Title: Mississippi Slave Narratives from the WPA Records
Submitter: MSGenWeb Slave Narrative Project
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From the WPA Slave Narratives:
As near as I can calculate, I was born about the year 1858. The way I reckons, is this: when peace was declared, I was a little fellow about seven or eight years old. I might have been older, cause I was big enough to remember most every thing that happened. I was born on the Leabough plantation in Arkansas, about eight miles from Little Rock.
My pa, Anthony Davis, and my ma, Sally Leabough, was brought from Virginia, by Old Master Cates. I had three brothers Dave, John Wesley, and Jurden; three half brothers Billy, Leabough, and Dan Hacket; three sisters Calline, Virginia, and Elmire; three half sisters Belle, Fannie, and Hallie Hacket. All of my half sisters and brothers was born after the war. They was all children of my ma's second husband, Hacket. My ma was the mother of eighteen head of children. Some of them died before I was born and I can't tell nothing about them.
All the slaves lived in the quarters, in warm log houses, with brick chimneys. My father made the brick, right there on the place. Our beds was made of canvas nailed to the wall on one side and legs on the other side. We had plenty of cover to keep us warm. My grandpa and grandma, and all their children came from Virginia too. They lived until I was about grown, so I remember them well.
I was not old enough to do any work. Old Miss believed in letting children get big before working them. Them, what did work, didn't earn no money, they didn't know nothing 'bout such as that.
We always had plenty of something to eat. Meat, cornbread, milk, and vegetables of all kinds. The garden was made for the colored, and the whites together, so each person didn't have to worry with making one for hisself. My mother cooked for all the slaves both grown ups and children. Everybody ate in the big cook kitchen. There was a big brick oven, where the bread was baked. The other food was cooked in an open fireplace. We never did have no possum or game of no kind. Maybe there warn't no hunters on the place.
In the summer time, all the clothes we wore was a long rough jeans shirt. The cloth was made on the place, and it wasn't smooth like cloth of today. Everybody went bare footed. When the cold weather came, we wore pants and warm underclothes. The grown folks always had shoes. Sometimes the children didn't have none. My father was the shoemaker. I speck he couldn't make them fast enough. Shoes was kinder tedious to make. The soles had to be put on with wooden pegs, and that took a long time.
Old Miss and her husband separated long years before I knowed her. Her name was Maria Leabough. Her two boys was named Henry and Bousy. Her girls' names was Helen, Tody, and Celia. They lives in a great big old log house. There wasn't anything fine about it, but it was comfortable and warm. There wasn't no overseer. My grandpa Abron was the slave driver. He done all the whipping that was done. There wasn't no poor whites living around in that county in them days.
I just can't say how much land there was in that plantation. You see it was like this. Old man Cates bought all this land in Arkansas. Him and his family moved down from Virginia and bought all their slaves with them. When his children married, he would give them part of his place and enough slaves to run it. My Old Miss was his daughter. He gived her the land right next to him. Some of his son's places was a mile or two away. There was hundreds of slaves. The way they done with the work was to take the hands from one place to the other, if any of them, got behind in the work.
Everybody worked from daylight till dark. The work hands was out before the children was up, and sometimes us would be in bed asleep when they got home. Grandpa went from house to house in the quarters to see that all got up. At dinner time, they blowed a big horn for to stop work and eat.
Never heared no complaint 'bout working too hard. Everybody seemed well satisfied. Sometimes the slaves would kinder play off from their work, and grandpa would have to give them a little licking. After that everything would be all right. The only other thing I ever knowed them to get whipped about was stealing hogs. One day, he did whip my ma, for burning up all the coffee she was parching. She was his own child. Everybody said grandpa whipped justly, and they didn't think no more about it, then a child what gets a whipping that he needs.
There warn't no jails. Never even heard about them till after the war.
No slave dealers ever passed our way. I never saw a slave with a chain on, nor is I ever seed one sold.
The only slave I ever heared of that could read and write was a man by the name of Clayborn. He was the carriage driver and carried the white children to school. He had to stay all day to bring the children back when school was out. While he was there, he was learning what they was learning. He was kinder kin to me, and he sure could read, cause I is heared him. My grandma went to the white folks Methodist Church. There wasn't no church on the place, and we didn't hear nothing bout of the Bible no spirituals or baptizings. When a slave died, there wasn't no Christian burial, and there wasn't no ceremony of any kind.
None of the slaves ever ran off to the North. My father ran off once to keep from going to Texas. Missis oldest son, Henry, was moving out there to live. He was going to carry some of the slaves with him. My father didn't want to go, so he ran off and hid. They searched everywhere for him and had the patrollers looking too. When he thought they had got off, here he comes back. The big covered wagons was all ready to start when somebody spied my pa. Master Henry called to him to get in one of the wagons and drive it to Texas. They didn't have no time to punish him or nothing. He got in the wagon, picked up the reins, and 'fore you could bat your eye, they had left out of there.
There wasn't no way of getting news around, 'sept by what is called the grapevine way. That is, one hands it on to the other. We was allowed to visit on all the places, that had been owned by old man Cates without a pass. They knowed all the slaves, and we could come and go as we pleased. When we made these visits, we exchanged all the news we heared. If we went on anybody else's place, we had to slip off. Saturday night was the time they picked to slip away and do that visiting. None of them ever did get caught, cause they couldn't tell where they was at, and by morning they was in their beds asleep.
The colored and the whites got along mightly peaceful together. There warn't never no trouble of any kind between them.
When the day's work was over, everybody was ready to take his rest. Saturday was the only night we took for frolicing. My pa was a mighty fine banjo picker. He furnished the music for the folks to dance. He could all but make that old box talk. Slaves from other places was always slipping over to uses dances. That's when the patrollers would get after them. It was mighty seldom when anybody ever got caught. As far as I can recollect, the work went on all day Saturday same as on other days. Sunday, we didn't have to do nothing. We visited around in the quarters, cracked walnuts and ate them, lolled under the shade trees in the summer time.
Warn't much difference in the customs then and now 'sept for the church going. The Christmas them days was not like it is now. We knowed when it came, and that was all. The children didn't even know nothing about hanging up their stockings. We had corn shucking, but it wasn't in the form of a party. We done the shucking in the day time. Everybody was sent to the crib together. They would sing and have good times, but they didn't have no prizes. The song they liked best was
"Once I was so lucky,
Old Master set me free
Sent me to Kentucky
To see, what I could see
Mean old banjo Thomas
Mean old banjo Joe
Going away to Kentucky
Won't come back no more."
The only big celebration what I can remember was the wedding of old Misses daughter, Miss Celia. She got married to a man by the name of Mason. He didn't have but one leg, but he sure did look fine, all dressed up in a dark suit. Miss Celia had on a long white dress made out of some kind of cloth that was real shiny. They let every slave on the place come in the house to see the marriage. Us all had to get bathed and put on clean clothes, from skin out. There warn't so many white folks there, but that house was sure packed with us niggers. When the time came to eat, I stayed in the kitchen. You never seed the like of the food there was in that kitchen; turkey, chicken, and hogmeat with all the dressings what goes with each one. There warn't no decorations or flowers, but every thing was clent up spick and span.
The thing us little boys liked better than anything was to shoot marbles. We would get under them big trees, and shoot all day. That's the only game we liked to play.
The biggest thing that was used to keep off diseases was asafetida bags. I heared the old folks say that lead was mighty good too. Lots of folks uses that now, and they say it hoped them for lot of ailments.
They used to scare us children with ghosts and hants to make us behave usself. I ain't never seed one. I was riding a mule one night, and what that mule seed, I ain't never knowed. I rode to the gate of the grave yard. When I got there that mule reared and pitched till he fell down. When he fell to the ground, he trembled and quivered all over. Never seed nothing like it. I got him up and away from there so quick I didn't have time to see nothing. You couldn't get no nigger to stay in no house where a man had been killed. One fellow was killed in the gin house, and ever after queer noises could be heared there at night.
When there was any sickness on the place, the old folks cared for the sick person. Old Miss always went herself to see about them. She always gave the medicine too. Every morning us children took Jerusalem Oak for worms as that was the most what was ever the matter. Sometimes we had chills. For them we took quinine and calomel. The smallpox hadn't started up in them days like it did later.
Old Miss told us the very day freedom came. She called us all up, and she says, "You is all free, but nobody don't have to leave here, lesson he wants to. Go on about your work now and stay right where you is." Us was all mighty proud that we had a good place to stay.
We didn't know nothing 'bout no war, there wasn't none of it going on in Arkansas at least not anywhere near our place. I never heared but one shot in the whole four years, and that came from across the river. When the war was over, the Yankees came riding through the place. They tore down the gate and broke up the fences and played havoc around there. That was the first time I ever seed a blue jacket. I run in the house and under the bed I went. When they came to the house, I went through the window and down to the cornfield. I stayed there all night. Couldn't nobody on the place find me. Next day when I came home, the soldiers had all left. I sure was glad, cause I didn't have no business to contract with none of them Yankees. One thing, we was thankful for the ku klux klan never did come over our way. We didn't even hear nothing about them. I stayed on that place till I was about twenty years old. Everybody stayed. We was paid for our work, and we was all satisfied.
One change what come after the war was schools for the colored children. White folks did the teaching. My ma bought me a school book, but I never went to school.
Bout the time I was grown, I got married, to a woman by the name of Mary Morgan. We had four children. She, and all the children are dead. I next married Nola Davis. We have been living together now for thirty-nine years. Her health aint no good. She has to stay in bed most of the time. We aint never had no children, and I aint got no grandchildren. In fact, I aint got no living kin. I didn't have no big "to do" neither time when I was married. The preacher just said the words that made us man and wife.
I knows a lot about Abraham Lincoln. They say he is the man that set the niggers free. He might have done that for some of them, but he sure wasn't the one to set me free.
Old Miss was the one that set all of us free, and Mr. Lincoln didn't have nothing to do with it. All of us belonged to Old Miss and if she hadn't said we was free we would have still belonged to her regardless of what Mr. Lincoln said. There was another great man in what they called the rebel army, his name was Robert E. Lee. Some like him and some don't. Some says it was him that tried to keep the niggers slaves. That wasn't what the war was about. That slavery didn't have nothing to do with it. You see it was this way Jefferson Davis wanted to let the slaves go up to the North, and Abraham Lincoln wouldn't allow it, cause he didn't want no slaves up there, and that's what the whole thing was about. The colored folks was a lot better off in slavery time than they is now. They needs teaching and caring for. They was made to look after theirself better. Slave holders cared more their slaves than the slaves cared for theirself.
I don't know nothing much about Booker T. Washington. I hears a lot about what he done for the colored race. If you ask me the man what really done something for them was President Wilson. When that man was in office us all had plenty of money and we aint had none since. Another thing I din't like about Abraham Lincoln. When the war was over, we was told they couldn't make us stay on the places, we was at. Old Miss didn't make us stay, she let us stay. We didn't receive nothing. If we had to leave where were we going? Nowhere to go, nothing to eat. If old Miss had drove us off, we yet wouldn't have been free. She wouldn't do the like of that like them Yankees wanted her to do.
I don't know nothing about reconstruction days. I can remember heaps of times I is voted. I voted the Republican ticket at first, but afterwards I voted for the Democrats. I don't know whether the colored folks can vote now or not. I don't take no more interest in politics. All my life I has been a farmer. When I left Arkansas, I came to Panola County, Mississippi. I was only there till cotton picking time, then I came up here to the Sherard place. After several years I bought me a piece of property near Cleveland. I farmed there for a long time and got along mighty well till my wife taken sick. When I found I had to put her in the hospital, I sold my place and moved to Memphis. When we left there, we came back to Coahoma County where I has been ever since. First on one place then on another. I is too old to farm now so I have moved to town. When the weather is good, I picks a little cotton. I does all right while I is picking, but the next day I aint no count atall. It's pretty hard on a man that worked all his live to have to give up, cause he's getting old. I wasn't brought up like this present generation. They just comes up theirselves. If they makes three dollars Saturday night picking cotton, they not got enough to last them.
I is a member of the Sanctified Church. I joined it, because it teaches you to be dutiful, and too, Gods church, must be Sanctified.
Transcribed by Ann Allen Geoghegan
The Federal Writer’s Project of
The Works Progress Administration
For the State of Mississippi