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Julia Cole

Julia Cole (1861-1945) formerly enslaved person who narrated her life in an interview with the U.S. government’s Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930 when she was 78 years old and living in Athens, Georgia. Julia is described by the interviewer as a neat, “yellowish” woman with a “dumpy” figure. At the time of the interview, Julia’s daughter, Rosa Woodall, was a domestic worker who cooked for a local dentist’s family. Julia, reportedly eager to share all that she could, told the interviewers that she was born Julia Johnson in Monroe, Georgia, to her mother Mittie Johnson; she does not remember her father. One of her grandfather’s was named Abram. Census records state that both of Julia’s parents were born in Georgia. Though she does not mention a year of birth in her interview, a woman named Julia Johnson living in Athens appears in the 1880 federal census aged 20. Other records found on Ancestry.com report her birth year as 1852, 1857, 1860, and 1861. The latter year is listed on her gravestone.

Like her mother, Mittie Johnson, Julia, her younger sister Hattie Johnson, and her elder brothers Richard and Thomas Grant were all owned by John Grant. Julia identifies her former owner’s family, the Grants, as rich people with “a heap of slaves.” She further highlighted the Grants’ wealth by revealing that they gifted the city of Atlanta 100 acres of former Cherokee land in 1883, thus developing what is now Atlanta’s oldest city park. 

Julia describes life on the Grant plantation as pleasant and untroubled, though she was a young child, aged between 5 and 13, at the end of the war and the passage of the 15th amendment abolishing slavery. Critics of the Federal Slave Narrative project have suggested that some respondents depicted their experiences under slavery as benign, particularly when interviewed by white people as was the case in Julia Cole’s interview. She fondly remembers the Grants as “good white folks” who had no jails on their land and never had to call on slave patrollers because they reportedly treated their human property so well that no enslaved person had the urge to run North. This is not to say, however, that there were no punitive measures in place. Instead, Julia reports, whether from direct experience or family lore is uncertain, that John Grant looked to a Black man named Uncle Jim Cooper to issue corporal punishments like whippings. Further describing paternalistic owners, Julia recalled the quality of her clothing, food, and everyday life. She remembered wearing well-made homespun clothes, dresses with belts, and brass-toed shoes. She also recounted eating dinners of meat, vegetables, and cornbread and being treated with herbs like Jerusalem oak seed when she or other enslaved persons were unwell. She reports that her “Missus” taught the enslaved children to spell and made them run as punishment for not remembering their vocabulary words. 

The U.S. Civil War apparently brought disruption to the pleasant portrait that Julia paints of life on the Grant plantation. Some time during the war, Julia reports that “Lincoln’s general”—possibly William Tecumseh Sherman on his march through Georgia—showed up to their plantation on a grand red horse. Union soldiers came looking for her owner John, who had hidden himself in the loft of the meat house and demanded that no one tell soldiers of his whereabouts. With John hiding out, soldiers instead took his son Willie—which Julia reports devastated his parents. Union soldiers also helped themselves to the supplies of the smokehouses and stores on the plantation. While the Grants experienced the loss of their son during the Civil War, Julia would experience her own loss as the war neared its end. She informs interviewers that her mother died of measles near the end of the war and the Grants obliged all of Mittie’s last wishes for her funerary arrangements. 

After the war ended, Julia’s family was split apart and she began her own life anew in Athens, Georgia. Julia’s former owner John Grant moved his family to Atlanta. Although the Grants no longer had possession of their former slaves, they continued to exert an influence. Julia’s sister Hattie also moved with the Grants to the growing city. Separated from her sister, Julia took a covered wagon to Athens with her uncle Jordan Johnson. She would also be separated from her brother Thomas, who she reports became captain of a “colored troop” and served in the Philippines. Julia is likely referring to the all-Black unit of soldiers known as “Buffalo Soldiers” by Indigenous American tribes, which was organized in 1866 as an extension of the all-Black 10th Calvary Regiment of the U.S. Army and was eventually deployed to the Philippines during that island’s war for Independence in 1898-99. Julia shares that she was eventually hired out to the Marks family and would marry twice. Her first marriage was to a man named Crit Clayton and her second was to Andrew Cole. Records in Ancestry.com show that Julia and Andrew married in December 1890. Julia remembers fondly the beautiful flowery wedding dress she wore in her marriage to her first husband. She identifies Andrew as the father of her seven children, out of whom only four were alive at the time of her interview. Andrew died prior to the 1910 Census, which lists Julia as head of her household and working as a cook in a family home. A 1926 city directory for Athens states that Julia was working as a laundress at that time. Records show that one son, Will Cole, born in 1897, joined the Great Migration north during the 1920s and died in Detroit, Michigan, in 1930. In 1945, about eight years after the FWP interview, Julia died at 84 years old of unreported causes. She is buried in Athens, Clarke County, Georgia at the Brooklyn Cemetery. At the present time, there are no records of surviving descendants. 

Online Resources

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938. https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/about-this-collection/

 “Julia Cole, Athens, Georgia” Narrative. https://www.loc.gov/resource/mesn.041/?st=pdf&pdfPage=236&r=-0.295%2C-0.08%2C1.591%2C1.591%2C0

Julia Cole, Ancestry.com. https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/discoveryui-content/view/37010339:7602


Marasigan, Cynthia L. “Between the Devil and the Deep Sea”: Ambivalence, Violence, and African American Soldiers in the Philippine-American War and Its Aftermath. Ph.D dissertation, University of Michigan, 2010.


Mohr, Clarence L. On the Threshold of Freedom: Masters and Slaves in Civil War Georgia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001. 


Morey, Michael. Fagen: An African American Renegade in the Philippine-American War. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2019.


Jada Similton

"Negro Village in Georgia", Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, accessed November 9, 2022, http://slaveryimages.org/s/slaveryimages/item/1362

Key Events


Julia Cole was born to Mittie Johnson and an unknown father in Monroe, Georgia.

April 12, 1861

The beginning of the Civil War breaks out as Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina's Charleston Harbor.

January 1, 1863

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared freedom for all enslaved persons in Confederate states.

During Civil War

A Union general descends upon the Grant plantation where Julia lives searching for her owner, John Grant. According to Julia Cole’s account, his son Willie is taken in his place.

Near End of Civil War

Julia’s mother, Mittie, dies of measles.

Post-Civil War

John Grant moves his family to Atlanta and splits Julia from her sister Hattie.

September 21, 1866

The all-Black, segregated, 10th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Military is formed and would become known as “Buffalo Soldiers” by the Apache Indians they fought against in the American Indian Wars.


Lemuel P. Grant gifts Atlanta 100-acres of Cherokee land to establish Grant park.


Various all-Black units, known as Buffalo Soldiers, were deployed to fight in the Philippine War for Independence. Julia’s brother Thomas Grant was a captain of one of these troops.

Circa 1937

Julia Coles is interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project, which was established by President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Projects Administration to provide employment to struggling writers during the Great Depression.


Julia is buried in Athens, Georgia, in the Brooklyn Cemetery.