In the late 1930s, the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration embarked upon a project to interview 100 former American slaves. The result of that unique undertaking is this collection of authentic firsthand accounts documenting the lives of men and women once held in bondage in the antebellum South.
In candid, often blunt narratives, elderly former slaves recall what it was like to wake before sunrise and work until dark, enduring whippings, branding, and separations from one’s spouse and children, suffer the horrors of slave auctions and countless other indignities, and finally to witness the arrival of Northern troops and experience the first days of ambiguous freedom.
Included here are vivid descriptions of good masters and bad ones and treatment that ran the gamut from indulgent and benevolent supervision to the harshest exploitation and cruelty. These and many other unforgettable — sometimes unspeakable — aspects of slave life are recalled in simple, often poignant language that brings home with dramatic impact the true nature of slavery. Accompanied by 32 starkly compelling photographs, the text includes a new preface and additional essay by Norman R. Yetman, a specialist in American studies.
A valuable resource for students and scholars of African-American history, this thoroughly engrossing book will be of great interest as well to general readers.
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Voices from Slavery
100 Authentic Slave Narratives
By Norman R. Yetman
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2000 Norman R. Yetman
All rights reserved.
Interviewed at Tulsa, Oklahoma
Interviewer not identified
Age when interviewed: 87
I WAS BORN IN LOUISIANA, way before the War. I think it was about ten years before, because I can remember everything so well about the start of the War, and I believe I was about ten years old.
My mammy belonged to Mr. Sack P. Gee. I don't know what his real given name was, but it maybe was Saxon. Anyways we all called him Master Sack. He was a kind of youngish man, and was mighty rich. I think he was born in England. Anyway his pappy was from England, and I think he went back before I was born.
Master Sack had a big plantation ten miles north of Arcadia, Louisiana, and his land run ten miles along both sides. He would leave in a buggy and be gone all day and still not get all over it. There was all kinds of land on it, and he raised cane and oats and wheat and lots of corn and cotton. His cotton fields was the biggest anywheres in that part, and when chopping and picking times come he would get Negroes from other people to help out. I never was no good at picking, but I was a terror with a hoe!
I was the only child my mammy had. She was just a young girl, and my master did not own her very long. He got her from Mr. Addison Hilliard, where my pappy belonged. I think she was going to have me when he got her. Anyways, I come along pretty soon, and my mammy never was very well afterwards. Maybe Master Sack sent her back over to my pappy. I don't know.
Mammy was the house girl at Mr. Sack's because she wasn't very strong, and when I was four or five years old she died. I was big enough to do little things for Mr. Sack and his daughter, so they kept me at the mansion, and I helped the house boys. Time I was nine or ten Mr. Sack's daughter was getting to be a young woman—fifteen or sixteen years old —and that was old enough to get married off in them days. They had a lot of company just before the War, and they had a whole bunch of house Negroes around all the time.
Old Mistress died when I was a baby, so I don't remember anything about her, but Young Mistress was a winder! She would ride horseback nearly all the time, and I had to go along with her when I got big enough. She never did go around the quarters, so I don't know nothing much about the Negroes Mr. Sack had for the fields. They all looked pretty clean and healthy, though, when they would come up to the Big House. He fed them all good and they all liked him.
He had so much different kinds of land that they could raise anything they wanted, and he had more mules and horses and cattle than anybody around there. Some of the boys worked with his fillies all the time. And he went off to New Orleans every once in a while with his race horses. He took his daughter but they never took me.
Some of his land was in pasture but most of it was all open fields, with just miles and miles of cotton rows. There was a pretty good strip along one side he called the "old" fields. That's what they called the land that was wore out and turned back. It was all growed up in young trees, and that's where he kept his horses most of the time.
The first I knowed about the War coming on was when Mr. Sack had a whole bunch of white folks at the Big House at a function. They didn't talk about anything else all evening and then the next time they come nearly all their menfolks wasn't there—just the womenfolks. It wasn't very long till Mr. Sack went off to Houma with some other men, and pretty soon we know he was in the War. I don't remember ever seeing him come home. I don't think he did until it was nearly over.
Next thing we knowed they was Confederate soldiers riding by pretty nearly every day in big droves. Sometimes they would come and buy corn and wheat and hogs. But they never did take any anyhow, like the Yankees done later on. They would pay with billets, Young Missy called them, and she didn't send them to get cashed but saved them a long time. Then she got them cashed, but you couldn't buy anything with the money she got for them.
That Confederate money she got wasn't no good. I was in Arcadia with her at a store, and she had to pay seventy-five cents for a can of sardines for me to eat with some bread I had, and before the War you could get a can like that for two cents. Things was even higher then than later on, but that's the only time I saw her buy anything.
When the Yankees got down in that country most of the big men paid for all the corn and meat and things they got, but some of the little bunches of them would ride up and take hogs and things like that and just ride off. They wasn't anybody at our place but the womenfolks and the Negroes. Some of Mr. Sack's women kinfolks stayed there with Young Mistress.
Along at the last the Negroes on our place didn't put in much stuff—just what they would need, and could hide from the Yankees, because they would get it all took away from them if the Yankees found out they had plenty of corn and oats.
The Yankees was mighty nice about their manners, though. They camped all around our place for a while. There was three camps of them close by at one time, but they never did come and use any of our houses or cabins. There was lots of poor whites and Cajuns that lived down below us, between us and the Gulf, and the Yankees just moved into their houses and cabins and used them to camp in.
The Negroes at our place and all of them around there didn't try to get away or leave when the Yankees come in. They wasn't no place to go, anyway, so they all stayed on. But they didn't do very much work. Just enough to take care of themselves and their white folks.
Master Sack come home before the War was quite over. I think he had been sick, because he looked thin and old and worried. All the Negroes picked up and worked mighty hard after he come home, too. One day he went into Arcadia and come home and told us the War was over and we was all free. The Negroes didn't know what to make of it, and didn't know where to go, so he told all that wanted to stay on that they could just go on like they had been and pay him shares.
About half of his Negroes stayed on, and he marked off land for them to farm and made arrangements with them to let them use their cabins, and let them have mules and tools. They paid him out of their shares, and some of them finally bought the mules and some of the land. But about half went on off and tried to do better somewheres else. I didn't stay with him because I was just a boy and he didn't need me at the house anyway.
Late in the War my pappy belonged to a man named Sander or Zander. Might been Alexander, but the Negroes called him Mr. Sander. When Pappy got free he come and asked me to go with him, and I went along and lived with him. He had a sharecropper deal with Mr. Sander and I helped him work his patch. That place was just a little east of Houma, a few miles.
When my pappy was born his parents belonged to a Mr. Adams, so he took Adams for his last name, and I did too, because I was his son. I don't know where Mr. Adams lived, but I don't think my pappy was born in Louisiana. Alabama, maybe. I think his parents come off the boat, because he was very black—even blacker than I am.
I lived there with my pappy until I was about eighteen and then I married and moved around all over Louisiana from time to time. My wife give me twelve boys and five girls, but all my children are dead now but five. My wife died in 1920 and I come up here to Tulsa to live. One of my daughters takes care and looks out for me now.CHAPTER 2
Interviewed at Little Rock, Arkansas
Interviewed by Samuel S. Taylor
Age when interviewed: 89
I BEEN MARRIED three times and my last name was Lucretia Alexander. I was twelve years old when the War began. My mother died at seventy-three or seventy-five. That was in August, 1865—August the ninth. She was buried August twelfth. The reason they kept her was they had refugeed her children off to different places to keep them from the Yankees. They couldn't get them back. My mother and her children were heir property. Her first master was Tolliver. My mother was named Agnes Tolliver. She had a boy and a girl both older than I were. My brother come home in '65. I never got to see my sister till 1869. When my mother died she left four living children. I was the youngest. My father died in 1881 and some say he was 112 and some say 106. His name was Beasley, John Beasley, and he went by John Beasley till he died. I ain't got nary living child. My oldest child would have been sixty-four if he were living. They claim my baby boy is living, but I don't know. I had four children. I got religion in 1865. I was baptized seventy-three years ago this August.
The first overseer I remember was named Kurt Johnson. The next was named Mack McKenzie. The next one was named Phil Womack. And the next was named Tom Phipps. Mean! Liked meanness! Mean a man as he could be! I've seen him take them down and whip them till the blood run out of them.
I got ten head of grandchildren. And I been grandmother to eleven head. I been great-grandmother to twelve of great-grandchildren. I got one twenty-three and another nineteen or twenty. Her father's father was in the army. She is the oldest. Lotas Robinson, my granddaughter, has four children that are my great-grandchildren. Gayden Jenkins, my grandson, has two girls. I got a grandson named Don Jenkins. He is the father of three boys. He lives in Cleveland. He got a grandson named Mark Jenkins in Memphis who has one boy. The youngest granddaughter—I don't remember her husband's name—has one boy. There are four generations of us.
My mother was treated well in slavery times. My father was sold five times. Wouldn't take nothin'. So they sold him. They beat him and knocked him about. They put him on the block and they sold him about beatin' up his master. He was a native of Virginia. The last time they sold him they sold him down in Claiborne County, Mississippi, just below where I was born at. I was born in Copiah County near Hazlehurst, about fifteen miles from Hazlehurst. My mother was born in Washington County, Virginia. Her first master was Quails Tolliver. Qualls moved to Mississippi and married a woman down there and he had one son, Peach Tolliver. After he died, he willed her to Peachy. Then Peachy went to the Rebel army and got killed.
My mother's father was a free Indian named Washington. Her mother was a slave. I don't know my father's father. He moved about so much and was sold so many times he never did tell me his father. He got his name from the white folks. When you're a slave you have to go by your owner's name.
My master's mother took me to the house after my mother died. And the first thing I remember doing was cleaning up. Bringing water, putting up mosquito-bars, cooking. My master's mother was Susan Reed. I have done everything but saw. I never sawed in my life. The hardest work I did was after slavery. I never did no hard work during slavery. I used to pack water for the plow hands and all such as that. But when my mother died, my mistress took me up to the house.
But Lord! I've seen such brutish doin's—runnin' niggers with hounds and whippin' them till they was bloody. They used to put 'em in stocks, used to be two people would whip 'em—the overseer and the driver. The overseer would be a man named Elijah at our house. He was just a poor white man. He had a whip they called the BLACKSNAKE.
I remember one time they caught a man named George Tinsley. They put the dogs on him and they bit him and tore all his clothes off of him. Then they put him in the stocks. The stocks was a big piece of timber with hinges in it. It had a hole in it for your head. They would lift it up and put your head in it. There was holes for your head, hands and feet in it. Then they would shut it up and they would lay the whip on you and you couldn't do nothin' but wiggle and holler, "Pray, Master, pray!" But when they'd let that man out, he'd run away again.
They would make the slaves work till twelve o'clock on Sunday, and then they would let them go to church. The first time I was sprinkled, a white preacher did it. I think his name was Williams. The preacher would preach to the white folks in the forenoon and to the colored folks in the evening. The white folks had them hired. One of them preachers was named Hackett; another, Williams; and another, Gowan. There was five of them but I just remember three. One man used to hold the slaves so late that they had to go to the church dirty from their work. They would be sweaty and smelly. So the preacher rebuked them about it. That was old man Bill Rose.
The niggers didn't go to the church building. The preacher came and preached to them in their quarters. He'd just say, "Serve your masters. Don't steal your master's turkey. Don't steal your master's chickens. Don't steal your master's hogs. Don't steal your master's meat. Do whatsomeever your master tell you to do." Same old thing all de time.
My father would have church in dwelling houses and they had to whisper. My mother was dead and I would go with him. Sometimes they would have church at his house. That would be when they would want a real meetin' with some real preachin'. It would have to be durin' the week nights. You couldn't tell the difference between Baptists and Methodists then. They was all Christians. I never saw them turn nobody down at the communion, but I heard of it. They used to sing their songs in a whisper and pray in a whisper. There was a prayer-meeting from house to house once or twice—once or twice a week.
Old Phipps whipped me once. He aimed to kill me but I got loose. He whipped me about a colored girl of his'n that he had by a colored woman. Phipps went with a colored woman before he married his wife. He had a girl named Martha Ann Phipps. I beat Martha about a pair of stockings. Mistress bought me a nice pair of stockings from the store. You see, they used to knit the stockings. I wore the stockings once; then I washed them and put them on the fence to dry. Martha stole them and put them on. I beat her and took them off of her. She ran and told her father and he ran me home. He couldn't catch me, and he told me he'd get me. I didn't run to my father. I run to my mistress, and he knew he'd better not do nothin' then. He said, "I'll get you, you little old black somethin'." Only he didn't say "somethin'." He didn't get me then.
But one day he caught me out by his house. I had gone over that way on an errand I needn't have done. He had two girls hold me. They was Angeline and Nancy. They didn't much want to hold me anyhow. Some niggers would catch you and kill you for the white folks; and then there was some that wouldn't. I got loose from them. He tried to hold me hisself but he couldn't. I got away and went back to my old mistress and she wrote him a note never to lay his dirty hands on me again. A little later her brother, Johnson Chatman, came there and ran him off the place. My old mistress' name was Susan Chatman before she married. Then she married Tolliver. Then she married Reed. She married Reed last—after Tolliver died.
Excerpted from Voices from Slavery by Norman R. Yetman. Copyright © 2000 Norman R. Yetman. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Table of Contents
PREFACE TO THE DOVER EDITION,
MARY A. BELL,
W. L. BOAST,
LUCY ANN DUNN,
WILLIAM L. DUNWOODY,
ANNE ULRICH EVANS,
M. S. FAYMAN,
MARY ELLA GRANDBERRY,
J. T. TIMS,
CLARE C. YOUNG,
THE BACKGROUND OF THE SLAVE NARRATIVE COLLECTION,
EX-SLAVE INTERVIEWS AND THE HISTORIOGRAPHY OF SLAVERY,
APPENDIX I - NARRATIVES IN THE SLAVE NARRATIVE COLLECTION BY STATE,
APPENDIX II - Race of Interviewer,
INDEX OF PROPER NAMES,