Interview background: Life on the Plantation
Health and Medical Care on the Plantation
GVD: what did you do for medical care, with so many people on a plantation to attend to?
NBD: My mother had a magnificent constitution or she could never have accomplished the amount of work required of her. I never knew her to have until her latter years a physician for herself. But for family needs we had colored nurses who, under a physician, were competent and devoted in sickness.
It was a revelation to me of the tender care that old patriarch gave to his slaves, no wonder that they loved him. . . . . If a negro was sick, your father would always send him food from his own table, which was received with great pleasure.
Typical Day-Life on the Plantation
GVD: What kind of resources did your plantation provide?
NBD: We had a steam mill for sawing lumber, and mills for grinding corn and wheat. Sugar was made in quantities for negroes, but there was no way of refining it. Everything was bountiful and we lacked nothing, but coffee and tea. Every known and unknown substitute was used for these drinks, but none were satisfactory; otherwise we never lived with greater abundance. Our swamps yielded us all game bountifully, venison, wild turkeys, partridges, and reed birds. It was a rich country and could feed an army.
GVD: how did a typical day begin on your plantation?
NBD: The day was always begun with family prayers, for my father’s religious principles were his staff in life, and he derived much strength from them. Fortunately, the love he gave the slaves was fully returned, and I doubt if there was ever a more devoted and united family.
GVD: what did slaves typically do in the evenings after work?
NBD: . . . . they [slaves] gathered in groups about their bright fires, roasting corn and singing their quaint and wonderfully sweet plantation songs.
GVD: What normally took place after breakfast on the plantation?
NBD: .… after breakfast it was customary for the head nurse to report any cases of sickness on the plantation to my mother. Mother’s medicine chest was brought out and together they consulted about the condition of each patient. If anyone were very ill, a man was sent to call in a physician who lived several miles away. My mother then hastened to the negro quarters, and if the invalids could be removed they were brought to the sick house – a large, long building fitted with cots – where they could be better cared for.
I can remember going fearlessly in and out of the cabins, carrying dainty dishes to many little ones who were suffering with what they then called putrid sore throat. It was really diphtheria, and, strange to say, not one of our family took the disease, though there were forty cases on the plantation.
GVD: After attending the sick, what was next?
NBD: After attending the sick, mother’s next duty was to give out the daily provisions. She made a pretty picture in her quaint gown carrying a basket of keys on her arm. The Bible verse, “She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness,” could well have been written of her. With twenty-five house and garden servants and the many little children to be looked after, this daily provisioning took a great deal of time, and thought. The house servants had their own kitchen and cook.
GVD: What was a typical Sunday like?
NBD: On Sunday they attended the same churches as the family, the galleries being reserved for them. I might have added in telling of their prayer meeting, that when we were present they always prayed for “Ole Massa and Missus,” and the various members of the family, including the “young Missus from the North.” The little negro children would leave their play to gather around me as they saw me walking about the grounds. On Sundays your mother and her daughters used to go around to the negroes’ houses to read the Bible, and teach the children Bible verses.
GVD: Were young mothers expected to work?
NBD: Mothers with babies were only required to do light work, such as raking leaves, spinning, or sewing, that they might be ready and in condition to nurse their babies.
GVD: How were the slaves provided clothing?
NDB: Another care of hers was to provide clothing for all the negroes, of whom there were over five hundred. To accomplish this, seamstresses were at work all the year round; three in the house and five or six in the negro quarters. These made the men’s and women’s clothing. All the cutting was done under mother’s supervision; and during the early part of the war, all the spinning and weaving of cloth, and even of blankets, was done on the plantation.