The complicated legacy of the American South is beautifully captured in Kate Campbell’s song.
My regular readers know I’m fascinated with history and the Civil War and slavery in particular. The little book I excerpt in this post has haunted me a bit since I found it twenty-odd years ago in a dusty Charleston, S.C. book shop.
It’s mind-boggling to consider that we have in the Slave Narratives thousands of interviews with men and women born into slavery right here in the American South. Their actual words!
It all seems like ancient history from our 21st century vantage point, but it was really just yesterday in historical terms, a mere eighty years ago, that former slaves still walked the red clay of the South. Imagine.
We now have a rich legacy of over two thousand of their stories archived in the United States Library of Congress thanks to a monumental effort by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. Writers were dispatched into the rural South to seek out and interview any surviving slaves. Not a moment too soon, I add, as seventy long years had passed since the end of the Civil War and the ranks were thinning fast.
Twenty-one of their stories are compiled in “My Folks Don’t Want Me To Talk About Slavery,” edited by Belinda Hurmence.
At roughly the same time these interviews were taking place, the intrepid photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston, was recording for the Carnegie Survey of Architecture the decaying mansions of the deep South. What a treasure she has left us. As the economy of the South collapsed, plantations were abandoned by the thousands. By the 1930s, many were in ruins and would soon be lost to time. Gone with the wind, one might say.
Shall we have a listen to what life was like for some of those behind the veil of these grand images? Experiences ranged from the most brutal imaginable to quite benign, really. I’ll let them speak for themselves:
Marse Cain was good to his niggers. He didn’t whip them like some owners did, but if they done mean, he sold them. They knew this so they minded him. One day Grandpappy sassed Miss Polly White, and she told him that if he didn’t behave hisself that she would put him in her pocket. Grandpappy was a big man, and I ask him how Miss Polly could do that. He said she meant that she would sell him, then put the money in her pocket. He never did sass Miss Polly no more. Sarah Debro, Age 90, Durham, N.C.
I never saw a jail for slaves, but I have seen slaves whipped. I saw old man William Crump, a owner, whip a man and some children. He waited till Sunday morning to whip his slaves. He would get ready to go to church, have his horse hitched up to the buggy, and then call his slaves out and whip them before he left for church. He generally whipped about five children every Sunday morning.
No books were allowed to slaves in slavery time. I never went to school a minute in my life. I cannot read and write. Elias Thomas, age 84
We had poor food and the young slaves was fed out of troughs. The food was put in a trough, and the little niggers gathered around and et. Jacob Manson, Age 86
Our master would not sell his slaves. He give them to his children when they married off, though. One of our master’s daughters was cruel. Sometimes she would go out and rare on us, but Old Marster didn’t want us whupped. The old boss man was good to us. I was talking about him the other nght. He didn’t whup us, and he said he didn’t want nobody else to whup us. It is just like I tell you; he was never cruel to us.
The white folks did not allow us to have nothing to do with books. You better not be found trying to learn to read. Our marster was harder down on that than anything else. You better not be catched with a book.
They had brandy made on the plantation, and the marster give us all slaves some for their own uses. We eat collards, peas, corn bread, milk and rice. We got biscuit and butter twice a week. I thought that the best things I ever ate was butter spread on biscuits.
One of the slaves, my aunt, she was a royal slave. She could dance all over the place with a tumbler of water on her head, without spilling it. She sure could tote herself. I always loved to see her come to church. She sure could tote herself. Hannah Crasson, age 84.
Marster would not have an overseer. No sir, the slaves worked very much as they pleased. He whupped a slave now and then, but not much. I have seen him whup them. He had some unruly niggers. Some of them were part Indian, and mean. They all loved him, though. I never saw a slave sold. He kept his slaves together. He didn’t want to get rid of any of them. No slaves run away from Marster. They didn’t have any excuse to do so, because whites and colored fared alike at Marster’s. Marster loved his slaves, and other white folks said he loved a nigger more than he did white folks. Isaac Johnson, Age 82, Lillington, NC.
I remember the day we was put on the block at Richmond. Me and my Mammy was just sold away from my daddy just like the cow is sold away from the bull.
I remember seeing a heap of slave sales, with the niggers in chains….I also remembers seeing a drove of slaves with nothing on but a rag betwixt their legs being galloped around before the buyers. About the worst thing that I ever seed, though, was a slave woman at Louisburg who had been sold off from her three-weeks old baby, and was being marched to New Orleans…..as I pass by, this woman begs me in God’s name for a drink of water, and I gives it to her. I ain’t never be so sorry for nobody…..she dies there side of the road, and right there they buries her, cussing, they tells me, about losing money on her.
Slavery wasn’t so good, cause it divided families and done a heap of other things that was bad, but the work was good for everybody. Josephine Smith, age 94, Raleigh, N.C.
We had good food for Marster was a heavy farmer. I saw only one slave whipped. I had mighty fine white people, yes, mighty fine white people. Their son whupped my mother pretty bad because she did not bale enough corn and turnips to feed the fattening hogs. Samuel Riddick, Age 95
Marster would not have any white overseers. He had nigger foremen. Ha! Ha! He liked some of them nigger womens too good to have any other white man playing around them. He had his sweethearts among his slave women. I ain’t no man for telling false stories. I tells the truth, and that is the truth. Jacob Manson, age 86
If you’re interested in reading more of the slave narratives, they can be downloaded –some for free — from Amazon.
Thank you for reading,