Negro Folktales in Michigan

Negro Folktales in Michigan

by Richard M. Dorson

Greenwood Press Publishers 1956 (Reprinted 1974)

Negro Folktales in Michigan written by Richard M. Dorson, sketches Black farming communities and settlements in Southwestern, Western, and Central Michigan. These folktales are written about people in Benton Harbor, Calvin, Covert, Idlewild, Inkster, and Mecosta, Michigan. Before the Civil War free Black men drifted into parts of Michigan along with captive slaves who had fled through the Underground Railroad. Dorson described the people in his book as strange—the descendants of Negro pioneers. They were caught between cultures, thin of body, yellow in color, some could easily pass for white, and several showed discomfiture at any questions about their past. Beyond the family traditions, there were no visible links with Southern Negro culture. As Dorson's conversation with each group as he interviewed them turned to ghost stories, the people of these communities matched eerie experiences sending an unnatural scare. To Dorson, it was a fragmentary survival of the olden lore or Negro folktales. These Negro country folk believed in hoodoo, spirits, and the literal word of the Bible, whose store of marvels was continually cited to underpin their wondrous tales.

Folktales are stories that give people a way to share culture, history, and values. The art of the folktale is to adapt the traditional theme to particular circumstances. Most African-American folktales are about power relations. This is also true of every tale told by other ethnic and cultural groups. There are similarities between African folktales and folktales of the Black American experience. The link between the two cultures provides a means for generating pride and positive attitudes in people. The African link to the Black American folktale is an example of how a culture has survived time and distance.


Dorson's friend Russell Kirk told him about the little-known Negro settlement around Mecosta. He goes on to write that the village of Mecosta lies in west-central Michigan in the heart of the cutover stump country. Negro landowners are scattered through Mecosta and neighboring townships, Remus, Millbrook, and Blanchard. His task in reaching these outlying families has been happily simplified through Russell's connections. Russel's uncle, the township supervisor of Mecosta, took him directly to Herschel Cross, a historically-minded member of a pioneer Negro clan. Silvery-haired and handsome, Herschel talked fluently about crops and farm problems. In the course of their visit, he happened to mention a sister, Mertz Tate, who held a Ph.D. from Radcliffe, had published three solid books on international law, won a Fulbright Fellowship to India, lectured at the Sorbonne, and served on a UNESCO Committee. Yet she had been born and raised among these desolate sand barrens.

Two lines of ox-team Negro homesteaders converged on Mecosta in the 1860s and 1870s. One came from Ohio, where freedmen congregated after leaving the lower south, the other from southern Ontario, the destination of fugitive slaves who would return to the US after the Thirteenth Amendment. The younger generations abandoned their farm homes for city careers and returned annually for the great family gatherings or the traditional Old Settlers Reunion.

John Berry: Born in Mecosta in 1921. He is the grandson of a fugitive slave Isaac Berry and nephew of Katy Pointer.

The Death Car – John Berry

At the annual Old Settlers Day at Mecosta, I delivered a talk on folklore, couched in general terms, without anyjohnberry1 specific reference to Negro tales. It occurred to me to give, as an example of a widely believed modern city legend, the story of the "Death Car," several versions of which turned up each year in my folklore classes. In every instance, an automobile had been sold at a reduced price because its owner had died at the wheel, and the smell of death would not be removed. To my surprise, that evening at a local dance, strapping John Berry, grandson of the fugitive slave Isaac, pulled me aside and said: "You got that story wrong." "It happened right here, you know." He and his pals, including Clifford Cross who bought the "Death Car," gave me the first authenticated account of the phantom tale ever to come my way.

A white fellow from around here, named Demings, committed suicide in his car back in 1938. He had a 1929 Model-A Ford, painted all over with birds and fish. It would catch your eye right away. He was going with a girl who didn't care much for him, Nellie Boyers, and it seems they fought when he took her on a date to the Ionia State Fair. When he came back, he pulled off the road into the brush stuck a gas hose onto the tailpipe, tuned the motor on, and sniffed the other end of the hose. He must have prepared for it because he had the cracks under the seat and on the floorboards, all chinked up with concrete to keep the gas from escaping. He killed himself in August, and no one found him till October in the hunting season. A guide kept going out to that spot where Demings had parked. He'd see the car and say, "That fellow's always hunting when I am." Finally, he took a close-up look and smelled the body.

A used car dealer in Remus sold the car at a reduced price to Clifford Cross. Cliff did everything possible to get the smell out. He upholstered it and fumigated it, but nothing worked, and in the middle of winter he would have to drive around with the window wide open. I said one time, "If I'm going to freeze to death driving with you, I'd rather be out on my feet," and I got out.

Another time a little white dog crawled inside while Cliff was getting gas and started to bark from the back seat after he drove off. Cliff thought it was the dead man's ghost, and he stopped that car and shot out like the Devil was after him. Finally, he gives up trying to get the smell out and turns the car in for junk (p 99).

Katy Pointer lived in Mecosta. She was born near Windsor, Canada in 1864 five years after her father, Isaac Berry, ran away from his master in Missouri. He was born in Garrett County, Kentucky in 1811. The Berry's migrated to Mecosta from Canada by covered wagon in 1877. Katy outlived her husband, who came to Mecosta from Ohio.

The Escape of Isaac Berry - by Katy Pointer

My father was a slave born in Kentucky. When his master died, his slaves were divided among his children.kaypointer1  My grandmother and all of her children fell to one of the girls, who married James Pratt from Missouri and went there with her slaves, near St. Louis. My father, Isaac Berry, ran away when he was 27 in 1859.

This Jim Pratt was a poor man and a gambler, and he would hire out his slaves. But it was the understanding that Mrs. Pratt's slaves weren't ever to be whipped. My father farmed with the other slaves; one of his sisters cooked in the big house, and the other cooked for the slaves. They had to cut all the nice meat off the ham and give the bones to the slaves—hog heads and things like that, hambone, and cornbread—it was hearty food of course. The white folks had biscuits, but not the slaves. I can remember my father telling this to illustrate how different our life was from his.

Someone had given my father a little colt, and Mrs. Pratt said he could raise it himself. It was a natural "racker"—that's the way horses were taught to run. Everybody rode horseback down there. Jim Pratt sold the "racker" to pay a gambling debt. Then Mrs. Pratt called my father aside and told him, "I'm afraid Mr. Pratt will sell you to one day, down the river, and if you can run away, and think you can get away, you have my permission to go."

My father was a great hunter for deer and wild turkeys, and he sold them to a lady in St. Louis who kept a hotel. She gave him a dollar and a half for a deer saddle, and then the rest of the deer he took back to Jim Pratt's folks to help feed the slaves. That way he saved up money enough to buy his food when he ran away. He had a friend, Albert Campbell, a free-colored youngster, in Quincy, Illinois, who arranged to help him get across the Mississippi River by boat.

A white man had taught my father to play the violin. He'd play "The Devil's Dream" and things like that—the colored people were great for dancing—and often when he went to play at the dance he wouldn't be back until Monday morning early. And there was nothing said so long as he got back in time. So he told Jim Pratt he was going to play at the dance and left the farm Saturday night. He got a colored man to ride with him to the place where Albert Campbell would meet him with the boat. When he reached the Mississippi, which was quite a ways from the farm, the water was so high over the bank that the boat couldn't get to him though he could see their light, and they could see his light.

Isaac hid in the brush along the river away from the landing, and walked Saturday night and Sunday, without100 0259berry anything to eat. Then a white man came along in a boat with his wife and two children, a boy and a girl. They were coming down the Mississippi. My father told them that he was working in

Quincy had to get across and offer them a five-dollar gold piece. That's a lot of money then. It was the wife who said, "Let's carry him across or he'll lose his job; we can wait for breakfast." He helped row the boat across to Quincy. They'd have sent the bloodhounds after him if he hadn't crossed the river.

He got on the railroad and started walking. There was a 500-dollar reward for him dead or alive. Someone left a newspaper on the seat on the train when my mother came later on, and she saw it. Jim Pratt followed him too, clear to Detroit. He came to a little country store and waited until kind of late, then pulled his hat down over his face and went in and bought a loaf of bread and some cheese—or sometimes only crackers. You see he didn't know how he'd have to be saving his money.

He walked along the tracks and hid in the daylight. Only once in all the time did he step in the daylight to wash and shave in a little river and two white men stopped and asked him where he was going and where he was from. He told them he was going to Michigan City, and that he would sell his life dear, though they were two against one. You see he was afraid; he'd been afraid all of his life. He laid out his razor—it was a long blade with a handle—and his revolver. And they said they weren't going to bother him.

He walked to Ypsilanti on the railroad. His shoes were all worn out, and his socks and his feet got all swelled up, and his legs all swelled up. Sometimes when I think about it I want to cry, a human being getting treated that way. When he got to Ypsilanti, he met a colored man going to work; he had his dinner pail with him. And he asked my father, "Are you a runaway slave?" And my father said, "It's none of your business what I am." He was worn out with people asking him questions. The other man said, "I can see from your shoes that you've come a long way. You see that house up the railroad a way—that's where I live. You go there and tell my wife to give you breakfast, and then you go to bed and stay there till I come home. I'll be home at six o'clock." So he went on to the house, and the old lady took care of him, and he went to bed and slept all day—he said his feet and legs were so sore. He was walking for three weeks. That night the house couldn't hold all the colored people that came there. And they gave him carpet slippers and socks and took up a collection and gave him quite a lot of money. In the morning one old fellow took him down to the railroad and said, "You get a ticket for Detroit, and when you get there take a ferry to Canada, just about a mile across the lake, and then you'll be under the lion's paw."

When he got to Windsor, he looked up Aunt Celia Flenoy, a little black woman who was Albert Campbell's aunt. She got him a room with a colored man, and he got work on the street, at fifty cents a day. "I'm a free man now," he said (pp 88-9).

William Todd

Will Todd: Lives in Bloomfield Township east of Remus, where he was born. He is 71 years old. His father was awilliamtoddoriginal slave in Missouri, who escaped to Canada after the Civil War and moved to Mecosta along with Isaac Berry in 1877.

Will Todd is reputed to be Remus' most successful Negro farmer. He looked like anything but a man of business: short and stumpy, with a mouth of crooked teeth, reddish cheeks, a small mustache, and a rhythmic twang voice. He too had heard his dad tell of slave degradations. Once his father had to lick off with his tongue manure splashed on a white horse. He must have heard other matters also. Standing under a grove at the Old Settlers Picnic, he twanged animatedly about his powers as a blood stopper and described occult healers in the vicinity who had mysteriously cured him and his kinfolk of painful ailments. Will, though Michigan had breathed in much of the plantation culture (pp 88-9).

Blood Stopping (Will Todd)

Blood Stopping—I can stop the blood. An old man, just about ready to leave, Charlie Barr, gave me the prayer. He lost his power right after. I seen him use it on a horse bursting with blood; he dried her up, without touching her.

George Whitney's cow had its toenail just about off, and she was bleeding badly. When I heard about it, it asked for a Bible, and went out to see the cow. A young fellow out there was laughing when he saw me come with the Bible. He asked me if I wanted the cow, and I said no. He stopped laughing when the blood stopped running.

Joe Hiles came out to my place, six miles from Remus, to get a doctor for his nephew. (I was the only one around who had a car.) His nephew had measles and was bleeding to death. I told him, "No, if the boy is bleeding like you said, he'll be dead before we can get him to the doctor." I asked Joe his nephew's name and treated him. Then we drove out there, pretty near a mile. The boy was lying in bed with a bunch of rags this high, but he wasn't bleeding any more. We asked Joe's sister when the blood stopped. She said, "Just about the time I got out to your place."

You have to have their name in full and know where they're bleeding before you can treat them. He was bleeding in the lung. The funny thing was, three of us treated him, me, my wife, and George Norman who was at the house when Joe came. And none of us knew the other was treating. Each thought he'd stopped the blood.

There's a lot of people who can do that, you see. You just treat, and the Lord heals (p 153).




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