Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Jackson County Reconstruction-era Christmas Story: "The Graveyard 'Possum"

       T. Thomas Fortune was born into slavery in Jackson County, growing up with his mother, Sarah Jane, in the Marianna home of merchant Eli P. Moore.  After Emancipation, Fortune's father, Emanuel, became the first African American appointed and then elected to public office in Jackson County. As an old man, at the end of a long career in the North, culminating in his recognition as the “dean” of African American journalists, Fortune remembered his Florida youth and wrote a series of autobiographical articles he titled “After War Times.”  Fortune vividly described Emancipation and the Reconstruction years in Jackson County and, after his family fled violence in 1869, later Jacksonville and Tallahassee.  I have been collaborating with Prof. Dawn Herd-Clerk of Fort Valley State Univ. to compile and present Fortune’s “After War Times” series for eventual publication.  In the meantime, I thought this delightful extract describing Christmas traditions and relating a wonderful story from the mid-1860s was an appropriate holiday entry for this blog.   
[Note: Fortune refers to his ten-year-old self in the third-person as "Timothy."]

“The Graveyard 'Possum
The Christmas holidays had always been among the most gala for the young and old folks of the country districts of the county, as it was the time of year when the sugarcane was ground and the animals were slaughtered for the year. “Cane grinding time” appealed to the youngsters as a holiday full of sweets, and the older ones also took part and rejoiced in the hunting of the opossum and other wild game, mostly at night, and fishing. Many of the youngsters of the village had been allowed to go up-country and spend the Christmas holidays with relatives on the plantations but Timothy had never been allowed to do so, as he was too young. The second Christmas week after freedom he was allowed to do so. He had grown to be a very wide-a-wake youngster, very much alive to country life and its many pastimes, which he had watched with his developing years and yearned to share to the full.

He went to the Russ plantation, where he had a lot of kinfolks and where he was very much at home. He stopped with Uncle John and there were plenty of children with whom he could make merry. The country eating was the best possible, with plenty of fish and wild game, and he never got his full of chewing cane and drinking hot syrup, - raw brown sugar, the only sort in common use in those days,- and what youngster did get his fill of such! Fishing in the many ponds and small streams was great sport, but the thing Timothy yearned most for was to go 'possum hunting. He had always heard that that was the greatest of things that go along with Christmas holidays.

'Possum hunts usually got underway about the midnight hour. Uncle John made up his party of six, including Timothy, the night after Timothy reached the plantation, and Timothy’s first experience in hunting 'possum was begun. He was all excitement and enthusiasm and felt as frolicsome as the dogs, who do know what the sport is and take a human interest in it. Dogs have lots of sense, with no instinct about it, just as some folks have, and I have often thought that dogs may be folks but can’t tell us they are, except by their actions, which are often very human.

We had not gone far from the plantation before the dogs gave the signal that they had struck a trail. It led straight to the plantation graveyard. The 'possum took to a small oak. When routed from this he took to a larger one, and then routed, he made for the largest tree in the graveyard. Uncle John decided to cut the tree down. Meanwhile the men and the dogs showed that they felt funny about the whole business from the beginning, a graveyard 'possum being regarded as a spirit and hard to capture. The dogs stood off in the direction the tree should fall, and when it fell they rushed for the prey, howling and whining in a most piteous way, but the 'possum eluded them for the third time, and Uncle John decided that was enough. His superstition took charge of him, and he was for giving up the hunt but was overruled by the others.

“Yoo cain’t have no luck when you start off wid a graveyard 'possum foolin’ yoo,” he said, with a shake of the head.

We got up into the persimmon district of the plantation where there were plenty of opossum. The dogs jumped one of the finest which made for a clump of trees and rock, and was grabbed just as he was going into his hole. Then we had no luck for a long time, when we reached the extreme limits of the farm, and were thinking of giving up the hunt. A big one was captured at this point, and, with his tail in a split white oak limb, he was turned over to Timothy to lug. We had to cross a small stream on logs, at this point. Timothy followed the others and the dogs followed him, and kept up a constant snapping at the 'possum. Timothy struck at the dogs behind him to make them desist and the 'possum drove his teeth through the third finger and second joint of the right hand, making him turn loose the limb and 'possum. They all fell into the creek, some on one side and some on the other of the log fence. All were thoroughly drenched, and it had turned freezing cold.

We got on the other side the creek and cut a big dead pine log resin fat, into sections and built a rousing fire and after awhile were dried and thawed out. Timothy’s finger was very painful, and he has yet a deformity of that finger because of the bite of the opossum.

“We ain’t goin’ to hunt no more tonight,” said Uncle John. “That graveyard 'possum done hoodoo the whole business.”

He had. Although Uncle John and the others were born and reared in that part of the county, they lost their way and did not reach their plantation until broad daylight.”

[Sources: Norfolk (VA) Journal and Guide, August 27, 1927; Philadelphia Tribune, September 1, 1927]

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