Anthropology Friday: The Slave Narrative Collection (pt 3/4)

Slaves (and others) on J. J. Smith's cotton plantation near Beaufort, South Carolina, photographed by Timothy O'Sullivan standing before their quarters in 1862
Slaves (and others) on J. J. Smith’s cotton plantation near Beaufort, South Carolina, photographed by Timothy O’Sullivan standing before their quarters in 1862

Welcome back to Anthropology Friday. Today we are continuing with Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States. (available on Amazon.) These stories were gathered in the 1930s as part of a Federally-funded program to get people working and preserve first-hand accounts of the history of the United States before everyone involved passed away.

William Ballard, 88, lived on a very extensive plantation:

“We was allowed three pounds o’ meat, one quart o’ molasses, grits and other things each week–plenty for us to eat.

“When freedom come, he told us we was free, and if we wanted to stay on with him, he would do the best he could for us. Most of us stayed, and after a few months, he paid wages. After eight months, some went to other places to work. …

“The master always had a very big garden with plenty of vegetables. He had fifty hogs, and I helped mind the hogs. He didn’t raise much cotton, but raised lots of wheat and corn. He made his own meal and flour from the mill on the creek; made home-made clothes with cards and spinning wheels. …

“The master had his own tanyard and tanned his leather and made shoes for his hands. … We had old brick ovens, lots of ’em. Some was used to make molasses from our own sugar cane we raised.

“The master had a ‘sick-house’ where he took sick slaves for treatment, and kept a drug store there. They didn’t use old-time cures much, like herbs and barks, except sassafras root tea for the blood. …

“My father run the blacksmith shop for the master on the place. I worked around the place. The patrollers were there and we had to have a pass to get out any. The nigger children sometimes played out in the road and were chased by patrollers. The children would run into the master’s place and the patrollers couldn’t get them ’cause the master wouldn’t let them. We had no churches for slaves, but went to the white church and set in the gallery. After freedom, niggers built ‘brush harbors’ on the place. …

Slaves on a South Carolina plantation (The Old Plantation, c. 1790)
Slaves on a South Carolina plantation (The Old Plantation, c. 1790)

“Some games children played was, hiding switches, marbles, and maybe others. Later on, some of de nigger boys started playing cards and got to gambling; some went to de woods to gamble.

“The old cotton gins on de farms were made of wooden screws, and it took all day to gin four bales o’ cotton.

“I was one of the first trustees that helped build the first colored folks’ church in the town of Greenwood.”

EvX: One thing that stands out to me, after reading a few dozen of these accounts, is these folks showed far more composure–sangfroid, if you will–about their lives than we tend to imagine we would.

It is very easy to imagine that you would act differently in a situation than others did–better, smarter, kinder, braver, whatever. Chances are, of course, that you’d be exactly like everyone else. So would I. And in most cases, people who grew up in slavery didn’t really have a very good idea of any alternative system, or how they would function (survive) in it.

This is part of why slave rebellions were so (relatively) rare in the US. You might think, “Slavery is awful and unjust, and in parts of the South there were more blacks than whites, so of course if I were a slave, I’d have helped start a successful rebellion.” But in reality, if you were a slave, there’s very little chance you’d be able to coordinate with other slaves, especially those on other plantations, much less convince them all to throw away the system that does feed them for the promise of an unknown system that might not feed them.

Even after slavery ended, plenty of slaves stayed where they were, not because they “liked” slavery, but because they didn’t have any immediate option of a better employer. Most of these folks left later when better opportunities arose.

Returning for a second to a popular (but under-discussed IMO) NRx topic, the whole point and importance of Exit is to allow citizens, like customers in a free market, to chose between countries, thus encouraging countries to treat their citizens well.

Large plantations were, like Medieval Manors, impressively self-contained, producing their own food, clothes, leather, timber, etc. A few people ran the place, keeping everything organized and making sure the finances worked out, and a thousand people did the actual labor.

Peter or Gordon, a whipped slave, photo taken at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1863;
Peter or Gordon, a whipped slave, photo taken at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1863;

The downside to such a system is that there isn’t a whole lot to prevent the people running it from mistreating their slaves. In fact, the whole system is run on two different groups with two different sets of interests. The owners want to extract as much labor as possible from the slaves, and are perfectly willing to whip them to do so. They don’t want to kill their slaves, as slaves cost money, but they don’t care particularly much if their slaves are in pain and miserable.

The slaves, of course, want to do enough work to feed themselves and no more.

Freedom and Exit are essentially the same concept. Free slaves generally end up doing the same work they were doing before slavery, but now they can leave an cruel master and offer their labor to the best employers around. Obviously the terms an employee can demand have a lot to do with their individual skills and the local supply of labor, but at least employers are much less likely to whip them.

Anyway, continuing on…

Charley Barber, 81: The End of the World

“I stay on [at the plantation] ’til ’76. Then I come to Winnsboro and git a job as section hand laborer on de railroad. Out of de fust money … I buys me a red shirt and dat November I votes and de fust vote I put in de box was for Governor Wade Hampton.”

EvX: Another red shirt voting for Wade Hampton. I express my doubts. But back to Mr. Barber:

“Bless your soul Marse Wood, you know what old Mudder Shifton say? She ‘low dat: ‘In de year 1881, de world to an end will surely come’. I was twenty-five years old when all de niggers and most of de white folks was believin’ dat old lady and lookin’ for de world to come to an end in 1881. Dat was de year dat I jined de church, ’cause I wanted to make sure dat if de end did come, I’d be caught up in dat rapture.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia’s list of predicted apocalyptic events:

[Mother Shipton, a] 15th-century prophet was quoted as saying “The world to an end shall come, In eighteen hundred and eighty one” in a book published in 1862. In 1873 it was revealed to be a forgery; however, this did not stop some people from expecting the end.

And about Mum Shipton herself:

Ursula Southeil (c. 1488–1561) … better known as Mother Shipton, is said to have been an English soothsayer and prophetess. The first publication of her prophecies, which did not appear until 1641, eighty years after her reported death, contained a number of mainly regional predictions, but only two prophetic verses – neither of which foretold the End of the World, despite widespread assumptions to that effect.[4] …

The most famous claimed edition of Mother Shipton’s prophecies foretells many modern events and phenomena. Widely quoted today as if it were the original, it contains over a hundred prophetic rhymed couplets in notably non-16th-century language and includes the now-famous lines:

The world to an end shall come
In eighteen hundred and eighty one.[6]

However, this version did not appear in print until 1862, and its true author, one Charles Hindley, subsequently admitted in print that he had invented it.[7] This invented prophecy has appeared over the years with different dates and in (or about) several countries (for example in the late 1970s many news articles about Mother Shipton appeared setting the date at 1981[citation needed]). The 1920s (subsequently much reprinted) booklet The Life and Prophecies of Ursula Sontheil better known as Mother Shipton[8] stated the date as 1991.[9][10]

“I b’longs to de St. John Methodist Church in Middlesix, part of Winnsboro. They was havin’ a rival (revival) meetin’ de night of de earthquake, last day of August, in 1886. Folks had hardly got over de scare of 1881, ’bout de world comin’ to an end. It was on Tuesday night, if I don’t disremember, ’bout 9 o’clock. De preacher was prayin’, just after de fust sermon, but him never got to de amen part of dat prayer. Dere come a noise or rumblin’, lak far off thunder, seem lak it come from de northwest, then de church begin to rock lak a baby’s cradle. Dere was great excitement. Old Aunt Melvina holler: ‘De world comin’ to de end’. De preacher say: ‘Oh, Lordy’, and run out of de pulpit. Everbody run out de church in de moonlight.

When de second quake come, ’bout a minute after de fust, somebody started up de cry: ‘De devil under de church! De devil under de church! De devil gwine to take de church on his back and run away wid de church!’ People never stop runnin’ ’til they got to de court house in town. Dere they ‘clare de devil done take St. John’s Church on his back and fly away to hell wid it. Marse Henry Galliard make a speech and tell them what it was and beg them to go home. Dat Mr. Skinner, de telegraph man at de depot, say de main part of it was way down ’bout Charleston, too far away for anybody to git hurt here, ‘less a brick from a chimney fall on somebody’s head. De niggers mostly believes what a fine man, lak Marse Henry, tell them. De crowd git quiet. Some of them go home but many of them, down in de low part of town, set on de railroad track in de moonlight, all night. I was mighty sleepy de nex’ mornin’ but I work on de railroad track just de same. Dat night folks come back to St. John’s Church, find it still dere, and such a outpourin’ of de spirit was had as never was had befo’ or since.”

EvX: I think people just plain believed in things more than they do now. I still blame electricity for the change.

Ed Barber, 77: Another Red Shirt!

“It’s been a long time since I see you. Maybe you has forgot but I ain’t forgot de fust time I put dese lookers on you, in ’76. Does you ‘members dat day? It was in a piece of pines beyond de Presbyterian Church, in Winnsboro, S. C. Us both had red shirts. You was a ridin’ a gray pony and I was a ridin’ a red mule, sorrel like. You say dat wasn’t ’76? Well, how come it wasn’t? Ouillah Harrison, another nigger, was dere, though he was a man. Both of us got to arguin’. He ‘low he could vote for Hampton and I couldn’t, ’cause I wasn’t 21. You say it was ’78 ‘stead of ’76, dat day in de pines when you was dere? Well! Well! I sho’ been thinkin’ all dis time it was ’76. …

“Who I see dere? Well, dere was a string of red shirts a mile long, dat come into Winnsboro from White Oak. And another from Flint Hill, over de Pea Ferry road, a mile long. De bar-rooms of de town did a big business dat day. Seem lak it was de fashion to git drunk all ‘long them days.

“Them red shirts was de monkey wrench in de cotton-gin of de carpet bag party. I’s here to tell you. If a nigger git hungry, all he have to do is go to de white folk’s house, beg for a red shirt, and explain hisself a democrat. He might not git de shirt right then but he git his belly full of everything de white folks got, and de privilege of comin’ to dat trough sometime agin. …

“My mother name Ann. Her b’long to my marster, James Barber. Dat’s not a fair question when you ask me who my daddy was. Well, just say he was a white man and dat my mother never did marry nobody, while he lived. I was de onliest child my mother ever had. …

“My marster, James Barber, went through de Civil War and died. I begs you, in de name of de good white folks of ’76 and Wade Hampton, not to forget me in dis old age pension business.

“What I think of Abe Lincoln? I think he was a poor buckra white man, to de likes of me. Although, I ‘spects Mr. Lincoln meant well but I can’t help but wish him had continued splittin’ them fence rails, which they say he knowed all ’bout, and never took a hand in runnin’ de government of which he knowed nothin’ ’bout. Marse Jeff Davis was all right, but him oughta got out and fought some, lak General Lee, General Jackson and ‘Poleon Bonaparte.”

EvX: I suspect the Civil War might have gone a bit differently had Napoleon shown up on the battlefield, too.

“Does I know any good colored men? I sho’ does! Dere’s Professor Benjamin Russell at Blackstock. You knows him. Then dere was Ouillah Harrison, dat own a four-hoss team and a saddle hoss, in red shirt days. One time de brass band at Winnsboro, S. C. wanted to go to Camden, S. C. to play at de speakin’ of Hampton. He took de whole band from Winnsboro to Camden, dat day, free of charge. Ah! De way dat band did play all de way to Ridgeway, down de road to Longtown, cross de Camden Ferry, and right into de town. Dere was horns a blowin’, drums a beatin’, and people a shoutin’: ‘Hurrah for Hampton!’ Some was a singin’: ‘Hang Dan Chamberlain on a Sour Apple Tree’. Ouillah come home and found his wife had done had a boy baby. What you reckon? He name dat boy baby, Wade Hampton. When he come home to die, he lay his hand on dat boy’s head and say: ‘Wade, ‘member who you name for and always vote a straight out democrat ticket’. Which dat boy did!”

Anderson Bates, 87: Courtship, DuPont, and the Ku Kluxes

“Dat’s funny, you wants to set down dere ’bout my courtship and weddin’? Well, sir, I stay on de old plantation, work for my old marster, de doctor, and fell head over heels in love wid Carrie. Dere was seven more niggers a flyin’ ’round dat sugar lump of a gal in de night time when I breezes in and takes charge of de fireside cheer. I knocks one down one night, kick another out de nex’ night, and choke de stuffin’ out of one de nex’ night. I landed de three-leg stool on de head of de fourth one, de last time. Then de others carry deir ‘fections to some other place than Carrie’s house. Us have some hard words ’bout my bad manners, but I told her dat I couldn’t ‘trol my feelin’s wid them fools a settin’ ’round dere gigglin’ wid her. I go clean crazy! …

Slaves processing tobacco in 17th-century Virginia
Slaves processing tobacco in 17th-century Virginia

“Then I go back to de quarry, drill and git out stone. They pay me $3.50 a day ’til de Parr Shoals Power come in wid ‘lectric power drills and I was cut down to eighty cents a day. Then I say: ‘Old grey hoss! Damn ‘lectric toolin’, I’s gwine to leave.’ I went to Hopewell, Virginia, and work wid de DuPonts for five years. War come on and they ask me to work on de acid area. De atmosphere dere tear all de skin off my face and arms, but I stuck it out to de end of de big war, for $7.20 a day. …

“Does I ‘member anything ’bout de Klu Kluxes? Jesus, yes! My old marster, de doctor, in goin’ ’round, say out loud to people dat Klu Kluxes was doin’ some things they ought not to do, by ‘stortin’ money out of niggers just ’cause they could.

“When he was gone to Union one day, a low-down pair of white men come, wid false faces, to de house and ask where Dick Bell was. Miss Nancy say her don’t know. They go hunt for him. Dick made a bee-line for de house. They pull out hoss pistols, fust time, ‘pow’. Dick run on, secon’ time, ‘pow’. Dick run on, third time, ‘pow’ and as Dick reach de front yard de ball from de third shot keel him over lak a hit rabbit. Old miss run out but they git him. Her say: ‘I give you five dollars to let him ‘lone.’ They say: ‘Not ‘nough.’ Her say: ‘I give you ten dollars.’ They say: ‘Not ‘nough.’ Her say: ‘I give you fifteen dollars.’ They say: ‘Not ‘nough.’ Her say: ‘I give you twenty-five dollars.’ They take de money and say: ‘Us’ll be back tomorrow for de other Dick.’ They mean Dick James.”

EvX: I never did figure out who Dick James and Dick Bell were.

“Nex’ day, us see them a comin’ again. Dick James done load up de shotgun wid buckshot. When they was comin’ up de front steps, Uncle Dick say to us all in de big house: ‘Git out de way!’ De names of de men us find out afterwards was Bishop and Fitzgerald. They come up de steps, wid Bishop in de front. Uncle Dick open de door, slap dat gun to his shoulder, and pull de trigger. Dat man Bishop hollers: ‘Oh Lordy.’ He drop dead and lay dere ’til de coroner come. Fitzgerald leap ‘way. They bring Dick to jail, try him right in dat court house over yonder. What did they do wid him? Well, when Marse Bill Stanton, Marse Elisha Ragsdale and Miss Nancy tell ’bout it all from de beginnin’ to de end, de judge tell de jury men dat Dick had a right to protect his home, and hisself, and to kill dat white man and to turn him loose. Dat was de end of de Klu Kluxes in Fairfield.”

That’s all for today; we’ll be wrapping up next week.

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5 thoughts on “Anthropology Friday: The Slave Narrative Collection (pt 3/4)

    • Yeah; I really want to know whether there was actually some big communal outpouring of support for Wade that even included black people, or if blacks had just decided that it was easier to get along in life if they claimed to have supported Wade.

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      • The topic is a complex one

        I could take you around NC to a couple of plantations owned by blacks, who owned slaves and supported the war effort in all sorts of ways

        Nor is that some sort of lone example. We know slaves and free black men supported the war, fought in some cases, that former slavery created monuments to the families who owned them, protected them, wanted to stay and work for them etc. Also slave uprisings were rare, many owners armed their slaves to hunt or defend their families while away etc etc but to what extent?

        The yankee narrative is clearly false, like jews there is no truth in them

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