A short book of reminisces from ex-Slaves in North Carolina
During the Great Depression, a program was implemented to give starving writers some work. The program was titled “The Federal Writers Project”. One of its projects sent dozens of writers into the South to interview ex-slaves. A set of questions was developed and asked of each participant. The responses were collected in the National Archives…to the tune of some 10,000 typed pages. This book is a selection of 21 oral histories.
A couple of things stand out:
Most of the persons interviewed had a personal memory of the war and the arrival of the Union troops. Almost without exception, they paint a terrible picture of their behavior. The Union troops behaved in a manner akin to most conquering armies…indiscriminate destruction, demands for gold, silver, anything of value, wasting of land, property, livestock and farms. What they could not take, they ruined. The women speak on “fighting off Yankee men”.
Almost all the ex-slaves looked back on slave times as better for them than the years that came after. They condemn slavery as an institution but they found that as one put it “freedom, of the kind we got, with nothing to live on, was bad.” This is true even tho most of them related the fact that they were whipped more than once by their “marsters”. Most of them had positive feelings toward their old owners and many of them remained with the ex-slavers after the war and freedom.
All had seen instances of terrible acts by the slavers: whippings that led to deaths, hangings and even burnings alive. Families were separated with children sold away from the mothers. Marriage as such did not exist for slaves. Many did not know their fathers. Some spoke of their ancestors from Africa and more than one came from African royalty.
Slavers seemed to be of only 2 kinds: awful or as good as the times permitted. The awful ones generally were not the owners these folks had. Perhaps that explains both their attitude about slavery and the fact that they survived (they were all 80+ years old when interviewed). The treatment of the women was almost a litmus test: either they were used and abused or not.
…my mammy had 16 chilluns. fast as they got 3 years old, the marster sold them
…They stole her from Africa for a red pocket handkerchief
…sold off from her 3-week old baby and being marched to New Orleans
…I went as naked as your hand until I was 14
…Mr Mordica had his yaller gals in one quarter to themselves. (Yaller = mixed blood)
…All this time I had 19 children
…I can’t say anything but good for my old marster and missus
…He had his sweethearts among the slave women
…carried a mussel shell in their hands to eat with
…fed from a troth like an animal
…The man asked the master for the woman, and he just asked them to step over the broom, and that was the way they they got married them days; the poor white folks done the same way.
“Lincoln got the praise for freeing us, but did he do it? he gave us freedom without giving us any chance to live to ourselves, and we still had to depend on the Southern white man for work, food and clothing, and he held us, through our necessity and want, in a state of servitude but little better than slavery. Lincoln done but little good for the Negro race, and from living standpoint, nothing.”
The same author edited another book….that will be in another note.
History is sure messy….
A later note: One of my favorite singers is a fella named Mississippi John Hurt. I listen to his music quite a lot. A few minutes ago I started up my player (WinAmp) and let it run thru my collection of John Hurt’s music here at work. Listening to a song titled “Big Leg Blues” I heard the line:
, I like black and brown
Some crave high yellow, I like black and brown
Black won’t quit you, brown won’t lay you down
Words that never made much sense before are now clear…