Title: Mississippi Slave Narratives from the WPA Records
Submitter: MSGenWeb Slave Narrative Project
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From the WPA Slave Narratives:
I is a Mississippian. Born in the State and lived in it all my life. My mother, Fannie Oliver, died when I was a baby. My father, Jim Oliver, took care of me as best he could till the War broke out. He ran off and joined the Yankee Army so my Grandma, Tena, and Grandpa Stevens, took me and raised me. My sister Joemima was most grown at that time so she helped to care for me. I never had no brother and my other sister died before she was old enough to get a name. I was born in the year 1856. I has kept up with it all these years. Ain't never forgot them figures. I told them to my son when he was old enough to remember and he has kept up with it too, same as I is. I has been here a long time and I has learned a heap of things in all them years. All of my folks came from Kentucky. My master, June Ward, bought them at Lexington and brought them to his plantation in Washington County, Mississippi. He always went off to get his slaves. The dealers didn't come to our part of the country with slaves for sale. I never seed one sold in my life. They had slaves markets in New Orleans but Master never went there after hisn. I wasn't old enough to do much work 'sept to be the cow pen boy. My job was to go for the cows and keep the calves off while the milking was going on. I never got no money for that. Nobody was paid for work but we could make money selling eggs and chickens. Money made that way, we was allowed to spend for what soever we wanted. In them days we had everything in the way of food and clothes. Masters' smoke house was most as big as a store. It was kept filled all the time. Lake Washington was right there with fish of all kind. We would catch so many of them fish we would have to throw them back in the water to keep the hogs from eating them. The woods was full of game, deer, bears, wild cows, panthers, turkeys, geese, ducks, possums, rabbits, squirrels, birds and everything. Them wild ducks would stay around on the lake with the tame ducks. The leader kept his sharp eyes set and if you don't slip up on him, he will see you and when he do, he give one quack, and like a flash of lightning them ducks is gone. 'Bout the only thing my young Master thought about was hunting. When I was big enough, he took me with him. Me and him sure had good times. We has killed turkeys in the new plowed field. The wild cows and deer would come to the houses to get water and it wasn't nothing to see bears everyday. We had a big central garden out of which vegetables was gathered for us to eat. Besides this we had corn bread, 'lasses, and white bread every Sunday.
Master bought all our clothes in Kentucky, and I mean clothes. They wasn't no old flimsy things like they is now. When Master go to Kentucky, he would bring back everything we needed to wear, even to shoes, with brass tips on the toes. Master sure wan't no slacker when it come to doing for his hands. I can see him now walking up and down on his porch pulling his long beard and saying, "Well, boys, is you all here. Hope none of you done run away while I been gone." Some of the slaves had a way of running off to the woods when Master left, 'cause the overseer, who wasn't nothing nohow, but poor white trash, would get a little hard on them. When Master got back, they always got back. When the overseer tell on the ones that been gone, Master say "Well, well, I have to see about that." He ain't going to see 'bout nothing of that kind, so it drops right there. Miss Matilda, bless her soul, was the best creature that ever lived. She was Master's wife. There wasn't nothing Miss Matilda couldn't do. I is seed her set and knit all day and not once look at what she was knitting. Them needles would click together same as a clock ticking and when she finishes she have the prettiest jackets and socks, just the same as if they came from a weaver. There was two sons in the family, Mr. George and Mr. June, Jr. Two girls, Mattie, and Betty. They would all go off for the summer, and stay three months at a time. I had an uncle that would step off every time Master left and stay till he got back. Some of them overseers was mean as the devil, and they would try to make my uncle work in the field. He wasn't no field hand, he was an ax man. He knowed, tho, when Master was there, he wasn't going to allow no mistreatment. Big as the place was, there was need for hewers and choppers all the time, to keep the place in wood. There wan't no need trying to make a man go from one profession to another one he don't know nothing about.
I never heared them say how many acres old Master owned. He had about two hundred slaves to work it, and it took that many with the clearing of the land and cultivating going on all the time.
The overseer blew the horn before day to get up; again at twelve o'clock for dinner and before dark to stop work. The working hours was from sun to sun. When the last horn blowed we went to the big eating hall for supper. Them cooks knowed how to prepare food. Them baked 'tater pies; could smell it across the field. It took me a long time to get used to not having good things to eat. The children had a separate place to eat from the grown folks. I 'speck they had sense enough to know them children would be sick if they gave them the same quality food the grown folks had. After supper there wasn't no rule to abide by. We could do whatsoever we pleased, just so we got to bed by nine o'clock. A nigger ain't fit to do no work if he sets up all night. Saturday nights, thats a different matter. We could set up all night. That when we held our dances. We was off work at dinner time on Saturday, and Sunday was free day, so there wasn't no objection to how late we danced, just so there wasn't no cutting up going on. The strictest rule they had was about fighting. They wouldn't have none of that. If you do it anyway, and somebody gets bad hurt, you be put in the stocks for that. It was dark in there, too, to make it seem worser. That was the only jail slaves knowed anything about. For running off, stealing hogs, and not working, you was given a whipping and let go. I remember one night, my pa came in late. Soon as he stepped in the door, he said, "Cover that boy's head up quick." Wasn't no need to have my head covered then, 'cause I done seed him. My pa had stole that hog. Such a killing and a going on as there was. They never catch up with him neither.
The only book learning we ever got was when we stole it. Master bought some slaves from Cincinnati, that had worked in white folks houses. They had stole a little learning and when they came to our place they passed on to us what they knew. We wasn't allowed no paper and pencil. I learned all my A.B.C.'s without it. I knows how to read and ain't never been in a school room in my life. There was one woman by the name of Aunt Sylvia. She was so smart she foreknowed things before they took place. I has heared Master say many a time he wouldn't take nothing in this world for her. If he want to get the ages to put down in his book, she could tell it to him to the very day and month. How she knowed so much I can't tell. We didn't have no church. We used the children's house for our meeting place of prayer. Aunt Sylvia gave the lecture. She was a good thinker. Looked as if she knowed everything just from her mother wit. She was the only preacher we knowed anything about. Never had a baptizing or anything of that sort. There was another pretty smart one among the slaves. He was the carpenter for the place. He made all the beds we slept on, and they was beautiful. Every one of them had a tester, like a canopy over it. He made all the coffins too, and that kept him steady working whenever an epidemic broke out. Wasn't much attention paid to the burying of the dead. Not even a song or a prayer at the grave.
I often sets back and wonders if there is ever been held such celebrations as the ones we had on Christmas Day. There was presents for everybody from the youngest to the oldest. Then there was Santa Claus for the children. At night there was a big dance. The fiddlers and the tambourine and bone beaters, was the finest to be got out of Kentucky. Master sure wan't no stingy man. He gave us a barrel of whiskey every Christmas. The cups was tied on the barrell. We would ring around it and each person have his nip as his time come. All the while the songs was going on. The drivers was there to keep order. Better not be no fighting 'cause that shore meant the stocks. When the dancing started Master and old Miss always came to see them cut the Pigeon Wing and do the Rail road.
Fourth of July was the big barbecue. Weeks before time, they start telling us, "You better get your crops clean by the Fourth of July. We knowed what that meant and we knowed it so well that when the time come, them crops looks like they been swept with new brooms. If a person today could see the number of cows, sheep, goats and hogs that was barbecued for that one day, they would think the whole world was going to be fed. New Years was held at the big house. That was not public, like the other day. So I don't know much about it. I never liked to shuck corn, so I never got no enjoyment out of corn shuckings. Heap of them liked it, and they would try hard for the prize that was offered for the one that could shuck the most.
There never was no trouble between the white folks and us.
They didn't try to keep the war news from us. They didn't exactly come out and tell us nothing but they didn't care if we heared it. The children would hear them say the soldiers were near Petersburg; they would tell it to us, and we pass it on to the next one, same as they do now. We knowed pretty much what was going on. They was fighting right at us, at Milligan's Bend. The Yankee soldiers passing all the time taking our men off with them. That is, all that would go. They took everything with them they could lay hands on. What they couldn't use, they tore up. Them Yankee soldiers had buttons on their blue jackets that looked like real gold. They looked so rich and grand on them beautiful horses, it was no wonder so many wanted to go with them. My father went, and was in the Army 'till he got mustered out at Vicksburg. Us children didn't give it much thought, one way or 'tother. We kept right up with our little games of ball and marbles. Sometime have our little ring play. The old folks told us all sorts of stories about hants and ghosts. They said I was so hardheaded they couldn't scare me. My wife believes in spirits and says she has seed them many times. I come pretty near getting up to it once. My hair started creeping on end, I was that scared. They kept telling the story, about the hant that was in the old gin house, where the man was killed. I was a grown man then. I kept telling my wife there wasn't nothing to it, and to prove it to her, I started out to investigate. When I got nearly to that gin house, so help me, if it didn't start up running. I could hear the wheels going and the engine puffing same as if it had up steam. I left there right now, and while I don't believe in ghosts I don't believe neither in making investigations. That was my last time. Whenever a slave got sick, he was cared for mighty nice. The white doctor 'tended him and the old folks nursed him. Sometime the old folks did the doctoring with the medicine they made out of herbs. Their snake root tonic was mighty fine. Nothing better for the cramps than bur vine tea. They made little bags of asafele and buckeye to keep off disease. For the heart complaint they used a brass key or a piece of lead around the neck.
When the War ended, the word got around to all. Some of the slaves didn't have sense enough to know what it was all about, but they joined in with the others, shouting "Free, at Last! Free as a frog." They jumped and hollowed and carried on something terrible. The boys in blue came by to excite them more. We stayed there, like heap of them did, for a many a year after the War. Then we moved off to another place near by but that wasn't the same, as the old home place. Seemed like we couldn't be contented no where else, so we moved back. After a number of years they changed overseers and for some reason my Grandma couldn't get along with him so we left. I never did give up till I had to, 'cause I wanted to stay. Didn't have no trouble with the Ku Klux Klan, the Night Riders or nothing. The Reconstruction came and went but it didn't bother us none. In certain places the colored folks voted, and I has heared of them holding public office as high up as the Senate. None of them don't vote now. I 'speck they ain't got money enough to pay their taxes.
After we left the old homeplace we moved to Greenville and there I lived for forty years. I worked by the day at the oil mill and ran a public dray wagon. Schools were started up for negroes. White teachers taught till the colored could learn to master the old Blue Back speller. When you get all there is, in that book its just the same as mastering the Bible. When I married my first wife, Linie, we was both dressed up in the best we had. Didn't get no special clothes for the occasion. We had four children. Two boys and two girls. Two of them is still living. The girl Carrie Belle is in Chicago, and the boy has been the cook in a restaurant in Clarksdale for years and years. I moved to Coahoma County in the year 1910. After my first wife died, I married Betsy and we is still living together. I am able to work a little yet. Up to this year Betsy could pick cotton, but she ain't no 'count now 'cept to do our little cooking. She can't remember 'bout all the noted men like I can. There is Abraham Lincoln, he was talked of much, 'cause he set us all free, and Jefferson Davis, he was a great man. He done his part for what he thought was right. He didn't think they had a right to take the slaves away from their owners, when they had done bought them. Some of the colored people thinks there ain't nobody like Booker T. Washington. I hears them talk about him, but for my part, I don't know nothing about his displays.
Nobody is raising their children up right these days. They got no manners. Don't come around the old folks, so fraid they will be asked to do something. Their mothers not much better. Don't come to the door to ask about us if we sick. Me and my wife lives to be honest and righteous. We is both members of the Baptist Church and we don't visit none, 'sept the ones that lives as we does. Its hard pulling to make a living these days. Even with the little money the Government gives me, its hard to get by. Things is so high, money won't buy much. You just handles it; thats all.
Everybody wants to be free and they should be. I don't believe its right to live in bondage, but I do say it bold and above board that the slaves with good masters like mine was a heap better off. Folks all say that's 'ceitful on my part, but it couldn't be, 'cause I wasn't old enough to know nothing about being 'ceitful. I can remember having every thing I wanted and it takes a long time to get used to not having nothing.
Interviewer: Carrie Campbell
Transcribed by Ann Allen Geoghegan
The Federal Writer’s Project of
The Works Progress Administration
For the State of Mississippi