Last week, I did a presentation on the Civil War for an assembly of our local elementary school's 5th Grade (they are studying American History this year). To prepare for this and my discussion about slavery, I pulled out my copy of "MY Folks Don't Want Me To Talk About Slavery", a compilation of slave narratives from the state of North Carolina. This was part of a larger endeaver, known as the "Federal Writers Project", in the 1930's, when then President Roosevelt employed out-of-work writers to go down into the South and record the experiences of elderly African Americans who had been born into slavery (the last living person who had been born into slavery died in the 1960's). The results were that over 1,000 narratives were recorded and stored in the Library of Congress for future posterity.
These frail voices forge a searing portrait of what it was like to be African American during slavery times. Although some slaves faired much better than others, none of them were allowed the rights of self-determination, to bear arms, to assemble or to buy and sell. These rules are what made up the Slave Code, which was of course designed to keep African Americans in bondage under the whites. Consequently, while each of these portraits is very different, they are yet all the same.
The brutality under which a slave lived depended mostly on whether they were a house servant, and therefore living in close proximity to their "masters", at times becoming like part of the family, or whether they were a field worker. Then this difference was magnified by the number of slaves who were on a property. The smaller the number, the more of a personal relationship was established with a family, and whether the master had an oversear for the slaves (poor white overseers were known for their brutality while keeping slaves "in line"), and whether or not "pattyrollers" (white patrollers whose job it was to make sure the Slave Code was being enforced) were allowed on the property. Pattyrollers were generally brutal.
"Marster had four overseers on the place, and they drove us from sunup till sunset. Some of the women plowed barefooted most all the time, and had to carry that row and keep up with the men, and then do their cooking at night. We hated to see the sun rise in slavery time, 'cause it meant another hard day; but then we was glad to see it go down." (Henry James Trentham, Age 92, Raleigh, NC)
Although some masters were just cruel, period, some were extremely lenient for the times. The lives of slaves living under the latter type situation were far different, as evidenced by the following...
"I was too small to work. They had me to do little things like feeding the chickens and minding the table sometimes; but I was too small to work. They didn't let children work much in them days till they were thirteen fourteen years old [on many plantations, slave children began working as young as 5 years of age]. We played base, cat, rolly hole, and a kind of baseball called 'round town. Marster would tell the children about Raw head and Bloody Bones and other things to scare us. He would call us to the barn to get apples and run and hide, and we would have a time finding him. He give the one who found him an apple...
Marster would not have an overseer. No sir, the slaves worked very much as they pleased...They loved him, though. I never saw a slave sold. he kept his slaves together. He didn't want to get rid of any of them. No slaves run away from Marster. They didn't have any excuse to do so, because whites and colored fared alike at Marster's. Marster loved his slaves and other white folks said he loved a n***** more than he did white folks..." (Isaac Johnson, age 82, Lillington, NC)
Contrast that with this story...
"I remembers seeing a heap of slave sales, with the n*****s in chains, and the speculators selling and buying them off. I also remembers seeing a drove of slaves with nothing on but a rag betwixt their legs being galloped around before the buyers. About the worst things that I ever see, though was a slave woman at Louisburg who had been sold off from her three-weeks-old baby, and was being marched to New Orleans.
"She had walked till she was give out, and she was weak enough to fall in the middle of the road. She was chained with twenty or thirty other slaves, and they stopped to rest in the shade of a big oak whilest the speculators et their dinner. The slaves ain't having no dinner. As I pass by, this woman begs me in God's name for a drink of water, and I gives it to her; I ain't never be so sorry for nobody.
"It was in the month of August, and the sun was bearing down hot when the slaves and their drivers leave the shade. They walk for a little piece, and this woman fall out. She dies there 'side of the road, and right there they buries her, cussing, they tells me, about losing money on her." (Josephine Smith, Age 94, Raleigh, NC).
Some people may wonder what is the benefit of reading these narratives. After all, slavery was a shameful period of time for our country and something about which most Americans might like to forget. However, I believe that American slaves did much of the back breaking labor it took to turn the wild place that was our country into farmlands and communities that could sustain this nation. It fills me with sadness when I think that we might turn a deaf ear to the fragile voices of these men and women, because they are so full of strength, perserverance, hope, humor and pain. They deserve to be heard.