Today is Juneteenth, the anniversary of news of the Emancipation Proclamation reaching Texas on June 19, 1865. One of the three brothers in my history, William H. Holland, was a frequent speaker at emancipation celebrations in Austin during the 1870s. Holland was born a slave in Holly Springs, Mississippi, but was brought to Texas as an infant in 1842. His white father, Bird Holland, was the Texas secretary of state at the time of secession. Unfortunately, while the white newspapers of the 1870s praised W.H. Holland for eloquent emancipation speeches on history and politics, they never quoted anything he said – at least not that I have discovered so far.
The topic of slavery in Texas gets short shrift in the state’s history. Black history in Texas tends to focus on the movement and the leaders who lifted the state out of the Jim Crow South. But the institution of slavery and the 30 year period afterward when leaders tried, but failed, to achieve civil rights are usually ignored or just mentioned in passing.
So in honor of Juneteenth, I thought I would let some of the slaves speak for themselves. The Federal Writers Project between 1936 and 1938 interviewed numerous former slaves in Texas and across the South. Some of their stories are heart-warming, while others are brutal. The narratives are sometimes criticized because the writers use dialect to capture the voice of the former slaves. I have kept the material as written; my apologies to anyone who is offended. And because of the time frame of the interviews, these people mostly were children during slavery and their stories may be from personal experience or of tales they heard from their parents and adopted as their own memory.
I have picked out a few quotes to draw you in, but click on the links below and read the narratives for yourself. Read them all, or browse at random. This Juneteenth, hear the words of the slaves.
The first word of freedom.
“When freedom come, I didn’t know what dat was. I ‘lect Uncle Charley Burns what drive de buggy for Massa Charles, come runnin’ out in de yard and holler, ‘Everybody free, everybody free,’ and purty soon sojers comes and de captain reads a ‘mation. And, Law me, dat one time Massa Charley can’t open he mouth, ’cause de captain tell him to shut up, dat he’d do de talkin’. Den de captain say, ‘I come to tell you de slaves is free and you don’t have to call nobody master no more.’ Well, us jus’ mill ’round like cattle do. Massa Charley say iffen us wants to stay he’ll pay us, all ‘cepting my papa. He say, ‘You can’t stay here, ’cause you is a bad ‘fluence,’” Sarah Ford of West Columbia.
It was their money
“The Cavins allus thunk lots of their niggers and Grandma Maria say, ‘Why shouldn’t they—it was their money.’” Will Adams of Marshall…”Old massa went to war with his boy, Billie. They’s lots of cryin’ and weepin’ when they sot us free. Lots of them didn’t want to be free, ’cause they knowed nothin’ and had nowhere to go. Them what had good massas stayed right on.”
A big jamboree
“I dis’member jus’ how many slaves dere was, but dere was more’n 100. I saw as much as 100 sold at a time. When dey tuk a bunch of slaves to trade, dey put chains on ’em. “De other slaves lived in log cabins back of de big house. Dey had dirt floors and beds dat was made out of co’n shucks or straw. At nite dey burned de lamps for ’bout an hour, den de overseers, dey come knock on de door and tell ’em put de light out. Lots of overseers was mean. Sometimes dey’d whip a nigger wid a leather strap ’bout a foot wide and long as your arm and wid a wooden handle at de end,” William Adams, a slave in San Jacinto County.
“Jus’ fore de war, a white preacher he come to us slaves and says: ‘Do you wan’ to keep you homes whar you git all to eat, and raise your chillen, or do you wan’ to be free to roam roun’ without a home, like de wil’ animals? If you wan’ to keep you homes you better pray for de South to win. All day wan’s to pray for de South to win, raise the hand.’ We all raised our hands ’cause we was skeered not to, but we sho’ didn’ wan’ de South to win…”
“After de war dere was a lot of excitement ‘mong de niggers. Dey was rejoicin’ and singin’. Some of ’em looked puzzled, sorter skeered like. But dey danced and had a big jamboree.”
Burnin’ in torment
You see, my mamma belong to old William Cleveland and old Polly Cleveland, and they was the meanest two white folks what ever lived, ’cause they was allus beatin’ on their slaves. I know, ’cause mamma told me, and I hears about it other places, and besides, old Polly, she was a Polly devil if there ever was one, and she whipped my little sister what was only nine months old and jes’ a baby to death. She come and took the diaper offen my little sister and whipped till the blood jes’ ran—jes’ ’cause she cry like all babies do, and it kilt my sister,” Mary Armstrong of Houston… “But that old Polly was mean like her husban’, old Cleveland, till she die, and I hopes they is burnin’ in torment now.”
I seen ’em beat—O, Lawd, yes
“They was ’bout 40 slaves on the place, but I never seed no slaves bought or sold and I never was sold, but I seen ’em beat—O, Lawd, yes. I seen ’em make a man put his head through the crack of the rail fence and then they beat him till he was bloody. They give some of ’em 300 or 400 licks,” Carey Davenport of Walker County.
You’d hear dem whips crackin’
“Massa didn’t ‘low no overseer on he place. One my uncles de driver, and massa blow de old conk shell long ‘fore day, and if de darkies didn’t git goin’ you’d hear dem whips crackin’, Campbell Davis of Harrison County. “I seed one my sisters whip ’cause she didn’t spin ‘nough. Dey pull de clothes down to her waist and laid her down on de stomach and lash her with de rawhide quirt. I’s in de field when dey whips my Uncle Lewis for not pickin’ ‘nough cotton. De driver pull he clothes down and make him lay on de groun’. He wasn’t tied down, but he say he scart to move.”
Never would be free
“After I was traded off, my new master wasn’t so good to me. He thunk all the time the South would win that war and he treated us mean. His name was Thomas Greer. He kept tellin’ us a black nigger never would be free. When it come, he said to us, ‘Well, you black ——, you are just as free as I am.’ He turnt us loose with nothin’ to eat and mos’ no clothes. He said if he got up nex’ mornin’ and found a nigger on his place, he’d horsewhip him,” Eli Davison of Madison County.
Reads de freedom papers
“Well, things was jes’ ’bout de same all de time till jes’ ‘fore freedom,” Lucinda Elder of Houston. “Course, I hears some talk ’bout bluebellies, what dey call de Yanks, fightin’ our folks, but dey wasn’t fightin’ round us. Den one dey mamma took sick and she had hear talk and call me to de bed and say, ‘Lucinda, we all gwine be free soon and not work ‘less we git paid for it.’ She sho’ was right, ’cause Marse John calls all us to de cookhouse and reads de freedom papers to us and tells us we is all free, but iffen we wants to stay he’ll give us land to make a crop and he’ll feed us. Now I tells you de truth, dey wasn’t no one leaves, ’cause we all loves Marse John.”
‘Yous is all free, free as I am.’
James Hayes of Shelby County: “Three days after de celebration, de marster calls all de slaves in de house and says, ‘Yous is all free, free as I am.’ He tol’ us we’uns could go if we’uns wanted to. None of us knows what to do, dere warn’t no place to go and why would we’uns wan’ to go and leave good folks like de marster? His place was our home. So we’uns asked him if we could stay and he says, ‘Yous kin stay as long as yous want to and I can keep yous.’ We’uns all stayed till he died, ’bout a year after dat.
When we was free, they beat drums in Marshall
Wes Brady of Marshall: “The fightin’ was did off from us. My father went to war to wait on Josh Calloway. My father never come back. Massa Jeems cussed and ‘bused us niggers more’n ever, but he took sick and died and stepped off to Hell ’bout six months ‘fore we got free. When we was free, they beat drums in Marshall. I stayed on ’bout seven months and then my mother and me went to farmin’ for ourselves.”