of the lives of black Americans. Most quilters are not known outside their own circle of friends and family, but there is one woman who stood out. Her quilts, startling in their quality and originality, and having caught the world’s attention, were displayed in the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where the name of their creator, Harriet Powers, is preserved.

Powers was born a slave in Georgia. Her maiden name is unknown, as are the circumstances of her birth and childhood. She was married to Armstead Powers and had three children, two of whom were born in slavery; the third was born in 1866 just after the end of the Civil War ...

Article

Kyra E. Hicks

a slave who spent fifty years in a quest to see Queen Victoria and present her with a quilt, was born Martha Ann Erskine. Her fine sewing was displayed on three continents during her lifetime. Her parents, George and Hagar Erskine, were slaves on the George Doherty plantation in Dandridge, Tennessee. Her father was a literate and religious man, purchased in 1815 by Isaac Anderson, a Presbyterian pastor of New Providence Church in Maryville, Tennessee, who tutored him in religious studies. In 1818 Erskine, at thirty-nine years old, became one of the first ordained African American Presbyterian ministers in the United States. He worked several years as a traveling preacher to buy his wife Hagar and at least seven of their children out of slavery. In 1830, with the assistance of the American Colonization Society, founded in 1816 to transport newly freed slaves to Liberia ...

Article

Romain  

Richard J. Bell

a slave whose death was the subject of the first graphic illustration of slave suicide in American literature, was likely born into slavery in the French Caribbean. By the time of his adolescence he was the property of a plantation owner in the French colony of St. Domingue. During the early 1790s Romain was brought by his master, M. Salaignac, to Trenton, New Jersey, when Salaignac fled the slave insurrection in St. Domingue. By 1800 Romain had married another “French negro,” Marie Naval, and fathered two children, Anna and Garcin, one of whom was sent to live-as a house slave in Philadelphia,-Pennsylvania. In 1803 Salaignac received news that the revolution's leader, Toussaint Louverture, had been captured and that Napoleon's army was restoring order and many expected slavery to St Domingue Salaignac made preparations to return to the island a decision that would return Romain and ...

Article

Eric Gardner

fortune-teller and author, does not appear in public records until 1820, at which time she is listed in the federal census, and nothing definitive is known about her parentage or childhood. A purportedly autobiographical text that introduces one extant copy of Russel's The Complete Fortune Teller and Dream Book claims that she was born in 1745 in the “Fuller nation” three hundred miles southwest of Sierre Leone, taken into slavery, and sold to Virginia planter George Russel after experiencing the horrors of the Middle Passage. In Virginia, the narrative asserts, after great torment, she gained the power of divination and then great fame as a seer, was freed, and raised money to free other slaves.

Though the veracity of this narrative is doubtful for several reasons—for example, the birthplace it gives is in the Atlantic Ocean—it is clear that the title-page attribution of The Complete Fortune Teller ...

Article

Greg Freeman

master blacksmith, was born in Wando on South Carolina's Daniel Island, the eldest of six children. Little is known about his parents, whose relationship ended when he was young. His mother, Rose Simmons, unable to solely support her family, relocated to nearby Charleston, where she was employed as a domestic worker. The Simmons children were reared by their maternal grandparents, William and Sarah Simmons. At age eight the future artisan departed for Charleston by ferry, leaving behind his birthplace, an agricultural and fishing community comprised mostly of Afro-Caribbean descendants.

In downtown Charleston Simmons who proudly identified himself as a Geechee Sea Islander resided with his mother Working odd jobs to earn additional family income Simmons also spent a number of summers back on Daniel Island where he performed familiar tasks like farming and fishing Just as his grandparents and great grandparents who were former slaves had profoundly influenced ...

Article

Naseeb Mirza and Laurne Williams

indentured servant and legendary Texas patriot, the “Yellow Rose of Texas,” was born in New Haven, Connecticut, as a free black woman. Little is known about her childhood or her family. West's first appearance in the public record is in 1835 when she traveled to the “wilderness of Texas” (Harris, p. 530). She signed a contract with agent James Morgan on 25 October 1835 to work as a housekeeper for a year at the New Washington Association's hotel in Morgan Point, Texas, serving as an indentured servant. In return for her housekeeping services, Morgan agreed to pay West $100 a year, and to provide her and thirteen other employees transportation from New York to Galveston Bay, Texas. West also traveled with Emily de Zavala, wife of the interim vice president of the Republic of Texas.

On 16 April 1836 during the absence of James Morgan who had gone to ...