I have never understood slavery. I know that sounds stupid. I am as aware of the history as well as most people, but knowing is not the same as understanding. How could such vast numbers of people be so morally bereft, so cruel, so greedy, so unthinking? Yes, I know that slavery has existed in some form pretty much everywhere in the world throughout time, but that same much of the world rejected it in most forms long before the US fought a Civil War to end it here.
I’m from West Virginia, though it’s been a long time since I lived there, but that’s the home place for me. Most of the rest of my years were spent in Washington, DC and Maryland. I am a recent resident of North Carolina, which while not the Deep South, is still very southern. My new southern friends have families that go back for generations. I sometimes ask if any of their ancestors owned slaves. This is probably a rude question, but I always receive polite answers. In general, rather than answering the question, they tell me stories of grandparents and sometimes great-grandparents who were extremely helpful to people of color and who were greatly beloved by these people. No one has ever said yes, their ancestors owned slaves. I don’t disbelieve them, and I also believe their kin was always good to the black minority, but it does seem odd that no one has ever answered in the affirmative.
Because Rafe told me that Ada, the little girl spirit that “lives” beneath my house, was a slave child, and because Professor Aiden told me to do research into documents of the period, I discovered a cache of fascinating material: Slave Narratives, A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves. Typewritten Records Prepared by the Federal Writers’ Project 1936-1938 Assembled by the Library of Congress Work Projects Administration for the District of Columbia.
The short explanation of these papers is the WPA hired out-of-work writers during the depression to spread out across the south and interview people about the Civil War. When it quickly became clear that the interviews with those who had been slaves or who had relatives who were slaves were far more interesting that of the general public, they began to focus on just that one subject. There are thousands of these interviews, many of them from people who lived in the same area where I now live. I’m going to reproduce one of them here. While it may be shocking to some of you, these interviews were written in dialect, and in fact the writers attempted to exactly reproduce the sound of the speech; they even had style sheets showing how this patois was to be rendered into written form. I found the interview that follows riveting, filled with beautiful language and as dramatic and tragic, as filled with horror and pathos, as any Shakespearian play.
MY FATHER WHO KNEW THE PRINCIPLE CHARACTERS TOLD ME THIS STORY YEARS AGO
“Yes, suh, de wus’ I knows ’bout slavery times is what dey tols me ’bout how come dey hung my gran’mammy an’ gran’pappy. Dey hung dem bof at de same time an’ from de same lim’ of de tree, but dat was way back yonder befo’ Mistah Lincoln come down here to set de niggers free. My mammy wuzn’ but six months ole den an’ I wuzn’ even bawn, but Aunt Becky tole me ’bout it when I was ole enough to lissen.
“Dis ain’ no nice tale you gwine hear. It’s de truf, but ’tain’t nice. De fus’ time I heard it I didn’ sleep none for a week. Everytime I shut my eyes I seed Marse Drew Norwood wid dat funnel in his mouf an’ de hot steam blowin’ up like a cloud ‘roun’ his wicked face an’ skeered eyes.
“Dey say my gran’pappy’s Ole Marse was de meanes’ white man de Lawd ever let breath de breaf of life. His name was Marse Drew Norwood. He was de riches’ lan’ owner anywhare ‘roun’. He owned more lan’ an’ more niggers den anybody in Person or Granville counties. But he didn’ make his money wid no farm, no suh, he sho didn’, he made his money buyin’ an’ sellin’ niggers. He bought dem cheap an’ sold dem high. He would catch all de niggers dat run away from other plantations an’ keep dem in his lockup ‘twell he fatten dem, den he would take dem way off down in Georgia, Alabama or some place like dat an’ sell dem for a big price. He would come back wid his pockets runnin’ over wid money. Some folks say he stold niggers to sell, but nobody never could catch him.
“Marse Drew lived over here on de Virginia line ‘tween Red Bank an’ Blue Wing. He owned lan’ ‘cross de No’th Carolina line too an’ lived close to Blue Wing. He treated his niggers so mean dey was all de time runnin’ off. If he caught dem he beat dem near ’bout to death. He did beat Cindy Norwood to death one time kaze she run off to Marse Reuben Jones place an’ axed him to keep her. She got pizen in de cut places on her back an’ had fits three days befo’ de Lawd took her. But Marse Drew jus’ laugh an’ say he didn’ keer; dat she wuzn’ no ‘count nohow.
“I ain’t never seed Marse Drew kaze I was bawn way after de niggers was freed, but dey tole me he looked like a mad bull. He was short wid a big head set forward on his big shoulders. His neck was so short dat he couldn’ wear no collar; he jus’ kept de neck bindin’ of his shirt pinned wid a diaper pin. De debil done lit a lamp an’ set it burnin’ in his eyes; his mouf was a wicked slash cut ‘cross his face, an’ when he got mad his lips curled back from his teef like a mad dog’s. When he cracked his whip de niggers swinged an’ de chillun screamed wid pain when dat plaited thong bit in dey flesh. He beat Mistis too. Mis’ Cary wuzn’ no bigger den a minute an’ she skeered as a kildee of Marse Drew. She didn’ live long dey say kaze Marse Drew whipped her jus’ befo’ dey fus’ baby wuz bawn.
“Marse Drew done whip Luzanne kaze she burnt de biscuits, an’ Mis’ Cary give her some salve to rub on de cut places on her back. When Marse Drew foun’ it out he got so mad dat he come back to de big house an’ tole Mis’ Cary dat he gwine touch her up wid his whip kaze she give Luzanne de salve, dat when he want his niggers doctored he gwine doctor dem hese’f, so he got to use his lash a little bit to make her remember.
“Mis’ Cary got so skeered dat she run ‘roun’ an’ ‘roun’ de house, but Marse Drew run after her, an’ every now an’ den he th’ow out dat plaited whip an’ curl it ‘roun’ her shoulders. Every time it hit it cut clean through her clothes. Mis’ Cary got so skeered dat de baby come dat night befo’ ‘twuz time. De baby wuz bawn dead an’ Mis’ Cary went on to glory wid it. Dey say she was glad to go. Yes, suh, everything on dat plantation, animal an’ man was skeered of dat whip—dat whip dat never lef’ Marse Drew’s wris’. It was made of home-tanned leather plaited in a roun’ cord big as a man’s thum’. All day it swung from a leather strop tied to his wris’ an’ at night it lay on a chair ‘side de bed whare he could reach it easy.
“It was jus’ befo’ de Yankees come over here to fight dat Marse Drew bought Cleve an’ Lissa Lawson. Dey was my gran’mammy an’ gran’pappy. My mammy den was a baby. Marse Drew bought dem for fo’ hundred an’ fifty dollars. Dat was cheap kaze de niggers was young wid hard farm trainin’. Ole Marse didn’ buy mammy. He said a nigger brat wuzn’ no good, dey wouldn’ sell an’ dey might die befo’ dey growed up, ‘sides dey was a strain on de mammy what breas’ nussed it. Lissa cut up powerful kaze he made her leave de baby behin’, but Marse Drew jus’ laughed an’ tole her dat he would give her a puppy; dat dey was plenty of houn’s on de plantation. Den he snapped de chains on dey wris’ an’ led dem off. Lissa an’ Cleve never seed dat baby no more. Aunt Beck Lawson took an’ raised her an’ when she got grown she was my mammy.
“Yes, suh, Marse Drew bought dem niggers like he was buyin’ a pair of mules. Dey wuzn’ no more den mules to him. It was early summer when he brung dem to de plantation, but when wheat cuttin’ time come Lissa an’ Cleve was sent to de wheat fiel’s. Dey was smart niggers, dey worked hard—too hard for dey own good. In dem times ‘twuz de smart, hard workin’ niggers dat brought de bes’ price, an’ nobody didn’ know dat better den Marse Drew.
“One day Cleve seed Marse Drew watchin’ Lissa. She was gleamin’ de wheat. Her skin was de color of warm brown velvet; her eyes was dark an’ bright an’ shinin’ like muscadines under de frosty sun, an’ her body was slender like a young tree dat bends easy. As she stooped an’ picked up de wheat, flingin’ it ‘cross her arm, she swayed back an’ fo’th jus’ like dem saplins down yonder by de creek sways in de win’.
“Cleve watched Marse Drew on de sly. He seed him watchin’ Lissa. He seed de lustful look in his eyes, but ‘twuzn’ Lissa he lustin’ after; ‘twuz money he seed in her slender swayin’ body, in de smooth warm brown skin, an’ de quick, clean way she gleam de wheat. Stripped to de wais’ on de Alabama auction block she would bring near ’bout a thousan’ dollars. Cleve ‘gun to sweat. He turned so sick an’ skeered dat he could hardly swing de scythe through de wheat. Marse Drew done took his baby away, an’ now sumpin’ way down in his heart told him dat he was gwine take Lissa. He didn’ keer if he parted dem, ‘twuz dollars he seed swingin’ ‘roun’ his head—gol’ dollars shinin’ brighter den stars.
“‘Twuz de nex’ day dat Marse Drew went to Cleve’s cabin. He walk up whistlin’ an’ knock on de door wid de butt of his whip.
“Cleve opened de door.
“Ole Marse tole him to pack Lissa’s clothes, dat he was takin’ her to Souf Boston de nex’ day to sell her on de block.
“Cleve fell on his knees an’ ‘gun to plead. He knew Ole Marse wuzn’ gwine take Lissa to no Souf Boston; he was gwine take her way off an’ he wouldn’ never see her no more. He beg an’ promise Marse Drew to be good an’ do anything he say [HW: to] do if he jus’ leave him Lissa, dat she was his wife an’ he love her. But Marse Drew hit him ‘cross de face wid his whip, cuttin’ his lip in half, den he went over an’ felt of Lissa’s arms an’ legs like she might have been a hoss.
“When he done gone Cleve went over an’ set down by Lissa an’ took her han’. Lissa ‘gun to cry, den she jumped up an’ ‘menced to take down her clothes hangin’ on de wall.
“Cleve watched her for a while, den he made up his min’ he gwine do sumpin’, dat she ain’t gwine be took away from him. He say: ‘Quit dat, Lissa, leave dem clothes alone. You ain’t gwine leave me, you ain’t gwine nowhare, hear me?’ Den he tole her to make up a hot fire while he brung in de wash pot. He brung in de big iron pot an’ set it on de hearth an’ raked de’ red coals all ‘roun’ it, den he filled it wid water. While it was heatin’ he went to de door an’ looked out. De sun done gone down an’ night was crowdin’ de hills, pushin’ dem out of sight. By daylight dat white man would be comin’ after Lissa.
“Cleve turned ‘roun’ an’ looked at Lissa. She was standin’ by de wash pot lookin’ down in de water, an’ de firelight from de burnin’ lightwood knots showed de tears droppin’ off her cheeks. Cleve went outside. ‘Bout dat time a scritch owl come an’ set on de roof an’ scritched. Lissa run out to skeer it away, but Cleve caught her arm. He say, ‘Don’t do dat, Lissa, leave him alone. Dat’s de death bird, he knows what he’s doin’. So Lissa didn’ do nothin’, she let de bird keep on scritchin’.
“When ‘twuz good an’ dark Cleve took a long rope an’ went out, tellin’ Lissa to keep de water boilin’. When, he come back he had Marse Drew all tied up wid de rope an gagged so he couldn’ holler; he had him th’owed over his shoulder like a sack of meal. He brung him in de cabin an’ laid him on de floor, den he tole him if he wouldn’ sell Lissa dat he wouldn’ hurt him. But Marse Drew shook his head an’ cussed in his th’oat. Den Cleve took off de gag, but befo’ de white man could holler out, Cleve stuffed de spout of a funnel in his big mouf way down his th’oat, holdin’ down his tongue. He ax him one more time to save Lissa from de block, but Marse Drew look at him wid hate in his eyes shook his head again. Cleve didn’ say nothin’ else to him; he call Lissa an’ tole her to bring him a pitcher of boilin’ water.
“By den Lissa seed what Cleve was gwine do. She didn’ tell Cleve not to do it nor nothin’; she jus’ filled de pitcher wid hot water, den she went over an’ set down on de floor an’ hol’ Marse Drew’s head so he couldn’ move.
“When Ole Marse seed what dey was fixin’ to do to him, his eyes near ’bout busted out of his head, but when dey ax him again ’bout Lissa he wouldn’ promise nothin’, so Cleve set on him to hol’ him down, den took de pitcher an’ ‘gun to pour dat boilin’ water right in dat funnel stickin’ in Marse Drew’s mouf.
“Dat man kicked an’ struggled, but dat water scalded its way down his th’oat, burnin’ up his insides. Lissa brung another pitcher full an’ dey wuzn’ no pity in her eyes as she watched Marse Drew fightin’ his way to torment, cussin’ all niggers an’ Abraham Lincoln.
“After dat Lissa an’ Cleve set down to wait for de sheriff. Dey knew ‘twuzn’ no use to run, dey couldn’ get nowhare. ‘Bout sunup de folks come an’ foun’ Marse Drew, an’ dey foun’ Lissa an’ Cleve settin’ by de door han’ in han’ waitin’. When dem niggers tole what dey done an’ how come dey done it dem white folks was hard. De sheriff took de rope from’ roun’ Marse Drew an’ cut it in two pieces. He tied one rope ‘roun’ Cleve’s neck an’ one rope ‘roun’ Lissa’s neck an’ hung dem up in de big oak tree in de yard.
“Yes, suh, dat’s what happened to my gran’mammy an’ gran’pappy in slavery times. Dis here cabin we’s settin’ in is de same cabin whare Cleve an’ Lissa scalded Marse Drew, an’ dat oak tree ‘side de paf is de same tree dey was hung on. Sometimes now in de fall of de year when I’se settin’ in de door after de sun done gone down; an’ de wheat am ripe an’ bendin’ in de win’, an’ de moon am roun’ an’ yeller like a mush melon, seems like I sees two shadows swingin’ from de big lim’ of dat tree—I sees dem swingin’ low side by side wid dey feets near ’bout touchin’ de groun’.”
Anyone who would like to tell me about ancestors who owned slaves, please send me your stories in the comment section.
Those of you who are offended by the language of Dave Lawson in the interview, send your comments to the Library of Congress.