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When I Was a Slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection

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In an effort to provide unemployed writers with work during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the United States Government, through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), funded the Federal Writers' Project. One of the group's most noteworthy and enduring achievements was the Slave Narrative Collection, consisting of more than 2,000 transcripts of interviews with former slaves, who, in blunt, simple words, provided often-startling first-person accounts of their lives in bondage. This book reprints some of the most detailed and engrossing life histories in the collection. Each narrative is complete.
Thirty-four gripping testimonies are included, with all slave occupations represented — from field hand and cook to French tutor and seamstress. Personal treatment reported by these individuals also encompassed a wide range — from the most harsh and exploitative to living and working conditions that were intimate and benevolent.
An illuminating and unique source of information about life in the South before, during, and after the Civil War, these memoirs, most importantly, preserve the opinions and perspective of those who were enslaved. Invaluable to students, teachers, and specialists in Southern history, this compelling book will intrigue anyone interested in the African-American experience.

ISBN-13: 9780486420707

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Dover Publications

Publication Date: 07-01-2002

Pages: 160

Product Dimensions: 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

Age Range: 14 - 18 Years

Series: Dover Thrift Editions: Black History

Read an Excerpt

When I Was a Slave

Memoirs from the Slave Narrative Collection

By Norman R. Yetman

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-11139-1



Interviewed near Raleigh, North Carolina Interviewed by Pat Matthews Age when interviewed: 86

My name is Mary Anderson. I was born on a plantation near Franklinton, Wake County, North Carolina, May 10, 1851. I was a slave belonging to Sam Brodie, who owned the plantation at this place. My missus was Evaline. My father was Alfred Brodie and my mother was Bertha Brodie.

We had good food, plenty of warm homemade clothes, and comfortable houses. The slave houses were called the quarters, and the house where Marster lived was called the Great House. Our houses had two rooms each, and Marster's house had twelve rooms. Both the slave and white folks buildings were located in a large grove one mile square covered with oak and hickory-nut trees. Marster's house was exactly one mile from the main Louisburg Road and there was a wide avenue leading through the plantation and grove to Marster's house. The house fronted the avenue east and in going down the avenue from the main road you traveled directly west.

The plantation was very large and there were about two hundred acres of cleared land that was farmed each year. A pond was located on the place and in winter ice was gathered there for summer use and stored in an ice house which was built in the grove where the other buildings were. A large hole about ten feet deep was dug in the ground; the ice was put in that hole and covered. A large frame building was built over it. At the top of the earth there was an entrance door and steps leading down to the bottom of the hole. Other things besides ice were stored there. There was a still on the plantation and barrels of brandy were stored in the ice house, also pickles, preserves, and cider. Many of the things we used were made on the place. There was a grist mill, tannery, shoe shop, blacksmith shop, and looms for weaving cloth.

There were about one hundred and sixty-two slaves on the plantation. Every Sunday morning all the children had to be bathed, dressed, and their hair combed, and carried down to Marster's for breakfast. It was a rule that all the little colored children eat at the Great House every Sunday morning in order that Marster and Missus could watch them eat so they could know which ones were sickly and have them doctored.

Sunday was a great day on the plantation. Everybody got biscuits, Sundays. The slave women went down to Marster's for their Sunday allowance of flour. All the children ate breakfast at the Great House and Marster and Missus gave out fruit to all. The slaves looked forward to Sunday as they labored through the week. It was a great day. Slaves received good treatment from Marster and all his family.

The slave children all carried a mussel shell in their hands to eat with up to the Great House. The food was put on large trays and the children all gathered around and ate, dipping up their food with their mussel shells which they used for spoons. Those who refused to eat or those who were ailing in any way had to come back to the Great House for their meals and medicine until they were well.

Marster had a large apple orchard in the Tar River low grounds and up on higher ground and nearer the plantation house there was on one side of the road a large plum orchard and on the other side was an orchard of peaches, cherries, quinces, and grapes. We picked the quinces in August and used them for preserving. Marster and Missus believed in giving the slaves plenty of fruit, especially the children.

Marster had three children, one boy named Dallas, and two girls, Bettie and Carrie. He would not allow slave children to call his children "Marster" and "Missus" unless the slave said "Little Marster" or "Little Missus." He had four white overseers, but they were not allowed to whip a slave. If there was any whipping to be done he always said he would do it. He didn't believe in whipping, so when a slave got so bad he could not manage him, he sold him.

Marster didn't quarrel with anybody; Missus would not speak short to a slave, but both Marster and Missus taught slaves to be obedient in a nice quiet way. The slaves were taught to take their hats and bonnets off before going into the house, and to bow and say, "Good mornin' Marster Sam and Missus Evaline." Some of the little Negroes would go down to the Great House and ask them when it was going to rain, and when Marster or Missus walked in the grove the little Negroes would follow along after them like a gang of kiddies. Some of the slave children wanted to stay with them at the Great House all the time. They knew no better, of course, and seemed to love Marster and Missus as much as they did their own mother and father. Marster and Missus always used gentle means to get the children out of their way when they bothered them and the way the children loved and trusted them was a beautiful sight to see.

Patterrollers were not allowed on the place unless they came peacefully, and I never knew of them whipping any slaves on Marster's place. Slaves were carried off on two horse wagons to be sold. I have seen several loads leave. They were the unruly ones. Sometimes he would bring back slaves; once he brought back two boys and three girls from the slave market.

We were allowed to have prayer meetings in our homes and we also went to the white folks' church. But they would not teach any of us to read and write. Books and papers were forbidden. Marster's children and the slave children played together. I went around with the baby girl Carrie to other plantations visiting. She taught me how to talk low and how to act in company. My association with white folks and my training while I was a slave is why I talk like white folks.

The War was begun and there were stories of fights and freedom. The news went from plantation to plantation and while the slaves acted natural and some even more polite than usual, they prayed for freedom.

Then one day I heard something that sounded like thunder and Marster and Missus began to walk around and act queer. The grown slaves were whispering to each other. Sometimes they gathered in little gangs in the grove. Next day I heard it again, boom, boom, boom. I went and asked Missus, "Is it going to rain?" She said, "Mary, go to the ice house and bring me some pickles and preserves." I went and got them. She ate a little and gave me some. Then she said, "You run along and play."

In a day or two everybody on the plantation seemed to be disturbed and Marster and Missus were crying. Marster ordered all the slaves to come to the Great House at nine o'clock. Nobody was working and slaves were walking over the grove in every direction. At nine o'clock all the slaves gathered at the Great House and Marster and Missus came out on the porch and stood side by side. You could hear a pin drop everything was so quiet. Then Marster said, "Good morning," and Missus said, "Good morning, children." They were both crying. Then Marster said,

"Men, women, and children, you are free. You are no longer my slaves. The Yankees will soon be here." Marster and Missus then went into the house; got two large arm chairs and put them on the porch facing the avenue and sat down side by side and remained there watching.

In about an hour there was one of the blackest clouds coming up the avenue from the main road. It was the Yankee soldiers. They finally filled the mile-long avenue reaching from Marster's house to the main Louisburg Road and spread out over the mile-square grove. The mounted men dismounted. The footmen stacked their shining guns and began to build fires and cook. They called the slaves, saying, "You are free."

Slaves were whooping and laughing and acting like they were crazy. Yankee soldiers were shaking hands with the Negroes and calling them Sam, Dinah, Sarah, and asking them questions. They busted the door to the smokehouse and got all the hams. They went to the icehouse and got several barrels of brandy: such a time! The Negroes and Yankees were cooking and eating together. The Yankees told them to come on and join them, they were free. Marster and Missus sat on the porch and they were so humble no Yankee bothered anything in the Great House.

The slaves were awfully excited. The Yankees stayed there, cooked, ate, drank, and played music until about night. Then a bugle began to blow and you never saw such getting on horses and lining up in your life. In a few minutes they began to march, leaving the grove which was soon silent as a graveyard. They took Marster's horses and cattle with them and joined the main army and camped just across Cypress Creek one and one-half miles from my marster's place on the Louisburg Road.

When they left the county, lot of the slaves went with them and soon there were none of Marster's slaves left. They wandered around for a year from place to place, fed and working most of the time at some other slave owner's plantation and getting more homesick every day.

The second year after the surrender our Marster and Missus got on their carriage and went and looked up all the Negroes they heard of who ever belonged to them. Some who went off with the Yankees were never heard from again. When Marster and Missus found any of theirs they would say, "Well, come on back home." My father and mother, two uncles and their families moved back. Also Lorenze Brodie and John Brodie and their families moved back. Several of the young men and women who once belonged to him came back. Some were so glad to get back they cried, 'cause fare had been mighty bad part of the time they were rambling around and they were hungry.

When they got back Marster would say, "Well, you have come back, have you?" And the Negroes would say, "Yes, Marster." Most all spoke of them as "Missus" and "Marster" as they did before the surrender, and getting back home was the greatest pleasure of all. We stayed with Marster and Missus and went to their church, the Maple Springs Baptist Church, until they died.

Since the surrender I married James Anderson. I had four children, one boy and three girls.



Interviewed at Houston, Texas Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 91

You all has to 'cuse me if I don't talk so good, 'cause I'se been feelin' poorly for a spell and I ain't so young no more. Law me, when I think back what I used to do, and now it's all I can do to hobble 'round a little. Why, Miss Olivia, my mistress, used to put a glass plumb full of water on my head and then have me waltz round the room, and I'd dance so smoothlike, I don't spill nary drop.

That was in St. Louis, where I'se born. You see my mama belong to Old William Cleveland and Old Polly Cleveland, and they was the meanest two white folks what ever live, cause they was always beatin' on their slaves. I know, cause Mama told me, and I hears about it other places, and besides, Old Polly, she was a Polly devil if there ever was one, and she whipped my little sister what was only nine months old, and just a baby, to death. She come and took the diaper offen my little sister and whipped till the blood just ran—just 'cause she cry like all babies do, and it kilt my sister. I never forgot that, but I got some even with that Old Polly devil and it's this-a-way.

You see, I'se 'bout ten year old and I belongs to Miss Olivia, what was that Old Polly's daughter, and one day Old Polly devil comes to where Miss Olivia lives after she marries, and tries to give me a lick out in the yard, and I picks up a rock about as big as half your fist and hits her right in the eye and busted the eyeball, and tells her that's for whippin' my baby sister to death. You could hear her holler for five miles, but Miss Olivia, when I tells her, says, "Well, I guess Mama has learnt her lesson at last." But that Old Polly was mean like her husband, Old Cleveland, till she die, and I hopes they is burnin' in torment now.

I don't 'member 'bout the start of things so much, 'cept what Miss Olivia and my mama, her name was Silvy, tells me. 'Course, it's powerful cold in winter times and the farm was lots different from down here. They calls 'em plantations down here, but up at St. Louis they was just called farms, and that's what they were 'cause we raises wheat and barley and rye and oats and corn and fruit.

The houses was builded with brick and heavy wood, too, 'cause it's cold up there, and we has to wear them warm clothes and they's wove on the place, and we works at it in the evenin's.

Old Cleveland takes a lot of his slaves what was in "custom" and brings 'em to Texas to sell. You know he wasn't 'sposed to do that, 'cause when you's in "custom," that's 'cause he borrowed money on you, and you's not 'sposed to leave the place till he paid up. 'Course, Old Cleveland just tells the one he owed the money to, you had run off, or squirmed out some way, he was that mean.

Mama say she was in one bunch and me in 'nother. Mama had been put before this with my papa, Sam Adams, but that makes no difference to Old Cleveland. He's so mean he never would sell the man and woman and chillen the same one. He'd sell the man here and the woman there and if they's chillen he'd sell them someplace else. Oh, old Satan in torment couldn't be no meaner than what he and Old Polly was to they slaves. He'd chain a nigger up to whip 'em and rub salt and pepper on him, like he said, "to season him up." And when he'd sell a slave, he'd grease their mouth all up to make it look like they'd been fed good and was strong and healthy.


Excerpted from When I Was a Slave by Norman R. Yetman. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
MARY ANDERSON - Interviewed near Raleigh, North Carolina Interviewed by Pat Matthews Age when interviewed: 86,
MARY ARMSTRONG - Interviewed at Houston, Texas Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 91,
FRANK BELL - Interviewed at Madisonville, Texas Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 86+,
BOSTON BLACKWELL - Interviewed at North Little Rock, Arkansas Interviewed by Beulah Sherwood Hagg Age when interviewed: 98,
W. L. BOST - Interviewed at Asheville, North Carolina Interviewed by Marjorie Jones Age when interviewed: 88,
JULIA BROWN - Interviewed at Atlanta, Georgia Interviewed by Geneva Tonsill Age when interviewed: 85,
ANTHONY DAWSON - Interviewed at Tulsa, Oklahoma Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 105,
MILLIE EVANS - Interviewed at El Dorado, Arkansas Interviewed by Mrs. Carol Graham Age when interviewed: 88,
MRS. M. S. FAYMAN - Interviewed at Baltimore, Maryland Interviewed by———Rogers Age when interviewed: 87,
JOHN FINNELY - Interviewed at Forth Worth, Texas Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 86,
DELIA GARLIC - Interviewed in Montgomery, Alabama Interviewed by Margaret Fowler Age when interviewed: 100,
ROBERT GLENN - Interviewed at Raleigh, North Carolina Interviewed by Pat Matthews Age when interviewed: 87,
ANDREW GOODMAN - Interviewed at Dallas, Texas Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 97,
ARNOLD GRAGSTON - Interviewed in Jacksonville, Florida Interviewed by Martin Richardson Age when interviewed: 97,
MARY ELLA GRANDBERRY - Interviewed at Sheffield, Alabama Interviewed by Levi D. Shelby Jr. Age when interviewed: 90,
SARAH GUDGER - Interviewed in Asheville, North Carolina Interviewed by Marjorie Jones Age when interviewed: 121,
MARTIN JACKSON - Interviewed at San Antonio, Texas Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 90,
SILAS JACKSON - Interviewed at Baltimore, Maryland Interviewed by———Rogers Age when interviewed: 90,
LEWIS JENKINS - Interviewed in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Interviewed by Ida Belle Hunter Age when interviewed: 93,
TINES KENDRICKS - Interviewed at Trenton, Arkansas Interviewed by Watt McKinney Age when interviewed: 104,
FANNIE MOORE - Interviewed at Asheville, North Carolina Interviewed by Marjorie Jones Age when interviewed: 88,
WILLIAM MOORE - Interviewed in Dallas, Texas Interviewed by Heloise M. Foreman Age when interviewed: 83,
ANDREW MOSS - Interviewed at Knoxville, Tennessee Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 85,
DELICIA PATTERSON - Interviewed at St. Louis, Missouri Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 92,
MARY REYNOLDS - Interviewed at Dallas, Texas Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 100+,
HARRIETT ROBINSON - Interviewed at Oklahoma City, Oklahoma Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 94,
TOM ROBINSON - Interviewed near Hot Springs, Arkansas Interviewed by Mary D. Hudgins Age when interviewed: 88,
ROBERT SHEPHERD - Interviewed at Athens, Georgia Interviewed by Grace McCune Age when interviewed: 91,
BILL SIMMS - Interviewed in Ottawa, Kansas Interviewed by Leta Gray Age when interviewed: 97,
BEN SIMPSON - Interviewed at Madisonville, Texas Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 90,
GUS SMITH - Interviewed at Rolla, Missouri Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 92,
ROSA STARKE - Interviewed in Winnsboro, South Carolina Interviewed by W. W. Dixon Age when interviewed: 83,
MINGO WHITE - Interviewed at Burleson, Alabama Interviewed by Levi D. Shelby Jr. Age when interviewed: 85–90,
ROSE WILLIAMS - Interviewed in Ft. Worth, Texas Interviewer not identified Age when interviewed: 90,