A Jim Crow Comb

Georgia Telfair, born into slavery on a Georgia plantation about 1864, was interviewed in 1938 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA).  She talked about African-American folk life in the period after the war. In one passage she mentions how enslaved people cared for their hair,

“Ma combed our hair with a Jim Crow comb, or card, as some folks called ’em. If our hair was bad nappy she put some cotton in the comb to keep it from pulling so bad, ’cause it was awful hard to comb.”  – Georgia Telfair

The most common tool slaves relied on for combing out their hair were the cards used in carding wool. – Reenact This

Wool cards were used by African-Americans to comb out tangled hair. In this use they came to be known as Jim Crow combs. Image source: http://reenactthis.blogspot.com/2013/10/african-american-hair-wrapping-and-hair.html

Wool cards were used by African-Americans to comb out tangled hair. In this use they came to be known as Jim Crow combs. Image source: http://reenactthis.blogspot.com/2013/10/african-american-hair-wrapping-and-hair.html

Historical context and empirical findings on skin tone

In American history, slavery constituted a strict caste system that distinguished Black slaves by their skin tones. Lighter-skinned slaves were usually mixed-raced and favored by White slave-owners. These lighter-skinned slaves were frequently fathered by White slave-owners (typically from nonconsensual sexual relations with female slaves) and were, therefore, privileged (; ); unlike dark slaves, lighter-skinned slaves were spared physically strenuous, outdoor work and instead held domestic indoor jobs like housekeeping in closer contact to Whites. Over time, these privileges in the antebellum period allowed lighter-skinned Blacks to become more educated () and to own more property (). Furthermore, to maintain their elite status and privileges, lighter-skinned men engaged in social practices to exclude darker-skinned Blacks from entering their social circles; these practices included the “Paper Bag Test,” (which banned Blacks from joining fraternities if their skin tones were darker than a brown paper bag), the “Comb test,” (which banned Blacks with coarse, nappy African hair if combs could not glide through it) and the “Blue veins” society (which banned Blacks whose skin tones were too dark to see the blue veins on their arms) (). These findings consistently indicated that light skin tone resulted in clear social and economic advantages.

According to historians Shane White and Graham White,

Interviews with former slaves also frequently describe African American hair-styling practices and reveal something of what those practices meant. African-American women’s hair, though probably shorter than in the previous century, could soon become tangled and unmanageable if uncared for. This problem must have particularly affected field slaves, whose typical labor regime, stretching each day from “can see” to can’t see” and often involving cooking and mending duties as well, made adequate care of the hair difficult, if not impossible. Only on Sundays, their day off, could slaves find the time for grooming and styling, with whatever implements they could locate. Former slave James Williams recalled for his W.P.A. interviewer how the “old folks” used continually to talk about how much harder the life had been before freedom came. “Said the only time the slaves had to comb their hair was on Sunday. They would comb and roll each others hair and the men cut each others hair. That all the time they got. The would roll the children’s hair or keep it cut short.” Removing tangles must have been a painful process. Jane Morgan explained that “we carded our hair ’cause we never had no combs, but the cards they worked better. We used the cards to card wool with also, and we just wet our hair then card it. The cards they had wooden handles and strong steel wire teeth.” (The cards referred to here were implements used to prepare washed fleece for spinning, to make the fibers lie evenly in one direction.) Recalling his childhood on a large South Carolina plantation, Jacob Stroyer told how, before each inspection of the slave children by the plantation owner and his wife, attempts were made “to straighten out our unruly wools with some small cards, or Jim-crows,” as they were called. On one such occasion, and old woman had attempted to comb his hair straight, but “as she hitched the teeth of the instrument in my unyielding wool with her great masculine hand, of course I was jerked flat on my back. This was the common fate of most of my associates.” Aunt Tildy Collins’ account of the preparation of slave children for Sunday school is equally graphic: ” Us children hate to see Sunday come, cause Mammy and Granmammy they wash us and near about rub the skin off getting us clean for Sunday school, and they comb our heads with a jim crow. You ain’t never seed a jim crow? It most like a card what you card wool with. What a card look like? Humph! Missy, where you been raise – ain’t never seed a card? That jim crow sure did hurt, but us had to stand it, and sometimes after all that, mammy she wrap our kinky hair with thread and twist so tight us’s eyes couldn’t hardly shut.” – Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit

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Gilbert Parrish and the Dipper Gourd

For white pioneers, slaves and freedmen of Wiregrass Georgia, the utility of gourds was an essential part of daily living.   “In a thousand different ways the gourd is of the greatest use to all Southern families,” the Friends’ Intelligencer 1902 volume observed:

“… there is seldom found a farm-house where many gourd utensils are not in evidence, and the tourist will not be long in finding that in some of the poorer homesteads, and, in fact, in a great many of the well-to-do farm houses, they are the only known receptacles for water, milk, food, soap, and the various articles found in country kitchens. Every Southern housewife has a small sized gourd for holding salt, one for flour, one for pepper and other condiments, and a large one for lard, butter, corn, beans, and other vegetables…The housewife prides herself on her milking-gourds, which are kept white and clean by constant scourings and scaldings.” Large gourds are used as hens’ nests, water is carried to the farm hands in the fields in a large gourd bucket, the tinsmith and the shoemaker keep their tools in a gourd chest; they are also used as hanging baskets…” “Stopping at a farm-house in any of our Southern States of North America and asking for water, the tourist will be directed to help himself at the well, where a gourd dipper hangs in readiness.

Georgia Telfair, born into slavery on a Georgia plantation about 1864, talked about gourds in African-American folk life in the period after the war. In one passage recorded in WPA Slave Narratives,  Georgia Telfair mentions,

Everybody tried to raise plenty of gourds, ’cause they was so handy to use for dippers then. Water was toted from the spring and kept in piggins. Don’t expect you ever did see a piggin. That’s a wooden bucket with wire hoops round it to keep it from leaking.

The piggin was a small barrel or bucket, which could be used as a water cooler. One stave was left extra long and carved into a handle so the bucket could be held like an oversized scoop and easily filled. A lid kept the water or other contents clean. The dipper gourd made a convenient serving vessel.

 

Gilbert Parrish (1856-1903)

Gilbert Parrish, son of William Parrish and Rebecca Jane Devane, was a farmer of the 1156 District of Berrien County. As a farmer, Gilbert Parrish  appreciated the aesthetics of  country life.  The simplicity of a cool drink of water from a gourd dipper was, for his tastes, unbeatable.

Gilbert Parrish

Gilbert Parrish

The 1883 American Agriculturalist noted the utility of the dipper gourd:

 One of the most useful forms is the Dipper-gourd, in which the smaller end, or handle, is sometimes curved, but quite as often it is straight. The shell of this gourd, when a large opening is made in one side, and the contents removed, forms a dipper, very useful on washing days and at soap-making times. When thoroughly cleansed and soaked, to remove all taste, it is used at the water- pail. 

Dipper gourd

Dipper gourd

While in Nashville, GA on a dog day afternoon, Gilbert Parrish waxed eloquently on the refreshing qualities of water from a dipper gourd.

Atlanta Constitution Wednesday, Aug 6, 1884. Pg. 2. GEORGIA GOSSIP.  From the Berrien, Ga. News   It was Sunday afternoon, and they were sitting under the awning in front of Bill K. Robert’s store. As we walked up Gilbert Parrish was delivering himself as follows: “Boys, you may talk about your fancy fixing, your silver and gold and your tin dippers, your oak buckets, and your drinking from the spring, but for solid comfort and keen enjoyment give me the old-fashioned country raised gourd – the kitchen gourd. It must hold about a quart, have a long crooked handle and be split about half way down the side and sewed up with white thread crossed just so (here he crossed his fingers like the letter x). If a man will drink some of our Berrien county water from such a gourd as that and say that it ain’t the very quintessence of pleasure, why I don’t want to know him, that’s all.”

Note: Storekeeper William K. Roberts was a son of Bryan J. Roberts, pioneer and Indian fighter of old Lowndes county.

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