Slave Narrative of J. H. Beckwith

Interviewer: Bernice Bowden
Person Interviewed: J. H. Beckwith
Age: 68
Location: 619 North Spruce Street, Pine Bluff, Arkansas

“No ma’m I was not born in the time of slavery. I was sixty-eight last Friday. I was born November 18, 1870 in Johnson County, North Carolina.

“My mother was born in Georgia and her name was Gracie Barum. Father was born in North Carolina. His name was Rufus Beckwith. He belonged to Doctor Beckwith and mother, I think, belonged to Tom Barum. Barum was just an ordinary farmer. He was just a second or third class farmer—just poor white folks. I think my mother was the only slave he owned.

“My father had to walk seven miles every Saturday night to see my mother, and be back before sunrise Monday.

“My parents had at least three or four children born in slavery. I know my father said he worked at night and made shoes for his family.

“My father was a mulatto. He had a negro mother and a white father. He had a mechanical talent. He seemed to be somewhat of a genius. He had a productive mind. He could do blacksmithing, carpenter work, brick work and shoe work.

“Father was married twice. He raised ten children by each wife. I think my mother had fifteen children and I was the the thirteenth child. I am the only boy among the first set, called to the ministry. And there was one in the second set. Father learned to read and write after freedom.

“After freedom he sent my oldest brother and sister to Hampton, Virginia and they were graduated from Hampton Institute and later taught school. They were graduated from the same school Booker T. Washington was. He got his idea of vocational education there.

“I haven’t had much education. I went as far as the eighth grade. The biggest education I have had was in the Conference.

“I joined the Little Rock General Conference at Texarkana in 1914. This was the Methodist Episcopal, North, and I was ordained as a deacon and later an elder by white bishops. Then in 1930 I joined the African Methodist.

“By trade I am a carpenter and bricklayer. I served an apprentice under my father and under a German contractor.

“I used to be called the best negro journeyman carpenter between Monroe, Louisiana and Little Rock, Arkansas.

“I made quite a success in my trade. I have a couple of United States Patent Rights. One is a brick mold holding ten bricks and used to make bricks of concrete. The other is a sliding door. (See attached drawings) [TR: Drawings missing.]

“I was in the mercantile business two and one-half years in Sevier County. I sold that because it was too confining and returned to the carpenter’s trade. I still practice my trade some now.

“I have not had to ask help from anyone. I have helped others. I own my home and I sent my daughter to Fisk University where she was graduated. While there she met a young man and they were later married and now live in Chicago. They own their home and are doing well.

“In my work in the ministry I am trying to teach my people to have higher ideals. We have to bring our race to that high ideal of race integrity. I am trying to keep the negro from thinking he is hated by the upper class of white people. What the negro needs is self-consciousness to the extent that he aspires to the higher principles in order to stand on an equal plane in attainment but not in a social way.

“At present, the negro’s ideals are too low for him to visualize the evils involved in race mixture. He needs to be lifted in his own estimation and learn that a race cannot be estimated by other races—by anything else but their own ideals.

“The younger generation is off on a tangent. They’ll have to hit something before they stop.

“The salvation of our people—of all people—white and colored, is leadership. We’ve got to have vision and try to give the people vision. Not to live for ourselves but for all. The present generation is selfish. The life should flow out and as it flows out it makes room for more life. If it does not flow out, it congeals and ferments. Selfishness is just like damming a stream.

“I think Woodrow Wilson won the World War with his fourteen points of democracy. If the people of foreign countries had not that old imperialism sentiment, the Jew would not be where he is today.”

Interviewer’s Comment

This man is the best informed and most sensible negro I have interviewed. In the room where I interviewed him, were a piano, a radio, many ferns, a wool rug, chairs, divan, and a table on which were books including a set of the Standard History of the World. I asked if he had read the history and he replied, “Not all of it but I have read the volumes pertaining to the neolithic age.”

On the walls were several pictures and two tapestries.

The house was a good frame one and electric current was used.

Barum, Beckwith,

Federal Writers' Project. WPA Slave Narratives. Web. 2007-2024. The WPA Slave Narratives must be used with care. There is, of course, the problem of confusion in memory resulting from (73+ years) of the participants. In addition, inexperienced interviewers sometimes pursued question lines related to their own interests and perspectives and attempted to capture the colloquialism of the informant's speech. The interviews provide fascinating insight and surprisingly candid information, however.

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1 thought on “Slave Narrative of J. H. Beckwith”

  1. I am a Beckwith living in nc. Would you be willing to tell me more about your family’s history. I have an open ear for anything you are willing to share. I am a kind person. This is coming from an open heart.

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