Levi Branham was born in 1852 in Spring Place. He was born a slave. We know about Levi, his life and the changes he saw over a lifetime from a small memoir he left with us. In 2000 it was reprinted by the Whitfield-Murray Historical Society and it’s a gem of a tale, with all the highs and lows of a life well lived.
His photograph smiles out at us from the cover when he was 77, so that would have made it around 1929 when the book came out. His life story is an amazing picture of the times he lived and what an African American in that era could do. For Levi, that meant going from being a piece of property to owning property, and from a time in his life when it was against the law to teach slaves to read to him being a teacher in the community. He wasn’t a great politician or general so the history books don’t mention him, but I believe his story is the story of many more people of those days than any of the famous men who made it into the history books.
The first master he remembers having was a Dr. Black. Mr. Edmondson bought all the slaves from Dr. Black because he didn’t want to separate the Blacks.
Edmondson owned the Chief Vann House and the farmland surrounding it. The slaves had a room in the house and Levi said it had a rug and they were given good blankets and so slept warm. He relates that the mistress, Miss Beckie, was good to the slaves and gave them medicine when they weren’t well. Levi said she had a tea that she gave them as medicine and he didn’t like to take that, but she also gave peach brandy, which he did. Sometimes he would pretend to not feel well and he would get sweetened coffee and buttered biscuits.
In many slave-holding households in those days, when young the Black and white children played together. One of Levi’s first playmates was the white Sam Carter and they would go fishing together, fashioning a type of fishnet out of the tops of pine trees.
Another time Levi and a group of boys went fishing in the Conasauga River. They had fashioned fish hooks out of clothes pins. Having no luck, they discovered a fish basket tied to the bank with several large trout in it, the trout weighing four or five pounds each! The boys claimed them as their own and headed back home. Showing everyone along the way their catch, the fish were prepared and eaten for dinner. Edmondson examined the hooks they had fashioned and claimed to have caught the fish with and proclaimed “Pshaw!”
The whites dined first and then the Blacks. Of course, just about the time the meal was finished the man who the fish belonged to came up complaining. Levi isn’t sure how he knew exactly they had got his fish, but he suspects it came from them showing off the fish and word of the big fish fry getting around. It cost the Master half a dollar to settle the matter.
He talks briefly about a few times he was punished. One time they were pulling up the old cotton plants by hand and he got tired and quit and went back to the house. He was put in a type of time out upstairs on a high porch where he could see the others working.
Another time he was locked in an upstairs closet until after dark. His mistress would threaten to whip him but she only did once. Everyone else had gone to work in the fields and Levi was still sleeping. She came in with what he describes as a “cowhide” and gave him two or three strikes before he jumped up and ran to work. Afterward he declares not him or anyone else got struck by the cowhide again. Levi found it, chopped it in half with an ax and buried it.
There was a swimming hole nearby the kids called The Black Stump. Levi usually had work to do but when he could he’d get some of the work done and then head off to the pond for a swim with the others. Years later when Levi had his own farm there in Murray County, the old swimming hole was on his property.
A trip to Tennessee
Edmondson owned the Vann House property and he also had a farm in Tennessee. Levi’s mom was working on the farm in Tennessee and he wanted to go up and visit her. From shining the shoes and other jobs for guests visiting he would get a nickel or a dime and had saved up until he had about five dollars. He took the money with him on the trip to Tennessee.
The group of Blacks and whites heading to the other farm camped overnight in Varnell. One of the men bought some whiskey and gave Levi his first taste of it. He got dizzy and started to stagger under the influence of the new experience. Then he discovered his five dollars had been stolen from his pants pocket in the wagon.
He spent about six months on the Tennessee property and made friends with a white man there named Mr. Bill Bramlett. They became such good friends that after the war Levi would continue to visit him until Bramlett passed away.
In Tennessee, one of the older Black men knew how to read and write and was trying to teach the Blacks how to read. This was Levi’s first introduction to literacy. Levi’s mother saw his interest and gave him a dime to go buy a book. He doesn’t explain the situation about how they would sell a book to a slave back then but maybe some things were more lax than elsewhere or maybe they would just think he was buying it for a white.
He went to the post office and saw a stack of almanacs. He asked for one and the postmaster gave him one for free. Proud to have a free book, he used the dime to buy candy. After his time in Tennessee he returned to the Chief Vann House. It was 1861. The Civil War was starting.
In the next section of the book, Levi goes into great detail about the Chief Vann House and its construction. With an eye for construction that would make an architect envious, he covers the structural details of the house that could have come in handy when the state decided to reconstruct it.
When Levi lived there it had been added onto from the time Chief Vann had built it. He talks about the sliding doors between big rooms and dances where up to 16 couples were dancing at a time. The dining room held a table large enough for 15 or 20 people to eat at a time. He knew how big the rooms were measured in feet (17-and-a-half feet), how thick the brick walls were (12 inches) and how wide the base boards were (35 inches).
Levi also had some tall tales from the Indian days passed down. There were evidently secret places in the wall where the Cherokee would hide their money in lieu of a safe. There were spaces in some of the rooms here and there that may have been closets of some type but he was told they were where the Indians used to spy from. And in the shaded yard out front, where he remembers playing with the Black and white kids, it was said a pot of Cherokee gold was buried there, but he’s quick to point out that he never found it.
One of his duties was to pull the string that moved the fan (he calls it a “fly brush”) over the dining room table to keep the flies away while folks ate. He didn’t get to eat until after the white diners had finished and while he states he always had plenty to eat, he sure got hungry having to stand there pulling the string watching the others dine.
In one regretful tale, Levi tells the story of how he was involved with his white playmates in playing a mean trick on one of Edmondson’s daughters. There was a dog named Watch that they didn’t like and when Miss Rebecca got about 50 sheep, the boys stuffed some wool in the dog's mouth and told her it had been killing her sheep. She had the dog put down. You can tell that Levi still felt bad about this trick decades later in the retelling. But he finishes up the anecdote with “but you know how boys are.”
In 1861, Levi saw his first soldiers. There was a militia unit drilling near the Vann House. The war was on and it would lead to tough times. At one point during the war salt was so scarce they had to scoop the dirt under the smoke house and boil it down to retrieve salt.
During the war he prayed the slaves prayer: “Please Lord, let Abraham Lincoln whip Jefferson Davis.” When his master asked him what he prayed he told him “help Jefferson Davis whip Abraham Lincoln.” The pleased master gave him a half dollar.
Next week: Freedom, farming and the Ku Klux Klan.
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.