Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Henry Baysmore
|Other names||"Uncle Henry"|
|Occupation||Fortune Teller and Conjurer|
|Known for||Federal Writers Project|
Henry Baysmore (unknown-unknown) was an African American fortune teller and conjurer in Montgomery, Alabama at the time of the Great Depression. He was interviewed by Adelaide Rogers for the Federal Writers Project.
Baysmore spent much of his early life working a tenant farmer and “trying to please white folks.” Little is known about Baysmore’s family, and whether what he accounted in his Federal Writers Project interview is true. According to Baysmore, he was married at least once and fathered 2 daughters. Baysmore was angry at his youngest daughter because she “went outer hit wid dat no-count gamblin’ nigger fum Wilcox county” and loved his eldest daughter, saying he is willing nearly all of his possessions to her. At the time of his Federal Writers Project interview, Baysmore had been a widower for 20 years, and both of his daughters no longer lived with him. Baysmore’s peers claimed a different story about his life. According to them, Baysmore’s real name is Henry White, and that he ran away from Texas after getting in trouble with the law. Baysmore’s peers also had a different belief on his family. They said Baysmore’s eldest daughter was a figment of his imagination and that his wife did not die, but left him for another man. Baysmore maintained these claims were fraudulent and refused to answer any questions about his early life that could reveal the truth.
After quitting tenant farming, Baysmore worked on the railroads as a foreman. An encounter with a group of traveling gypsies while working on the railroads led Baysmore to become a fortune teller and conjurer. The gypsies told Baysmore’s fortune, which Baysmore later confirmed as accurate. Baysmore noticed that the chief gypsy’s foot was swollen due to infection and told the gypsy how to cure it with herbal medicines. The gypsy was pleased and thanked Baysmore by teaching him how to read other’s fortunes. With this new knowledge of fortune telling, Baysmore moved to Montgomery, Alabama and opened his own fortune telling and conjure shop. The reason behind this drastic change in Baysmore’s life was his desire to be truly independent of White people. Baysmore acknowledges that “instead of white folks working him, he works white folks.” It is unclear how long Baysmore lived in Montgomery before being interviewed by the Federal Writers Project. During his time living in Montgomery, Baysmore built a vast clientele of both Whites and African Americans and made an average of 100 dollars a month from fortune telling alone. 100 dollars is the equivalent of about 1,700 dollars in 2017, so Baysmore made a decent living for himself during the Depression. According to Baysmore, he was very skilled at his craft and it was evident he learned various ways to scam people for money, including overcharging customers due to precognition, continually charging to keep conjures active, and selling "lucky" powders. Baysmore also learned how to deal with Whites, who oftentimes threatened to throw him in jail for lying to them. Baysmore was a deeply religious man and believed in the Christian doctrine. Baysmore claimed “Dey’s makin’ a place fur me on Golden Row in Heaben” and talked about what Heaven would be like in his Federal Writers Project interview. Baysmore focused on Heaven and eternal life to look beyond the suffering he has endured throughout his lifetime.
Race and the Legal Justice System
The 1930’s offered no change in the treatment African American’s living in the South suffered from in the 1920’s rise in racism. Many southern Whites throughout every class and social status were still unwilling to accept that African Americans were free and equal. People expressed their anger by joining organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which experienced a revival in the 1920’s. Voter suppression caused southern courts justice seats to be occupied by people who sought to reinforce institutionalized racism and punish African Americans. A historical example of judicial discrimination and miscarriage in the Depression-era South was the case of the Scottsboro Boys. This case demonstrated that African Americans had to be extremely careful when dealing with southern Whites because the court systems would nearly always side with a White person’s account. Southern justices imposed harsh, unfair punishments on accused African American’s, death was often the penalty given. Many White southerners also took the law into their own hands through extralegal lynching, with southern judges and police officers not caring. It wouldn’t be until the Civil Rights Movement era that African Americans would finally receive equal treatment in the legal justice system.
The Importance of Fortune Telling and Conjuring in the Depression Era
Fortune tellers and conjurers have been important to African American communities since the era of slavery. These people provided a spiritual outlet to African American’s in times of hardship. The Great Depression saw many Americans lose their money, jobs, and property. The Roosevelt administration’s relief plan called for the creation of government programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide jobs for unemployed workers. However, due to the discrimination of the time, these government programs were disproportionately servicing Whites over African Americans. African Americans in Alabama and other southern states suffered even more because of the lack of public shelters for the homeless. Fortune tellers and conjurers played an important role in providing hope to African American’s suffering from the Depression. African American’s in the Depression used fortune tellers and conjurers mostly for spiritual purposes, such as conjuring a dead loved, prophecy healings, and giving hope to those suffering, rather than asking about material possessions.
- Rogers, Adelaide. n.d. “Gab’ul, Chune Dat Hap!” Federal Writers Project Papers. 1936-1940. The Wilson Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- Bond, Horace Mann. 1938. “Social and Economic Forces in Alabama Reconstruction.” The Journal of Negro History 23 (3). http://www.jstor.org/stable/2714686.
- 1932. “The Traveler: Seen and Unseen During the Depression.” The Philadelphia Tribune, April 21, 1932. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/531265060?accountid=14244.
- Howe, David Ward. 1939. “The Observation Post: The Depression Has Not Seriously Retarded Race Progress.” The Chicago Defender (National Edition), February 4, 1939. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/492625441?accountid=14244.
- Johnson, Roberta Ann. 2010. “African Americans and Homelessness: Moving Through History.” Journal of Black Studies 40 (4). http://www.jstor.org/stable/40648529.
- Rucker, Walter. 2001. “Conjure, Magic, and Power: The Influence of Afro-Atlantic Religious Practices on Slave Resistance and Rebellion.” Journal of Black Studies 32 (1). http://www.jstor.org/stable/2668016.