Southern Spirits: Ghostly Voices from Dixie Land
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FOLK-LORE AND ETHNOLOGY {I}
by Anonymous

from "Southern Workman and Hampton School Record"
Vol. 28, March 1899

Hampton University was founded in 1868 as a school of higher edication for Black students. It was chartered 1870 as a normal and agricultural school and was known as Hampton Institute from 1930 to 1984.

The school's newspaper underwent several name-changes, but 19th century issues are mostly catalogued under the title "Southern Workman and Hampton School Record." In keeping with journalistic standards of the time, the Hampton paper printed a variety of anonymous pieces, often with a running title that concealed the fact that each installment was written by a different author. The "Folk-Lore and Ethnology" entries in the "Southern Workman and Hampton School Record" represent one of the earliest attempts by Black Americans to catalogue their own culture's conjure beliefs, folk tales, sayings, and songs.

This is the entire text of an article called "Folk-Lore and Ethnology" by an anonymous Hampton student or teacher that originally appeared in "Southern Workman and Hampton School Record" for March, 1899.

For ease of reading, i have broken the author's long, Victorian paragraphs into shorter sections. Explanatory notes have been added [in brackets].


The Trick Bone of a Black Cat

Put ashes and water into a pot, set it over a fire and let it come to a boil. Have ready a black cat , (not a strand of white hair on him) cut his head off, put him in the lye, and let boil until all the flesh has left the bones. Take out every bone. Wash them.

Now for finding the luck bone: take up one bone, place it in your mouth, and ask your partner, "Do you see me?" If he says yes, you will have to try another, asking the same question every time. When you put the witchy bone in your mouth he will say "I don't see you." Then take that bone, put it in your pocket and keep it there, and you can steal anything you want and no one will see you. In fact you can do any kind of trick you want, and no on will know it.

Another informant tells us that the lucky bone will rise to the top when the flesh has all boiled off from the bones.

[These two methods of finding the "trick" bone or "lucky" bone are mentioned about equally often, as are the two uses for the bone -- to gain invisibility for ease of thievery, and to force a wandering lover to return home].

How to Conjure

Get grave-yard dirt and put it into the food or sprinkle it around the lot. It will cause heavy sickness.

Put a file under the step and it will break peace forever, even make a man leave his wife. [This is a buried break up spell which is walked over as a form of foot track magic].

Have a vial, put into it nails, red flannel, and whiskey. Put a cork in it, then stick nine pins in the cork. Bury this where the one you want to trick walks. [This is a buried bottle spell which is walked over as a form of foot track magic].

Remedies to Cure Conjuration

If the pain is in your limbs, make a tea or bath of red pepper , into which put salt, and silver money. Rub freely, and the pain will leave you.

If sick otherwise, you will have to get a root doctor, and he will boil roots, the names of which he knows, and silver, together, and the patient must drink freely of this, and he or she will get well.

The king root of the forest is called "High John the Conquerer." [sic.] All believers in conjuring quake when they see a bit of it in the hand of anyone.

Tie a snake shed around your waist, and it will help you carry any point you wish. Tie red flannel strings around your ankles, knees, and arms, and it will keep off conjure. Also, wear silver money around your neck.

A Word of Courtship

Gentleman: Lady, if you should see me coming down the road, hat sitting on three sprigs of hair, cigar in the north corner of my mouth, my coat tail arguing with the wind, and my shoes crying judgement, what would be the consequence?

Lady: My head is full of argument.
              My tongue is full of chat.
          Say, kind gentleman, can you tell me
              Whatis good for that?

Why the Wren does not fly High

The eagle and the wren once had a contest as to who should be king of the air. At the time appointed for the trial of strength they began to soar, and whichever went the highest was to be king. After they had gone a few feet up, the wren placed herself on the back of the eagle, and she was so light that he did not know she was there. After the eagle had flown as high as he could go, he called out: "Where are you, Mr. Wren?" Then the wren flew about six feet above him and answered, "I am the highest!"

For her falsehood she was told she should always fly low.

Brer Rabbit Beats Brer Fox

One day Brer Fox was hungry. As he wandered about the wood he saw a squirrel upon the branch of a tall tree. "Hello, Brer Squirrel!" he said. "Hello, Brer Fox!" replied the squirrel.

Then said Brer Fox, "I once had a brother who could jump from limb to limb." "So can I," replied Brer Squirrel. "Let me see you," said the fox, so the squirrel jumped from limb to limb.

"Brer Squirrel, I have a brother who can jump from tree to tree." "I can, too." So Brer Squirrel jumped from tree to tree.

"Brer Squirrel, I had a brother who could jump from the top of a tall tree right into my arms." "I can, too," said the squirrel, and he did. Brer Fox ate him all up.

Brer Rabbit was lying in his bed near by, and saw all that was done. "Brer Fox," said he, "you a mighty smart man, but I had a brother who could do something you can not do." "What was it?" said Brer Fox.

"My brother could let anybody tie a large rock around his neck, and jump off this bridge into the water and swim out." "So can I," said the fox. Then Brer Rabbit fixed the rock and the string, and Brer Fox jumped, but he has not been heard of since.

This material is reprinted from

Southern Workman and Hampton School Record

Vol. 28
March 1899
pp. 112-113

[My sincere gratitude to Eoghan Ballard of the University of Pennsylvania for supplying this material in the form of a photocopy from microfilm, and to Jennifer Line for the transcription and html coding. ]

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