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Odd Wisconsin Archive

The Long Eventful Life of Hattie Pierce

Born into bondage in North Carolina on Jan. 1, 1829, Mrs. Hattie Pierce, of 1442 Williamson St. in Madison, personally experienced the dramatic social upheavals that most of her neighbors only learned about in schoolbooks. By the time she passed away, slavery had become just a distant memory and horse-drawn wagons had given way to jet airplanes.

'Gone with the Wind' Girlhood.

Before the Civil War, she always belonged to same family, who had also owned her parents. "I was never sold at auction or any other way," she recalled. "The man I belonged to didn't sell people. He was a fine man." Besides, she said proudly, "No one in my family was ever sold. They wouldn't ever part with us because we did our work so good. I think hard work is good for anyone."

Her family moved to Freeport, Louisiana, when she was a child, where she later met her husband, John Pierce, another slave. They were married in 1857. She said that when emancipation came at the end of 1863, "It was a big excitement. I was happy because I knew that at last the good Lord had opened a new door for my people." But it also meant turmoil, as life in the South turned upside down. She and her husband wandered from state to state with her former owner, who agreed to pay them $50 for two years of work but was unable to. She kept his I.O.U. for decades.

Reconstruction and Railroads

Eventually the Pierce family returned to Louisiana. Her husband was elected to the state legislature and later became a judge in New Orleans. Hattie, meanwhile, bore and raised 11 children altogether. Her son Sam worked as a Pullman porter on the Chicago to Los Angeles railroad route for many years. In 1908 he was assigned to the Milwaukee-Madison run instead. He brought his wife, son and mother north with him.

Later, Sam worked at the Capitol where, from the Progressive era into the 1930s, he was the personal messenger for governors Blaine, Zimmerman, Kohler and LaFollette.

Lived to be 115

In 1924, when she was 95, Mrs. Pierce decided to try to visit all her grandchildren. She journeyed alone from Madison to the South, criss-crossing the region to visit her descendants. There were more than 50 of them, however, and she returned north without having found them all.

As the years rolled on, she remained in good health, outlived all her children, and eventually became the oldest resident of Madison and Dane Co. During World War II, when she could no longer follow the news herself, she asked her grandson every day if "they had ended their warfare" yet.

In 1932 she told reporters, "I've been in Madison for 25 years, and I like it, so I reckon I'll be here for 10 years more." In fact, she lived long enough to celebrate her 115th birthday on Jan. 1, 1944.

Learn More

For more stories of African-Americans in Wisconsin, read this short essay and follow its link to original photographs and documents.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on February 14, 2013
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