“We…have had a good time and a bad time”: Letters of a Black Family in the Early Twentieth Century, Part II

by Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist

This is the second installment of a five-part series on the Jarrett family letters at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Click here to read Part I.

Three weeks ago, I introduced you to the Jarretts, a Black family living in Shiloh, Ga. during the first decade of the twentieth century. The MHS holds a small collection of five letters from members of the family to Homer C. Jarrett (1882-1959). The first letter, which I discussed in my last post, was written by Homer’s brother Claud. The second came from his mother Julia.

Julia Jarrett letter
Letter from Julia Jarrett to her son Homer, 28 Dec. 1905

Running to eight pages, this letter is the longest in the collection, and I think you’ll see why. The Jarretts had had a very eventful Christmas. Below is a complete transcription. I will retain misspellings but add sentence and paragraph breaks for readability.

Shiloh. Harris Co. Ga.
R.F.D. #2 Box 37 –

Dec. 28.- 1905.

Mr. Homer Jarrett
Muskingum St. Indianapolis I.

My Dear son

Yours has ben durely received and contents noted. Glad to hear from you and to know that you are well and hope you remains ditto. We are all well at present and have had a good time and a bad time to. I received your Xmas give O.K. It was just as niece and sweet as it could be and I also received yours regeristered letter and contents therein $20 Twenty dollars and for this I send you many thanks. Thank that I cannot express to you as I wish to.

Each one and all sends their love and best rgards to you. Santa Claus come to see me this time brought me a niece parlor water set and a pretty glass pitcher. He or she would have brought more but the boys got in fuss there in Shiloh on Christmas Eve. I Charlie & Wilson had to do around and sturabout to settle it. The way it was Robbert Amos and Grandpa. Robert was drinking about half drunk and Grandpa was the same. He & Robert met bhind Fullers store. Chas & Fletcher J. was already around there and from one word to another Robert grasp Grandpa stick and bgin to shake him and snatch him and jeck him about and cursed him once a twice and the boys spoke to him and he didnt pay any attention to them and Claud come up and spoke to him. He asked Claud who was he talking to. Claud told him he was talking to him and from one word to another he snatched out his knife at Claud and cursed him. Chas and Fletcher grab him and made Claud go away from around there. He did so and after awhile Claud seen him agin and begin to talk with him about it and begin to curse him and catched him in the collar and draw his knife on him. He grasp his arm and snatched alooce from him. Robert grasped a rock in one hand and knife in the other and told him goddam you Ill kill you and started towards him. Claud jumped and grab him and aim to shoot him. He knocked the pistol down and one ball went in the ground by his foot. He grab Robert and snatched him and shot him through the wright side across his back about a inch deep and set him afire. He staggard backwards holding his side saying you have don shot and killed me. I am dying. I am dying. Dont shoot me any more. In that time since Chas & Feck Hawkins & [Square] J. among them made him go on out of Shiloh and afterwards John McDaniel threw a gun on Chas J. and arrested him for curseing and thought he had a Pistol consealed but he did not have no pistol at all.

Aunt Jane & uncle Hawkins is here now sends there best regards to you and says you must write to them. They are well and spent one day with me in the Christmas. Aunt Sallah say thats all wright you didnt send her any santa Claus but she hope [eate] that you did send.

Homer I wish I could send you a SantClaus that I thought you needed. I enjoyed the last of the Xmas very well I but the first to or three days I was barthered up so I couldnt enjoy the Xmas no way I could do. The boys spent the Christmas every where through the settlement.

Close for this time. I will ans yours other letter now in short.

Bye bye yours mother

Julia Jarrett

Eagle-eyed readers of the Beehive may notice, from the image above, that the handwriting of this letter matches that of the last. I assume this means the letter was dictated by Julia but written by Claud. Other letters indicate Julia’s children read correspondence aloud to her. Born into slavery in the 1850s, it’s likely she had never been taught to read or write.

The story told by Julia is a little hard to follow without knowing the identities of all the people involved. “Grandpa” was probably her father Benjamin Jarrett, who was still alive in 1905 but would have been about 90 years old, according to online genealogies. Benjamin and another man, Robert Amos, had both been drinking and got into an argument that turned physical, whereupon Julia’s sons—Charles, Fletcher, and Claud—stepped in to defend their grandfather. The argument escalated as weapons were drawn, culminating in Claud shooting Robert with a pistol.

We don’t get much detail from Julia about the aftermath of the incident, and the sequence of events is unclear to me. It seems Robert Amos survived and was run out of Shiloh. The law descended on the Jarretts in the person of John McDaniel, but it was Claud’s brother Charles who was arrested. Unfortunately, the money spent to “settle” the dust-up meant a meager Christmas for the family.

One of the things I enjoy about doing deep dives into individual items like this is the chance to follow leads and just see where they take me. Here are a few details I turned up:

  1. The initials “R.F.D.” at the head of the letter refer to “rural free delivery,” a postal service for residents living in remote locations. Rural free delivery was still in its infancy at this time, its first routes only a few years old.
  2. Young Homer moved around a lot (in fact, each of the five letters in the collection is written to him at a different location), but he eventually settled in Boston. Most historians put the starting date of the Great Migration, in which millions of Black southerners settled in northern cities, a little later than 1905, but I think it’s fair to call Homer an early part of this wave. This letter is addressed to Homer at Indianapolis, specifically 412 Muskingum Street. There’s a parking lot there now, but what about 115 years ago? I uncovered references to rooms for rent at this address in the Indianapolis Recorder, a long-running African-American newspaper.
  3. Historical currency converters online tell me $20 in 1905 would be something in the neighborhood of $600 today!
  4. “Aunt Jane” was Janie Jarrett Hawkins (1858-1916), wife of J. G. Hawkins and Julia’s younger sister. She is buried at the Bethel C.M.E. Church Cemetery in Harris County, Georgia.

Stay tuned to the Beehive to hear more about the Jarrett family!