The Experience of Slavery
A number of the narratives depict slavery as a benign institution or, in some cases, even benevolent. Often a narrative, such as the interview provided by Gus Smith, portrayed a tranquil life on a particular plantation with a benevolent master while contrasting it with the life for slaves on an adjoining plantation owned by a cruel master:
. . . My master let us come and go pretty much as we pleased. In fact we had much more freedom dan de most of de slaves had in those days. He let us go to other places to work when we had nothing to do at home and we kept our money we earned, and spent it to suit ourselves. We had it so much better den other slaves dat our neighbors would not let their slaves associate with us, for fear we would put devilment in their heads, for we had too much freedom. . . .
Our closest neighbors was de Thorntons. Ol’ man Thornton did not allow his slaves to go no place. He was a rough man, a low heavy set fellow, weighed about one hundred and sixty pounds. He was mean to his slaves. He whupped dem all de time. I’ve seen their clothes sticking to their backs, from blood and scabs, being cut up with de cowhide. He just whupped dem because he could.
Sarah Ford described life on Kit Patton’s Texas plantation as relatively benign. She relates that, on Patton’s death, the slaves were turned over to his brother, Charles Patton, who owned an adjoining plantation. There, the slaves were subjected to harsh treatment from a black overseer:
I guess Massa Charles what taken us when Massa Kit die, was ‘bout de same as all white folks what owned slaves, some good and some bad. We has plenty to eat—more’n I has now—and plenty clothes and shoes. But de overseer was Uncle Big Jake, what’s black like de rest of us, but he so mean I ‘spect de devil done made him overseer down below long time ago. Dat de bad part of Massa Charles, ‘cause he lets Uncle Jake whip the slaves so much dat some like my papa what had spirit was all de time runnin’ ‘way. And even does your stomach be full, and does you have plenty clothes, dat bullwhip on your bare hide make you forgit do good part, and da’t de truth.
One account expressed regret that slavery had ended. In the interview an elderly woman explained that the beatings she and her husband received made her a better person:
. . . Mah ole man has stripes on his back now wha he wuz whipped an ah wuz whipped too but hit hoped me up till now. Coase hit did. Hit keeps me fun goin aroun here telling lies an stealin yo chickens.
- Why might former slaves have spoken nostalgically about slavery?
- Why might so many of the former slaves interviewed have reported that their own life was relatively easy but conditions on nearby plantations were harsh?
- Read the two sections of the introduction to the collection dealing with bias in the interviews: “The Limitations of the Slave Narrative Collection: Problems of Memory” and “The Limitations of the Slave Narrative Collection: Race and Representativeness.” How do these essays shed light on the positive responses given by some ex-slaves?
In contrast to those interviewees who described humane circumstances, many interviewees recalled extremely trying circumstances under slavery. Mingo White was separated from his family as a child, sold to a slave-owner in Alabama. His interview reveals a longing to be free and the premonition that freedom would soon be forthcoming. He described the beating of a slave who was caught praying for freedom.
. . . Somehow or yuther us had a instinct dat we was goin’ to be free. In de event when de day’s wuk was done de slaves would be foun’ lock in dere cabins prayin’ for de Lawd to free dem lack he did the chillum of Is’ael. Iffen dey didn’ lock up, de Marsa or de driver would of heard ‘em an’ whupped ‘em. De slaves had a way of puttin’ a wash pot in de do’ of de cabin to keep de soun’ in de house. I ’members once ol’ Ned White was caught prayin’. De drivers took him nex’ day an’ carried him to de pegs, what was fo’ stakes drove in de groun’. Ned was made to pull off ever’thing but his pants an’ lay on his stomach ‘tween de pegs whilst somebody stropped his legs an’ arms to de pegs. Den dey whupped him ‘twell de blood run from him lack he was a hog. Dey made all de han’s come an’ see it, an’ dey said us’d git de same thang if us was cotched. Dey don’t ‘low a man to whup a horse lack dey whupped us in dem days.
White was not the only interview subject who described whippings:
. . . Ben Heard was a right mean man. They was all mean ‘long about then. Heard whipped his slaves a lot. Sometimes he would say they wouldn’t obey. Sometimes he would say they sassed him. Sometimes he would say they wouldn’t work. He would tie them and stake them out and whip them with a leather whip of some kind. He would put five hundred licks on them before he would quit. He would buy the whip he whipped them with out of the store. After he whipped them, they would put their rags on and go on about their business. There wouldn’t be no such thing as medical attention. What did he care. He would whip the women the same as he would the men.
Interviewees described grueling work schedules. Amanda McDaniel recalled working even as a child:
Our folks had to get up at four o’clock every morning and feed the stock first. By the time it was light enough to see they had to be in the fields where they hoed the cotton and the corn as well as the other crops. Between ten and eleven o’clock everybody left the field and went to the house where they worked until it was too dark to see. My first job was to take breakfast to those working in the fields. I used buckets for this. Besides this I had to drive the cows to and from the pasture. The rest of the day was spent in taking care of Mrs. Hale’s young children. After a few years of this I was sent to the fields where I planted peas, corn, etc. I also had to pick cotton when that time came . . .
John W. Fields, who was separated from his family as a child, described similar hard work and a deprivation described by many others as well—being prevented from learning to read:
My life prior to that time was filled with heart-aches and despair. We arose from four to five o’clock in the morning and parents and children were given hard work, lasting until nightfall gaves us our respite. After a meager supper, we generally talked until we get sleepy, we had to go to bed. Some of us would read, if we were lucky enough to know how.
In most of us colored folks was the great desire to able to read and write. We took advantage of every opportunity to educate ourselves. The greater part of the plantation owners were very harsh if we were caught trying to learn or write. . . Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us.
List the hardships and abuses mentioned by former slaves in the excerpts above. Search or browse the collection to find additional evidence related to each of these hardships. Also look for evidence of any additional types of inhumane treatment of slaves. Collect quotations from the narratives that you think are especially effective in conveying what it was like to be a slave. Use the quotes as support in an essay on the experience of slavery, to create a spoken word performance, or a text collage.