The slaves lived on small farms, on huge plantations, and in towns, so the details of their INDIVIDUAL experiences were extremely diverse. Nevertheless, most of the general descriptions apply to most situations.
HARRIETT DeWITT: Colonel Chaney had lots and lots of slaves. All of their houses were in a row. They were one-room cabins. Everything happened in that one room: birth, sickness, death, and everything. These houses were called “the quarters.” It looked like a town.
ANNE MADDOX: Our houses were like horse stables that were made of logs with mud and sticks daubed in the cracks. They had no floors. We had to sleep on mattresses stuffed with corn shucks. We cooked in the big fireplaces that had long hooks where we hung pots to boil food.
RICHARD CARRUTHERS: The chimney would catch fire because it was made out of sticks, clay, and moss. Many times, we had to get up at midnight and push the chimney away from the house to keep the house from burning up.
JACK MADDOX: In cold weather, we huddled together so that we wouldn’t freeze to death.
FLORENCE NAPIER: All of us had plenty to eat. Master used to say that the slaves raised the food and we were entitled to all that we wanted. He felt the same way about the clothes. When the master said that we raised the food, it was true for sure. Everything on the place was raised right there by us: all of the meat, vegetables, corn, fruit, and such. All of the cloth and the clothes were made right there. No, sir, there wasn’t much that the master had to buy.
WILLIAM MOORE (photo below): We were hungry lots of times. Master Tom didn’t feel the need to feed his slaves very much. I remember that I had a craving for food all of the time. I’d take lunches to the field slaves. They said that it wasn’t enough to stop the pain in their bellies. We survived on things from the fields and rabbits cooked on little fires.
SALLIE PAUL: When I was a child, they would give all of the milk and hominy [a corn product] that we could eat between meals. They always fed the slave children in the white folks’ yard between meals. You see, they were very particular about how they raised and fed the youngest slaves in those days. They would keep their little bellies stuffed with plenty of hominy and milk, just the same as they did for the pigs. They did that to make them grow quickly because they wanted to increase their property as fast as possible. The white folks always liked to see a big crop of slave children being raised.
SARA COLQUITT (photo below): Miss Mary was good to us, but we had to work hard and late. I worked in the fields every day from before daylight until almost completely dark. I used to take my smallest baby with me. I had two children. I’d tie my baby [in a pouch] to a tree limb to avoid the ants and bugs while I hoed and worked in the furrow.
PAULINE GRICE: I still remember when my mother put me in the nursery to be cared for while she went to the field to work. I was taken there in the morning and taken out at night. An old woman who was too old to do other work was in charge of the children. She had help. There were several young girls who assisted her.
WALTER RIMM (photo below): I was required to work with the other kids just as soon as I was old enough to be taken from the nursery. We pulled weeds for half of the day, were allowed to take a nap, and then were awakened to pull more weeds.
JACOB BRANCH: Children started working as soon as we could toddle. First, we gathered firewood. Whether it was freezing or hot, we had to go in order to toughen us. When we got a little bigger, we tended to the cattle and fed the horses and hogs. By the time that we were big children [usually twelve years of age], we were picking cotton and pulling cane. We were never idle. Sometimes, we went to a distant section of the field, lay down in the cornrow, and napped. But, Lord, if they caught us, they spanked us hard. Sunday was the only rest day.
HENRY KIRK MILLER: As fast as children were big enough to hire out, the mistress leased us to anybody who would pay for our hire. I was put with another widow woman who lived about twenty miles from us. She worked me on her cotton plantation. Old Mistress sold one of my sisters and took cotton as the payment.
JOHN FINNELY: One night, there were about ten slaves who ran away. The next day, we heard nothing about them, so I said to myself: The patrollers didn’t catch them. I made up my mind to go if the patrollers or overseer didn’t bring them back by the next day. Well, they didn’t, so, that night, I became a runaway slave, too.
I left with a chunk of meat and cornbread. I was on my way and was scared half to death. I had my eyes open and my ears forward to detect the patrollers. I stepped away from the road at night at the sight of everything. During the day, I stayed in the woods. It took two days for me to make the trip. Just once, the patrollers passed by me. I was watching them while I was in the thicket. I was sure that they were going to search in that thicket because they stopped, were talking, and were looking in my direction. They stood there for a little while. Then, one of them came towards me. Lord Almighty! That seemed like the end. That man stopped and looked and looked. Then, he picked up something and went back to the other fellows. It was a bottle. All of them took a drink and rode away. Man, I was in a sweat and didn’t wait there for much longer.
I made my way to Bellfount [Bellefonte, Alabama?] and that’s where the Yankee soldiers were camped. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that all of the other runaway slaves were there, too. I was so glad to see them. I arrived on a Sunday. On Monday, the Yanks put us on a freight train and sent us to Stevenson, Alabama. There, we were put to work in building breastworks. I was working for a little while when the headman came and told them to let me carry the water. After a few days, the Yanks sent me to the headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee.
I was the water carrier for the Army. At first, there wasn’t any fighting, but it wasn’t long until they started a battle. That battle was an experience for me. I was still the water carrier and was not in the front, but I saw the fighting and I don’t want to witness any more. The noise was awful. We heard just one continuous roar of the guns and cannons. The window glass in Nashville was shaken out from the vibrations of the cannons. There were dead men all over the ground. There were lots of them who were wounded. Some were cursing, some were praying, and some were moaning. There were others who said nothing but just lay there. This one and that one cried for water. God Almighty! I don’t want to experience anything such as that again.
Why do you want my story about slavery days? It isn’t worth anything. I’ve been just a hard-working person for all of my life. I raised my family and did my best for them.
Now, to tell the truth, I don’t exactly know my age. I remember the time of the Civil War and the surrender. When surrender came, I was old enough to fan flies from the white folks and the tables during meals. I remember because it was the first whipping that I got. It happened when I failed to see some flies on the table when the master had company for dinner. His daughter took me upstairs and used the whip on me. Her name was Mary.
Yes, sir, I’ll do the best that I can to remember for you. If you had come about five years ago, I could tell a lot more, but I’ve had head misery for the last five years. My brain goes to water [I have fluid on my brain], so that affects my mind. I was born in Harrison County, Texas. It was about 25 miles from Marshall. I remember the location because I lived in that part of the country until I grew up. We weren’t far from Louisiana.
My master’s name was Doctor Howard Perry. He was a doctor, so his wife and the overseer managed the place and supervised the work while he was away. Next to the master’s house was a small building that was used for the office. The mistress was in there most of the time. Most of the colored folks weren’t allowed to go into the house. If we wanted to see the master or his wife, we had to go to the office.
The plantation was a very big one. How many acres? Gosh for mighty! [God Almighty!] Why, there were more than I could count. My memory is bad. I never remember hearing the number of slaves. It was a lot. I know that it was more than 200.
The colored folks lived in cabins. They were called the quarters. In each cabin lived one family: the father, mother, and children. There were about as many children as there were adults. I can shut my eyes now and see those rows of cabins. There were three rows and the rows were about one-half mile long. Every family did its own cooking. Mammy [Mother], Pappy [Father], and their twelve children lived in our cabin, so Mammy had to cook for fourteen people in addition to doing her fieldwork. She had to get up long before daylight in the morning in order to fix breakfast. The supper was fixed after dark. They had to use the pine-knot torch to make light so that they could see. The cooking was done in the fireplace in the wintertime and in the yard during most of the summertime.
All of the food rations were measured out and given on Sunday mornings. What was given had to last until the next Sunday. There were plenty of different rations, but there wasn’t enough for the heavy eaters. All of us had to be very careful. Some of the folks were often hungry.
The small quantities of rations caused lots of trouble because some of the slaves had to steal food. They got a whipping if they were caught. The slaves would be in trouble if they couldn’t work when they were weak because of hunger. If they couldn’t work, they would get a whipping. If they stole food and stayed strong so that they could work, they would get a whipping for stealing. So, there it was. Most of them stole the food so that they would have a full stomach and took a whipping if they were caught. My folks didn’t have to steal food because we were careful. You can bet that nothing was wasted.
None of the infants suffered from the lack of food because they were fed twice each day in the nursery. That was the place where the mothers left their youngsters while they were at work. The infants got plenty of food. It was mostly milk with cornbread crumbled up in it or pot liquor [the liquid from cooked greens] with cornbread fixed in the same way. Then, there was a little honey and lots of molasses on the bread. It was good food because all of the kids were fat like little pigs. I can shut my eyes now and see all of those children sitting and using wooden spoons to eat pot liquor and cornbread in big pans.
The slaves on the master’s place had a hard time. They had to work early and late. Everybody had an assigned task and each had to do it if it took all day and night. Frequently, the folks had to work throughout the night. They got a whipping if they failed to finish.
The master was a sweet fine man. It was his wife and the overseer who were tough. That woman had no mercy. She was a devil. Gosh for Mighty, how I hated her! Do you see these long ears that I have? Well, they’re long because of the pulling that they got from her. I was in the house and was doing the work of keeping the flies away from the folks, getting water, and doing other duties. For everything that she didn’t like, it was an ear-pulling that I got. It was pull, pull, and some more pull every time that she came close to me.
She gave orders to the overseer that specific work had to be done. She said that she wanted a certain number of pairs of shoes to be made by a certain time. They had to be completed if the workers wanted to keep from getting whipped. They made the shoes right there. That was my pappy’s job. Mammy worked in the weaving room. During many nights, we could hear the bump, bump of the loom when my mammy was working to finish the task.
It was such a busy place. It was like a town with different businesses. There was the blacksmith shop, the shoe shop, the carpenter shop, the milk house – the master had about one hundred milk cows – the weaving room, the gin, and the feed mill. Have you ever seen a horse-powered machine? Well, it’s fixed with long sweeps and they go around and around. In that way, the power is made for running the gin and grinding the grist.
The mistress knew everything that happened. She had spies among the colored folks. She tried to get me to report to her, but she discovered that I wasn’t dependable for spying, so she stopped. One time, she sent me to the sewing room to see if the women were working. Some of them were and some of them weren’t. When I returned, I said, “They’re all working.” You see, my mammy taught me to tell nothing that I saw. That means to mind my own business.
Sometimes, they tied a slave to a log and then lashed with the whip. If the lash cut the skin, salt was put into the cut. The master said that the salt was used to protect the cut, but I saw the squirming that it caused. If they had human feelings, they would have used something else to protect the cuts.
If people ask about the good times that we had, just tell them that it wasn’t much. We weren’t allowed to go to church. Once in a while during the winter, the master would allow us to have a party. We had a couple of fiddles for the music.
Did we have weddings? In those times, the colored folks were just put together. It was as the master said. He would say, “Jim and Nancy, you go and live together.” When the order was given, it had to be done exactly as he said. On the plantation, they didn’t think anything about the feelings of the women. No, sir, there was no respect for the women. The overseer and other white men took advantage of the women whenever they wanted. The women knew better than to argue about it. If one did, she would be whipped. I thank the Lord that freedom came before I was old enough to have to withstand such treatment. Yes, sir, freedom saved me from such.
I have a good recollection about the time when the War ended and the soldiers came home. There were thousands who passed our place. The group stretched as far as the eye could see down the road. They were marching home from the War. One night, some of them camped near the master’s place and some of them got sick. Master brought two of them to the house to doctor them.
When we were freed, the master called us to the quarters. I had never seen so many colored folks in one crowd. The yard was full. They moved a table into the yard. Master stood on it and talked to us. He told us that we were free. One by one, he called each of the adults to him and told them what their ages were. He told them that they could work his land on the half [sharecrop and divide the income] or work for wages if they wanted to stay. He advised them to stay a while so that they could get a foothold and learn what to do.
There were lots who stayed and some who went away. My folks stayed for about four years. Father worked the land as a sharecropper until he was able to save some money. Then, he bought a piece of land about five miles from there.
The land that Father bought wasn’t cleared and there weren’t any buildings on it. So, all of us worked together to build a cabin. Were we proud? Were we proud? I say that we were when the cabin was finished. There it was – our own home to use as we pleased after being slaves. That was a good feeling. After the cabin was built, we cleared the land. It wasn’t long until we were ready to put in a crop. We worked like beavers putting in the crop and tending to it. We watched it grow like it was a little child because all of it belonged to us. It was ours.
I was about twelve years old and was the youngest. I took care of the house while Mammy worked with the others doing the outside work. My folks stayed there until they died. I don’t know what became of the place because I left after I married. I married during the year after we moved. Yes, that’s right. I was just thirteen years old when I married for the first time. I married Boss Powers. We lived on rented land that was about five miles from my folks. We lived together for six years and had three children before he died.
About two years later, I married Henry Ruffins. He died 26 years ago. I had three children by Ruffins. One is living in California and the other two live here. I now live with those two.
Yes, my name is Powers. I never took the name of Ruffins because I dearly loved Powers. Of course, I loved Ruffins, but I loved Powers so much that I couldn’t bear to give up the name. Powers made a will and he wrote on the paper: To my beloved wife, I give all that I have. Wasn’t that sweet of him? I loved him so much that I could not give up his name. That’s why I kept it.
The Ku Klux Klan members are devils. I don’t have any problems with them, but I know other folks who do. We never slept in the house when the Klux became very bad [after they left the plantation]. They were so bad that all of the colored folks around there slept in the woods or in ditches and places like that. They hid everywhere as soon as darkness came because the Klux always came during the night. They whipped the colored folks for nothing – just for the fun that they got out of it. That’s the kind of folks that the Klux were. It was fun for them to injure people. They burned some houses and destroyed property. Twice, they hung colored people up by the thumbs. After a while, the soldiers [from the US government] came and put a stop to it.
I moved here in Fort Worth to live after my second husband died. Of course, I worked by doing housework until a few years ago. Now, I get a $12 pension every month. That helps me to get by and I really need it. With my brain condition, I really need it.