Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/"Uncle" Henry Rayamore
“Uncle” Henry Rayamore was an African-American sharecropper during the Reconstruction Era turned fortune-teller right before the the Great Depression in Alabama. He fathered two daughters and left a legacy of entrepreneurship. Most of what one can know about Rayamore comes from an interview he did for the Federal Writer’s Project. Due to the limited information regarding “Uncle” Henry Rayamore, most of his personal information such as his early life and the details regarding his family and death are either un-verified or non-existent.
|"Uncle" Henry Rayamore|
Rayamore worked as a sharecropper on cotton plantations eventually gaining the rank of foreman. Because the work was hard, Rayamore looked for other opportunities. His first attempt to escape sharecropping involved becoming a preacher. Rayamore knew the Bible well and took his religious duties seriously, but as a preacher, his responsibilities involved working with widows while also abstaining from sex. This was an issue according to Rayamore, “but if you have ever been nequainted wid any widows you knows a preacher can't visit 'em an' keep his-sel'f unspotted. It can’t be did. So I give up de preachin’ and went back to farmin on shares and singing all day.”
Upon meeting a “passel” full of gypsies, Raymore learned how to tell fortunes and abandoned his sharecropping career. The gypsies taught Rayamore to conjure because Rayamore gave the head gypsy medical advice he desperately needed to fix his infected leg. As a token of his gratitude, he taught Rayamore how to "conjure." Rayamore now having new skills as a fortune-teller moved to Montgomery, Alabama to open up a shop as an herb doctor, fortune-teller, and “conjure-man.” Rayamore learned that fortune telling could make way more money than herb selling “Niggers won't pay out half dollar fur no herb medicine. But dey’ll open' five or ten dollars fur to git somebody cunjurod. Dey'll go on payin' too, munt after munt, yer after yer fur to keep dat spell fasten on some person dat dey hates” Moreover, to maintain an illness Rayamore had inflicted on someone, or to keep the spell in effect, Rayamore would charge fifty cents a week. Some spells lasted over fifteen years. He not only realized the change in what his costumers wanted, but also which customers paid the most. Fortune-telling became more profitable for Rayamore when he began working with both emotionally and fiscally insecure white women. The majority of his clients’ concerns revolved around inheritance or insurance money. These conjure cases brought in a hundred dollars a month, and Rayamore also found powder selling to be worthwhile. His stock included, the very popular, “Get-Away’ powder from Memphis, “Charm-You” powder, New Orleanian “Young Blush” powder and “Adam-and-Eve” root. His main customers for powders, while popular with most of his clients, were widows looking for a man. Rayamore found white women to be the most profitable consumer but also the most condescending. However, he took joy in the fact that these women were dependent on him and consistently brought in more and more clients.
“Uncle” Henry Rayamore spoke at length about his religious beliefs and how much he looks forward to going to heaven. Acting in accordance with some undisclosed form of Christianity, Rayamore did not see his spirituality as in conflict with his religion.
Black Spiritualist movement
The Black Spiritualist Movement began in 1922 when the National Spiritualist Association of Churches kicked black members out due to Jim Crow laws and segregation. Spiritualism is the belief that the living can communicate with the dead usually through a medium. The Black Spiritualist Movement combined spiritual beliefs in conjuring with Protestant and Catholic influences. During the early 20th century, a long debate over the legality and ethics of fortune-telling raged across the United States. Because fortune-telling was understood by the law to be impossible, the American government questioned the legitimacy of fortune-tellers, yet the American public ignored the law and higher academia and pursued conjurings. In the Texas Penal Code, Article 60 7 under the heading of "Vagrancy" it says, "the following persons are and shall be punished as Vagrants" including "all companies of gypsies, who, in whole or in part, maintain themselves by telling fortunes, " (Paragraph 7, Article 607), as well as "all persons who advertise and maintain themselves in whole or in part as clairvoyants or foretellers of future events, or as having supernatural knowledge with respect to present or future conditions, transactions, happenings or events." (Paragraph 13, Article 607). However, in the 1970s such laws were ruled unconstitutional. The state was usually incapable of prosecuting fortune-tellers because of the possibility of the “medium” being convinced of their abilities and the difficulties in regulating the practice. Multiple sources show that the key consumer was young women, and conjuring often involved the use of a crystal ball.
Sharecropping is a term used to describe tenant farming were tenants farm land owned by a plantation owner, in which the tenants keep some of the profit for themselves and give the rest to the landowner. Sharecropping swept the American South after the abolition of slavery and allowed both white and black low-income farmers to earn money. The landowner provided land, housing, tools, and seed to the tenants in return for a percentage of the produce. While sharecropping was considered by tenants to be better than slavery, it came with many disadvantages; the most important being a lack of literacy. Without the ability to read and write, many African Americans were unable to find better job opportunities. Sharecropping ultimately declined due to a mass exodus of blacks leaving the American South for opportunities in the American North following World War One. Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered another powerful blow to sharecroppers when the Agricultural Adjustment Administration gave subsidies to landowners, which created less demand for tenant farmers.
- Interview. Adelaide Rodgers on “Uncle” Henry Rayamore. Folder 72. Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940. Wilson Library. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Baer, Hans A. (1984). The Black Spiritual Movement: A Religious Response to Racism. University of Tennessee Press.
- Carroll, Bret E. (1997). Spiritualism in Antebellum America. (Religion in North America.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 248.
- Gordon, William P. Gypsie Fortune-Telling in Houston. Rice University (1973): 12
- Lee, Blewett. "The Fortune-Teller." Virginia Law Review 9, no. 4 (1923): 249-66. doi:10.2307/1064993.
- Brown, William Wells. Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave: Written by Himself. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library, 2011. Accessed September 28, 2017.
- Marable, Manning. "The Politics of Black Land Tenure: 1877-1915." Agricultural History 53, no. 1 (1979): 142-52.
- Phillips, Kenneth. Sharecropping and Tenant Farming in Alabama. Encyclopedia of Alabama