Confessions of Walter Cotton

Confessions of Walter Cotton


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 My daddy was a white man. He took my slave mama one night.

I don’t know whether she fought or welcomed him to her bed.

But I was twenty-four when the war came to an end



Confessions of Walter Cotton

By Rudolph Lewis


The iron bars closed shut behind me. The black man sat on the edge of the cot, his elbows on his knees, his forehead in the palms of his hands. He did not look up until I spoke. I was in suit and tie. He thought me at first to be a lawyer, a white man.

“Walter, my name is John Battle. I’m pastor at Hassidiah Baptist in Jarratt. Aunt Malviny, a friend of your mother, is a member of my church. She asked me to come here and comfort you as much as I might.”

I sat down in the chair against the wall across from this mountain of a man. He hid his eyes from me and continued to look down as if his life was being replayed on the wooden floor.

“How you doing?” I finally asked him.

“That’s a helluva question preacher.” He looked up and stared me square in the eyes. “How the hell you think I am? A hole in my hand and these crackers about to lynch me.” Again, he dropped his head, his forearms on his thighs, and continued to look down at the floor.

“Yeah, you right son. Your time’s near. There’s hundreds gathered in the courtyard lusting for your blood. They want you dead and the sooner, the better.”

“That’s right preacher. They gone get me sure. There’s no way in hell the sheriff and his deputy gone hold all these mens back. I supposed that’s the reason they done brought me back to Emporia.” 

He seemed to know they plotted his death. The wolves were gonna tear this house down. I could see he wasn’t the dumb animal some believed him to be.

“There’s nothing I can do about that. But we thought you might want to talk to somebody, to talk to some man who has you at heart.” I reached out to him.

He withdrew and sat back on the cot, his back propped up against the wall. He looked at me. Stared for a moment, trying to get my measure.

“Are you really a black man? Cause you don’t look like no nigguh I ever saw.”

“Well, Walt,” I said familiarly. “I hoped you don’t mind if I call you Walt.” I pulled out a bag of tobacco and rolled two cigarettes and passed him one and threw the pack and rolling paper on the cot. I lit his cigarette and then mine.

“My daddy was a white man. He took my slave mama one night. I don’t know whether she fought or welcomed him to her bed. But I was twenty-four when the war came to an end and they freed us. My mother was dead then. But I had learned how to read and the book I read most was the Bible. I managed the farm while my master, some say he was my daddy, was away at the War. He never came back. His missus gave me a few pennies and I hit the road and came to Jarratt, bought some land the white folks didn’t want and helped to raise a church called Jerusalem.” I confided in him and he seemed to relax, interested in my story.

“I thought you said you was from Hassidiah.” He pulled hard on the tobacco and fire. Smoke bellowed from his powerful lungs, creating a blue hanging cloud of smoke.

“Yeah, that’s right. But me and a few deacons had a parting of the ways. I left and some of the congregation left with me to start a new church, Hassidiah, closer to the town of Jarratt and I’ve been there the last thirty years. Aunt Malviny is one of the saints of the church. She wanted me to give you her regards. She said she knew your mama, Rosa Cotton, before she left Scotland Neck, down in Carolina.” I paused.

He rolled another cigarette. And looked up at me. I wondered how he was going to take all that in and whether he was going to respond at all. I waited. He lit the cigarette and blew out a another cloud of smoke.

He seemed to see his world clear in this den.

“That’s a fine story preacher. Seems like you’ve had a wonderful life. I wish I could say as much. I didn’t have no missus to give me a few pennies and I ain’t never bought no land and I ain’t never belonged to no church.” He was getting edgy.

“Walt, you a man. I can respect that. You about thirty, Malviny tells me, born about 1870, she remembers. Her oldest son Thomas, Malviny’s son, was born a couple of years before you. She wondered what had happened to you. She said you and her son used to play together. . . . Look here Walt, I didn’t come here to preach to you about your life. You know your story better than I. Of course, I’ll pray with you, if you got a mind for that.” I looked into his eyes.

“Keep your prayers, preacher,” his eyes piercing the depths of my blackened soul. “Your God ain’t done a damn thing for me! He’s been absent all these years, I don’t need him now. I ain’t afraid to die, like I ain’t been afraid to live.” 

He got up and walked to the window and looked out.

“Malviny said you were about six or seven when she and her children came up here to Virginia and she wondered what happened to you and your mama, your two brothers, and sister.”

“I don’t know where they are and I don’t care a damn about none of that.” He snapped, still looking through the bars of the window at the crowd gathered in the courtyard below.

“Well Walt, that’s a pretty hard thing to say, ain’t it?” 

He turned and looked at me as if he had a mind to smack me or something. But I knew he wasn’t going to do me no harm. For whether he knew it or not, he needed me now. He wanted to talk to me, to tell me everything. Deep down, he knew he had to get it all out. Tell somebody what happened. Talk to somebody who might understand. He sat down on the cot and rolled one cigarette and then rolled another and passed it to me. I pulled out a couple more matches. I struck one on the wall and lit his cigarette. And then mine.

“You hard to figure, preacher. But I suppose you all right.”

“I appreciate you saying that, Walt. Every man wants to be liked, even a man like me, at my age. I still wants to stand right in another man’s eyes.”

“You all right with me, preacher” He repeated himself. “You all right.”

He threw his cigarette on the floor and rubbed the fire out under his boot. Again, he sat on the edge of his cot, his forehead and his eyes in the palms of his hands. He shook his head, as if he were looking back over his life, but couldn’t make any sense of it. I knew he was about ready to talk, to figure it all out, to bring his life to a close.

 *   *   *

Preacher, I tell you the truth. I never meant to harm nobody. But that’s the way my life has turned out. Maybe my heart never really got passed that time when I was eight years old and my mama gave me away to a white man, Cap’n Henry. What you think about that, preacher. A mother who abandons her son. Yeah, thirteen years beyond a slavery that supposed to be dead as Abe Lincoln. My mama learned no instruction other than the whip and the rod and she thought that was all I deserved.

I was her youngest child and she believed I was too bad for her to raise, she told everybody, and gave me at eight years old to a white man to break my spirit. Can you imagine that preacher—that a mother would do such a thing? Give her baby child away to a white man, like he was a slave? What you think she did it for? Money, bread, laziness, out of stupidity?

That white man had no love for me and treated me like a nigguh for seven years. He worked me, night and day, until I was dead tired. No pay, no treats, nothing. And I could never do anything right, never do nothing to satisfy him. And the older I got the harder he worked me. Picking and shoveling and hoeing and hauling. No new clothes, just hand-me-downs. Rags and worn shoes. And barely enough to eat, the roughest fare. And it was no need for me to say nothing, or he’d beat me down to the ground.

What you think, preacher? What should come of a black boy, no mama, no papa—nothing but blackness before him? I worked until my legs became sturdy and my arms powerful, and my spirit more defiant. I knew he couldn’t keep me forever. I knew my time would come when he could hold me no longer As I got older, he got weaker. I had a mind to kill him, but I didn’t. I ran away, like other nigguhs before me. I couldn’t take no more. I refused to take any more.

On that day, preacher, I promised myself, I took a vow I’d never work for a white man again. And I’ve kept that promise. I ain’t never worked for no man of my own free will. Never wanted more than I could carry in my pocket. I didn’t see a need for anything more. Every corner has had a prison or a whip for me.

So I took my vow and I’ve kept it like it was shiny gold. Such a vow might not mean nothing to you. . . . But I don’t know, preacher, you might know something about that, you a slave twenty year, you say. Any way, that vow meant everything to my soul. I am proud I kept it, even though I am here today in this hole, a rope dangling before my face, my neck already snapped.

What I needed I stole. I’ve never taken nothing from the poor, nothing from our folks, though they ain’t never done nothing for me. I took from those who had something to steal. And I paid for it with my life’s blood. At fifteen, I got twenty months for breaking and entering at Edmunsen and Jasey’s country store. Then I got three years for Mister. Shield’s store.

I was a man by that time, and I’d got real touchy. I damn near killed a man when I was twenty, a nigguh who didn’t know what to say out his mouth. I cut him up real bad. Scotland Neck got too hot for me. So I hit the rails and promised never to return. And they ain’t never seen me since. I rolled and rambled on the Atlantic Coast Line railroad in Southside Virginia until I was twenty-nine a year ago. Doing what I might to live and enjoy myself, from hand to mouth.

I neared the end of the line in Portsmouth. A grocer, Charles Wyatt, was robbed and killed, the first week of August 1899. They laid that on me and I had nothing to do with it.

They seized me in Norfolk, gave me a speedy trial, thirty-six witnesses and twelve jurors and sentenced me to hang the twelfth of June 1900. It was then I met that damned Irishmen, Joe Sullivan, in the cell over there. In a way I owe him my life and my death. He passed me a file and for the moment I escaped the hangman’s noose.

So then it became me and Sullivan, partners in crime. He was a tramp like me, him by choice. He could read and write, knew a lot of things in books. I didn’t know what his beef was and I didn’t care. I thought he could help me steal better.

We came west to Belfield, on the other side the River Nottoway. We robbed George Blick and I was satisfied with that. But Sullivan, he wasn’t. Maybe he thought he needed to make an impression. He killed Ol’ Man Blick with a coupling pin, mangled him bad with a heavy steel rod. For sport. It was the damnest thing. I never seen nothing like that, a man pleasuring himself in another man’s suffering. Well, we got out there. That killing created an uproar here in Emporia and the law was on our heels. Out the pan and into the fire.

We hid out in Skippers, in an abandoned barn, about ten miles south of Emporia. One night, I left Sullivan for awhile. I needed to clear my head and went out on my own. We were to meet again back at the barn in a couple of days. I wandered over to Grizzard, east and north of Emporia, not too far from your neck of the woods.

While John Grizzard, his wife, and child slept I broke in, took some clothes, a watch, a pistol. I could have killed all three in their sleep if I had a mind. They never heard a thing. I took my loot and headed back to Skippers. I stopped at a juke joint, got some money, and food for the watch. I danced until I was tired and had a woman to boot. Man, did I have a time of it?

The next night I found Sullivan, sleeping behind a pile of junk, innocent as a babe, wrapped in an old woolen blanket. We talked. He shared my food and a pint of moonshine. We finally dozed off.

I dreamed that night about a woman I had had. I was in her bed while her man was away on a train and we were enjoying ourselves. Oh my God, what a night, what a dream I was having. And then I heard a sound—a squeaking . . . metal against metal. And it got louder and then there was a light, and heavy footsteps. And I woke, my pistol in my hand.

Some confederates thought they had easy money—a thousand dollars on my head. Out of my sleep, I was shooting. Joseph Weldon drew. He was too late. I dropped him where he stood. J.W. Sanders got a bullet in his back and fell dead on his face. J.E. Morris escaped with his life.

I was still standing, just a hole in my hand. But I knew then I was a dead man walking, not worth the clothes on my back. But I was going to give them a run for their money. I hit the tracks and Sullivan went his way.

I got as far as Jarratt, not too far from your church, preacher. Not that far at all. Well, you know the rest.

C.P. Parham and William Moore waited for me on the railroad tracks, like hunters they could scent a nigguh a mile away. They took me up the road to Stony Creek. A bogus telegram arrived, and instead of my going to Petersburg I was taken back to Emporia. I was dragged off the train, the mob ready to kill me, yelling over and over “Lynch the nigger!”

I escaped their clutches with the sheriff into the jailhouse, only a few bruises. Two whites dead in Skippers, the gun that did the deed on me when I was caught. I know I am a dead man. But I tell you, preacher, I am dog tired. I don’t care any more. I am ready to die. I couldn’t live like your Jesus, but I can die like him.

I want to thank you, preacher, for listening to my story. Give Aunt Malviny my regards. Thank her for thinking after me. I appreciate her kind heart.

 *   *   *

Walter Cotton never had a trial, nor did his partner Sullivan. The next day the mob broke in the jail and got Walter first. The sheriff and his deputy didn’t fire a shot, not even a warning shot. In the courtyard, there was about 1500 hundred. Negroes were among them, far in the back. They didn’t utter a word or raise a finger. They stood silent and took their lesson.

I didn’t go back to Emporia while Walter lived. I had had enough of death and dying for one week. But I was told the story of his lynching. Walter walked boldly, erect to the courtyard cherry tree outside the jail, with a mind of one going to meet a lover–his arms tied behind his back, a rope around his neck.

He looked over the assembled crowd, as if he were looking for somebody . . . and smiled. The dogwood was abloom and flowers were on the cherry tree. Several of the mob hoisted him in mid-air. A cry of white joy rose when his body tumbled down. Walter suspended like a scarecrow.

 *   *   *

I did see Walter one more time, later that week. But he was in no shape to talk to me. The good people of Emporia had yet another service for him to perform. They had set him upright against the wall of the hardware store on Main Street in an unpainted box. Passers-by had stripped him near bare—a button, a cut of cloth, sprigs of whiskers, the tip of a finger, an ear, a toe. A photographer took his image!

You just couldn’t escape your fate, could you, Stack-O-Lee of Scotland Neck? His face aglow, innocent as a child. He seemed at peace, now, finally.

I prayed that his soul (that eight-year-old boy) might come to rest in heaven. . . .

Those who read this remembrance, I tell you this story because it’s a story that needs telling, again and again. I tell you because a man’s story needs to be told–even the confessions of a man like Walter Cotton. For every man’s life got some value, even a life steeped in crime.

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update 3 April 2012




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Related files: For Walter Cotton, Outlaw   For Lucy Barrow  Confessions of Walter Cotton  Killing Fiends & Monsters   Nat Turner Sermon 

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