Slave Narrative of Eva Strayhorn

Person Interviewed: Eva Strayhorn
Place of Birth: Johnson County, Clarksville, Arkansas

When I was a child in Arkansas we used to go to camp-meetings with the white folks. We went right along by they side till we got to church and we set down on the back seat. We took part in all the services. When they wasn’t any church our old Master would call us in on Sunday morning and read the Bible to us and we would sing some good old songs and then go about our ways. Some of the songs that we sung still ring in my ears and I still remember the words to some of them.

“Must Jesus bear the cross alone
And all the world go free—
No, there’s a cross for everyone
And there’s a cross for me.”
Another one was:
“Oh, Jesus is a rock in a weary land,
A weary land, a weary land,
Jesus is a rock in a weary land
A shelter in the time of storm,”

We sang a lot of others such as: “I am Bound For The Promised Land,” “The Old Time Religion,” and “When I Can Read My Title Clear, To Mansions In The Skies.” My favorites was the ones I just give you and they are still my favorite songs. I was born in Johnson County, Clarksville, Arkansas. My father was Henry and my mother was Cindy Newton. Master Bill Newton owned them both. Father was owned by a man named Perry when he first married my mother and he had to have a pass every time he come to visit her. The Patterollers give him so much trouble that Old Man Bill Newton just put a stop to it by buying father from his master. Master Newton let my father build a nice little two room log house just outside the regular quarters and he went with him to the turners and had two nice bedsteads made, the kind that had ropes laced across for springs. Father then made some whiteoak chairs with split bottoms. Mother made some rag rugs and they settled down to keeping house. We had a nice big fireplace and we had a cozy little home and was as happy as the day was long. Our old Master was a really good man. He was kind to us and provided well for us. He never allowed his slaves to be whipped and if any of them was sick he saw to it that they was well cared for and had a doctor if they needed one. Mother was the cook for the white folks and all the food for everybody was cooked in the kitchen at the big house. The white folks food was carried to the dining room and our food was carried to our homes. I reckon we had the same food that they had for I know we always had plenty of good food. We had a nigger overseer. Some folks called colored overseers “nigger drivers” or “nigger overlookers.” This overseer had complete charge of the plantation and the hands for old Master was hardly ever at home. He was a legislator at Little Rock. The overseer’s name was Solomon and he had the right name for he sure was a smart man. When he was a young boy he used to take his young mistress, Miss Liza to school. She was just a little girl and if the road was muddy he would carry her on his shoulder, she was his special charge and he would a died for her. They would sit down to rest by the roadside and she would learn him out of her books. They would do this every day and soon he could read as good as she could. As she growed up she kept learning more and Solomon had married and Miss Liza would go down to his cabin every night and teach him some more. His wife learned to read a little. Miss Liza finally married and went away and nobody knowed Solomon could read as Miss Liza never had said anything about teaching him for she was afraid her Pappy wouldn’t like it. One night old Master went down to his house to give him orders for the next day and there set Sol with the Bible on his lap. Old Master said, “Sol, what are you doing with that Book?” Sol say, “I’ze reading it. Marse Bill. I ain’t going to tell you no lie about it.” Master Bill say, “How on earth did you learn to read?” Sol told him that Miss Liza learnt him when he used to tote her to school. Master Bill set there a minute and he said, “I want you to read it to me.” Sol read it to him just like he was talking it off. This sure did tickle Master Bill and he told him that he wanted him to practice up good that he was going to have his head examined on Sunday. This sort of scared old Sol but he went ahead and sure enough on Sunday they was several men come out from town and old Master had Sol read for them. A Dr. Weems was in the crowd. He had Sol set down in a chair and he felt all over his head and talked all the time he was examining him. He told old Master that Sol was a uncommonly smart man. I never did have no regular job. There was two other children that lived with us, one a girl about my age and size. Her name was Ann. Me and her had to run errands for our old Miss and my mother. We swept and dusted the white folks house, swept the yards, carried water from the spring and drove the calves to the pasture and any other little job that we was big enough to do. Sometimes mother would let us help her cook and we liked that best of all. The country began to be all torn up and everybody was talking about war. They commenced recruiting soldiers and all the young men went off to the army. Old Master had two sons, Robert and William. They had been to California to the gold fields for two or three years. When they come home old Master hoped they would settled down and stay at home so he give them some slaves. He gave my old grandmother and two of her children to Master William and he gave Hannah and her brother to Master Robert. They kept them for awhile and then they said the war was coming on and they would be likely to lose them anyway so they was going to sell them and realize something from them. Old Master tried to get them to keep them but they wouldn’t do it. My grandmother and her children sold together for $1100. The other poor woman, Hannah, was sold away from her children. Ann was about seven years old and Frank was five. When she left she said to my mother, “Cindy, be a mother to my children, will you? I hate to leave them, poor little things, but I can’t help myself. Their poor father is dead and only God knows what will become of them when Master Bill and Miss Tessie dies.” She just hugged and hugged them both and they took her away to Texas. Mother kept her promise and took the two children into our house and looked after them just like they was hers. Old Miss Tessie and Master Bill loved them and was awful good to them, too. Both of Master Bill’s boys went to the army. There wasn’t no men or boys at home during the war, the white men that was not too old was in the army and the colored men and boys had been refugeed to Texas. Their owners thought that if they could get them to Texas they wouldn’t have to free them. The women had to do all the work. Mother had to work mighty hard as she had to cut wood and haul it in with a team of oxen. Us children helped her all we could. Master Bill and Miss Tessie talked things over and they decided that Master Bill would slip away after night with his colored men and boys and keep them there for awhile and maybe they could save them that way. He thought that Miss Tessie would be safe at home with mother and us children. One night about midnight he took father and Jim and Sol and all the boys over ten years old and they left for Texas and we never saw them anymore for a long time. Young Master William was shot in the war and they brought him home. He lived about a week after they brought him back. Master Robert found out that his brother was about to die and he and a squad of men slipped back home to see him. They dassent stay at home but scouted around in the woods nearby. One morning about daylight my mother called me and Ann and told us to go to the big house that Miss Tessie had something to tell us. She told us that she wanted us to go up on the hill and for me to stand at the corner of the field and for Ann to go a little further on and for us to watch for the blue-coated soldiers. She had heard that there was a squad scouting around in the neighborhood trying to catch Master Robert and his friends. Well, me and Ann went to our posts and set down to watch. I was too young and sleepy to bother much about soldiers or any thing else, so I put my head down on my knees and went fast asleep. The next thing I knew I heard guns popping all ’round me right over my head. I jumped up and looked down the road and saw my mother with her hands full of food and coffee. She was on her way to take food to Master Robert and the soldiers had seen her and were shooting at her. I jumped up and ran to her jest as fast as I could and the soldiers quit shootin’ when they saw me. Mother stood right still and the soldiers rode right by us jest like we wasn’t there. Dey rode in the direction dat mother was going and found de boys and Master Robert. Dey started runnin’ but most of dem was captured but none of dem was killed. Dey shot a fine black horse down from under one man and it fell on him and of course dey got him. Master Robert and one of the boys jumped in a creek and hid under a big drift and they didn’t catch them. Mother was wearing a white sunbonnet and it had three holes shot in it, one in the tail and two in the crown. They put out poor spies when they put me and Ann out to watch. All the colored people in the country, men, women and children, ‘cept mother and her children and the two little children that Hannah left in her care, had gone wid de soldiers to the north where they would be set free. Mother wouldn’t leave for she told the officers, “Henry is in the South and I’ll never see him again if I leave the old home place, for he won’t know where to find me.” The officer told her that he was coming back the next day after us and for her to be ready to go. Mother told Miss Tessie that she was going to town and take the oath of peace and they couldn’t make her leave. Old Miss told her to go on so that night she hitched up the oxen and took her children and set out to Dover, Arkansas, twelve miles away, to see the bureau man and take the oath. We traveled till ’bout midnight and come to a man’s house that we knew. He let us stay all night and we was up by good daylight and on our way again. We come to a creek and it was up. It was running wild and mother was afraid to try to cross it. A man come along and he tied the wagon bed down with hickory withes so we could cross. Mother drove in and the oxen swum and drug the wagon along behind them. We crossed safely and drove til we come to a narrow pass in the mountains. Blue coat soldiers began to pass us, walking two and two. Mother stopped the wagon and when they would come up to it they would separate and one would go on one side of the wagon and one on the other, but they didn’t say any thing to us. It seemed like they was in a great hurry. We set there in the wagon till late that evening before the soldiers quit passing us and then it was too late for us to go on. We went about a mile and come to a house and they let us stay all night and the next morning we drove on into town. It was the first time any of us ever had been to town and I know mother was scared but she was determined to take the oath so she could stay on with old Miss Tessie. She left us children in the wagon while she went in to talk to the bureau man. Mother was awfully light, had gray eyes and straight hair and when she got to see the bureau man he said, “What are you coming here for you ain’t no nigger you are a darned Sesesh white and I ain’t got no time to fool wid you.” Mother done everything she could to convince him that she was a colored woman but she couldn’t do it. She had an aunt about ten miles from town and she decided to go there and if she hadn’t gone away she would get her to come back wid her and swear that she was a colored woman. She took us and away we went again to try to find her aunt Susan. We got there about dark and sure enough aunt Susan was still there and her master let her go back wid us. Aunt Susan was dark and she swore that mother was her sister’s child and they finally let her sign the oath. The oath of peace was that you would obey the law and wouldn’t harbor no Rebel soldiers nor no bushwhackers or do nothing that was wrong or would hinder the cause of the North.

When we got back home we didn’t have no home. The very night we left, de bushwhackers, or toe-burners as they was called, come to our house and told Miss Tessie that they wanted her money. She told dem she didn’t have any but they didn’t believe her and told her they would burn her if she didn’t give her money. She kept tellin’ them dat she didn’ have any money and they took every thing they wanted and then jerked the curtains off the windows and piled them in de middle of the room and the furniture on top of them and set them afire and burned everything ‘cept the nigger quarters. It was a pity to burn that big pretty two-story house, but they done it. Mother and us children went to live on the side of the mountain in a little cabin by ourselves and Miss Tessie went to live wid Miss Liza, her daughter. Mother had to keep her oath and she was afraid if she went wid Miss Tessie dat Master Robert might come home and they would say she had broke her oath and make her leave. One night mother was spinning and I was cardin and everything was just as quiet and we heard somebody tap on the door. We set real quiet and then we heard it again. You dassent speak above a whisper so mother went to the door and say real low, “who’s there?” “It’s your old Master Bill Newton.” Mother forgot and said louder, “Is that really you Master Bill, and how did you know where I was?” He told her to open the door and let him in and he would tell her. She opened the door and sure enough it was Master Bill. He had come back to see how we was all gittin’ along and found his house burnt. Somebody told him his wife was at Miss Liza’s so he went there and she told him where we was. He told mother dat he wanted her to go to his brother Nazor’s and wait for him there and he would take us to where father was. She hitched up de oxen and we went down to Uncle Nazor’s and one night Old Master and Miss Tessie slipped in there and got us and took us to Texas. We found father and we was all happy again. I never had seen slaves punished before we went to Texas but I saw a woman tied down and whipped one day. Old Master was just as good to us as he always had been and never punished any of us. They say the people in Texas was a lot harder on their slaves during the war then they ever had been before. Old Miss Tessie had kept the two little children wid her after the house was burned and took them wid her when we went South. After peace was made and we started back home she heard from somebody that my grandmother was down there pretty close to where they were so they went by there and found grandmother and Hannah, too. She almost died she was so happy to see her little children again. She thanked mother and Miss Tessie over and over for taking care of her children for her.

After peace was made old Master called us all to him and told us that we was free now, jest as free as he was and that he had some things that he wanted to tell us. He talked to us jest like we was his own children wid tears running down his cheeks. He said, “Cindy, I’ve raised you from a baby and you, Henry, since you was a young man. I’ve tried to be good to you and take good care of you in return for the good work you have always done for me. I want you to go out in de world now and make good citizens. Be honest and respectable and don’t turn against the good raisin’ you have had and remember me and my wife loves you all.” We all went back wid them to the old home place in Arkansas and father went on ’bout 50 miles and got a job and come back after mother and us children. Young Master Robert bought a plantation about fifteen miles from where we lived and old Master and Miss Tessie lived wid him. She got down low sick and she begged and begged for mother to come take care of her. Master Robert come and told mother and father hitched up the oxen and they left that night. Old Master said the very sight of Lucindy cured Miss Tessie. She got well and lived ’bout ten year after that. When she took sick again mother went back and took care of her as long as she lived. Old Master lived several year after Miss Tessie died. I married when I was fifteen. I remember what a fine wedding Miss Liza had and I said I was going to git Old Master to let me have one just like hers. I married in my mother and father’s home and I had my wedding just as near like Miss Liza’s as I could. I had a long white dress and a long veil and a big bouquet of flowers. I didn’t have things as fine as she did but I done my best. She had roses and I had jest common paper flowers. Her dress was satin and mine was cotton, my veil was cotton, too, but I thought it was fine and so did every body else. We married on Christmas night and we had a big supper. They was as many white folks there as colored and we had a grand time. The next day we went to housekeepin’ and we lived together till nineteen year ago when my husband died. I had fifteen children but there is only three living today.

Newton, Perry, Strayhorn,

Federal Writers' Project. WPA Slave Narratives. Web. 2007.

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