Mary Polk Branch remembers plantation life, 1912

Mary Polk Branch remembers plantation life, 1912

The coexistence of brutal oppression and genuine affection was but one of many contradictions in the antebellum slave system. In this postwar reflection, Mary Polk Branch recalls her life as an enslaver. We see here how many white southerners justified the ownership of human beings, as well as an indication of the priorities and perspectives of enslaving women. 

In the “quarters,” as the negro cabins were called, there was usually a band, which played at night for the “white folks” to dance. “Old Master” always led off in the “Virginia Reel.” Negroes are always fond of music, and as they would play “Jim Crack Corn, I Don’t Care,” or “Run, Nigger Run,” or “The Patrolers Will Catch You,” or some other especial favorite, they would become wildly excited and beat the tambourines over their heads.

Our nurses we always called “Mammy,” and it was not considered good manners to address any old negro man or woman otherwise than as “uncle” or “aunt,” adding the name whatever that might be – the surname was always the master’s. We were taught to treat them with respect.

There was such a kindly feeling on both sides between the owners and their slaves – inherited kindly feelings. How could it be otherwise? Many were descendants of those who had served in the same family for generations – for instance, the nurse who nursed my children was the daughter of my nurse, and her grandmother had nursed my mother. My maid, Virginia (I can not recall the time when she was not my maid) was a very handsome young mulatto to whom I was especially attached. When she was married in her white dress and long veil flowing to her feet, the ceremony was performed in our back parlor, and Bishop Otey, the first bishop of Tennessee, officiated.

How great the pride the negroes felt in the wealth and importance of their owners, and interest indeed in all of their affairs, amusingly so, sometimes! I recall an old woman, coal black, a red bandanna handkerchief tied over her kinky locks, and great dignity of manner, she said to me: “Young missis should marry her cousin, Marse Tom, and keep our family likeness in our family.”

Indeed, ours was a gay and free-from-care life. I can recall delightful summers at Old Point Comfort, and the Greenbrier White, in Virginia – winters in which I journeyed from my father’s plantation, near Helena, Arkansas, to New Orleans… 

The most beautiful assemblage of women I have ever seen I then saw. There was Madame Yznaga; I had known her as a schoolmate as Ellen Clement. Her husband was a Cuban planter, and she owned plantations on the Yazoo River, which had taken her South. Her sympathies were strongly Southern, and I heard of her playing the banjo and singing Dixie songs when abroad during the war. She was the mother of the Duchess of Manchester, and grandmother of the young Duke, who married Miss Zimmerman, of Cincinnati.

Among the beauties was Miss Sallie Ward, of Louisville, with the soft warm coloring and blue eyes which Kentuckians often inherit from their Virginia ancestry.

Then the Tennesseans, a very different type, with clearly cut, regular features, brunettes, and slight, graceful forms, brilliant eyes, but not with the languor which characterized the creoles.

While admiring them, a gentleman said: “No one here compares with Madame Bienvenu,” and looking where I was directed I certainly saw a beautiful woman. I was told she was sixty, but it was beyond belief, although upon her shapely head were piled puffs of snowy hair. Her large, velvety eyes had a lovely expression, her creamy-white skin with but little color, but her lips were crimson. Her neck and arms showed to advantage in the black velvet gown by contrast, and a single white camelia she wore as a bouquet de corsage. I admired her enthusiastically.

The next summer I went to the “Greenbrier White,” in Virginia, with my uncle, Andrew Polk, his wife and daughter, then a child, Antoinette Polk, afterward the Baronne de Charette. There could not have been a more delightful place. Brilliant belles from all over the South – gay cavaliers, chivalric and courteous. I recall my saying: “There is nothing more I wish for on earth; I am perfectly happy.”

It was on the morning of November 29, 1859, that Col. Joseph Branch and I were married at “Buena Vista,” my father’s, afterwards my, home, at Columbia, Tennessee. Colonel Branch was finely educated, benevolent and honorable, and I may be excused for saying, handsome, though I have now no photograph of him…

Colonel Branch then left Florida and formed a partnership with his father-in-law, and their plantations were in the name of Martin and Branch. There were two plantations, seven miles long, in Desha and Arkansas Counties, Arkansas – the Davis and Dayton plantations. The Davis half-way encircled the lake, reflecting the white cabins and green trees of the “quarters” in the water. It was laid out in regular rows of houses with streets between, two hospitals – one for the men, one for the women – a nursery for the children, and two old women to take charge of them.

In approaching the place there was first a cotton field of one thousand acres, level as the floor, and at regular intervals sheds with lightning-rods attached in case of storms, and at each shed a cistern. A field of cotton would be one day white, the next day the blooms changing to pink, and presenting a beautiful appearance.

Upon these plantations were four hundred slaves before mine came, given me by my father from his plantation near Helena, Arkansas.

Upon my arrival as a bride at the plantation I found the house servants drawn up in a line on the front porch to greet me, and the house brilliantly illuminated. Among them was “Aunt Beck,” a dignitary of great importance, my husband’s nurse and then his cook. She was a privileged character. Colonel Branch’s mother had left the children to the care of this devoted nurse on her deathbed, and her affection for them was boundless. As Governor Branch’s cook in Washington, where he was Secretary of the Navy, she had also been their consoler in many an escapade.

She had no children of her own, and my husband and his brothers, orphans, she considered her own. They gave her her freedom when they were grown, but she scorned it and said she would never leave “Marse Joe,” my husband. Good and faithful woman! The bullet which killed her favorite broke her heart, and she lived but a short time afterwards…. 

Every day we went out on our horses, riding through the canebrakes, bayous, down the turn rows of immense fields of cotton, to the ditches where Irish laborers were digging to drain the marshes – to the nurseries, to the hospital with fruit, or some delicacy for the sick.

In the evening we entertained ourselves with the piano and the library; among the books were many religious ones, for Colonel Branch was pious, and a member of the Episcopal church.

An innocent and ideal life!

Mary Polk Branch, Memoirs of a Southern Woman “Within the Lines,” and a Geneological Record (Chicago: Joseph G. Branch, 1912)

Available through Documenting the American South at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill