Home for the Holidays, by Thomas Kincaid

Friday, March 20, 2009

Voices From The Past

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.



Beth at Aunties said...

This was so interesting. I can hardly wait to get back to all that history:-)

I have whooping cough and the violent coughing upsets my back...
I had it when we went out to lunch ...Do you remember me coughing? But now it has knocked me for a loop. Finally I am on meds and hope it will soon be another illness knocked;-)

My ancestor Jonanthan Ricks was a plantation owner in Nash County N Carolina. I hope he was kind. I heard he was... Any knowledge of him?

Beth at Aunties said...

I have all the names and dates!

That line is pretty well researched! I can send them by email or when I get a voice back i can call you;-)

Myrnie said...

What amazing voices. My mother's family came from Alabama. By all accounts we can find, blacks and whites were on pretty equal footing out in the sticks, but not in town. It's pretty interesting. Neither one could own land or vote, and everyone was struggling to provide for their families. Grandma remembered playing with "colored" kids when she was small, and she felt so bad when she rode the bus to school (when her daddy let her go, instead of tending the farm) and she saw the "colored" kids walking to school.

Trish said...

Oh Elizabeth....what a good post to share. Wow....it really tugs at one's heart strings doesn't it. It is so hard to imagine how one human being can be so cruel, so defining of another. I pray, but despair, that prejudices such as the times of slavery does not exist. But my heart and head tell me otherwise.

nowealthbutlife.com said...

Your last paragraph is beautiful. Thank you for the reminder.

Anwen said...

Wow. Thank you for taking the time to present this on your blog.

nowealthbutlife.com said...

Thanks for the comment. I found you while browsing through blogs... I'm afraid I can't remember which one it was that linked to you though.

Sister Robbins said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your blog entry. On our way to Prestonsburg, KY in November we stopped in Ripley, OH. This was a favored place for the slave to cross the Ohio because of the gentle slope of the shore. We took tons of pictures. I loved the stories we were told by the woman who single handedly runs the Ripley Museum. She told of Harriet Beecher Stowe (her house is in downtown Cincinnati) being inspired to write "Uncle Tom's Cabin" after witnessing slaves being auctioned off from the courthouse steps in Maysville, KY (just across the river from Ripley).
Great Blog!
Have a Lovely Sabbath~

Bobbie said...

Thanks for that information. It is hard to hear but we need to remember it.