Title: Mississippi Slave Narratives from the WPA Records
Submitter: MSGenWeb Slave Narrative Project
Notice: This file may be downloaded for Personal Use Only, and may not otherwise be printed or copied without prior written consent of the submitter.
MSGenWeb Index Page
USGenWeb African-American Griot Project
From the WPA Slave Narratives:
Nathan Best – Age 92
Frank Childress, left, age 84, and Nathan Best, age 92, ex-slaves in Harrison County, sit on the steps of their housing at Beauvoir, Confederate Soldiers’ Home. Photograph courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Inmate of Beauvoir, Confederate Soldiers' Home, on Beach between Biloxi and Gulfport. About 5 ft. 5 in. tall, weight 115. Dark chocolate color, white mustache and hair, sight and hearing fairly good, medium intelligence, solemn in disposition.
I was borned May 19, 1845 in North Carolina. My ole marster's name was Henry Bes' but I was in the service wid his younges' son, Rufus Bes'. My father's name was Nathan Bes', I was named atter him, an' my mother's name was Maria, we was all Bes'es. I had a sister named Sairy Ann, an' a brother named Snovine, dere was so many of 'em, I don' guess I kin name 'em now, dey was 15 in all. I mah'ied in 1867, my wife was named Hester, she didn' belong to my ole marster, but to Dr. Seer, his plantation was about 7 miles from ours. She died - I had a secon' wife name Nancy. She had been dead about ten years - dat was 'fore I come here, I has been here 6 years.
My ole marster's house didn' have no name, but de servants called it de "Great House". It had a long hall clean acrost it, an' rooms on each side of de hall. De dinin' room was about 30 feet long, it was built off separate. De house was painted white, it was a two story house wid big postes in front - a big, fine house. De Quarters was about a quarter of a mile long, de cabins was on each side of a street. My marster had 101 slaves. We was 3 miles from Snow Hill de county seat. We wa'nt on no railroad, we was way back in de country, 12 miles was de nearest railroad dey was.
My mistis name was Maria, too, she had eight chillun, 2 gals an' six boys. All her sons went to de War, 'cept one.
We raised corn, cotton, peas an' everyting - my ole marster run 16 plows every day, he had 25 or 30 head of horses an' mules. He had a 'ticlar saddle horse an' a 'ticlar buggy horse, dey didn' do nothin' but ca'hy him aroun'.
My mother worked on de farm, an' my father stayed in de woods an' run turpentine. My marster run a big farm, an' worked turpentine, too.
My marster was good to me while he lived, but atter he died I kotch it. Dey was jes' talkin' about dey was goin' to be a War when he died. Den his oldes' son, Marse Bob, drawed me from de estate. He was good to me hisself, but dey hired a overseer, he couldn' hear good, so dey 'zempted him from de War. He was mighty mean, I doan know how many times he did whup me. He would come out of a mornin' an' want to whup everyting he seen. Dis overseer wa'nt born rich, he was a poor man, jes' had a house way back in de woods. One time he hung me up in a peach tree an' whupped me. Kase I stuck a knife in a gal's arm - she got mad at me an' slapped me in de mouf, an' I had dat ole knife an' stuck it in her arm.
Dey put me at service when I was eight years ole. Dey put me to foller'n de stock. Dey run out in de big woods, an' dey had to foller dem to keep 'em from breakin' into folkses fiel's.
I run away once, (he laughed) I didn' start to go nowhere jes' laid out in de woods, hidin' from de overseer. He come down de street in de Quarters dat mawnin' jes' a beatin' an' a whuppin' an' de niggahs all a cryin' an' a screamin' an' before he got to where I was, I was done lef' an hid in de woods. My ole mistis, thought dat de overseer had kilt me, an' she tole him not to bother me ef I was foun'. Ole mistis was mean too, she would tell de overseer to whup de niggahs, but she didn' low him to kill none of us, 'kase dat would lose her money. Well, dey foun' me an' took me to de Great House, but dey didn' whup me. Dey ship me off from dat place ober to her son's plantation. He was mah'ied off an his place was about 3 miles from ole mistis.
De war had been goin' on 'bout a year an' a half when I went wid my marster's younges' brother, Rufus. I stayed in it den, till it ended. I was in a heap of battles, but I cain' remember none of deir names, 'cept Petersburg an' Richmon'. My marster never did get wounded - one time a bullet went under his arm an' tore a bundle away, but it didn' hurt him. My marster was a Cap'n an' dey didn' rush de riches' folks to de fron' to fight dey rushed de poor folks
in firs'. I was in a big battle at Petersburg. I was carryin' a 'spatch for Cap'n Jordan, he was ober our camp, to a Colonel, 'bout 3 miles away, an' my horse fell down, an' broke my arm so bad, dey had to ca'hy me to de horspittle an' have it took off.
I wa'nt at Richmon'. My marster got a furlough to go see 'bout his mother, jes' a few days before, but he jes' done it to shun dat heavy battle. He kep' bushwackin' along an' we nebber did git to Richmon'.
Ebbery place de Yankees took, dey tole de cullud folks dey ain' got no more marster an' no more mistis, an' to go 'bout deir business. Dey 'stroyed de stock an' took what money dey could fin' - dey stroyed de stuff too, I seen em pull de plug outn a barrel of 'lasses an' pour it out in de road.
De Yankees tole us to go to a big city, New bern, N. C. De slaves went dere by hunderds an' hunderds, whole train loads, an' when we got dere dey dumped us out, and dey wa'nt no houses for us to stay in. Dey jes' haul us out to a big battle groun' called Fort Totten an' dere dey dump us out on de bare groun' hunderds an' hunderds of niggahs. We got stakes an' driv' down in de groun' an' peeled off bark to make us shelters.
Atter dey dump us out dey tell us to go down to a place - I has forgot de name of it - an' dere we would draw some grub. Dey was a Yankee dere, dey called him de progo (provost) marshall an' he giv' us out hardtacks and codfish an' ole pink beefs dat was lef' from de army. We stayed dere an' et dat till fall an' den de progo marshall let all dat wanted to go back to deir ole homes an' give us tickets on de train. I went back to my marster an' stayed wid him three years. He paid me $3.50 a month an' he fed us from his table. I worked on farms all my life an' in turpentine, as long as I was able to work. Atter awhile I went to Georgy an' worked mos'ly in turpentine. I stayed dere a long time. De firs' station I lan' at in Georgy was Millwood, the nex' big town to it was Albany. I worked turpentine dere for 12 years, an' den I went to Crawford county an' worked turpentine.
I come to Mississippi 30 years ago, to Ocean Springs. For along time I worked for Mr. Harry Woodman, at Vancleave. Den I live in Biloxi. I plowed around dere for people, I had a team of my own, I jes' went around town an' plowed folkses' gardens for 'em. I jes' got a pension for two years before I come here, it was only $40 a year. I went to de Reunion at Montgomery an' dey tole me I better get in de Home, ifn $40 a year was all I was gettin'.
Yes, I voted for about 5 years atter de War. I voted at Snow hill, dat was in Greene county an' voted once in Georgy. None of my cullud frien's was ever 'lected to office - no more'n county commissioner. I quit votin' kase dey 'franchised us from votin'. I thought dem was good times in de country 'fore dey 'franchised us.
I has seen Klukluxes an' I has run from 'em. Dey sot atter me, but dey didn' get me. Dey was atter us, jes' kase we was free. Dey killed up seberal of de cullud folks, dey would get atter 'em in de night.
I b'long to de Methodis' church, I jined in 1866. We went to our marster's church in slavery time. He was a Methodis' an all his cullud folkses was Methodis', all dem dat b'longed to church. I takes de bus an' goes to church in Biloxi mos' ebery Sunday, I don' go ebery Sunday.
I raises a garden an' sells de stuff, I used to sell de bigges' part of it right here at de Home. Dey gives us $2.00 a month spendin' money now, I doan know what dey gwine to do, dey talks about quittin' dat. I got three chillun livin' so far as I knows, I got a daughter in Biloxi an' a son in Canton, Ohio. He works in a bank - he has worked dere 15 years. Den I has another son in Loosiana, I forgets de name of de place.
I likes it pretty well here, but I would like it better ifn dey'd jes' give me 'nough pension, so I could live at home.
Nathan Best Newspaper clipping, THE GUIDE, November 13, 1936 from Box 128J, folder "Racial Groups" - W.P.A. Collection, Mississippi Department of Archives and History"
Nathan Best -- Additional Interview
At Beauvoir, the old home of Jefferson Davis, the beloved leader of the Confederacy, there are two old ex-slaves who were body-servants of soldiers during and before the war. Mrs. Tartt, the woman superintendent, after an absence of four years is again at the Home, much to the delight of some of the inmates, and she shows people about in a most gracious and entertaining manner. She certainly seems to know the place, history, contents, and the name of every inmate, as she and her husband were in charge sixteen years before she was away for four years. A full description of the home and contents will be found in this chapter.
This is a story of two slaves, and as the stories have a rich flavor of ante-bellum days we bring them to you in the dialect, so to speak. As we approached them, we saw them sitting under spreading oaks, one old white head nodding as he was dozing in the summer heat. Mrs. Tartt told us their names: Nathan Bess, and Frank Childress, the one half asleep, the other awake and eager to greet us and talk about "De wah days". Nathan Bess was small, one arm gone and said he was born in 1845 in Snow Hill, Green County North Carolina. He is 91 years old and seemed to be in a mood to reminisce, and liked most to talk of his "Mars Rufus Bess Marse Henry". We asked him how he lost his arm, and he told us this story:
"It was near Raleigh North Carolina, durin' de war. whilst I was carying er despach fer General Lee to Captain Israel Company K, dat mah hoss runnin' so fas' dat he fell fum under me, en broke mah arhm. All dis happen wen ah wus returnin' as ah deliverd de spatch safe. Dey pick me up tuk me to er horspittal, en tuk off mah arhm. I staid dare en wuk til de war ober, den ah cum straight home en wuk fer de young marse Henry Bess. Whilst de ole marse live ah had er good time, but de oberseer was mean ter me. he beat me, he put my hade twixt fence rails and stan off en beat me."
It was music to us to hear this old ex-slave use the broad as and the old Virginia and North Carolina accent --- truly ear marks of the old south.
We next turned to Uncle Frank Childress ...Frank has been in the Home 3 years, and Nathan 5 years and say they are well cared for. These two old men are going toward the sunset of life well cared for amid beautiful surroundings.
Best, Nathan -- Additional Interview
AGED COLORED VETERAN FOUGHT FOR BOTH YANKEE AND CONFEDS
One day a soldier fighting for the South and the next a soldier, but firing cannon for the North! A strange sounding record, but it's altogether true. If the tale told by Frank Childress, 85-year old negro, who is spending his last years at the Confederate veterans' home at Beauvoir.
"Yassuh, I'se the one what fought on both sides," he claims proudly, "but I neber fought for de Yankees till dey captured me and put me in a corral and said, 'Nigger, you fought for de South; now you can fight for de North."
And confirming every word that Frank says is Nathan Best, the other remaining negro veteran, who accompanied "massah" to the war only to return minus one arm.
Perhaps Nathan doesn't know whether Frank fought on both sides or not, for he nearing 92. At any rate state officials who checked back on the records believe that the white-headed old darkey is telling the truth.
...Living in the same cottage with old Frank is Uncle Nathan Best, "body servant of Cap'n Rufus Best of Greene County, North Ca'lina."
Born in 1845, the old negro still retains a vigor which has enabled him to raise, with the aid of Frank, two crops in his little garden patch this summer. If you don't believe this old darky is proud of that record just go and ask him.
But Uncle Nathan is handicapped in his gardening work by the lack of an arm. He tells an interesting story about how he lost that arm nearly three quarters of a century ago.
"I was de best dispatch carrier in de whole Ca'lina country," he says, "and dey picked me to carry de mostest important dispatches."
"One day, dey told me to tote a letter from Cap'n Bill Durdan to a big general. I jumped up on my hoss, and beginned tearing up de road, cep'n de road was all tore up, like a ghos' was right in behind of me.
"And suh, I carried dat letter right to de general. Dere warn't nothin' wrong with me den. Well, I started back to camp. Den my hoss got shot and throwed me an busted my arm to pieces. It hurt somethin' terrible. Den when dey found me, de jus' up and cut my arm right off."
Nathan has been in Mississippi about 30 years, living out at Vancleve community. When he became too old to do any work, he sought admittance at Beauvoir and has been there for the past five years.
During the war, when they got word the Yankees were coming, Mrs. Thomas would hide her "little niggers" sometimes in the wardrobe back of her clothes, sometimes between the mattresses, or sometimes in the cane brakes. After the Yankees left, she'd ring a bell and they would know they could come out of hiding. (When first heard the slaves were free, they didn't believe it so they just stayed on with their "white folks".)
Both Nathan and Frank live in the past, dreaming of the days when the old South was at the height of its glory. They wouldn't take a million dollars of those dreams. They know they haven't many more years here and they are waiting to join their old "massahs."
See Frank Childress – Slave Narrative
Transcribed by Ann Allen Geoghegan
The Federal Writer’s Project of
The Works Progress Administration
For the State of Mississippi