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Hugh Nelson

Story Background

This is an excerpt from "The Slave Narratives" a WPA project from the 1930's. Writers interviewed former slaves to shed light on what life during slavery was like for men and women of color. My fourth great grandfather, Hugh Nelson is included in the narrative of Mingo White. In the 1870 census of Burleson, in Franklin County Alabama, I found the family of Mingo White living next door to my ancestor, Hugh Nelson. Mingo was listed as an eleven year old.

Link to the Library of Congress Collection...The Slave Narratives

...The narrative of Mingo White is about ten pages, so the following is the excerpt at the end that concerns my gr. Gr. Gr. Gr. Grandfather, Hugh Nelson, born in 1810 in South Carolina, moved to Alabama somewhere around 1830. His daughter, Nancy married Johnson McKinney and had four children, Laura J., William Hugh, Mary Alma and Narcissa (twin sisters). William Hugh and Mary Alma migrated to Hardin County, Tennessee in the late 1880’s. William Hugh married Martha Elizabeth Sanders (Grandma McKinney) they had nine children, their oldest was John Rosemon McKinney. John Rosemon married Nellie Mae Bazzell and had two children, John Corbin and Nellie Drue. Nellie Drue was my grandmother. William Hugh was named for his grandfather mentioned here in the narrative. At the end of the narrative Mingo White mentions that he named his eldest son Hugh also. It is hard to really know the people you descend from when there is so much time that separates you from them.

I will never really know Hugh Nelson, but I know that he must have been a man of great character and finding this small insight into that character has meant a great deal to me.



Mingo White lives at Burleson in Franklin County, Alabama, and though he doesn’t know his age he remembers that he was a big boy when the war between the States began. His reminiscences of slavery days, when he was a field hand, are an incongruous combination of stories of severe cruelty and free Saturday afternoons, Sunday holidays and happy festivals of cornshucking and community cotton picking. He talks of punishments visited on recalcitrant slaves beyond human endurance and of tasks saddled to one person that would take half a dozen to accomplish. Mingled with these perhaps fogged memories of the nonagenarians are interesting sidelights of “drivers, “paterollers, “Ku Kluxers and sharecropping in reconstruction days.

...... “All day dat we got news dat we was free, Mr. White called us to the house. He said; ‘You are all free, jes’ as free as I am. Now go an’ git yerse’f somewhar to stick your heads.’ Jes’ as soon as he say dat, my mammy hollered out; ‘Dat’s ‘nough for a yearlin’. She struck out ‘crost de fiel’ to Mr. Lee Osborn’s to git a place for me an’ her to stay. He paid us seventy five cents a day, fifty cents for her an’ two (?) for me. He gave us our dinner along wid de wages. After the crop was gathered fer that year, me an’ my mammy cut and hauled wood for Mr. Osborn. Us left Mr. Osborn dat fall an’ went to Mr. John Rawling. Us made a share crop wid him. Us’d pick two rows of cotton an’ he’d pick two rows. Us’d pull two rows of corn an’ he’d pull two rows. He furnished us wid rations an’ a place to stay. Us’d sell our cotton an’ open corn an’ pay Mr. John Rawlins for feedin’ us. Den we moved wid Mr. Hugh Nelson an’ made a share crop wid him. We kep’ movin’ an’ makin’ share crops ‘twell us saved up ‘nough money to rent us a place an’ make a crop fer ourse’ves. Us did right well at dis until de Ku Klux got so bad, us had to move back wid Mr. Nelson for protection. De mens that took us in was union men. Dey lived here in the south but dey tooken us part in de slave business. De Ku Klux threat to whup Mr. Nelson ‘case he took up fer us. Heap uv nights we would hear of the Ku Klux comin’ an’ leave home. Sometimes us was scared not to go an’ scared to go ‘way from home.
One day I borrowed a gun from Ed Davis to go squ’el huntin’. When I taken de gun back I didn’t unload hit like I allus been doin’. Dat night de Ku Klux called on Ed to whup him. When dey tol’ him to open de do’, he heard one of ‘em say, ‘Shoot him time he gits do do’ open. ‘Well, he says to ‘em, ‘wait ‘twell I kin light de lamp.’ Den he got de gun what I had lef’ loaded, got down on his knees an’ stuck hit th’ough a log an’ pull de trigger. He hit Newt Dobbs in de stomach an kilt him. He couldn’t stay ‘roun’ Burleson any mo’, so he come to Mr. Nelson an’ got ‘nough money to git to Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The Ku Klux got bad sho’ nough den and went to killin’ black and white folks, too.

Excerpt from the recollections of Mingo White as told to Levi D. Shelby, Jr. June 18, 1937

(I typed it directly from the copy of the typed pages. There were two places where I changed the word “n_ _ _ _ r”, used at the time, but I didn’t want to use the word.)