Nancy Fullen Axon was the granddaughter of slaves who were held in bondage on the Hendricks’ Elk Garden Farm in Russell County. In this 1973 interview, she relates the story of her Aunt Suse, who was beaten and sold away, missed for many years by her family until her remarkable return home. Nancy grew up in Aistrop Hollow in Washington County, where black and white families lived amicably together. She was the person people would bring home to lay out bodies after a death and sit with them until the burial could be arranged. At the time of this interview, she was 89 years old, the last remaining black person in Poor Valley. Two Aistrop boys checked on her each morning, bringing food and making sure she had wood for her stove. Interviewers: Kathy Shearer and Mildred Kestner, for the Appalachian Oral History Project of Emory & Henry College.
Nancy Fullen Axon (NFA), born about 1884, interviewed on February 10th, 1973
Interviewed by Kathy Shearer (KS) and Mildred Kestner (MK) at her home in Aistrop Hollow, Poor Valley, Washington County, Virginia.
Photo provided by Janice Snead.
NFA: Darlin’, you want to know how I was raised with old-time slave people. Mother and Daddy both was born in slavery times. [Looking at tape recorder.] Now I never seen nothing like that, I ain't knowed nothing like that. I been carried around, raised up right here where you see me at now, you all. My daddy bought here when I was three years old and built a six-room house here and lived here. He brought me up here when I was three years old. He bought this land. I got the deed you can read for yourself, right in there. And I been going on and off on this hill for 86 long years. I was three years old when I was brought up here. Well, I'm 89.
Honey, my daddy was an old slave man. His mother was born in slavery down here. Whitley Fullen's. That's where the Fullens get the name. You hear talk about that. Old Whitley Fullen owned all the colored people here.
Well, my mother, they come from Russell County. Her daddy was enslaved. My granddaddy over in Russell was Old Man Hendrick's slave. His name was Edmund Rose. He wouldn't use the slave name when he was free. He didn't go by Edmund Hendricks, he went by Edmund Rose. Well, that's my granddaddy. My mother's daddy. She wasn't old enough to be in bondage but my daddy and grandmother was, so there she was, just a child.
Well, they had...I'll just tell it to you all as they told it to me. They [maternal grandparents] had children that was old enough to be in bondage and Mommy's oldest sister, Aunt Suse, old slave master — in slavery time, Darlin’, they had a thing up in the floor and they put their hands together and they strop 'em up that way and beat 'em. The colored people, they couldn't help theirselves, you know, when they get mad at one.
So Old Man Hendricks, he got mad at Aunt Suse about something. My aunt, my mother's oldest sister. But my grandmother and granddaddy couldn't help, they couldn't say a word.
Took Aunt Suse in there and strapped her up and he was beatin' her and she just wound around somehow, some kind of way, Momma said, and kicked Old Man Hendricks and knocked him up against the jamb and knocked him crazy. Well, he had to quit beatin' her and he sent down to the store and got one of the clerks in the store to come up there and he come. And he [Hendricks] said, "I want you to finish whoopin' that thing I got tied up there."
Well, the blood was running down there. And he said, "No, Mr. Hendricks, I'm not going touch her. You just as well take her down. I ain't going to hit her a lick." So the clerk out of the store wouldn't hit Aunt Suse. So he [Hendricks] said, "Well, that's alright."
And they come along people in those days, Honey, just like people buys horses and cattles now, what they called nigger traders. So he said, "When the nigger trader comes, I'll trade her off." Of course, she was Grandmother's own dear daughter and her and her grandpa and the other young'uns were all there but they couldn't help theirselves. So there come along a nigger trader and he trade Aunt Suse off and she went away. That's in slavery time.
Well, I don't know how many years she was gone. Mama didn't say but she was little. Anyhow, when the colored people was free, they don't know where Aunt Suse was at, where that man took her to, but she been gone from Grandmother and them for a long time, Darlin’. And Grandmother and them done moved back on the mountain on their own place and using their own name. Mommy and them was great big children then. They was free.
Old Man Hendricks wouldn't even tell them when they was free. You know what he done? There come along a man and he say to them, "Do you all know that you have the freedom to do whatever you want to do and live where you want to? Y'all ain't nobody's no more."
And Grandpa said, "No, I ain't heard nothing about it."
He said, "Well, you're free, Edmund! Go wherever you want to go. Do whatever you want to do. And build you a home of your own. You don't belong to Old Man Hendricks no more." He wouldn't even tell them they was free when they was. He wanted to keep them in bondage.
And so Mamma said one morning after they'd moved away and Grandpa built a home and they was living back up there in the woods, Grandmother was up getting breakfast and all of them was in the house. [Mamma] said she come to the door and said, "Edmund? Suse is a-coming."
He said, "What you talking about, Dilsey?" She said, "I said, Suse is a-coming!"
"Well, how do you know?"
Says, "I recognize her voice. She's way down yonder in the mountain but she's on her way home 'cause she's singing."
He says, "What's she singing?"
"My head got wet with the midnight dew and the morning stars is a witness, too." And she was coming home to Grandma and Grandpa. She was sold away from them in slavery time, Mamma said. Grandmother recognized her voice. And she was on her way home that morning 'fore Grandma got breakfast ready.
Of course, my father, Si Fullen, he was born down the valley here. Old Man Whitley Fullen owned my grandmother, Mariah Fullen. And he wouldn’t sell a colored person. A man come along and offered him $100 for one, he wouldn’t take it. Mmm-mmm.
“Money won’t buy my niggs,” he'd say and cross his hands up and call ’em. “Come here!” Make ’em all lay down out in the yard and all around and kick up their heels and show the old man where buying ’em how he had ’em do, but he wouldn’t sell a one. Never did sell one. There wasn’t ever a Fullen sold. But over in Russell, Old Man Hendricks, now, slaveholders, and they all sold slaves just like you sell chickens and hogs and cows and things today, Darlin’. That’s the way colored people was in slavery time.
KS: So Mr. Fullen was better to his slaves?
MK: So Mr. Fullen was better to his slaves?
NFA: Oh, Lord, Honey, what you talking about? He wouldn't sell a one.
KS: Did he beat them?
NFA: No! He was sweet to them. He'd call 'em and pile 'em up. He wouldn't let 'em do no work till they was 15 and 14 years old. They just lay around there in the yard and kick up they heels and play. Them old men may be in the cornfield or up there working somewhere, but he was just as good to 'em as if he was their daddy.
And after freedom, Honey, there's a whole lot of 'em didn't ever leave him till they died. Just a lot of 'em never did leave Old Man Whitley Fullen till they's dead because he's too sweet to 'em.
MK: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
NFA: My mother was the mother of four children, three girls and one boy. I'm the youngest one. I ain't got a sister, brother, mother, grandfather [left]. Closest relation I have is some nieces and nephews that lives over here at Meadowview. And one first cousin lives over at Chilhowie. I reckon she's still living.
My mommy's baby sister, Aunt Nancy, that's who I'm named after, had a baby and she [the mother] died when she was three weeks old. And my mother raised it on the bottle. That's Bessie Patterson. She went to Abingdon when Aunt Nancy died and got Bessie and brought her home and raised her from three weeks up to where she is.
MK: I remember your sister Maggie. What's your other sister's name?
NFA: Sarah. That's the oldest girl. And she lived at Tom's Creek [?] and Maggie lived right down there. And Wiley, my only brother, you know, never was married. He stayed right here and died in that room right in there.
KS: What did your Grandfather Fullen do when he was freed? Did he stay over there?
NFA: You mean my daddy?
MK: Yes, I believe it's her daddy.
NFA: Grandmother Fullen, she had seven children. Six boys and one girl. That's on my daddy's side. I don't know nothing about who her husband was. That was slave time, Honey.
KS: When they were freed, did they stay with Mr. Fullen or did they build their own house somewhere else?
NFA: Some of them, like my daddy, they bought and built. And other ones stayed with him till he died and then they bought and built, you know.
KS: And then he came over here and built this house?
NFA: You know where Bruce Helton lives?
MK: It's just in this same hollow.
NFA: That's where my mamma and daddy lived and my daddy bought this land from Old Man Brian Helton, and his wife was named Nancy Jane Helton. I've got the deeds in there and y'all can read it yourself. He bought this place here and his brother bought over there and my uncle bought where that house is down there where you come next to the church. And them three built.
My daddy built a six room house here and my uncle built a four-room house over there and my great uncle, Grandmother's brother, built a five room house down there where you see that house is. And they brought me up here, my daddy did. He built the biggest house, when I was three years old, like I'm telling you, Darlin’. But I was born and raised down there where Bruce Helton's living at now.
MK: What was your daddy's name?
NFA: Silas Fullen. You hear people call...Mommy's name was Mary, Mary Si. She was a midwife. I don't know how many people around here knows Mommy. I get to telling them and they say, "Why, Honey, that's the one that brought me into this world!" Her name was Mary Fullen and you called her Mary Si.
Now over in Russell...Willy Price, Susie Aistrop's husband, his daddy come over here and got my grandmother [mother?] and took her over there and she lived over there in the Loop. I get to telling them about 'em and Curry Holmes and different ones lives here and around and say...Oh, Honey, I can't tell you who all my mother [delivered]. There's a gang of them here. "Oh, Aunt Mary brought me here! Aunt Mary brought me here!"
But I couldn't tell you who all she did deliver. She was a midwife, but she was an old, old woman, not old enough to be in bondage, but her mother and daddy was. The other children was older.
But on my daddy's side, it wasn't never one sold and never one in bondage, only just to Old Man Whitley Fullen. He wouldn't hit one of 'em and he wouldn't make one of 'em go to work. They asked him, "How'd you let that old boy lay around here in the sun, kicking up his heels?"
"Oh, he ain't old enough," he'd say. He'd be 14, 15 years old, out there in the yard playing, cuttin' up, carrying on. Them other old slave holders wanted him to make them go to work and he'd shake his head. "They ain't old enough." He was just sweet to 'em as if he'd been the daddy of 'em, he was.
And I tell you, one child ..my grandmother had six boys and one girl. I know who...(she didn't tell me)...who my daddy and them told me, was the daddy of one of her children she had. I don't know the other five. Old Man Jim Henderson. You've heard talk of him, ain't you?
NFA: She had one young'un off'n him. That was old Warsh. Always called Charley Henderson "Wash" 'cause he's so much alike. Now Old Man Henderson was his daddy. But who's the others and who's Aunt Mary's daddy was, her daughter now, I don't know, Darlin’. I never did hear them say and I never did ask, 'cause they didn't tell me. But they did tell me about Uncle Wash.
So I tell Miss Ella and them about it and it nearly tickled them to death. They said they'd come over here and wanting me to tell 'em so they can write it down, but I ain't never said nothing about it.
MK: Yes, I imagine there was a lot of integration years ago, wasn't there?
MK: There was a lot of mixed-up blood years ago.
NFA: And still mixing, Miss Kestner! In different places.
MK: Yes, that's right.
NFA: Now my uncle that owned that house down there, Uncle Jake, well, this is his son that married Maggie, George. He didn't have but that one child. Well, now his mother was a Helton. You've heard talk about that, haven't you? Long George, they called him. Alberta Helton was his mother. Well, my first cousin in Abingdon, my uncle's daughter down there, Mary Turner — you know them, don't you?
MK: Oh, yes, I knew her very well.
NFA: Well, her mother was...Em [?] Helton was her mother. That's Alberta and Emma's sisters. Well, Ginny Fullen, Olivene's aunt, Old Man Lou Helton was her daddy, and Lynn Helton — you've heard talk of her — told me (I was just a kid), she said, "Nancy, out of all the children, Lou's got one colored young'un, just like Em and Alberta. That's two sisters and one brother. The Heltons all had a colored child a-piece. Two girls and one boy. She said, "I'll tell you how I know it."
I says, "How you know, Lynn?" Talkin' about Ginny's daddy, now.
She said, "Well, I sent him over to Aunt Susie's gettin' some butter. She had cows and sold butter. Lou went over there and he stayed ALL day long and didn't come back till that night. He brought my butter when he come and nine months from the day he brought my butter, that's when Aunt Suse had this baby."
I know [unclear] and I know this is. And I declare I thought that thing would tickle me to death! [laughs] Nine months from the day I got my butter, that baby came.
KS: For sure, then you could tell.
NFA: Old Man Lou Helton was Ginny's daddy. And Arthur [unclear?] was Mary's daddy, that's Poppy's brother, and Uncle Jake, Poppy's great-uncle, was George's daddy. And George is sister Maggie's husband. And they had 15 children and now there's only four living. Two girls and two boys out of 15. She got nine up there on the hill with her and George and the others...Let's see.
MK: Well, Miss Nancy, did you have a chance to go to school when you become six or seven years old?
NFA: You see that little ole' church down there where you come up here? That's a log building and my daddy and uncles and all those built it and that's where I went to school at, Honey. That's all the education I got. That's the reason I say, I read the Bible and get papers and things, Honey, and I don't understand because I just had a little learning there, right down there in that log cabin.
And then the school board took over and fancied up and fixed it and made a real schoolhouse out of it. Old Man Charlie Casteel, and then I had done quit school then, you see, and got myself a little [unclear] and runnin' around and didn't go to school and get no education after you finished up and got town school teachers from Abingdon and all around. But that's where I went to school when I was ten years old. That's a log building.
MK: Can you remember any of your teachers' names?
NFA: The teachers I went to? Sanders Reddix, an old man that lived on Smokey Row in Saltville, I went to school to him. And I went to school to...oh, I can't call them other two teachers. I know the names...Yes, I remember my school teachers and things. We had the lessons and things they did. How different things is now, the words and things.
MK: How did you heat the building in the winter? What kind of fire did you have — out of wood?
NFA: Yeah, of course, a stove. Had a good road in here and Old Man Charlie Casteel was the head man and he looked after everything. He lived on the river somewhere, I don't know where. I've heard Poppy talk about him. You know, I'se just a kid, I can't remember it all.
But, Honey, that's the school building, that's an old log building. They made a church out of it and people got to have...there's so many children going to school and different teachers from Abingdon and all around. Then they got to having preachin' and turned it into a church and that's why I've been trying ever since I come back home...
Now, Darlin’, I used to travel around when Mommy and Poppy was livin'. I've lived in Newport News, Huntington, Ohio, down in Prince Edward County, Lynchburg, Vivien, Land Grant, Eckman, Eureka, I've lived all around there, all them different places when I was young, coming up. Just goin' from place to place, Honey.
MK: Did you keep house for people? Was that your occupation when you lived in all those places?
NFA: Honey, I was married in Welch Courthouse and the preacher that married me, the papers — I wish I could have 'em but the papers got burned up in a house fire. Preacher Shuggart, the pastor that married me in Welch Courthouse. That's where I was married at and Willie was born, my boy I was telling you about, raised in Newport News. Land Grant, West Virginia. Old Dr. Hatfield, you've heard talk of the Hatfields and McCoys, he delivered Willie. And he was born in Land Grant, West Virginia, and I reckon — not in this Bible — I can show you the children's age and mine and Maggie and all of 'em. Must be in that Bible over yonder, that other Bible. It's all written down in there. Different ones wrote it but Honey, I'm tellin' you, I just traveled around from place to place, everywhere, and I stayed in Saltville.
When the house burned down, I'se workin' for the Chews up in Saltville. Sister and them lived down there in that house where you see there now. And my niece — I don't know what she's doin' — set the house on fire, six rooms, and burned it up. Well, sister Maggie's boy come up there to Miss Levi's that night. And Miss Levi and them was at the moving picture show and he come and knocked on the door. I'se at the house by myself. He says, "Aunt Nancy, I come up here to tell you, you ain't got no more home."
I said, "What do you mean, Henry?"
He said, "Cousin Claude [?] done set the house on fire and burned up everything y'all got. It's all gone! Six room house, there ain't a thing left."
And that's what you see here now, Darlin', it's just old stuff that I've gathered up and people give me after...to build back.
They said, "Well, Nancy, you just stay around with all your kinfolks. Your mother's dead and your father's dead and ...No indeed. I'm gonna build back, and I built these four rooms back here and my brother wasn't around here then, and after I built them, he come home to live, and he died in that room in yonder, Darlin'.
I stayed away from this house one night in nine years, going on ten. One night have I spent away from this house since the night that my brother died, and he's been dead nine years in May. He was here with me and I was working and he was staying at home. He was in Abingdon hospital and he was in Saltville hospital. Me and Miss Irene would go down there and spend all night with him in the Abingdon hospital. He took sick again and then he got better and he come home and he died in that room. Wiley Fullen. Everybody knows him.
That's the only boy that my mother had, was Wiley. I'se the youngest one of them, and I'm the baby child. Sarah and Maggie and Nancy and Wiley, that was all there was of us. But my mother and daddy died here at home, most of 'em. My mother pieced quilts and did all kinds of work like I'm trying to do now, Darlin'. And had all kinds of featherbeds and things, but all those things got burned up. That's why I say, there's nothing here now but junk and what I've accumulated and what people have give me.
We used to have just plenty of everything. A big smokehouse out there and he had a big crib and my daddy used to have horses and mules and big barn down there in the field and one out there and he'd raise hogs and sell meat, Darlin'.
I have growed up in the country but I always had what I wanted to eat and things like that. But after the house caught on fire and burnt up everything, smoke house and all, all the quilts, well — the six room house and all the furniture. Well, this here what you can see, I can take you and Mrs. Kestner and show you...That's what I was doing when you came, going through some quilts and things, a-piecing them. I just make all kinds of old fancy pillows, do things like that. And these children come here and do all kinds of work for me, gets me coal and wood. I don't have to worry.