During the 1930’s, writers were given work by the government to interview former slaves. The following narratives were written down by a WPA writer in Monroe Co., Mississippi. Warning—The wording is how the ex-slaves actually worded their stories. It might be considered offensive nowadays.
The original manuscripts are part of the Evans Memorial Library collection (Aberdeen, Ms, USA).
Autobiography of Dora Franks
I stayed in the house most of the time with Miss Emmaline and she taught me to help her round the house. I loved her because she was always so good to me. She taught me how to weave and to spin and before I was bigger than a minute I could do things that lots of the old hands couldn’t come near doing. She and Master Bill had about eight children, but most of them was grown when I come along. Why lawzee, Miss Emmaline’s hair was as white as snow then. They was all mighty good to me and wouldn’t allow nobody to hurt me. I remember one time when they all went off and left me with an old woman called Aunt Caroline who used to do the cooking around the place some of the time. When they left the house I went in the kitchen and asked her for a piece of white bread like the white folks eat. She hauled off and slapped me down and called me all kinds of bad names that I didn’t know what they meant. My nose bled and ruined the nice clean dress I had on. When the mistress come back, Master George was with her. She asked me what on earth had happened to me and I told her. They called Aunt Caroline in the room and asked her if what I said was true. When she told them it was, they sent her away, and I hear tell that they whipped her so hard that she couldn’t walk no more.
We never had no big funerals or weddings on our place. Didn’t have no marrying of any kind. Folks just sort of hitched up together and called themselves man and wife. All the colored folks was buried on what they called Platinum Hill. They didn’t have no markers or anything at the graves. There was just sunk-in places. My brother Frank showed me once where my mammy was buried. We didn’t have no preaching or singing or nothing. We didn’t even get to have meetings on Sunday unless we’d slip off and go to another plantation. Of course I got to go with the white folks sometimes and sit in the back or on the steps. That was when I was real little, though.
Lots of n-----s would slip off from one plantation to another to see some other n-----s. They would always manage to get back before daybreak. The worst thing I ever heard of about that was once when my Uncle Alf run off to “jump the broom”—that was what they called going to see a woman—and he didn’t come back by daylight. They put the n----- hounds after him and they smelled his trail down in the swamp and found where he was hiding. Now he was one of the biggest niggers on the place and a powerful fast worker, but they took and give him 100 lashes with the cat of ninety-nine tails and his back was something awful. They put him in the field to work right after that too, while the blood was still running. He worked right hard till they left and he got up to the end of the row next to the swamp and he lit out again. They never found him that time, but they told me he found him and cave and fixed him up a room where he could live and at nights he would come out on the place and steal him enough food to keep him and he would cook it in his little dug-out. When the war was over and the slaves was freed, he come out and I saw him. He looked like a really hairy ape, without no clothes on and hair growing all over his body. But he told us he was glad he had done what he had because he never could have stood another whipping without killing somebody and of course he knew what that would have meant.
The first thing that I remember hearing about the war was one day when Master George come in the house and said to Miss Emmaline that they was going to have a bloody war and he was afraid that all the slaves would be taken aaway. She said if that was true she felt like jumping in the well. I hated to hear her say that, but from that minute I started praying for freedom and all the rest of the women did the same thing. The war started pretty soon after that and all the men folks went off and left the plantation for the women and the n-----s to run. We’d see the soldiers passy by most every day and then once the Yankees come and stole a lot of our horses and food and even the trunk full of confederate money that was hid in the swamp. How they found that we never knowed. Master George come home about two years after the war had started and married Miss Martha Ann. They had always been sweethearts and was promised before he left.
When the war was over, my brother Frank slipped in the house where I was still staying and told me we was free, and for me to come out with the rest. Before sundown there wasn’t one n----- left on the place and I heard tell later that the mistress and the girls had to get out and work in the fields to help gather in the crop. Frank, he found us a place to work and put us all in the field. I never had worked in the field and I would faint always most every day about eleven o’clock in the heat of the day and some of them would have to carry me to the house. I’d come to pretty quick, though, and be back at it in the afternoon.
Autobiography of Anna Baker, of Aberdeen, Mississippi
How old is I? Well, I’ll tell you just like I told that Home Loan man what was here last week. I remember a powerful lot about slavery times and about before Surrender. I know I was a right smart size then, so according to that, I must be around about eighty years old. I ain’t sure about that. I sure don’t want to tell no untruth about it, but I expect that about gets it right. The reason I know I was a right smart size before surrender was because I remember Master coming down the road past our house and when I saw him way off I’d run to the gate and start singing this song to him:
“Here come the master, root toot too!
Here come master, coming my way!
Howdy, master, howdy do!
What you going to bring from town today?”
That would most nigh tickle him to death and you can bet your bottom dollar he’d always bring me something. He’d say, “Loosanna,” (that was his pet name for me) “what you want today?” And I’d say, “Bring me some goobers, or a doll, or some stick candy or anything.” And he would sure bring it to me.
I was the baby of my family and while I was too little to know anything about it, my ma run off and left us. My pa, what was named George Gaines Clemens, got another nigger woman to take care of us on the place. My mother’s name was Harriet Clemens, and we was all owned by Master Morgan Clemens. Master Hardy, his daddy, had given him us when he divided out with the rest of his children. I don’t recollect what my ma’s mammy and pappy was named, but I do know that her pappy was a full-blooded Indian. I guess that is where I get my brown color. Her mammy was a full-blooded African, though, and a great big woman.
I was born and bred about seven miles from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and our house was right on the road to town. I had four sisters and one brother that I knows of. They was named Classie, Jennie, Florence, Allie, and George. My name was Joanna, but they done dropped the “Jo” part now.
I don’t remember much about my ma before she run off because I guess I was most nigh too little, but she told me after she come after us, when the war was over, all about why she had to run away. It was because the n----- overseers (they had niggers over the hoers and white men over the plowing), they kept trying to mess around with her and she wouldn’t have nothing to do with them. One time while she was in the field, the overseer asked her to go over to the weeds with him, and she said, all right, she’d go find a nice place and wait for him, and she just kept going and swam the river and ran away. She slipped back once or twice at night to see us, but that was all. She hired out to some folks who wasn’t rich enough to have no slaves of their own. They was good to her too, and she never lacked work to do.
Pa, he was killed in the war. He went with Master Morgan and he never come back.
Master Morgan was a settled man and he went round by hisself most of the time. He never did marry. I don’t remember much about him going off to war, but after he left, I do remember the Blue Coats coming in and tearing the smoke house down and making a big fire and cooking all the meat they could hold. All us n-----s had a good time because they give us all we wanted. One of them put me up on his knee and asked if I had ever seen master with any bright round shiny little things and held his hand up, with his fingers in the shape of a dollar. I, like the crazy little n----- that I was, said, “Sure. Master drops them behind the mantelpiece,” and then if they didn’t tear that mantel down and get his money, I is a son of a gun!
When my ma went off, an old woman called Aunt Emmaline kept us. She kept all the orphan children and those who’s mama’s had been sent off to what I heard called “the breeding quarters.” When those women had children, they brung them in and let somebody like Aunt Emmaline raise them. She was sure mean to me. I think it was because the master liked me and was always petting me. She was jealous. She was always trying to whip me for something or other. One time she hit me with an iron miggen. I don’t guess you know what that is. You use it in churning. It made a bad place on my head. She did it because I let some meal that she was parching burn up. After she did it, she got sort of scared and doctored me up. She put soot on the cut to make it stop bleeding. Next day, though, she made me promise to tell the master that I hurt my head when I fell out the door that night he whipped Uncle Sim for stealing a hog. Now I was asleep that night, but when Master asked me, I said, “Aunt Emmaline say to tell you I hurt my head falling out the door the other night when you whipped Uncle Sim.” Then he said, “Is that the truth?” and I said, “No, sir.” He took Aunt Emmaline down to the gear house and wore her out. He wouldn’t tell off on me, though, but just told her that she had no business letting me stay up so late that I saw him do the whipping.
After the war was over, my ma got some papers from the marshal and come to the place and told the master she wanted her children. He said she could have all except me. But she said she wanted me too and that I was hers and she was going to get me. She went back and got some more papers and come show them to Master Morgan. And he said, “G__ d____ it, take them all!” She came out to the house to get us and at first I was scared of her because I didn’t know who she was. But she put me up in her lap and loved me and I knew then I loved her too. She just nigh cried when she looked at the back of my head. There was awful sores where the lice had been and I had scratched them. She sure jumped on Aunt Emmaline for that. We left that day and went on right to Tuscaloosa. Ma had married again and she and him took turns carrying me when I got tired that day because we had to walk the whole seven miles.
I went to school after that and learned to read and write. We had white Yankee teachers. I learned to read the Bible well enough and then I quit. I joined the church when I was a little thing and have been a Christian since. I was buried in water like the Savior and am a real Baptist. The Holy Spirit really come into my heart. Cause I believe in the Spirit. I believe all of us when we die are spirits and we hover round in the sky riding on the clouds. Of course some folks is born with a cloud over their faces and they can see things that we can’t and I guess they see the spirits.
About the Ku Klux? Yes, ma’am. I had to go to court one time to testify about them. One night after we had moved to Tuscaloosa, they come after my stepdaddy. While my ma and the rest went and hid, I went to the door. I wasn’t scared and when I got there I recognized one of the men and I says, “Master Will, ain’t that you?” He thought I was such a little kid that I wouldn’t remember about it and he said, “Sure, it’s me. Where’s your daddy?” I told him that he was gone to town and they headed out for him. But in the meantime my ma had started out and had warned him to hide, so they didn’t get him. The Yankees held a trial in Tuscaloosa then, soon after that, and they carried me to it. A man held me up in his arms and made me point out who it was that come to our house, and I said, “That’s the man. Ain’t it, Master Will?” And he couldn’t say no because he had told me it was him that night. They put them in jail for six months and give them a big fine.
We moved from Tuscaloosa while I was still a young girl and went to Pickensville, Alabama. We stayed there on the river for a while and then moved to Columbus, Mississippi. I lived there till I was old enough to get out to myself and I come to Aberdeen and married Sam Baker. Me and Sam done well. He made good money and we bought our own home—this very house I live in now. We never had no children of our own, but I was left one by a cousin of mine when she died and I raised her like she was my own. I sent her to school and everything. She lives in Chicago now and wants me to come live with her, but shucks, what would an old woman like me do in a big place like that? She had one girl. Her name was Anna and she lived here with me after her mammy went to Chicago. She married a no count nigger down here—that’s Anna I’m talking about—and about three years ago, when we come out of the church across the street, he shot her and killed her right before my eyes. Now, wasn’t that awful? I’ll never get over it. That was right after Sam died too, and I didn’t have nobody here with me except Anna’s little girl. Them was sure bad days, with the police and all round here all the time.
I told you my grandpappy was a full-blooded Indian, didn’t I? Well, I recollect a tale my mammy told me about him. When he took up with my grandmammy, the white man what owned her told him if he wanted to stay with her that he’d give him a home if he’d work for him like the niggers on the place. He agreed because he thought a heap of his black woman—that was what he called her. Everything was all right till one of those uppity overseers tried to act smart and say he was going to beat him. My grandpappy went home that night and barred the door and when the overseer and some of his friends come after him, he said he ain’t going to open the door. They said if he didn’t they’re going to break it down. He told them to go ahead, and while they was breaking in, he filled a shovel full of red hot coals and when they come in, he threw it at them. While they was hollering, he ran away and ain’t never been seen again to this good day. I’ve heard since then that white folks learned that if they start to whip an Indian, they had better kill him right then or else he might get them.
You know one reason Master Morgan thought so much of me? Well, they say that I was a right peart young’un and I’d catch on to anything pretty quick. Master would tell me, “Loosanna, if you keep your ears open, and tell me what the darkies talks about, something good will be in it for you.” He meant for me to listen when they talked about running off and such. I’d stay round the old folks and make like I was playing and all the time I’d be listening. Then I’d go and climb up on the master’s knee and tell him what I heard. But you know, all the time I must have had a right smart mind since I’d play round the white folks and hear what they said and then go tell the niggers about that. Don’t guess the master ever thought about me doing that, do you?
Have I had religion? Sure I have, all my born days, I think. I never learned to read the Bible and interpret the Word till I was a right smart size, but I must have believed in the Lord since way back. Right before Surrender, I was sitting on the back steps and I heard a band of angels singing, “Peace on Earth.” And sure enough, pretty soon there was peace and the war was over. Now I reckon that must have been the Lord telling me that, don’t you?
Of course I’ve had my troubles like everybody else. Fact is, I expect they’ve been a little worse than most folks. But I’ve tried to take them all with grace and the Lord sure knows the best and I just accept what he sends.
Autobiography of Clara C. Young
Ex-slave, Monroe Co., 1930’s
Interviewed by WPA Writer
Law, Miss, I don’t know when I was born, but I do know this—I was seventeen years old when I was first sold. They put me and my brother up on the auction block at the same time. He brung $1,400.00, but I disremember exactly what they paid for me. Wasn’t that much, though, for big strong men brung more than woman and girls.
I was born in Huntsville, Alabama, and my mammy and pappy was named Silby and Sharper Conley. They took their last name from the old master. I lived there with them until the children drew their parts and us was divided out. While I was with old master, he let Miss Rachel have me for the house. She learned me how to cook and to wait on her and called me her “smartest gal,” but sometimes she’d ring the bell and I wouldn’t come right quick like, and she’d start ringing it harder and I’d know she be mad. When I get there, she’d fuss at me and turn my dress up and whip me—not hard, because she wasn’t so strong, but I’d holler.
Master Conley and Miss Rachel had four children—Miss Mary, Miss Alice, Miss Willie, and Master Andrew, and when the time come, they give me to Master Andrew. He carried me and the rest out to Texas where he thought he’d go and get rich. We never stayed long, though, for lots of the n—s runned away to the free states and he didn’t like that.
It was when he brought us back to Huntsville that I was first sold. All the white folks was getting scared that they was going to lose the slaves and there was a powerful lot of n— selling going on then.
Master Ewing bought me from him and carried me to his home in Aberdeen, Mississippi. Then I started working in the field with the rest of the n--s. The overseer that we had was right mean to us when us didn’t work our rows as fast as the others, and sometimes he’d whip us—women and all. When he did that some of us nigh always tell the master and he jump on the overseer and tell him to lay off the women and children. They was always thoughtful of us and we loved old master.
I heard tell one time, though of the headman—he was a n—and the overseer, whipping a cousin of mine till she bled. She was just seventeen years old and was in a family way for the first time and couldn’t work as hard as the rest of us. She died the next morning. The headman told us if we said anything about it to the master, he’d beat us to death, so we had to keep quiet.
We worked hard in the field all day, but when dark come, we’d all go to the quarters, and after supper, we’d sit around and sing and talk. Most often we had good food because most of us had our gardens and could take the food to the quarter’s cook and she’d fix what we wanted. During the last years of the war we didn’t have much to eat, though.
The most fun we had was at our meetings. We had them most every Sunday and they lasted way into the night. The preacher I liked the best was named Matthew Ewing. He was a comely black n— and he sure could read out of his hand. He never learned no real reading and writing, but he knowed his Bible and could say the prettiest preachings you ever heard. The meetings would last from early in the morning till late at night. When dark come, the n—s would hang a wash pot bottom upwards in the little brush church us had, so it’d catch the noise and the overseer wouldn’t hear us singing and shouting. They didn’t mind us meeting in the daytime, but they thought if we stayed up half the night we wouldn’t work so hard the next day.
You should have seen some of the n—s get religion. The best way was to carry them to the cemetery and let them stand over a grave. They would start shouting and singing about seeing the fire and brimstone. Then they would sing some more and look plumb sanctified.
When us had our big meetings, there’d always be n—s from the other plantations round to come. They would have to slip off because their masters was afraid they would get hitched-up with some other darky, and then they would either have to buy or sell a n-- so’s to get a little work out of either one of them.
We never knowed much about the war except that we didn’t have as much to eat or wear and the white men folks was all away. Then too, the old miss cried a lot of the time.
The Yankees come round after the war and told us we was free and we shouted and sang and had a big celebration for a few days. Then we got to wondering about what good it did us. Didn’t feel no different; we loved our master and missus and stayed on with them and worked just the same.
The Yankees tried to get some of the colored men to vote, but not many did because they was scared of the Ku Kluxers. They would come at night and scare us all. We didn’t like the Yankees anyway. They wasn’t good to us; when they leave our farm we’d laugh and sing this song:
“Old Mister Yankee think he so grand,
With his blue coat tail dragging in the ground!”
I stayed on with the old master with the rest after Surrender till I met Joshua. Joshua Young was his name, and he was used to belong to the Waverly Youngs. I moved out there with him after we was married.
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