True Life Stories Dictated by Former American Slaves in the 1930s

W.P.A. Slave Narratives - WPA Slavery in America - African-Americans - Slaves

This is one of the full life stories
Book 1: Descriptions of Plantation Life


Photo of Jennie Proctor

Jennie Proctor at the time of her interview in the 1930’s

Each book has a Southern Dialect Glossary!

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I’s hear tell of dem good slave days but I ain’t nev’r seen no good times den. My mother’s name wuz Lisa. When I wuz a very small chile, I hear dat driver goin’ from cabin to cabin [in Alabama] as early as three o’clock in de mornin’. When he comes to our cabin, he say, “Lisa, Lisa, git up from dere and git dat breakfast.” My mother she wuz a cook and I don’t recollect nothin’ ’bout my father. If I had any brothers or sistas, I didn’ knows it.

We had ole ragged huts made out of poles and some of de cracks wuz chinked up wid mud and moss and some of dem wuzn’t. We didn’ have no good bed, jes’ scaffolds nailed up to de wall out of poles and de ole ragged beddin’ throwed on dem. Dat sho’ wuz hard sleepin’ but even dat feel good to our weary bones after dem long hard days’ work in the field.

I tended to de chillun [I took care of the white children] when I wuz a little gal [girl] and tried to clean de house jes’ like Ole Miss tells me to. Den soon as I was 10 years ol', Ole Marster he say, “Git [Go] to dat cotton patch.” I recollects once when I wuz a-tryin’ to clean de house like Ole Miss tell me, I finds a biscuit and I’s so hungry I et [ate] it, ’cause we nev’r see sich a thing as a biscuit, only sometimes on Sunday mornin’. We jes’ have co’nbraid [cornbread] and syrup and sometimes fat bacon.

When I et dat biscuit and she comes in and say, “Whar dat biscuit?”, I say, “Miss, I et it ’cause I’s so hungry.” Den she grab dat broom and start to beatin’ me over de head wid it and callin’ me low-down. I guess I jes’ clean lost my head [I guess that I went crazy] ’cause I know’d better den to fight her if I knowed anythin’ ’tall [at all]. But I start to fight her and de driver he comes in and he grabs me and starts beatin’ me wid dat cat-o’-nine-tails [whip]. He beats me ’til I fall to de floor nearly dead. He cut my back all to pieces, den dey rubs salt in de cuts for mo’ punishment. Lawd, Lawd, [Lord, Lord] honey! Dem wuz awful days.

When Ole Marster come to de house, he say, “What you beat [her] like dat for?” And de driver tells him why and he say, “She can’t work now for a week. She pay for several biscuits in dat time.” He sho’ wuz mad and tell Ole Miss she start de whole mess. I still got dem scars on my ole back right now, jes’ like my grandmother have when she die and I’s a-carryin’ mine right on to the grave jes’ like she did.

Our marster he wouldn’ ’low us to go fishin’. He say dat too easy on us and wouldn’ ’low us to hunt none either, but sometime we slips off at night and ketch ’possums. When Ole Marster smells dem ’possums cookin’ way in de night, he wraps up in a white sheet and gits in de chimney corner and scratch on de wall. When de man in de cabin goes to de door and say, “Who’s dat?”, he say, “Hit’s [It is] me. What’s ye cookin’ in dere?” De man say, “I’s cookin’ ’possum.” He say, “Cook him and bring me de hind quarters and you and de wife and de chillum eat de rest.” We nev’r had no chance ter git any rabbits ’cept when we wuz a-clearin’ and a-grubbin’ de new grounds. Den we ketch some rabbits and if dey looks good to de white folks, dey takes dem and if dey say no good, we git dem. We nev’r had no gardens. Sometimes de slaves git vegetables from the white folks’ garden and sometimes dey didn’.

Money? Uh-um! [No!] We nev’r seen no money. Guess we’d a-bought sumpin’ to eat wid it if we ev’r seen any. Fact is, we wouldn’ a-knowed hardly how to bought anythin’ ’cause we didn’ know nothin’ ’bout goin’ to town.

Dey spinned de cloth what our clothes wuz made of and we had straight dresses or slips [slips were straight dresses, not underwear] made of lowel. Sometimes dey dye ’em wid sumac berries or sweet gum bark and sometimes dey didn’. On Sunday, dey make all de chillun change. What we wears ’til we gits our clothes washed wuz gunny sacks wid holes cut for our head and arms. We didn’ have no shoes ’ceptin’ some homemade moccasins and we didn’ have dem ’til we wuz big chillun. De little chillun dey goes naked ’til dey wuz big enough to work. Dey wuz soon big enough though, ’cordin’ to our marster. We had red flannel for winter underclothes. Ole Miss she say a sick slave cost more den de flannel.

Weddin’s, uh-um! [no!] We jes’ steps over de broom and we’s married. Ha, ha, ha!

Ole marster he had a good house. De logs all hewed off smooth like and de cracks all fixed wid nice chinkin’, plum [completely] ’spectable lookin’ even to de plank floors. Dat wuz sumpin’ [something]. He didn’t have no big plantation but keeps ’bout 300 slaves in dem little huts wid dirt floors. I thinks he calls it four farms what he had.

Sometimes he would sell some of de slaves off of dat big auction block to de highest bidder when he could git enough for one.

When he go to sell a slave, he feed dat one good for a few days. Den when he goes to put ’em up on the auction block, he takes a meat skin and greases all ’round da slaves' mouths to make ’em look like dey been eatin’ plenty meat and sich like, and wuz good and strong and able to work. Sometimes he sell de babes from de breas’, and den again he sell de mothers from de babes, and de husbands and de wives, and so on. He wouldn’t let ’em holler [cry loudly or scream] much when de folks be sold away. He say, “I have you whooped if you don’t hush.” Dey sho’ loved deir [their own] six chillun though. Dey wouldn’ want nobody buyin’ dem.

We might a-done very well if de ole driver [slavedriver = overseer] hadn’t been so mean. But de least little thing we do, he beat us for it and put big chains ’round our ankles and make us work wid dem on ’til de blood be cut out all ’round our ankles. Some of de marsters have what dey call stockades and puts deir heads and feet and arms through holes in a big board out in de hot sun. But our old driver he had a bullpen. Dat’s only thing like a jail he had. When a slave do anythin’ he didn’ like, he takes ’em in dat bullpen and chains ’em down, face up to de sun and leaves ’em dere ’til dey nearly dies.

None of us wuz ’lowed to see a book or try to learn. Dey say we git smarter den dey wuz if we learn anythin’, but we slips around and gits hold of that Webster’s old blue back speller and we hides it ’til way in de night. Den we lights a little pine [knot] torch and studies dat spellin’ book. We learn it, too. I can read some now and write a little, too.

Dey [There] wuzn’t no church for de slaves but we goes to de white folks’ arbor on Sunday evenin’. A white man he gits up dere to preach to de slaves. He say, “Now I takes my text, which is, slaves, obey your marster and your mistress ’cause what you git from dem here in dis world am all you ev’r goin’ to git, ’cause you jes’ like de hogs and de other animals. When you dies, you ain’t no more after you been throwed in dat hole.” I guess we believed dat for awhile ’cause we didn’ have no way findin’ out different. We didn’ see no Bibles.

Sometimes a slave would run away and jes’ live wild in de woods but most times dey ketch ’em and beats ’em, den chains ’em down in de hot sun ’til dey nearly die. De only way any slaves on our farm ev’r goes anywhere wuz when de boss sends him to carry some news to another plantation or when we slips off way in de night. Sometimes after all de work wuz done, a bunch would have it made up [made up their minds = decided] to slip out down to de creek and dance. We sho’ have fun when we do dat, most times on Sat’day night.

All de Christmas we had wuz Ole Marster would kill a hog and give us a piece of poak [pork]. We thought dat wuz sumpin’. De way Christmas lasted wuz ’cordin’ to de big sweet gum back log what de slaves would cut and put in de fireplace. When dat burned out, de Christmas wuz over. So you know we all keeps a-lookin’ de whole year ’roun’ for de biggest sweet gum we could find. When we jes’ couldn’ find de sweet gum, we git oak, but it wouldn’ last long enough, ’bout three days on average when we didn’ have to work. Ole Marster he sho’ pile on dem pineknots [to make the fire burn hotter on the yule log], gittin’ dat Christmas over so we could git back to work.

We had a few little [children’s] games we play, like “Peep, Squirrel, Peep,” “You Can’t Ketch Me,” and sich like. We didn’ know nothin’ ’bout no New Year’s Day or holidays ’cept Christmas.

We had some co’nshuckin’s sometimes but de white folks gits de fun and we gits de work. We didn’ have no kind of cottonpickin’s ’cept jes’ pick our own cotton. I’s can hear dem darkies now, goin to de cotton patch way ’fore day a-singin’ “Peggy, Does You Love Me Now?”
One ole man he sing:
”Sat’day night and Sunday, too
Young gals on my mind,
Monday mornin’ way ’fore day
Ole Marster got me gwine.
Peggy, does you love me now?”
Den he whoops a sort of holler, what nobody can do jes’ like dem ole-timers. Den he goes:
“ ’Possum up a ’simmon tree [persimmon, a fruit],
Rabbit on de groun’
Lawd, Lawd, ’possum
Shake dem ’simmons down.
Peggy, does you love me now?
Rabbit up a gum stump
’Possum up a holler
Git him out, little boy
And I gives you half a dollar.
Peggy, does you love me now?

We didn’ have much lookin’ after [much care] when we got sick. We had to take de worst stuff in de world fer medicine, jes’ so it wuz cheap. Dat ole blue mass and bitter apple would keep us out all night. Sometimes he have de doctor when he thinks we goin’ to die ’cause he say he ain’t got ary [any] one to lose. Den dat calomel what dat doctor would give us would purty nigh [pretty near = almost] kill us. Den dey keeps all kinds of lead bullets and asafoetida balls ’roun’ our necks and some carried a rabbit foot wid dem all de time to keep off evil of any kind.

Lawd, Lawd, honey! It seems impossible dat any of us ev’r lived to see dat day of freedom, but thank God we did.

When Ole Marster comes down in de cotton patch to tells us ’bout bein’ free, he say, “I’s hates to tell you but I’s knows I’s got to . You is free, jes’ as free as me or anybody else what’s white.” We didn’ hardly know what he mean. We jes’ sort of huddle ’roun’ together like skeered [scared] rabbits. But after we knowed what he mean, didn’ many of us go ’cause we didn’ know where to went. Ole Marster he say he give us de woods land and half of what we make on it. We could clear it and work it or starve.

Well, we didn’t know what to do ’cause he jes’ gives us some ole dull hoes an’ axes to work wid. But we all went to work and as we cut down de trees and de poles, he tells us to build de fence ’round de field and we did. When we plants de co’n and de cotton, we jes’ plant all de fence corners full, too. I nev’r seen so much stuff grow in all my born days. Several years [ears] of co’n to de stalk and dem big cotton stalks wuz a-layin’ over de groun’. Some of de ole slaves dey say dey believe de Lawd knew sumpin’ ’bout us, after all. He lets us put co’n in his crib. Den we builds cribs and didn’t take long ’fore we could buy some hosses and some mules and some good hogs. Dem mangy hogs what our marster give us de first year wuz plum good hogs after we grease dem and scrub dem wid lye soap. He jes’ give us de ones he thought wuz sho’ to die, but we wuz a-gittin’ goin’ now and, ’fore long, we wuz a-buildin’ better houses and feelin’ kind of happy-like.

After Ole Marster dies, we keeps hearin’ talk of Texas. Me an’ my ole man — I’s done been married several years den and had one little boy — well, we gits in our covered wagon wid our littles mules hitched to it and we comes to Texas. We worked as sharecroppers ’roun’ Buffalo ’til my ole man he died. My boy wuz nearly grown den so he wants to come to San Angelo and work. So, here we is. He done been married long time now and got six chillun. Some of dem work at hotels and cafes and fillin’ stations [gasoline stations] and in homes.

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