This collection of enthralling personal narratives vivifies life during and just after the era of slavery in the United States. First published 25 years after the Civil War ended, the volume was the work of an educated African-American woman who became the voice of many former slaves. The interviews she recorded tell of cruel punishments, divided families, and debilitating labor, but they also include information about religious beliefs and practices, as well as the condition and progress of former slaves.
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AMERICAN SLAVES TELL THEIR STORIES
By OCTAVIA V. ROGERS ALBERT
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Causes of immorality among colored people—Charlotte Brooks—She is sold South— Sunday work.
NONE but those who resided in the South during the time of slavery can realize the terrible punishments that were visited upon the slaves. Virtue and self-respect were denied them.
Much has been written concerning the negro, and we must confess that the moral standing of the race is far from what it should be; but who is responsible for the sadly immoral condition of this illiterate race in the South? I answer unhesitatingly, Their masters.
Consider that here in this Bible land, where we have the light, where the Gospel was preached Sunday after Sunday in all portions of the South, and where ministers read from the pulpit that God had made of one blood all nations of men, etc., that nevertheless, with the knowledge and teachings of the word of God, the slaves were reduced to a level with the brute. The half was never told concerning this race that was in bondage nearly two hundred and fifty years.
The great judgment-day is before us; "for we must all appear before the judgment-seat of Christ." There are millions of souls now crowned around the throne of God who have washed their robes white and are praising God, although they spent their lives in sorrow, but who will rise up in judgment and condemn this Christian nation. The Spanish Inquisition can hardly compare with the punishments visited upon this once enslaved race. But let me introduce you to some characters that will amply illustrate what I mean.
It was in the fall of 1879 that I met Charlotte Brooks. She was brought from the State of Virginia and sold in the State of Louisiana many years before the war. I have spent hours with her listening to her telling of her sad life of bondage in the cane-fields of Louisiana. She was always willing to speak of "old master and mistress." I remember one morning as she entered my home I said to her, "Good-morning, Aunt Charlotte; how are you feeling to-day?"
She said, "La, my child, I didn't sleep hardly last night; my poor old bones ached me so bad I could not move my hand for a while."
"What's the cause of it?"
"Why, old marster used to make me go out before day, in high grass and heavy dews, and I caught cold. I lost all of my health. I tell you, nobody knows the trouble I have seen. I have been sold three times. I had a little baby when my second marster sold me, and my last old marster would make me leave my child before day to go to the cane-field; and he would not allow me to come back till ten o'clock in the morning to nurse my child. When I did go I could hear my poor child crying long before I got to it. And la, me! my poor child would be so hungry when I'd get to it! Sometimes I would have to walk more than a mile to get to my child, and when I did get there I would be so tired I'd fall asleep while my baby was sucking. He did not allow me much time to stay with my baby when I did go to nurse it. Sometimes I would overstay my time with my baby; then I would have to run all the way back to the field. O, I tell you nobody knows the trouble we poor colored folks had to go through with here in Louisiana. I had heard people say Louisiana was a hard place for black people, and I didn't want to come; but old marster took me and sold me from my mother anyhow, and from my sisters and brothers in Virginia.
"I have never seen or heard from them since I left old Virginia. That's been more than thirty-five years ago. When I left old Virginia my mother cried for me, and when I saw my poor mother with tears in her eyes I thought I would die. O, it was a sad day for me when I was to leave my mother in old Virginia. My mother used to take her children to church every Sunday. But when I came to Louisiana I did not go to church any more. Every body was Catholic where I lived, and I had never seen that sort of religion that has people praying on beads. That was all strange to me. The older I got the more I thought of my mother's Virginia religion. Sometimes when I was away off in the cane-field at work it seemed I could hear my mother singing the 'Old Ship of Zion.' I could never hear any of the old Virginia hymns sung here, for every body was Catholic around where I stayed."
"Aunt Charlotte, did you say you never attended church any more after leaving Virginia?"
"No, my child; I never saw inside of a church after I came to Louisiana."
"What did you do on the Sabbath?"
"La, me! I had plenty to do. Old mistress would make me help in the kitchen on Sundays when I had nothing else to do. Mistress was Catholic, and her church was a good ways off, and she did not go often to church. In rolling season we all worked Sunday and Monday grinding cane. Old marster did not care for Sunday; he made all of us work hard on Sunday as well as any other day when he was pushed up. 'Most all the planters worked on Sunday in rolling season where I lived. In Virginia every body rested and would go to church on Sunday, and it was strange to see every body working on Sunday here. O, how I used to wish to hear some of the old Virginia hymns!
"I remember my mother used to have a minister to come to see her in Virginia, and he would read the Bible and sing. He used to sing, 'O where are the Hebrew children? Safe in the promised land.' I did not have religion when I came out here. I did not have any body to tell me any thing about repentance, but I always prayed, and the more I would pray the better I would feel. I never would fail to say my prayers, and I just thought if I could get back to my old Virginia home to hear some of my mother's old-time praises it would do my soul good. But, poor me! I could never go back to my old Virginia home."CHAPTER 2
Meeting Jane Lee from Virginia—Conversion of Charlotte Brooks.
"FOUR years after I came to Louisiana the speculators brought another woman out here from my old State. She was sold to a man near my marster's plantation. I heard of it, and, thinks I, 'That might be some of my kinsfolks, or somebody that knew my mother.' So the first time I got a chance I went to see the woman. My white folks did not want the 'niggers' to go off on Sundays; but anyhow my old marster let me go sometimes after dinner on Sunday evenings. So I went to see who the woman was, and I tell you, my child, when I got in the road going I could not go fast enough, for it just seemed to me that the woman was one of my folks. I walked a while and would run a while. By and by I got there. As I went in the gate I met a man, and I asked him what was the woman's name; he said her name was Jane Lee. I went around to the quarters where all the black people lived, and I found her. I went up to her and said, 'Howdy do, Aunt Jane?' She said, 'How do you know me, child?' I said, 'I heard you just came from Virginia; I came from that State too. I just been out here four years. I am so glad to see you, Aunt Jane. Where did you come from in Virginia?' 'I came from Richmond. I have left all of my people in Virginia.'
"Aunt Jane was no kin to me, but I felt that she was because she came from my old home. Me and Aunt Jane talked and cried that Sunday evening till nearly dark. Aunt Jane said she left her children, and it almost killed her to ever think of them. She said one was only five years old. Her old marster got in debt, and he sold her to pay his debts. I told her I had left all of my people too, and that I was a poor lone creature to myself when I first came out from Virginia. Aunt Jane asked me did the people have churches here. I told her no; that I had not been in a church since I came here. She had religion, and she was as good a woman as you ever saw. She could read the Bible, and could sing so many pretty hymns. Aunt Jane said it seemed to her she was lost because she could not go to church and hear preaching and singing like she used to hear in Virginia. She said people didn't care for Sunday in Louisiana."
"Aunt Charlotte, it must have been a joyful time with you when you first saw Aunt Jane Lee."
"Yes, I tell you. I stayed with her till evening. I was afraid old marster would not let me go to see Aunt Jane any more, and when I got in the road, I tell you I did not lose any time. It was dark when I left Aunt Jane; but before I left her house she prayed and sang, and it made me feel glad to hear her pray and sing. It made me think of my old Virginia home and my mother. She sang,
"'Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land.'
"I had heard that hymn before, but had forgot it. All next week it seemed to me I could hear the old Virginia hymn Aunt Jane sung for me that Sunday evening when I was working in the cane-field.
"It was nearly rolling season when Aunt Jane first came to Louisiana, and we all was so busy working night and day I did not have a chance to see her in a long time after I left her that Sunday evening. But two or three months after that I got a chance to go to see her again. Old marster let me go and stay all day that Sunday. He said we all had made such a good year's work, and he was mighty well pleased with us. But he was not always glad and pleased with us. Sometimes he would get mad about something going wrong on the place, and he would beat every one of us and lock us up in the jail he made for us."
"What! Did he put you in jail on Sunday?"
"Yes; 'most every Sunday morning when we did not have any work to do. The next time I went to see Aunt Jane we had another happy time. She could read right good in the Bible and hymn-book, and she would read to me one or two hymns at a time. I remember she read to me about Daniel in the lions' den, and about the king having the three Hebrew children cast in the fiery furnace, and when he looked in the flames of fire he saw four men, and one looked like the Son of God. O, how Aunt Jane used to love to read about the Hebrew children!
"I finally got religion, and it was Aunt Jane's praying and singing them old Virginia hymns that helped me so much. Aunt Jane's marster would let her come to see me sometimes, but not often. Sometimes she would slip away from her place at night and come to see me anyhow. She would hold prayer-meeting in my house whenever she would come to see me."
"Would your marster allow you to hold prayer-meeting on his place?"
"No, my child; if old marster heard us singing and praying he would come out and make us stop. One time, I remember, we all were having a prayer-meeting in my cabin, and marster came up to the door and hollered out, 'You, Charlotte, what's all that fuss in there?' We all had to hush up for that night. I was so afraid old marster would see Aunt Jane. I knew Aunt Jane would have to suffer if her white people knew she was off at night. Marster used to say God was tired of us all hollering to him at night."
"Did any of the black people on his place believe in the teachings of their master?"
"No, my child; none of us listened to him about singing and praying. I tell you we used to have some good times together praying and singing. He did not want us to pray, but we would have our little prayer-meeting anyhow. Sometimes when we met to hold our meetings we would put a big wash-tub full of water in the middle of the floor to catch the sound of our voices when we sung. When we all sung we would march around and shake each other's hands, and we would sing easy and low, so marster could not hear us. O, how happy I used to be in those meetings, although I was a slave! I thank the Lord Aunt Jane Lee lived by me. She helped me to make my peace with the Lord. O, the day I was converted! It seemed to me it was a paradise here below! It looked like I wanted nothing any more. Jesus was so sweet to my soul! Aunt Jane used to sing, 'Jesus! the name that charms our fears.' That hymn just suited my case. Sometimes I felt like preaching myself. It seemed I wanted to ask every body if they loved Jesus when I first got converted. I wanted to ask old marster, but he was Creole, and did not understand what I said much. Aunt Jane was the cause of so many on our plantation getting religion. We did not have any church to go to, but she would talk to us about old Virginia, how people done there. She said them beads and crosses we saw every body have was nothing. She said people must give their hearts to God, to love him and keep his commandments; and we believed what she said. I never wanted them beads I saw others have, for I just thought we would pray without any thing, and that God only wanted the heart."CHAPTER 3
AUNT CHARLOTTE'S FRIENDS
Death of Aunt Charlotte's children—Jane Lee's master leaves the neighborhood—Nellie Johnson tries to escape to her old Virginia home.
"AUNT Charlotte, what became of your baby? were you blest to raise it?"
"No; my poor child died when it was two years old. Old marster's son was the father of my child."
"Did its father help to take care of it?"
"Why, no; he never noticed my child."
"Did you have any more children?"
"Yes; but they all died."
"Why could you not rear any of them?"
"La, me, child! they died for want of attention. I used to leave them alone half of the time. Sometimes old mistress would have some one to mind them till they got so they could walk, but after that they would have to paddle for themselves. I was glad the Lord took them, for I knowed they were better off with my blessed Jesus than with me."
Poor Charlotte Brooks! I can never forget how her eyes were filled with tears when she would speak of all her children: "Gone, and no one to care for me!" Sometimes she failed to come and see me (for she always visited me when she was able; never missed a day, unless she was sick, during the two years I lived near her). She was in poor health, and had no one to help her in her old age, when she really needed help. She had spent her life working hard for her masters, and after giving all of her youthful days to them was turned upon this cold, unfriendly world with nothing. She left her master's plantation with two blankets, and was several days on the road walking to get to the town of——, and, having become so exhausted, dropped them by the way-side. She said when she arrived at her destination she had nothing but the clothes she had on her back. She was then old and feeble.
I remember she used to come and beg me to save the stale coffee for her, saying she had not eaten any thing all day. Notwithstanding all of her poverty she was always rejoicing in the love of God. I asked her once whether she felt lonely in this unfriendly world.
She answered, "No, my dear; how can a child of God feel lonesome? My heavenly Father took care of me in slave-time. He led me all the way along, and now he has set me free, and I am free both in soul and body."
She said, "I heard a preacher say once since I got free, 'Not a foot of land do I possess, not a cottage in the wilderness.' Just so it is with me; sometimes I don't have bread to eat; but I tell you, my soul is always feasting on my dear Jesus. Nobody knows what it is to taste of Jesus but them that has been washed by him. Many years ago, my white folks did not want me even to pray, and would whip me for praying, saying it was foolishness for me to pray. But the more old marster whipped me the more I'd pray. Sometimes he'd put me in jail; but, la, me! it did not stop me from praying. I'd kneel down on the jail floor and pray often, and nearly all day Sundays. I'd fall asleep sometimes praying. Old marster would come and call me about sundown. He would always call out loud before he got to the jail to let me know he was coming. I could always tell his walk. I tell you, I used to feel rested and good when he let me out. He let me go so I could always be ready to go to work on Monday morning. One Sunday night, just as I got to my door, Aunt Jane met me. I was just coming from the jail, too. I knowed Aunt Jane was coming to hold prayer-meeting, and I hurried. If old marster heard us he would put me in jail the next Sunday morning; but, child, that did not stop me; I was always ready for the prayer-meeting. I told Aunt Jane I had been in jail all day, and it was a happy day in jail, too.
"Aunt Jane's white folks was not so hard on her as mine was. They did not let her go off at night, but she would slip away and come and lead prayer-meeting at my house. She always brought her Bible and hymn-book. She read to us that night something like this: 'I know my Redeemer lives.' "
I said to her, "O, yes, Aunt Charlotte; I remember it very well. It is in the book of Job, nineteenth chapter, twenty-fifth verse."
"Well, it has been so long since I heard it read. Wont you get the Bible and please read it for me?"
Excerpted from AMERICAN SLAVES TELL THEIR STORIES by OCTAVIA V. ROGERS ALBERT. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents
AUNT CHARLOTTE'S FRIENDS
A KIND MISTRESS
THE CURSE OF WHISKY
JOHN AND LORENDO
A CONVERTED CATHOLIC
SALLIE SMITH'S STORY
IN THE WOODS
UNCLE STEPHEN JORDON
COUNTERFEIT FREE PAPERS
UNCLE CEPHAS'S STORY
A COLORED SOLDIER
THE COLORED DELEGATES
A TOUCHING INCIDENT