I was a slave
In the 1930s, thousands of formerly enslaved African-American elders dictated their full life stories during interviews conducted by the US government. The following includes their slightly edited words. Their original words in southern dialect are published in “I WAS A SLAVE,” a series of books.
It is very important to remember that each owner created his or her own rules for governing their slaves. Therefore, the interviews provide accounts of vastly different experiences during similar circumstances.
Families were separated due to many reasons, including auctions, trades, kidnappings (of children and adults), inheritances, and payments for debts or gambling losses.
Delia Garlic (VA): Babies was snatched from deir mothers’ breasts an’ sold to speculators. Children was separated from sisters an’ brothers an’ never saw each other again. Of course, dey cry. You think dey not cry when dey was sold like cattle? I was took to Richmond an’ sold to a speculator. I never saw my mammy anymore.
Rose Williams (TX): When weuns gets to de tradin’ block, dere was one man dat shows interest in Pappy. Pappy talks to him an’ says, “Dem am my women [woman] an’ chil’s [child]. Please buy weuns an’ have mercy on weuns.” Marster Hawkins looks at weuns. Den, he says, “... but three am mo’ dan Ise wants, Ise guess.” Ise sure have de worryment. Dere am tears comin’ down my cheeks ‘cause Ise bein’ sold to some party dat would cause separation from my mammy. Den, someone says, “$525.00. She am sold to Marster Hawkins.” Am Ise glad an’ excited? Why, Ise quiverin’ all over.
Bud Jones (KT): Master told me he brung me up on a bottle [raised him from a child]. I never had no mammy or pappy what I knowed of. He just told me they was sold off.
Since there was no legal marriage for slaves, most simply began living with whomever they liked.
Jennie Proctor (AL): Weddin’s. No! We jus’ steps over de broom and we’s married.
With certain slaves, only breeding with the people who were chosen by the master was allowed.
Steve Robertson (TX): My name is Robertson, jus’ like all my sisters an’ brothers, but weuns don’t all have de same father. De masters picks de man to sire de children with de womens. Sometimes dey goes over to the other plantations where de bigger man lives an’ borrows him.
William Mathews: If a big stout man was good for breeding, dey gives him four or five women.
As a result of separations and years of relocations, families lost track of their relatives and no longer knew each other even when they met.
Fannie Moore (NC): Many boys an’ girls marry dey own brothers an’ sisters an’ never know de difference unless dey get to talkin’ ‘bout dey parents an’ where dey used to live.
Parental love remained intact.
Fannie Moore: I never understood how my mammy stand such hard work. She stand up for her children, though. De ol’ overseer he hate my mammy because she fight him for beatin’ her children. Why, she git more whippin’s for dat den anythin’ else. She have twelve children.