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Wooden shoes, leather-belt beatings and hunger: Slavery, in their own words

Extracts from the WPA Slave Narrative Collection.

(YouTube: MOVIES Coming Soon)

AS WE HEAD into Hollywood awards season, one of the most talked about films will be Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave.

The movie depicts the brutal true-life story of free black man Solomon Northup who was abducted and sold into slavery in pre-Civil War America.

The cruelty of masters and overseers, as well as the bravery of abolitionists is highlighted by the makers as they follow his struggle for freedom.

Before we go to cinema to take in the Golden Globe-nominated picture, we examined some more real-life accounts of slavery in the US.

Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States (or the WPA Slave Narrative Collection) was compiled between 1936 and 1938. The accounts are in the public domain and we have selected a small number of excerpts here.

The total collection of 2,000 interviews runs to more than 10,000 pages. The interviewers were primarily white and there are some subjective statements, questions and assertions within the finished product for which they have been criticised.

They have also been described as presenting a distorted view of slavery that is too positive and simplistic.

Jenny Proctor, ex-slave, Texas

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“I’s hear tell of dem good slave days but I ain’t nev’r seen no good times den. My mother’s name was Lisa and when I was a very small chile I hear dat driver goin’ from cabin to cabin as early as 3 o’clock in de mornin’ and when he comes to our cabin he say, ‘Lisa, Lisa, git up from dere and git dat breakfast.’

“My mother, she was cook and I don’t recollect nothin’ ’bout my father. If I had any brothers and sisters I didn’ know it. We had ole ragged huts made out of poles and some of de cracks chinked up wid mud and moss and some of dem wasn’t.

“We didn’ have no good beds, jes’ scaffolds nailed up to de wall out of poles and de ole ragged beddin’ throwed on dem. Dat sho’ was hard sleepin’ but even dat feel good to our weary bones after dem long hard days work in de field. I ‘tended to de chillun when I was a little gal and tried to clean de house jes’ like ole miss tells me to. Den soon as I was 10 years ole, ole marster, he say, ‘Git dis yere nigger to dat cotton patch.’

“I recollects once when I was tryin’ to clean de house like ole miss tell me, I finds a biscuit and I’s so hungry I et it, ’cause we nev’r see sich a thing as a biscuit only some times on Sunday mornin’. We jes’ have co’n braid and syrup and some times fat bacon, but when I et dat biscuit and she comes in and say, ‘Whar dat biscuit?’

“I say, ‘Miss, I et it ’cause I’s so hungry.’ Den she grab dat broom and start to beatin’ me over de head wid it and callin’ me low down nigger and I guess I jes’ clean lost my head ’cause I know’d better den to fight her if I knowed anything ‘tall, but I start to fight her and de driver, he comes in and he grabs me and starts beatin’ me wid dat cat-o’-nine-tails (a big leather whip, branching into nine tails) and he beats me ’til I fall to de floor nearly dead.

“He cut my back all to pieces, den dey rubs salt in de cuts for mo’ punishment. Lawd, Lawd, honey! Dem was awful days. When ole marster come to de house he say, ‘What you beat dat nigger like dat for?’ And de driver tells him why, and he say, ‘She can’t work now for a week, she pay for several biscuits in dat time.’ He sho’ was mad and he tell ole miss she start de whole mess. I still got dem scars on my ole back right now, jes’ like my grandmother have when she die and I’s a-carryin’ mine right on to de grave jes’ like she did.”

Mary Overton, ex-slave, Texas

“De slaves wasn’ jin’rally married dat way. Dey jus’ told dey marsters dey wanted to be husban’ and wife and if dey agreed, dat was all dere was to it, dey was said to be married. I heered some white folks had weddin’s for dere niggers, but I never did see none.

“I sure wish I knew how old I is, but I ain’ sure. I don’ even know my birthday!”

(According to some white persons who have known Mary for a long time, calculated from information Mary had given them as to her younger days, when her memory was better than it is now, she is probably more than one hundred years old.)

Henry Cheatam, ex-slave, Alabama

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Us slaves libed in log cabins what was daubed wid clay to keep de rain an’ win’ out, an’ de chimneys was made of clay an’ sticks. De beds was home-made an’ nailed agin’ de wall wid legs on de outer side. De Massa’s house was build of logs too, but it was much bigger’n de nigger cabins an’ sot way out in front of ourn. Atter de massa was kilt, old Miss had a nigger oberseer an’ dat was de meanest debil dat eber libbed on de Lawd’s green yearth. I promise myself when I growed up dat I was agoin’ to kill dat nigger iffen it was de las’ thing I eber done. Lots of times I’se seen him beat my mammy, an’ one day I seen him beat my Auntie who was big wid a chile, an’ dat man dug a roun’ hole in de groun’ an’ put her stummick in it, an’ beat an’ beat her for a half hour straight till the baby come out raght dere in de hole.

“Yassun, white folks, I’se seed some turrible things in my time. When de slaves would try to run away our oberseer would put chains on dere legs wid big long spikes tween dere feets, so dey couldn’t git away. Den I’s seen great bunches of slaves put up on de block an’ sol’ jus’ lak dey was cows. Sometimes de chilluns would be seprated from dere maws an’ paws…

..No’m, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout Abe Lincoln ‘ceptin’ dey say he sot us free, an’ I don’t know nothin’ ’bout dat neither.”

Martha Jackson, ex-slave, Alabama

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“And I knowed a woman name Tishie, Miss Mollie’s house sarvant. She run away ‘case dey so mean to her, I reckon, and de cullud folks harbored her and hid her up in de grain house wid de peas and sech lac’, stedder down in de corn crib. And who ever ’twas ‘trayed her I ain’t sayin’ but a crowd uv dem Patterrollers come and got ‘er one night, and tuck her away, and I ain’t nebber seed Tishie no mo’.

And one uv Ole Marsa’s niggers—’little boy’ he go by—he tuck on might’ly, ‘case dey say he wanted to marry Tishie. I know he fotch her up in de quarter fer ter git her sumpin’ to eat atter de white folks done sleep. But couldn’t nobody marry, ‘twa’n't ‘lowed, ‘outer one or t’other uv de Ole Marsa ‘greed to buy bofe uv ‘em and ef dey didn’t ‘gree you sho’ better keep ‘way fum dey place. And Ole Marsa and Miss Mollie didn’t nebber ‘gree.

“I hear some uv ‘em say one dem Patterrollers had ’bout three sets er cullud chillun over dere, and some uv ‘em favor’d Tishie, and ev’y time hit come time fer ‘em yaller gals ter work in de fiel’, dey got sarnt Norf. I reckon ‘case he never wanted see his own blood git beat up, and dat Jim Barton was er cru’l overseer, sho’s yer bawn.”

Martha says most of the meaness of pre-war days on the plantations may be charged up to cruel overseers.

And dat overseer man would send ‘em Patterrollers jes’ lack dey was de sher’f down to fotch ‘em back, and he’d say, ‘Dead or alive, doan’ make no diffe’nce.’ And sometimes dem dogs be done nigh ’bout chewed dem niggers up. Den he’d whoop ‘em sho’ ’nuff.

‘Twas a long and a wide stiff leather strop w’at he had whut hung back uv his do’, and hit had big roun’ holes in hit, and he’d git him a pot of warm salty water and set hit down by his side. Den he had ‘em cotch de nigger and put his feet in de long block, and somebody helt dey han’s, and he strip ‘em stark naked, and he stretch ‘em ‘cross a log, and he dip de long stiff leather strop wid de roun’ holes in hit in de briny salt water, and den look out ‘case he comin’ down on dat po’ nigger’s nekkid bottom. De holes in de strop dey sucks flesh up in th’oo ‘em, and de nigger’s a hollerin’ and ev’ybody so skeered dey right ashy, and dey can’t nobody say a mumblin’ word ‘case dey so skeered.”

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A slave cabin in Barbour County near Eufaula. (Image: Federal Writers’ Project)

Ezra Adams, ex-slave, South Caroline, 83 years old

“You ain’t gwine to believe dat de slaves on our plantation didn’t stop workin’ for old marster, even when they was told dat they was free. Us didn’t want no more freedom than us was gittin’ on our plantation already. Us knowed too well dat us was well took care of, wid a plenty of vittles to eat and tight log and board houses to live in.

De slaves, where I lived, knowed after de war dat they had abundance of dat somethin’ called freedom, what they could not wat, wear, and sleep in. Yes, sir, they soon found out dat freedom ain’t nothin’, ‘less you is got somethin’ to live on and a place to call home. Dis livin’ on liberty is lak young folks livin’ on love after they gits married. It just don’t work. No, sir, it las’ so long and not a bit longer.”

Anne Broome, ex-slave, South Carolina, 87 years old

“My ma was name Louisa. My marster was Billie Brice, but ‘spect God done write sumpin’ else on he forehead by dis time. He was a cruel marster; he whip me just for runnin’ to de gate for to see de train run by. My missus was a pretty woman, flaxen hair, blue eyes, name Mary Simonton, ’til she marry.

Us live in a two-room plank house. Plenty to eat and enough to wear ‘cept de boys run ’round in their shirt tails and de girls just a one-piece homespun slip on in de summer time. Dat was not a hardship then. Us didn’t know and didn’t care nothin’ ’bout a ‘spectable ‘pearance in those days. Dats de truth, us didn’t.

“Gran’pa name Obe; gran’ma, name Rachel. Shoes? A child never have a shoe. Slaves wore wooden bottom shoes.”

Tom Wilson, ex-slave, Mississippi

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“I ‘members when us was sot free allright. ‘Twas in de middle of da winter y’ know, an’ Marse Jim (his master) was so mad ’bout hit he went off down to a li’l stream or water an’ broke de ice an’ jumped in, an’ he died ’bout two weeks afte’ of de pewmonia [FN: pneumonia].

I was glad to git m’ freedom ’cause I got out’n frum under dem whuppins.

“Afte’ dat us bought lan’ frum de Wilsons whut was lef’ an’ I been a fa’min’ thar ever since.”

Read more at Gutenberg.org>

Related: Ireland in Golden Globe nominations with forced adoptions, slavery and U2

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