Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2015/Fall/Section 018/Jilson Littlejohn

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Jilson Littlejohn
African American slave family on South Carolina cotton plantation, circa 1862.
BornJilson Littlejohn
Union County, South Carolina
Died4 November, 1940 (Age 85)
Atlanta, Georgia
NationalityAfrican American



Jilson Littlejohn (1855-4 November 1940) was an African American preacher in Atlanta, Georgia during the 1930s, and a subject of the Federal Writers' Project during the Great Depression.


Early Life[edit]

Jilson Littlejohn was born in Union County, South Carolina in 1855. He was the third oldest of thirteen children. Because his mother was Indian-African and his father was Spanish-Caucasian, Littlejohn and his family fell victim to racial discrimination and violence. [1] His entire family worked as slaves on a cotton farm in South Carolina under the supervision of a slaveowner who often threatened to whip Littlejohn and his siblings. [2]

While on the cotton plantation, Littlejohn also faced the Ku Klux Klan on multiple occasions. He and his family received repeated threats of violence, and, in the early 1860s, Littlejohn's father was attacked and whipped by members of the Klan. Littlejohn considered running away from the plantation during the majority of his adolescence, but remained on the plantation to "protect his mother, father, and siblings." [3]

Both Littlejohn’s mother and father died while working on the cotton farm. After their deaths, Littlejohn joined a church congregation, but believed he “never quite got religion.” [4]

Life after the Plantation[edit]

After he was emancipated, Littlejohn escaped to Florida where he worked freelance jobs. In 1878, Littlejohn married and African-American woman named Minerva. They moved to Atlanta, Georgia to start a family. Littlejohn bought a plot of land to raise cotton and hired laborers from around the Atlanta area. He made a small profit and opened a brick yard, quickly becoming a skilled bricklayer. [5]

In 1889, Littlejohn worked on the construction of the Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. [6] On his journey back to Atlanta after construction ended he stepped off a train, missed the platform, and his left leg and foot were crushed. Immediately after this injury, Littlejohn began seeing “signs from God, such as writing in the sky or voices from above.” He claimed these messages helped him through his debilitating injury. [7]

Littlejohn became a preacher in Georgia after repeatedly "hearing [his] father guide [him] in the direction of the Church." He remained at the same church in Atlanta, Georgia for forty years. [8]

Jilson Littlejohn died of natural causes on 4 November, 1940 at the age of 85. [9]

Social Issues[edit]

Interracial Marriage in the Reconstruction Era[edit]

During the pre-Civil War era, all southern states prohibited the marriage of free people and enslaved people. These laws effectively eliminated interracial marriage. [10]

However, in 1865 after the Civil War, the number of free African Americans in the South rose by over four million. The Reconstruction Era, which originally aimed to integrate the South after the war, failed. Southern states began to use other methods to keep Blacks and Whites from marrying, including the Black Code. In 1866, the Black Code restricted the rights of formerly enslaved people in an attempt to keep African-Americans an available labor force. These codes targeted African-Americans' rights to own certain types of land, work without contract, and, in Mississippi and South Carolina, marry Whites. [11]

In 1867, Republican rule took Congress and Radical Reconstruction began. In 1869, the new Reconstruction Act forced all states that had adopted Black Codes to rescind them. All states legally recognized African-Americans as citizens with full voting and marriage rights. However, the emergence of the Ku Klux Klan and other anti-immagration organizations kept the majority of African-Americans from pursuing the equal marriage rights until the twentieth century. [12]

In 1876, Reconstruction ended with the Democratic Rule of all southern states. [13]

Emergence of the Ku Klux Klan[edit]

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was initiated in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1866 by six former Confederate soldiers. The original doctrine of the KKK claimed the organization stood for "chivalry, humanity, mercy, and patriotism" across the United States. Members met secretly, disguised in white robes, to discuss current events and the state of the South. [14]

Shortly after the Klan was formed, the group began to act violently and target the freed African-American community. Members began threatening, verbally abusing, and attacking freed and enslaved African Americans. Their cloaks and masks became a defining characteristic of terror, a reminder to African Americans that the Klan's anonymity provided them protection from prosecution by law. [15]

Word of mouth and Confederate newspapers helped the Klan to spread from Tennessee to the entire South. Each new Klan group was an independent entity from the initial KKK, but shared a common objective of terrorizing the Black community. [16]

Because of the extremist tendencies, the Ku Klux Klan lost most of its power by 1871 until its reemergence in the 1920s to promote racist tendencies in America. [17]


  1. Interview of Jilson Littlejohn by Geneva Tonsill, November, 1939, Folder 254, SHC Collection Number: 03709, Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. Interview, Jilson Littlejohn by Geneva Tonsill, November, 1939, Federal Writers' Project Papers, 3398.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 3399.
  5. Ibid., 3400.
  6. Biltmore Estate staff, Six Years & 1,000 Men: Building Biltmore House, 2013, http://www.biltmore.com/media/newsarticle/six-years-1000-men-building-biltmore-house.
  7. Interview, Jilson Littlejohn by Geneva Tonsill, November, 1939, Federal Writers' Project Papers, 3400.
  8. Ibid., 3401.
  9. U.S. Census Bureau. "1910 United States Federal Census." Spartanburg Ward 5, Spartanburg, South Carolina, United States. April 15, 1910.
  10. Peter Wallenstien, Reconstruction, Segregation and Miscegenation: Interracial Marriage and the Law in the Lower South 1865-1900, American Nineteenth Century History, Vol. 6, No. 1, March, 2005, 57-76.
  11. Ibid.
  12. History.com Staff, Reconstruction- American Civil War, A+E Networks, 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/reconstruction.
  13. Ibid.
  14. The Southern Poverty Law Center, Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism (Montgomery, AL, Klanwatch Project), 15-24.
  15. Staff, The Southern Indicator (Savannah, Georgia), 1893, 12.
  16. Larry E. Hudson, To Have and To Hold: Slave Work and Family in Antebellum South Carolina (University of Georgia Press), 1997.
  17. History.com Staff, Black Codes, A+E Networks, 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/black-codes.