1918 - 1999

Asberry Davis

Holly Hill, South Carolina

    I was born in Garnett, South Carolina, Hampton County, down by Savannah, Georgia, in 1918. I been living in this place, Boyer, out of Holly Hill, since 1959.

    When I was little, my mother was sick a lot, and I had to stay home, take care of her, and missed most of the schooling. School back in that country at that time didn't run but three months out of the twelve, noway. When I did get to school I had to walk about six miles. Wasn't no school bus then. Many of the little blacks had to walk seven, eight miles, or more, look at the school bus pass by, white children on it. School buses wasn't comfortable as is now, but better than walking. Bus's body was old wood. Wood seats. No heater when it's cold. But we'd rode it if we could. That's back about '22 or so, I'm talking.

    First work I was doing: minding cattles—big ones, little ones. I was about eleven years old in Estill, next town to Garnett in Hampton County. Then I went to working on a farm about five years. Left there, went to working for a lumber company. Got off from that, went to working on a state highway. Helped build 1-95 out there. Then the railroad, Atlantic Coast Line. It's Seaboard Coast Line now. So many scatterings of jobs I'd work on less than two months and go on to something else. Never settled into nothing. Never liked any of it much.

    The Atlantic Coast Line was paying big money at that time. That's why I kept at it there. Seventy-five cents an hour. All the other jobs was a whole lot less than that. Atlantic Coast Line in 1947 had a crooked foreman from Birmingham, Alabama. He stuck me for a whole payroll. Wasn't nothing I could do about my money, and I never did get it. That's the last time anybody stuck me out of my work money. You know, ain't no good working when you don't trust him that you work for.

    I been making stuff since I moved out here in 1959. The first time I tried to build some important thing was the grave for Ella Riley. That was '73. Ella Riley, some people call her "Mother Ella," the old lady I took in, lived in this place. She fixed up herself a place in those woods back there.

    Her husband, Abraham Riley, died six or seven years before she died. They lived in the quarters right near the cement plant right up until he died. She lived by herself about two years. She was an old lady having it pretty hard, and I was here by myself and said I'll take her in. She was a lot of help to me for three or four years, and then she died. Ella Riley had always wanted to go back to her home county, Beaufort County. That's where she say she want to get buried. When she came sick she say to me, "You done had so much trouble with me, after I die just bury me wherever you want to."

    It was bad weather when this lady died. It was in the month of February 1973. It was snowing. Biggest snow in this county come when she was laying up in the funeral home. Couldn't nobody get buried because of the snow, six or seven bodies backed up at that home. Snow high up on the ground. We had intended to bury her in a different cemetery, but that was a bad place. Some people get bogged down, being near the swamp. Somebody said, "Briner Church is a good place, on a hill." That's how she got to Briner's cemetery. They say Briner's used to be a white folks' church but they turned it over to the colored.

    Ella Riley had done told me, "I got all these things in there, my possessions, I want you to put it on my grave. You got to do that." So I built her this thing out of all of it, gave it a fence, a gate, a regular little place for her. Arranged all of her possessions.

    She had bought some cloth from a lady in Orangeburg about a month before she died. I put it all right there around the cypress tombstone I carved for the front of the grave. I made one at the back, too. I been back over there a couple of times to straighten up, but mostly I just leave them alone.

    Before I came to this place here, there was a church, many years a church, goes all the way back to slave times. This place was given for that reason. It is a place of God. It is near a place where the railroad track and the drain creek cross the highway It have had many pastors. It was a church in the outdoors. Peoples, colored and white ones, have come here to pray. I was the last pastor. I'm the last man and the oldest one living, if any's living at all. I can't think of one still living that used to come here. The church got destroyed. I was in the hospital, and robbers tear down the place, took everything. Tear down the concrete altar, took the money—about twenty-five thousand dollars. I figure they come for the money, then destroy the whole place to get rid of all the evidence. They stole all the books and paperwork and three old Bibles, all the church records and information, something in it concern every one of the pastors.

    I was in the hospital. One of the head nurses ask me, 'You been operated on and here for three, four days. Did you give anybody authority to bother anything you left at the church?" I say, "No, nobody." She say, "They down there tearing down the whole place." I got out of there and rode my bicycle straight here to church. It was a mighty cold night I come up on the robbers unexpectedly. The nurse lady had said, 'You'll know them all when you see them." I know all them except two of them. They had drove their automobiles up in these woods and was hauling out anything that could be hauled: the seats, the altars, the things I had done put up, every bit—even the bathtub that sit out there. I had a good bathtub out here before. A house had burned down and I bought the bathtub from the people. It was good as new. I had put it up as extra room, they call it an anteroom, on the altar. That was it, the end of the church. I had got inspired to put my place right back here by the church. I was so disgusted when I got the news. But I never looked back. That was in the ‘70s.

    I was contacted by angels from heaven about 1995, down there between Dorchester and Colleton County late one night. I came in contact with a group. I thought it was regular people. I was riding my bike, and a flying object followed me—object about as big as a buzzard, with lights all over. It agitated me all the way from St. George to Walterboro. People was parked all along the road and ask me if I seen that bird thing. I was wishing it would tangle with some of them people in cars and stop bothering me. Then I came upon what appeared to be a man motioning to me to come over. He was walking on the side of the road, and I was riding when I saw him. This person appeared to me, and I put on my brakes. I said, "Yeah?" when I pulled up to him. He said, "What you doing?" I said, "Traveling." He ask me some other little questions like how far and how fast I'm traveling. I thought it was a man, ordinary, but after, I said in my mind, That was an angel. It worried me in my mind, you know. I just wasn't sure.

    It tackled me again in 1996. This here had appeared to be a man and a woman. They asked me how far had I come from. I told them I generally ride about eighty miles a day; after eighty miles I get too tired. He asked me was I hungry, and I said, "Not hungry. Tired."

    The man said to me, "Follow us. We got a special place to take you.”

    I said, "I'm tired now. I'm going to lay down right here." I was by a cemetery next to a big old church. He said, "Lie here. I'll bring you something to eat.”

    I wasn't expecting them to come back, but he come back in about fifteen minutes. Brought me three containers of food. I was surprised. People who say they are going to give you something to eat usually do not. He said, "When you get through, you can leave the containers or take them with you." I kept the three containers, got them here now. When you get food from heaven, you keep the containers.

    Next to the cemetery by that old church there was a big bulletin board. Wrote on the bulletin board was "Welcome to the dead and the ignorant."

    I was ordained by the angel about one o'clock at night in the middle of the road. Ordained to put those things out here by the railroad tracks at the crossing. It has a lot to do with where it is, near that railroad track and those woods. I met some people about a hundred years old when I first come up here. They say it could have been there two hundred years, the railroad tracks.

    I make things also to dress up in. Different things can give me different strengths. I wear certain things every day, and I keep some for special days or needs. When I dress up in a full outfit, you'd say, "Where the devil did this man come from?”

    I got this bracelet set I wear every day, This here, this iron one right here, is made of a German steel; you can't cut it with a blowtorch. The rest is rubber—hard rubber. I'm not a violent person, but if you come in contact with a person who wants to be violent, I can hit him around the head with these. It ain't going to kill him, but he will fall down and not come back too quick.

    I got these things I make—rubber circles, leather—all wrapped up and tied up with the cloth from my old clothes and stuff I find and pick up. You can pull it over your head and wear it around your neck like a collar, or put it on below your feet, go all the way up around you. I call these things a "belt assembly." One of them here is made out of this old chain and a money purse, with iron and rubber. It has its special time, too.

    I hang the wearing things on the trees. I got my reasons why I do things but I don't always talk about it. I got hats hanging, hats I have made, what I call a "scat." A scat is something that ain't worth much of nothing, make you look ugly or funny. That belt I'm wearing look like the devil. I ain't made it for no good looks, noway. The devil come and claim his own.

    A man got to know his power, got to test his strength. I have thought up some ways for doing that. I made up these games, you know, one man pull against another man. One man put his strength against another one and his mind against another man's mind. I made these things for different games like that—sometimes four men pulling for strength.

    I used to work at a lumber company and use their machines. They had this one, called it "Highball 99." It pulled logs. Last one I seen operating was in 1938. It give me the idea for something I named the "pulling rig." Each man have one of these poles, about fifteen feet apart. Each one pull the other, with a "royal stake" in the middle. The man that pull the other to the royal stake, holding him there for five minutes, he the one wins. Sometimes it come out tie—tie, neither one defeat the other.

    The pulling rigs is all different, but all of them got things that represent strength. Same with the equipment I call the "stretchers." They are solid steel rods, decorated and helped with other stuff and weigh similar—seventy, eighty pounds. The weight of it is the life of it. When you know how to use it, when you getting pulled to defeat, you plant the bottom forks in the ground and you can't be pulled no farther. Your man got to give up.

    When you rig up in the pulling gear and you go out not to be defeated, I got this special belt assembly you wear, the orange one. I been defeated about once or twice, exactly don't remember. A man don't want to be defeated. You go to a ball game and look at the man who's been defeated, he's all downhearted. The winner is happy.

    I'm eighty years young now and never met a man that can stand with me. But the Bible say one must not praise ourself, let others do it. I ride my bicycle every day. I ride to Charleston, Columbia, Savannah. I know all the roads. I go around and pick up things, and I make things. I pick up different objects, might be a little wrench, might be a big piece of iron. First thing pop in your mind when you see something: "What it good for? What might it be used for?" You got to be your own judge on that. You got to wrestle with the problem of what can be taken. And some things you react to it according to the way the general public feel about it. You got to decide what the people going to think when they see something, what you want them to think. What you think about it your own self. I don't know exactly what is in the books out there, but I know something about what things mean. I think soberly but not too highly.

    I make things just to amuse me, that's all. There's billions of people in the world. No two are alike. You run your own way.

    Taken from interviews with Asberry Davis by William Arnett in 1998.

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

    Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

    Completing the two-volume set, "Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 2" takes the visual and historical presentation of the first volume to a richer level, offering an even broader array of artistic styles and media. Breaking away from the stereotypes that identity folk art and the South with rural, isolated, static and agrarian ways of life, these pages unveil an art that embodies social change and continues to flourish at the dawn of a new century.


    William Arnett

    Asberry Davis was born in Hampton County, near the southern tip of South Carolina, less than fifty miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Along that coast, extending from South Carolina down through Georgia, are the barrier islands, home of black peoples known as the Gullah, an isolated group that has long provided evidence of African cultural survivals in the New World. Davis found employment opportunities scarce in Hampton County, so he took the advice of friends and headed north. He had little education, virtually no travel money, and as he went further inland his coastal black dialect became increasingly difficult for whites to understand. (A documentary film about Davis would probably need to use subtitles.) The place he stopped lies near the Congaree Swamp, soupy terrain whose abundant traditional African American folklore was immortalized in literature in the early twentieth century.

    Davis tried a number of jobs, but none suited him. He found the work unchallenging, the pay inadequate, and the employers seldom trustworthy. His aversion to or suspicion of the labor system resulted in an uncomplimentary nickname, "Slackmore," or "Slackmo," as it is pronounced in the community. Although Davis does not appreciate the nickname, he can smile about it. "I used to work in a sawmill. They the ones started to call me Slackmo. It's okay." Slackmo is a folk legend in the area, but few know his real name.

    Lodging was cheap around the lumber camps, railroad yards, and construction sites where Davis sometimes found employment. But without a dependable income, Davis decided that he should find living accommodations where he could not be evicted. He located an isolated grove of trees located at the confluence of a rural road, a railroad track, and a creek, and he settled—or squatted—on the property. A winding dirt path some two hundred yards long became the only connection between Davis and the world outside his woods.

    That grove had long been a meeting ground, a de facto church, for former slaves—and sympathetic whites, it was said-and later for residents (of both races) of this rural community. Davis eventually took on the role of the grove's "pastor." He ministered to a group of devotees whose number dwindled over the years until the church was destroyed by burglars. Davis stayed, however, and lived for over twenty years in an abandoned ice-cream wagon, the kind that, when functioning, shows up with ringing bells in neighborhoods full of children. That homestead was also destroyed in the summer of 1998 by would-be thieves who suspected that Davis had a stash of money hidden inside. (He did not.)

    Ella Riley was a local woman whose husband was an employee of the nearby cement factory. After the husband died in the late 1960s, Davis, attempting to end his loneliness and hers, invited Mrs. Riley, twenty-seven years his senior, to move onto his land with him. Together they built for her a one-room residence of wood and cardboard in a cavelike arbor of trees. Ella Riley died in 1973. Davis found a suitable burial spot and, in accordance with her deathbed request, created a sort of mausoleum containing all of her worldly possessions carefully arranged within a rectangular, fenced enclosure. The structure measured approximately eighteen feet long, ten feet across, and over seven feet high. It was built with materials that also had belonged to Ella Riley: a section of picket fence (painted white with blue spots); chicken wire; four posts (painted white) with metal caps; and other fence components such as wood boards and rails, metal grills, and various decorative elements.

    An inventory of Ella Riley's possessions in Asberry Davis's memorial assemblage includes the following: two metal lawn chairs; a metal bed frame (inverted); a lampshade; a flower pot wrapped in aluminum foil; artificial flowers on a Styrofoam heart; a metal heater; iron pipes from the frame of a swing set; a broken bell; a large glass plate with a nail through the center; a metal ladle; a porcelain sugar dish; a teakettle and teacup; a plastic bird; a rake; a metal three-shelf wall case; a toy plastic ball; a metal bench; a plastic Ouija-like game called "Kaballah"; a dish rack; a steel grill; various metal pipes and tubes; eating utensils; and many other barely visible items.

    Constructing Ella Riley's grave awakened Davis's creative urge. "Back then, I used to have thoughts in my mind about putting things together. Never did it, up until the woman died."

    Asberry Davis is a small man, only a bit over five feet tall and weighing little more than a hundred pounds. Perhaps his lack of size contributed in some way to his inability to fit into the workforce. It likely did contribute to his determination to be what used to be called a "rugged individualist," and he certainly succeeded at that. When his migration stalled outside Holly Hill, and he isolated himself in the nearby South Carolina forest, Davis became founder of a civilization of one. He evolved into a self-sufficient, unofficial dropout, and began to create, to redesign—purely for his own satisfaction, and in response to his gigantic pride—his finest work of art: himself, the man, the unique Asberry Davis. A unique man needs a unique environment, and Davis also decided to completely redesign his private homestead, surrounding and enclosing himself with things of his own manufacture.

    First came the costume, the uniform. No longer required to dress according to community or professional codes, Davis started creating a wardrobe. With salvaged garments and fabrics, and with rubber from tires and hoses, and pieces of iron, steel, tin and aluminum foil, and anything that struck his fancy, Davis fashioned jackets, pants, hats, belts, bracelets, necklaces, capes, and other articles of apparel that may not yet have names. Material that could take enamel paint got painted. The colors were always the same—red, white, and black. His wardrobe's components, when not being worn, became sculptures, hanging or crouching among the limbs and trunks and stumps of his trees.

    A man with a flamboyant uniform needs a participation sport, so Davis devised one. In fact, he designed several variations of a game that to onlookers must have resembled a fusion of tug of war and a medieval jousting tournament. The game combined the need for strength and ingenuity, along with an ability to employ guile in the service of survival. Davis constructed the equipment, honed the rules and rites, and provided the arena for the action. As both inventor and host, participant Davis enjoyed something more than a standard home-field advantage and says he generally was the victor or the leader of the victorious team. The equipment and trappings of Davis's unnamed game, like his vehicles, costumes, and yard assemblages, would seem just as much at home in an art museum as in a display of sports paraphernalia.

    Davis regularly retrieves cast-off farm and industrial equipment, or parts of former automobiles, or anything someone else did not want that might possess a subtle beauty, or latent strength, or a flickering suggestion of the past. His place in the woods is scattered (some would say littered) with sculptures—on the ground in the open, or all but invisible in the undergrowth, or attached to fences or trees, or in a ditch. Where Mrs. Riley lived, in the darkest part of Asberry's jungle, there are monuments, invocations of memories, to where she slept, where she sat, and even, as one sculpture implies, to where she and Davis might have been intimate together.

    Davis never learned to drive a car—he could not have afforded one anyway—but he had come north on a bicycle. That bicycle and its countless successors gave him the mobility to explore the cities, towns, and countryside, and the ability to gather thrown-away materials, mostly of metal, to be converted into strange assemblage sculptures. Old bicycles, for example, wedded to shopping carts and wrapped in cloth strips, became, essentially, human-powered pickup trucks, spiritual/aesthetic warships for the transcendently propertyless. And when they no longer functioned (for they also had to carry his loads), they became permanent sculptures hidden in the trees or in the tall grass.

    Davis is a private man who likes to spend long periods of time in solitude, but he is not a hermit. He enjoys meeting and talking with people but prefers to dictate the terms of those encounters. He has erected a small roadside gathering place near his residence so that he can preside over those who may come to hear him or converse with him. There are accommodations for two to four people at a time. Davis maintains the pulpit (a modified bicycle cart), the altar (a huge wheel from a farm machine), and the seating section (chairs and a stool), but hardly anyone ever shows up these days.

    Davis continues to put things together and claims he will never give it up. "My mind is a good mind still," he says.


    Asberry Davis's private civilization is not unique. For over four hundred years, groups of escaped slaves in the Western Hemisphere established isolated communities, some with as many as thousands of inhabitants. Many of these communities proved temporary, yet others became self-perpetuating and lasted for centuries. Those communities and the slaves who formed them are identified as "maroon." After Emancipation, United States maroon individuals and clusters within the slaveholding states lost the rationale for their clandestine existences. Today the primary location of maroon societies is the junglelike interior of Suriname, originally Dutch Guiana, on the northern coast of South America. The maroons of Suriname preserve many cultural traditions that have survived from their African origins.

    In their study of maroon societies, Afro-American Arts of tire Suriname Rain Forest, Sally and Richard Price write:

    The English word "maroon," like the French marron, derives from the Spanish cimarron. In the New World, cimarron originally referred to domestic cattle that had taken to the hills in Hispaniola By the end of the 1530s, [maroon] was already beginning to refer primarily to Afro- American escaped slaves, and had strong connotations of "fierceness," of being "wild and unbroken.”

    Maroon societies in Suriname have produced some of the most artistic utilitarian objects found in the Western Hemisphere. The impetus for such creativity is, as with all cultures, a desire to perpetuate group traditions while emphasizing the role of the individual.

    One of the most distinctive features of Maroon life is the high value placed on individuality, the special pleasure people take in the subtle characteristics that contribute to an individual's uniqueness as a person. . . . Furthermore, the individualization of personalities is thought of as a progressive, ongoing process which continues even after death. . . . Throughout a person's lifetime, there is a strong emphasis on commemorating specific events. . . . The events thus commemorated are not the standard life-crisis rites through which everybody passes, but tend rather to be incidents more or less unique to the life of a particular individual. . . .

    It has been argued that this special appreciation of individual distinctiveness, which is found to a variable extent in many Afro-American communities, may have originated at least in part as a reaction to a system of plantation slavery in which individual identity came under fierce attack.

    In describing maroon secular and ritual body attire and ornamentation, the Prices identify the following: (1) decorative necklaces, calf and ankle bands, copper and iron bracelets, and copper rings that are worn up to ten at a time; (2) leg bands embellished with protective charms; (3) capes worn over the shoulders for festive occasions; (4) "bits-and-pieces" compositions—patchwork cloths constructed mainly of squares, rectangles, and triangles for which solid red, white, and navy were the basic colors (an earlier style was red, white, and black); (5) narrow-strip compositions of cloth; (6) hand-sewn caps; (7) stacked aluminum anklets and bracelets made from two pieces of aluminum cable wire twisted around each other; (8) bracelets made of black rubber lining rings from the openings of gasoline drums; (9) combs made (in modern times) from bicycle spokes; and (10) jewelry intended as weapons in hand-to-hand combat (especially in grudge fights over women), including brass knuckles, bracelets with razor-sharp edges, heavy arm bracelets that could be slipped over the fist, and hand-held objects fashioned from old machine parts.

    The authors also cite an account of two maroon warriors in battle, each wearing wrist and ankle ornaments and a necklace with supernatural protective powers. "In the early years of these societies' existence," they write, "specially prepared necklaces, armbands, belts, and so on were worn for ritual protection in battle."

    No argument is advanced here for direct links between Asberry Davis and the Suriname societies, but if they ever did meet, they would have much to discuss.