Southern Spirits: The Plate-Eye


dogThe Plate-Eye is a type of disembodied spirit of one who have been murdered and which are known for its shape-shifting powers. They are characterized by their large glowing eyes which are said to be as “big as a plate and blood red.”  Another curious characteristic of a Plate-Eye is that there is usually something off or wrong about whatever form they assume. For example, a Plate-Eye taking the form of a dog may appear to have been run over by a vehicle.

Plate-Eyes were prevalent just after the Civil War, but their roots likely go back farther than that. Southern lore dictates that during the war, wealthy slave-owners, worried about losing their fortunes, buried their treasure in dark woods or marshy swamps. To protect their treasures until they could reclaim it, the vicious slave-owners would behead a slave (probably the one who dug the hole) and bury it as a warning to anyone who would attempt to steal their treasure. It was a common belief among many of the slaves that one’s spirit dwelt in the head, and so soon arose tales of a haint (ghost) that harassed people who came near the site of their death.

During the Great Depression, the United States Government commissioned the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) in an effort to aid unemployed writers and fund their work. Over a period of two years from the mid 1930’s Genevieve W. Chandler, interviewed over 100 individuals in the South Carolina Low Country as part of the FWP. In May of 1936 Genevieve interviewed Addie Knox, a Gullah woman, who describes her encounter with a Plate-Eye. Similar to the Hyatt material, the story is written semi-phonetically and can be somewhat difficult to read.

Addie Knox describes how while walking home one evening around dusk she passes by a graveyard and enters into the dark woods nearby. At one point she comes upon a fallen cypress tree blocking her path on top of which a bull frog is sitting. Addie explains that she sees the frog turn into a series of animals that get progressively larger including a cooter (turtle), and a black cat. Addie strikes the Plate-Eye with a stick several times and runs away as the Plate-Eye chases after her getting bigger and bigger. She is finally able to get away from the dreaded spirit by showing no fear and trusting in God.

According to the Gullah, the Plate-Eye cannot abide foul odors (a trait that they also assign to the Boo-Hag) and so to ward against it people would often carry a mixture of equal parts gun-powder and sulfur in a small burlap sack with them to ward the Plate-Eye away.

So the next time you’re traveling down some lonely back road in the dark of the evening and see some poor animal in distress think twice before you draw too close because you might find yourself face to face with the dreaded Plate-Eye!

–Carolina Dean

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The Underground Railroad and Freedom Riders on the Same Road to Liberation


Harriet Tubman aka Mama Moses

Harriet Tubman aka Mama Moses

She was born a slave and severely abused by Massa, yet; she never gave up the fight. In fact, she not only refused to give up, she won the fight for freedom, and brought more than 70 slaves to freedom with her.

Tubman  suffered severe head trauma as an adolescent that left her with life long debilitating temporal lobe damage (Larson, 2004). It is said that she refused to help restrain another slave so that he could be beaten because he had left the fields without permission. The other slave ran away and as he did so, his Massa threw a heavy weight at him which missed him and hit Tubman instead, cracking open her skull.  She was left without medical treatment for two days and sent back to work in the fields. For the rest of her life, she suffered from disabling seizures, narcoleptic attacks, and headaches. She also experienced powerful dreams and visions, which she considered to be divine revelations from God.

Harriet Tubman, also known as Mama Moses, is known mostly for her humanitarian and anti slavery efforts.  She escaped slavery in 1849 and went straight to Philadelphia, where she rescued her family. Using the safe houses and antislavery activists that comprised the Underground Railroad, she brought family members and dozens of others, one group at a time in the dark of night, out of the state and into freedom. It is said that Mama Moses never lost a passenger (Lowry, 2008).

Notice published in the Cambridge Democrat (1849), offering a reward for the return of Harriet Tubman and her two brothers

Notice published in the Cambridge Democrat (1849), offering a reward for the return of Harriet Tubman and her two brothers

Large rewards were offered for the return of many of the fugitive slaves, but no one then knew that Mama Moses was the one helping them. When the Southern-dominated Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, requiring law officials in free states to aid efforts to recapture slaves, she helped guide fugitives farther north into Canada, where slavery was prohibited.

Volume 2 of Hoodoo and Conjure Quarterly features an article about Harriet Tubman by new contributor Witchdoctor Utu. Utu is the founder of the Dragon Ritual Drummers, the Niagara Voodoo Shrine, and is a member and drummer for the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple. Utu has a unique perspective on the conjure tradition as it was brought  to and developed in Canada.

As one who lives and works at the “end of the Railroad”  so to speak here in St. Catharines Ontario Canada, I have a rather unique perspective on the traditions of Hoodoo, Voodoo and the conjuring ways of  the North American tradition. It is here that many of the freedom seeking slaves brought with them, across the U.S. border and into my region in Niagara, via the Underground Railroad,  an entirely distinctive brand of conjure.  Harriet Tubman, the legendary conductor of the clandestine movement that brought  several hundred people to freedom in St. Catharines alone, resided here for many years… While Quakers and Christians of a few sects were supporters and enablers of the cause, the religious and spiritual nature of those that made the journey over the years was as diverse and colorful as the quilts that came to symbolize the movement. Indeed, many of the freedom seekers were renowned root doctors and conjurers, and like Harriet Tubman herself, diviners. Spells of  invisibility, protection, and animal totemic magick  were common and paramount to each and every journey. At the height of the movement, there was a bounty on her head  for $40,000 dead or alive. Harriet began to be known as “The Moses of her people”  later becoming known as “Black Moses” and now more commonly as “Mama Moses”.

One of the unique traditions presented in the article is the reverence for Mama Moses and her followers. According to Utu, when you need to break free of a situation, when you want justice served, when you want to attain more knowledge of the mysteries of the swamps and marsh, or when you simply want to honor a legendary spirit who divined and conjured her way to freedom never to be caught, developing a relationship with Mama Moses is the ticket.

I am  deeply touched by the story of Mama Moses and grateful for this unique conjure tradition that is shared with us by Utu. Details about Mama Moses, building a shrine to her and suggestions for honoring her and her followers are provided in Volume 2 of Hoodoo & Conjure Quarterly, which will be out next month.

Ninety-eight years after the death of Mama Moses, the fight for freedom and equality was still going strong. A court ruling had passed desegregating interstate transportation and hundreds of people fighting for freedom rode through the south on buses to test the new law. Those who rode the buses were called Freedom Riders.

Fifty years ago, the Freedom Riders arrived on buses to New Orleans and were greeted at their destinations by angry, violent mobs. Yesterday, five of the original Freedom Riders stepped off the bus onto the paved streets of the Crescent City. This time, “they were greeted with music and thunderous applause” (Urbaszewski, 2011). My, the times they are a changin’.

Read more about the arrival of five of the original Freedom Riders in New Orleans on May 16th, 2011 at NOLA.com.

References

Larson, K. C. (2004). Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York: Ballantine Books

Lowry, Beverly (2008). Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life. Random House.

Utu. W. (in press). Harriet Tubman and the conjure tradition of the underground railroad. In D. Alvarado and S. Marino (Eds). Hoodoo and Conjure Quarterly, Vol 2. (pp. 36-42). Prescott Valley, AZ: Planet Voodoo.

Urbaszewski, K. (2011, May 16). After 50 years, 5 original Freedom Riders arrive in New Orleans. The Times-Picayune. Retrieved May 17, 2011 from:  http://www.nola.com/news/index.ssf/2011/05/after_50_years_five_original_f.html