Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves - Tennessee Narratives
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"The people 'round here calls me "Lee" Star, and I want to tell you, Lee Star is a free-born man. But of course, things bein' as they were, both my mother and father were slaves. That is for a few years. They lived in Greenville, Tennessee. My mother, Maria Guess, was free'd before the emancipation, by the good words of her young white mistress, who told 'me [TR: 'em] all when she was about to die, she wanted 'em to set Maria free, 'cause she didn't want her little playmate to be nobodys else's slave. They was playmates you see. My mother was eleven years old when she was freed."

"When she was about fourteen and my father Henry Dunbar wanted to marry he had to first buy his freedom. In them times a slave couldn't marry a free'd person. So he bought his freedom from his Marster Lloyd Bullen, and a good friend of Andrew Johnson, the presi-dent. My father an' him was friends too. So he bought his freedom, for just a little of somethin' I disremember what, 'cause they didn't aim to make him buy his freedom high. He made good money though. He was a carpenter, blacksmith, shoe maker and knowed a lot more trades. His Master was broadhearted, and good to his slaves, and he let 'em work at anything they want to, when they was done their part of white folks chore-work."

"Both my father and mother was learned in the shoe makin' trade. When they come to Knoxville to live, and where I was born, they had a great big shoe shop out there close to where Governor Brownlow lived. Knoxville just had three streets, two runnin' east and west and one run north and south. I well remember when General Burnside come to Knoxville. That was endurin' the siege of Knoxville. Before he marched his men out to the Battle of Fort Saunders, he stopped his solider [TR: soldier] band in front of our shoe shop and serenaded my mother and father. I was a little boy and I climed up on the porch bannisters and sat there and lissen' to that music."

"I remember another big man come here once when I was a boy and I served the transient trade at a little eatin' place right where the Atkin Ho-tel is now. Jeff Davis come there to eat, when he stopped over between trains. That was in 1869. No, I disremember what he eat or how he behave. He didnt seem no different from any other man. He was nince lookin' wore a long tail coat and his boots was plenty blacked. He favored pictures of Abraham Lincoln. Was about middle-height and had short, dark chin-whiskers. I were very busy at the time, an' if they was any excitement I didnt know it."

"Yes, I've seen many a slave in my day. One of my boy playmates was a slave child. His name is Sam Rogan and he lives now at the County Poor Farm. I make it a point not to dwell too much on slave times. I was learned different. I've had considerable schoolin', went to my first school in the old First Presbyterian church. My teachers was white folks from the North. They give us our education and give us clothes and things sent down here from the North. That was just after the surrender. I did see a terrible sight once. A slave with chains on him as long as from here to the street. He was in an ole' buggy, settin' between two white men and they was passin' througn Knoxville. My mother and father wouldnt lissen' to me tell 'em about it when I got home. And I hope I forget everything I ever knowed or heard about salves [TR: slaves], and slave times."

Joseph Leonidas Star, no longer works at the shoemakers trade. He writes poetry and lives leisurely in a three room frame shanty, in a row of shabbier ones that face each other disconsolately on a typical Negro alleyway, that has no shade trees and no paving. "Lee's" house is the only one that does not wabble uneasily, flush with the muddy alley. His stands on a small brick foundation, a few feet behind a privet hedge in front, with a brick wall along the side in which he has cemented a few huge conch shells.

After fifty-four years residence here, a political boss in his ward, and the only Negro member of the Young White Men's Republican League, Star's influence in his community is attested by the fact that when he "destructed", the Knoxville City Council to "please do somethin' about it, Knoxville being too big a city to keep callin' street's alleys," the City Council promptly and unanimously voted to change the name of King's Alley to Quebec Place.

When the interviewer called, Star's door was padlocked. But he appeared soon, having received word by the grape-vine system that some one "was to see him",—"They told me it was the Sherriff" he laughed. He came down the long muddy alley at a lively clip. He claimes he is able to walk about 20 miles each day, just to keep in condition. He wore a broad-brimmed black "derby-hat", a neatly pressed serge suit in two tones, a soiled white pleated shirt and a frazzled-edged black bow tie. His coat lapels and vest-front were adorned with badges and emblems, including his Masonic pins, a Friendship Medal, his Republican button and a silver crucifix. The Catholic church, according to Lee, is the only one in Knoxville which permits the black man to worship under the same roof with his white brothers.

Many of Star's poems have been published in the local and state papers. He keeps a record of deaths of all citizens, and has done so for sixty years. He calls the one, which records murders and hanging, his "Doomsday Book", and "encoached" in it he claims is an accurate date record of all such events of importance in his lifetime. His records are neatly inscribed in a printing form and very legible. His conversation is marked by grammatical incongruities, but he does not speak the Negro dialect.

INTERVIEW DAN THOMAS 941 Jefferson Street Nashville, Tennessee

"I wuz bawn in slavery in 1847 at Memphis, Tennessee en mah marster wuz Deacon Allays. Mah mammy wuz de cook at de big house. Mah mammy d'ed soon atter I wuz bawn, en de Missis had me raised on a bottle. Marster en Missis treatus all dere slaves kindly en plenty ter eat en eve'y one wuz happy. I dunno nuthin 'bout mah daddy er whar he went. I hab no kin in dis worl'. All I eber yeard wuz dat all mah folks kum fum Africa. Mah Missis would tell me dat I mus' be good en mine en eberbody will lak' you en ef she d'ed, dey would tek keer ob me. Dat ez w'at dey hab don."

"I wuked 'round de house 'tel I wuz 'bout ten y'ars ole en de Marster put me ter wuk in his big whiskey house. W'en I got 'bout 21 y'ars ole, I would go out ter collect bills fum Marster's customers en hit tuk me 'bout a week ter git all 'round. I wuzn't 'lowed ter tek money but had ter git dere checks. I also wuked 18 y'ars as bar tender. Marster en Mistress d'ed 'bout four y'ars 'fore whiskey went out ob de United States. I stay wid dem 'til dey d'ed."

"Atter de Marster en Missis d'ed de doctor sezs I would hab ter leave Memphis on 'count ob my health. I kum ter Nashville en got a job at de "Powder Plant" durin' de Worl' War, en stayed dere 'til hit wuz ovuh. I den gets wuk at Foster en Creighton in Nashville 'till dey tole me dat I wuz too ole ter wuk. I makes mah livin' now by haulin' slop en pickin' up things dat de white folks throw in dere trash pile en sum ob hit I sell ter de papah en junk dealers. De white peeple he'p me now also."

"I se'd dem sell a lot ob slaves in Mississippi, jes' lak hosses en hogs, one time w'en de Marster en Mistress made a trip down dere. Lots ob times dey made trips 'round de kuntry en dey allus tuk me 'long. I se'd sum cru'l Marsters dat hitched up dere slaves ter plows en made dem plow lak hosses en mules did."

"Atter de slaves got dere freedum, dey had ter look atter demselves, so dey would wuk on plantations till dey got so dey could rent a place, lak you rent houses en farms terday. Sum got places whar dey wuk'd fer wages."

"I voted three times in mah life but lawdy dat wuz a long time ago. I voted fer Teddy Roosevelt en Woodrow Wilson, en mah last vote wuz 'bout two y'ars pas'."

"Hab no tales handed down by mah peeple. W'en I would try ter git info'mation, atter I got o'ler, all dey would say wuz, "You wuz raised on a bottle en hab no peeple ob you own."

"Oh mah goodness! Hit jes par'lises me ter see how dem young peeple ez doin' terday. Lawdy hab mercy but dere ez as much diff'ent fum ole times as day en nite en hit looks lak things hab gone astray. Wuz tole lots 'bout de Ku Klux Klan en how dey would catch en whup de cul'ed peeple, but mah white folks made me stay in en dey neber got me."

"I member seein' Andrew Jackson, General Grant en Abraham Lincoln, member seein' General Andrew Jackson git'in ready fer war by marchin' his soldiers erroun'. I se'd 'im ride his big white hoss up en down ter see how dey marched."

"One song I lack'd best ob all wuz, 'Mah ole Mammy ez De'd en Gon',' 'Let me Sit B'neath de Willow Tree.' Don't member uther songs now."

INTERVIEW Sylvia Watkins 411 14th Avenue N. Nashville, Tennessee.

I'se said ter be 91 y'ars ole. I wuz young w'en de War wuz goin' on. I wuz bawn in Bedford County. Mah mammy wuz named Mariah. She had six chillun by mah daddy en three by her fust husband.

Mah missis wuz named Emily Hatchet en de young missises wuz Mittie en Bettie, dey wuz twins. We had good clothes ter w'ar en w'en we went ter de table hit wuz loaded wid good food en we could set down en eat our stomachs full. Oh Lawd I wish dem days wuz now so I'd hab sum good food. Ob course, we had ter wuk in de fiel's en mek w'at we et.

Wen we'd finish our day's wuk our missis would let us go out en play hide en seek, Puss in de corner, en diff'ent games.

Mah mammy wuz sold in Virginia w'en she wuz a gurl. She sezs 'bou 60 ob em wuz put in de road en druv down 'yer by a slave trader, lak a bunch ob cattle. Mah mammy en two ob mah sistahs wuz put on a block, sold en carried ter Alabama. We neber 'yeard fum dem nomo', en dunno whar dey ez.

I wuz willed ter mah young missis w'en she ma'ried. I wuz young en, ob course, she whuped me, but she wasn't mean ter me. I needed eve'y whupin' she eber gib me, cause I wuz allus fightin'. Mah missis allus called me her lettle nig.

Mah daddy could only see mah mammy Wednesday en Saturday nites, en ef'n he kum wid'out a pass de pat-rollers would whup 'im er run 'im 'til his tongue hung out. On dem nites we would sit up en look fer daddy en lots ob times he wuz out ob bref cose he had run so much.

Mah white folks had a loom en we wove our own clothes. I wuz nuss en house girl en l'arned how ter sew en nit. Mah young missis wuz blind 'fore she died. I useter visit her once a Ye'r en she'd load me down wid things ter tek home, a linsey petticoat, ham bones, cracklins en diff'ent things. She died 18 years ago almos' a 100 ye'r ole.

De white folks wouldn't let de slaves hab a book er papah fer fear dey'd l'arn sumpin', en ef dey wan'ed ter pray dey'd tu'n a kettle down at dere cabin do'er. I member yearin' mah mammy pray "Oh Father op'n up de do'ers en sho us lite." I'd look up ter de ceiling ter see ef he wuz gonna op'n up sumpin'; silly, silly me, thinkin' such. I's 'longs ter de Missionary Baptist chuch but I don't git ter go very off'n.

I wuz tole 'fore freedum dat de slaves would git a mule, land en a new suit, but our missis didn't gib us a thing. She promis' me, mah br'rer, en three sistahs ef'n we would stay wid her a ye'r, en he'p her mek a crop she would gib us sump'in ter start us a crop on w'en we lef' her.

Mah daddy's marster wus named Bob Rankin, he gib mah daddy a hog, sum chickens, let him hab a cow ter milk en land ter raise a crop on. He wan'ed mah daddy ter git us tergedder ter he'p daddy raise a crop but since mah missis had promised us so much, daddy let us stay wid her a ye'r. On de nite mah daddy kum fer us, mah missis sezs I've not got nuthin ter gib you, fer I won't hab nobody ter do nuthin fer me. We went wid our daddy. We lived dere on Marster Rankin's farm fer ye'rs in fact so long we tho't de place 'longed ter mah daddy. We had a house wid big cracks in hit, had a big fier place, a big pot dat hong on de fier en a skillet dat we cooked corn bread in. Had a hill ob taters under de house, would raise up a plank, rake down in de dirt git taters, put dem in de fier ter roast. We had meat ter eat in de middle ob de day but none at mawnin' er nite. We got one pair ob shoes a ye'r, dey had brass on de toes. I uster git out en shine de toes ob mine, we called hit gol' on our shoes. We wuked in de fiel' wid mah daddy, en I know how ter do eberting dere ez ter do in a fiel' 'cept plow, I wuz allus ter slender ter hold a plow. We had grease lamps. A thing lak a goose neck wid platted rag wick in hit. Would put grease in hit.

Durin' slavery ef one marster had a big boy en 'nuther had a big gal da marsters made dem libe tergedder. Ef'n de 'oman didn't hab any chilluns, she wuz put on de block en sold en 'nuther 'oman bought. You see dey raised de chilluns ter mek money on jes lak we raise pigs ter sell.

Mah mammy tole me 'bout de sta'rs fallin' en den I se'ed de second fallin' ob sta'rs. Dey didn't hit de groun' lak de fust did. I member de comet hit had a long tail. I lef' mah daddy en kum ter Nashville wid missis Nellie Rankin, (daddy's young missus) in 1882; hab bin 'yer eber since. I'se dun house wuk fer a lot ob peeples. Kep house fer a 'oman in Belle Meade fer 14 ye'rs. Now I'se aint able ter do nothin. I'se bin ma'ried twice. Ma'ried Jimm Ferguson, libed wid 'im 20 ye'ars he d'ed. Two ye'ars later I mar'ed George Watkins, lived wid him 8 ye'ars; two ye'ars ago he died. I'se neber had any chilluns. I kep wan'in ter 'dopt a lettle gal, de fust husban' wouldn't do hit. 'Bout 5-1/2 ye'ars ago de second husban' George kum in wid a tiny baby, sezs 'yer ez a boy baby I 'dopted. I sezs dat ez you own baby cose hits jes like yer. He denied hit, but eben now de boy ez e'zackly lak George. He's six ye'rs ole en gwine ter school. I'se got mah hands full tryin' ter raise 'im 'lone. W'en George died he had a small inshorance policy. I paid mah taxes, I owns dis home, en bought mahself three hogs. I sold two en kilt one. Den I got three mor' jes' a short time ago. Sum kind ob zeeze got among dem en dey all d'ed.

Yas I'se voted four er five times, but neber had any frens in office. I don' think dis white-black mar'iage should be 'lowed. Dey should be whupped wid a bull whup.

As far as I know de ex-slaves hab wuked at diff'ent kins ob jobs en now sum I know ez in de po-house, sum git' in relief order en urthers ez lak mahself, hab dere homes en gettin' 'long bes' dey kin. I needs milk en cod liver oil fer dis lettle boy but can't buy it.

I dunno nothin' 'bout slave uprisin's. De songs I member ez:

"All Gawds Chilluns up Yonder." "I want ter Shout Salvation." "Down by de River Side."

INTERVIEW NARCISSUS YOUNG Rear 532 1st Street No. Nashville, Tennessee

"I'se 96 y'ars ole. Bawn in slavery en mah marster wuz Isham Lamb en mah missis wuz Martha Lamb. Mah mammy d'ed w'en I wuz three y'ars ole en I wuz raised in de house 'til I wuz big 'nuff ter wuk out in de fiels wid de uthers. Mah missis l'arn me ter sew, weav en spin. I also he'lped ter cook en wuk in de house. Atter I got big'er I went ter chuch wid mah white folks en had ter set wid urther slaves in dat part ob de chuch whar nobody but slaves would be 'lowed. In slavery I'se git no money fer wuk'n but I don' steal as mah white folks sho gib me en de uther slaves plenty good things ter eat. Clothes good 'nuff fer anybody, candy, en we went ter parties en urther places, en w'at else could I'se wan'?"

"Mah missis l'arned me ter pray, "Now I lay me down ter sleep. I pray de Lawd mah soul ter keep, but if I should die 'fore I wake, I pray de Lawd mah soul ter tek." I jined de Primitive Baptist Chuch w'ile young en b'en dere ebe'y since."

"I member de ole song back dere, "Rock a Bye Baby, Yo Daddy's gon' a Huntin' ter git a Rabbit Skin ter put de Baby in."

"I wuz whup'd by mah missis fer things dat I ought'n dun, but dat wuz rite. De hahdest whup'in she eber gib me wuz 'bout two hen aigs. I had gathured de aigs in a bucket en tuk dem ter de house en I se'd de big fier in de fier-place so I tuk out two ob de aigs en put dem in de hot ashes ter bake. Mah missis se'd de aigs en axed who put dem dere. I tole her I didunt do hit, but she knowed I did. So she tole me she don' keer 'bout de two aigs, but dat she wuz gwine ter whup me fer tellin' a lie. Dey don't raise chilluns lak dat now."

"I don't b'leeve in Niggers en whites ma'rin' en I wuz raised by de "quality" en I'se b'leeves eber one should ma'rie in dere culor."

"I think de young peeples ob ter day ez dogs en sluts, en yer kin guess de rest."

"One day 'bout 12 o'clock we se'd de Yankee soldiers pas' our house. De missus hid her fine things, but dey don' kum on de place. All us Niggers run ter de cellar en hid. We found de sugah barrels en we scracht 'round fer sum sugah ter eat."

"One time de Ku Klux Klan kum ter our house but dey harm nobody. Guess day wuz lookin' fer sum slave er sum one fum 'nother plantation widout dere marster's pass."

"I se'd a lot ob sta'rs fall one time but dey neber teched de groun'. En I members seein' a comet wid a long bright shinin' tail."

"Atter freedom all de slaves lef' de plantation but I stayed dere a long time. I kum ter Nashville ovah thurty y'ars ago en I'se wuk'd as cook en house wuk'r twenty y'ars fer one party; eleben y'ars fer 'nother, en menny y'ars fer 'nother. I knows you won't b'leeve me but at one time I weigh ovuh 400 pounds, but now I'm nothin' but skin en bon'. (She weighs at least 200 pounds now). I bekum feeble en couldn't wuk out, en eber since den I'se bin kum' up a mountain, but now I git he'ps by de Social Security."

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Transcriber's Notes

Corrected the typos per handwritten instructions. The inconsistencies in spelling and punctuation have been left as in the original text, except for adding the missing opening and closing quotation marks for consistency in certain interviews.

One word at the bottom of page 25 was illegible, but upon careful examination at high magnification, and considering that the other interviewers asked whether families were divided, my best guess is the word may be men: Nebber knowed ob any plantashuns men be divided.


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