Friday, November 9, 2007

Steve Eberhart: See "Darkey, old-time"

Old history books, I tell my students, might be pretty lousy history--but they are often great historical documents.

Years ago, when I was working on my dissertation, I read A History of Rome and Floyd County [Georgia], by George Magruder Battey, Jr. (1922). The book has a photograph of Steve Eberhart, an old ex-slave. In the picture, Eberhart is wearing a huge hat with feathers; a Confederate battle flag on one shoulder, the U.S. flag on the other; and a sash with stars and the words "Rome, Ga." He's carrying two chickens. The caption notes that he is the mascot of the local Confederate veterans organization.

The text consists of three items clipped from the Rome newspaper (I think). The third one, dated simply 1920, is a heartbreaker.


GEMS FROM “UNCLE STEVE.” — Steve Eberhart, the slavery time darkey whose gyrations around Confederate veterans’ reunions with live chickens under his arm always stir up the ebullitions of guilty bystanders and others, yesterday submitted to an interview as he filled a place in the picket line at their meeting at the Carnegie Library.

“Steve, how does your corporosity seem to segashuate?”

“Fine as split silk,” promptly returned Steve, who had borrowed that expression in Cedartown.

“Well, Steve, do you suppose your opsonic index would coagulate should the Republican administration at Washington send down here and try to get you to accept an office?”

"It mout, boss, but dere ain’t no chance to git dis here Steve to cept no place wid dem folks.”

“Wouldn’t you like to represent your country in the jungles of Africa?”

“Lordy, boss, I’s skeered enuf o’ de varmints we have right here around Rome. And as fer dem cannibalists, you sholy don’t ketch dis old nigger furnishin’ de bones for none o’ dat missionary stew. Naw, sir, I’s bleeged to decline with profound deliberation. Dem ’publicans jes’ want de nigger’s vote. Steve Eberhart’s a lily white Democrat, Steve is!”—Aug. 7, 1921.

Steve Eberhart, the ancient Senegambian who dresses up in flags and feathers, mostly just before Confederate reunion time, has written a card in which he pours out his libations of joy and gratitude to the “white folks” for their generosity in giving him enough money to attend the state meeting at Albany. Steve hopes the fountain of satisfaction may overflow for his friends and the wax tapers burn brightly on high, while he stews in the sacred unction here below.—May 16, 1921.

“I want to thank the good white people of Rome for sending me to Texas to the Old Soldiers’ Reunion. I am thankful. I shall ever remain in my place, and be obedient to all the white people. I pray that the angels may guard the homes of all Rome, and the light of God shine upon them. I will now give you a rest until the reunion next year, if the Lord lets me live to see it. Your humble servant, Steve Eberhart.”—1920.


"I shall ever remain in my place...."

Makes me think of the Cherokees in western North Carolina who wear the war bonnet and stand in front of the tipi with their hands out.

Steve Eberhart learned who he was supposed to be back in the days of slavery, and at some point after emancipation, probably decades before this picture was taken, he decided (perhaps without realizing it) that he needed to keep being the "old-time darkey"-- remain in his place, be obedient to all the white people.

Or is this "puttin' on ol' massa"? I don't know.

White folks loved Eberhart and other African Americans who shared the "remain in my place/be obedient to white people" approach. In fact, several pages after introducing Eberhart, the book's author offers a section that pays loving tribute to them (including another paragraph on Eberhart). Here's a lengthy selection:


DARKEYS OF ROME, OLD-TIME. — Among the “segashuating corporosities” of the older colored folk of Rome may be mentioned the following, as mostly supplied by Richard Venable Mitchell:

Lewis Barrett: “Veteran barber, while an old timer, he says he is never too tired to entertain his friends.

Allen Collier: “His occupation is that of a cook. He knows how to prepare something that will satisfy one’s bread basket. His wife, Alice Collier, washed many a garment in her younger days, but as she was suffering from the white swelling, she retired about 15 years ago and has always lived with her old man. She never knew she was an offspring of one of Col. Alfred Snorter’s slaves. Allen does not belong to the aristocratic Shorter crowd, however.”

Charlie Coppee: “Retired drayman. Some eight years ago Charlie quit and has since been doing pretty much as he pleases as a butler in a good family on West Eleventh Street, Fourth Ward. He is 80 years old. His team consisted of a small flat-top wagon drawn by a slow-moving ‘hard-tail.’ He leaped to this city in 1885 from Athens. When he talks to you he squinches out of one eye and smiles out of one side of his mouth. He can still do a plantation breakdown if you give him a young enough partner and a shot of mean licker. In size he is very low and stumpy, but can cover ground. His home is in the rear of the place where he works.”

Ellen Pentecost Daniel: “A slave of Col. Alfred Shorter. She died in October, 1914, at the ripe old age of 73. One of the most appetizing cooks in her day. She was my nurse and I understand held the bottle for quite a number of Romans, all of whom remember her affectionately. Poor old soul; she never rusted, but wore herself out.”

Steve Eberhart (or Perry): “Profession, whitewasher. Steve came to Rome about 20 years ago from Athens, where he was the slave in the war of Col. Abraham Eberhart. He is the mascot of the Confederate Veterans of Rome, and in his attempts to attend every reunion of the Boys in Gray collects a lot of money under various false pretenses, and gets away with it. Some of his whitewash might well be used on himself, for he is as black as African midnight and nearly as small as a chinquapin, but he carries himself with an erectile strut that immediately becomes a dissembling shamble when he wants to pass around the hat. At reunion time he puts on his artillery uniform of red and gray, and lays a barrage of profanity that withers every new-fangled darkey that crosses his path. Under his arm is his pet rooster, borrowed from a convenient hen-house, and such feathers as are missing from the fowl’s tail can be found in Steve’s beaver hat. Steve is on the shady side of 80. His sideline is collecting clothes from the white folks so the women can wash ’em, and on his shiny dome he can balance a bag of clothes nearly as well as a watermelon. He is of the aristocracy, having been just after the war valet at Athens to Henry W. Grady and Ben Hill. He is a powerful orator, with ‘Fiddling Bob’ Taylor’s ability to cry on occasion, and if his education had not been cut short by Mr. Grady’s graduation from the University, he might have been the Daniel Webster of his race. While he has never been ordained as a minister, he can preach with the best of them. He served with his ‘marster’ in the war on the west Coast of Florida, and there learned how to fish.”

Ned Huggins: “Retired Armstrong Hotel barber and retired sexton of the First Presbyterian church. His good word was always ‘Call again.’”

Bob Lake: “Bob is only middle-aged but has old-fashioned ways. He still works when there is a chance to make an honest living. At Christmas time he helps the Rotary Club distribute baskets to the poor, and totes home a well-filled basket for himself. He is the handy man at Judge Harper Hamilton’s on East Fourth Street, but for 30 years has ‘drayed’ for the Simpson Grocery Company and is an expert at handling salt meat with a cotton hook.”

Mack Madison: “An old-time farmer who can always get together a mess of vittles like ham, cracklin’ bread, pot licker and turnip greens, in spite of the boll weevil and potato bugs. He is a shy old rascal, and when he comes to town, which is not often, he keeps out of the way of the police. If you eye him too closely or try to question him, he gets off like a rabbit through a brier patch. He has a sweet tooth, so keeps a bee gum, and is as industrious as anybody in the hive. Once he ignored a summons to court, and two officers brought him in. Asked by a friend why he finally went, he said his legs got in motion and his body had to go too.”

West McCoy: “Retired plasterer; uncertain age. He winks out of one eye because he has lost the other. He sits around on garbage boxes and holds out his hand for a penny, saying, ‘It takes only 100 to make a dollar.’”

Toi Reed: “Had a white beard and could cover lots of ground. His nephew was hanged near the old Rome railroad above the Southern crossing about 1900, and he was run out of Rome and is supposed to have died in Atlanta. He sometimes went by the name of Dr. Potter. He was a mortar mixer and boasted loudly that he helped build the Armstrong Hotel. His hobby was fine horseflesh, on which he was an authority.”

Augustus Sams: “Business is wood-chopper and age about 80. He chops wood all around the country, and for the want of a conveyance sometimes walks to Cedartown for a job, and then walks back. He will not quit chopping wood except to go ‘possum hunting or to eat a watermelon. He wears a black felt hat with a curve in it, only needs a turkey feather to make him look like a Dutch admiral; and he carries his lunch in a crocus sack. He has a keen sense of humor, but occasionally when outraged rears back on his dignity like an angry porcupine.”

“Mink” Sims: “A darkey of 25 years ago who hunted and fished a great deal, but was never known to hit a lick of work. He used to sing a song that started ‘Rabbit and the Hash,’ and which brought in the polecat, the jaybird and the other birds and animals of the menagerie.”

“Tip” Smith: “Passed to the other world Jan. 25, 1911, at the age of 77. He was an old slave who had belonged to Maj. Chas. H. Smith (‘Bill Arp’). After he got his freedom, he took up the trade of carpet and mattress stretcher and house cleaner, and made a very useful citizen. He hung shades, did wall-papering and generally helped many a housewife of Rome. At entertainments he was indispensable, whether it was freezing the pineapple sherbet or handing the guests their hats and coats; and many a grateful Roman said if he could have ‘Tip’ around at the final trumpet call, he would not bother to summon an undertaker. ‘Tip’ lived in peace and African plenitude on the gentle slopes of Blossom Hill.”

Martha Stevenson: “She is short and dark and wears a turban. For a long time she cooked for Mrs. Seaborn Wright, then served Mrs. Bessie B. Troutman at Pope’s Ferry, then was cooking for Mrs. Robt. Battey when Mrs. Battey died and now is indispensable at Mrs. Evan P. Harvey’s. She is nigh onto 75 and spry as a cricket, but occasionally complains of the misery in her side.”

“Uncle Towns:” Never seemed to have any other name, but worked many years around yard and flower garden of the I. D. Fords on Second Avenue. He wore a heavy gray beard, and his old back was bent from much cutting of grass and pruning of shrubs. He bore a closer resemblance to a certain large creature of the jungle than anybody in Rome. His fondness for little children was well known, but such as he didn’t like he would scarce with a fiendish grin.”

William Walker: “Not less than 80, but gets about like a man of 45. He is a retired plasterer and his earthly home is in Hell’s Hollow. He says he has mixed lots of Etowah River sand and slack lime for buildings in Rome, has always served the Lord and expects to make the acquaintance of St. Peter instead of the devil.”


The whole book is available at Google Books; the above excerpts are from pages 302 and 370-374.