Here is one of the famous slave narratives that help us understand what life was like for black Americans before, during and after the Civil War. Most libraries have sets of these. If you purchase a set for yourself, make sure you get the complete set as the abridged set has been severely edited and you’ll get a less objective and jaundiced view of the topic of slavery. The account I have below, for example, is one that might be left out of the purged shorter set (that follows an agenda).
According to this site: “From 1936 to 1938, over 2,300 former slaves from across the American South were interviewed by writers and journalists under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration. These former slaves, most born in the last years of the slave regime or during the Civil War, provided first-hand accounts of their experiences on plantations, in cities, and on small farms. Their narratives remain a peerless resource for understanding the lives of America’s four million slaves. What makes the WPA narratives so rich is that they capture the very voices of American slavery, revealing the texture of life as it was experienced and remembered. Each narrative taken alone offers a fragmentary, microcosmic representation of slave life. Read together, they offer a sweeping composite view of slavery in North America, allowing us to explore some of the most compelling themes of nineteenth-century slavery, including labor, resistance and flight, family life, relations with masters, and religious belief.” Here is the article I selected. In the transcription some of the original dialect may have been cleaned up to ease reading.
Ida Adkins : 72 years old
I was born before the war. I was about 8 years old when the Yankee soldiers came through. My mother and father were Hattie and Jim Jeffries and they belonged to Marse Frank Jeffries. Marse Frank come from Mississippi, but when I was born he and Miss Mary Jane were living down here near Louisburg in North Carolina where they had a big plantation with I-don’t-know how many slaves. Marse Frank was very good to his slaves – maybe excepting that they never got enough to eat. He worked ‘em hard on half rations but he didn’t believe in all the time beating or selling his slaves.
My father worked at the stables, he was a good horseman, but my mother worked at the big house helping Miss Mary Jane. Mother worked in the weaving room. I can see her now sitting a the weaving machine and hear the pedals going “plop, plop”, as she treaded them with her feet. She was a good weaver. I stayed around the big house too, picking up chips, sweeping the yard and such as that. Miss Mary Jane was quick as a whip-po-will. He had black eyes that snapped, an they saw everything. She could turn her head so quick that she’d catch you every time if you tried to steal a lump of sugar. I liked Marse Frank better than I did Miss Mary Jane. All of us little children called him “Big Pappy”. He’d go to Raleigh about twice a year and every time he would come back he brought all of us children some candy. Raleigh was a far ways from the plantation – near about sixty miles. It always took Marse Frank about three days to make the trip. A day to go, a day to stay in town, and a day to come back. He would always get back at night unless he rode the horse back instead of the carriage – and then he would get back about sun-down.
Marse Frank did not go to the war, he was too old. So when the Yankees come through they found him at home. When Marse Frank saw the Yankees coming down the road, he ran and got his gun. The Yankees were on horses. I ain’t never seen so many men. They was thick as hornets coming down the road in a cloud of dust. They come up to the house and tied the horses to the pailin’s of the fence. There were so many they were all around the yard. When they saw Marse Frank standing on the porch with a gun leveled on them they got mad. Marse Frank shot one time and a big bully Yankee snatched the gun away and told Marse Frank to hold his hands behind his back. Then they tied his hands and pushed him down on the floor beside the house and told him that if he moved a inch they would shoot him. Then they went into the house.
I was scared near about to death, but I ran into the kitchen and got a butcher knife, and when the Yankees were not looking, I tried to cut the rope and set Marse Frank free. But one of them blue devils saw me an come a running. He said: “What you doin’ you black brat – you stinking little alligator bait!” He snatched the knife from my hand and told me to
stick out my tongue, that he was gonna cut it off. I let out a yell and run behind the house.
Some of the Yankees was in the smoke house getting (stealing) the meat, some of them was at the stabled getting(stealing) the horses, an some of them was in the house getting(stealing) the silver and things.. I saw them put the big silver pitcher and tea pot in a bag. Then they took the knives and forks and all the candle sticks and platters off the side board and they went in the parlor and got the gold clock that was Miss Mary Jane’s grand mothers’ clock. Then they got all the jewelry out of Miss Mary Jane’s box. And they even went up to Miss Mary Jane and while she looked at them with those black eyes snapping, they took the rings off her fingers, and the gold bracelet off her hand, they even took the ruby ear rings off of her ears and the gold comb out of her hair.
By that time I was done peeping in the window and was standing beside the house when the Yankees come out in the yard with all the stuff they was toting off. Mares Frank was still on the porch floor with his hands tied and couldn’t do nothing. About that time I saw all those bee gums in the side yard. They was a whole line of the gums. Little as I was I had a notion. I run and got me a long stick and turned over every one of them gums. Then I stirred them bees up with the stick till they was so mad I could smell the poison. An bees!! You ain’t never seen the like of it – bees everywhere!! They was swarming all over the place. The sailed into them Yankees like bullets — each one madder then the other. They lit on the Yankees’ horses till the horses looked like they were alive with the varmints. The horses broke they bridles and tore down the pailings and lit out down the road. That running wasn’t nothing — to what the Yankees done. They bust out cussing — but what did a bee care about cuss words! They lit on them blue coats and every time they lit the stuck in a poison sting. The Yankees forgot all about the meat and things they done stole; they took off down the road on a run, passing the horses. The bees were right after them in a long line. They’d zoom and zip and zoom and zip and every time they zip a Yankee would yell.
When they were all gone, Miss Mary Jane untied Marse Frank and then they took all the silver and meat and things the Yankees left behind and buried and hid it so if they came back they couldn’t find it. Then they called me and said:
Ida Lee, if you hadn’t turned over the bee gums the Yankees would have toted off near about everything fine that we have. We want to give you something you can keep so you’ll always remember this day and how you ran the Yankees away. Then Miss Mary Jane took a plain gold ring off her finger and put it on mine. And I’ve been wearing that ring ever since.