Slave Narrative of Charley Williams

Person Interviewed: Charley Williams
Location: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Date of Birth: Jan. 11, 1843
Age: 94

Iffen I could see better out’n my old eyes, and I had me something to work with and de feebleness in my back and head would let me ‘lone, I would have me plenty to eat in de kitchen all de time, and plenty tobaccy in my pipe, too, bless God!

And dey wouldn’t be no rain trickling through de holes in de roof, and no planks all fell out’n de flo’ on de gallery neither, ’cause dis one old nigger knows everything about making all he need to git along! Old Master done showed him how to git along in dis world, jest as long as he live on a plantation, but living in de town is a different way of living, and all you got to have is a silver dime to lay down for everything you want, and I don’t git de dime very often.

But I aint give up! Nothing like dat! On de days when I don’t feel so feeble and trembly I jest keep patching ’round de place. I got to keep patching so as to keep it whar it will hold de winter out, in case I git to see another winter.

Iffen I don’t, it don’t grieve me none, ’cause I wants to see old Master again anyways. I reckon maybe I’ll jest go up an ask him what he want me to do, and he’ll tell me, and iffen I don’t know how he’ll show me how, and I’ll try to do it to please him. And when I git it done I wants to hear him grumble like he used to and say, “Charley, you ain’t got no sense but you is a good boy. Dis here ain’t very good but it’ll do, I reckon. Git yourself a little piece o’ dat brown sugar, but don’t let no niggers se you eating it if you do I’ll whup your black behind!”

Dat ain’t de way it going be in Heaven, I reckon, but I can’t set here on dis old rottendy gallery and think of no way I better like to have it!

I was a great big hulking buck of a boy when de war come along and bust up everything, and I can remember back when everybody was living peaceful and happy, and nobody never had no notion about no war.

I was borned on the ‘leventh of January, in 1843, and was old enough to vote when I got my freedom, but I didn’t take no stock in all dat politics and goings on at dat time, and I didn’t vote till a long time after old Master passed away, but I was big enough before de war to remember everything pretty plain.

Old Master name was John Williams, and old Mistress name was Miss Betty, and she was a Campbell before she married. Young Missy was named Betty after her mommy, and Young Master was named Frank, but I don’t know who after. Our overseer was Mr. Simmons, and he was mighty smart and had a lot of patience, but he wouldn’t take no talk nor foolishness. He didn’t whup nobody very often, but he only had to whup ’em jest one time! He never did whup, a nigger at de time the nigger done something, but he would wait till evening and have old Master come and watch him do it. He never whupped very hard ‘cept when he had told a nigger about something and promised a whupping next time and the nigger done it again. Then that nigger got what he had been hearing ’bout!

De plantation was about as big as any. I think it had about three hundred acres, and it was about two miles northwest of Monroe, Louisiana. Then he had another one not so big, two, three miles south of the big one, kind of down in the woodsy part along the White river bottoms. He had another overseer on that place and a big passel of niggers, but I never did go down to that one. That was where he raised most of his corn and shoats, and lots of sorghum cane.

Our plantation was up on higher ground, and it was more open countrybut still they was lots of woods all around and lots of the plantations had been whacked right out of de new ground and was full of stumps. Master’s place was more open, though, and all in the fields was good plowing.

The big road runned right along past our plantation, and it come from Shreveport and run into Monroe. There wasn’t any town at Monroe in then days, jest a little cross roads place with a general store and a big hide house. I think there was about two big hide houses, and you could smell that place a mile before you got into it. Old Master had a part in de store, I think.

De hide houses was jest long sheds, all open along de sides and kivered over wid cypress clapboards.

Down below de hide houses and de store was jest a little settlement of one or two houses, but they was a school for white boys. Somebody said there was a place where they had been an old fort, but I never did see it.

Everything boughten we got come from Shreveport, and was brung in by the stage and the freighters, and that was only a little coffee or gunpowder, or some needles for the sewing, or some strap iron for the blacksmith, or something like dat. We made and raised everything else we needed right on the place.

I never did even see any quinine till after I was free. My mammy knowed jest what root to go out and pull up to knock de chills right out’n me. And de bellyache and de running off de same way, too.

Our plantation was a lot different from some I seen other places, like way east of there, around Vicksburg. Some of them was fixed up fancier but dey didn’t have no more comforts than we had.

Old Master come out into that country when he was a young man, and they didn’t have even so much then as they had when I was a boy. I think he come from Alabama or Tennessee, and way back his people had come from Virginia, or maybe North Carolina, ’cause he knowed all about tobacco on the place. Cotton and tobacco was de long crops on his big place, and of course lots of horses and cattle and mules.

De big house was made out’n square hewed logs, and chinked wid little rocks and daubed wid white clay, and kivered wid cypress clapboards. I remember one time we put on a new roof, and de niggers hauled up de cypress logs and sawed dem and frowed out de clapboards by hand.

De house had two setting rooms on one side and a big kitchen room on de other, wid a wide passage in between, and den about was de sleeping rooms. They wasn’t no stairways ‘cepting on de outside. Steps run up to de sleeping rooms on one side from de passageway and on de other side from clean outside de house. Jest one big chimbley was all he had, and it was on de kitchen end, and we done all de cooking in a fireplace dat was purty nigh as wide as de whole room.

In de sleeping rooms dey wasn’t no fires ‘cepting in brazers made out of clay, and we toted up charcoal to burn in ‘en when it was cold mornings in de winter. Dey kept warm wide de bed clothes and de knitten clothes dey had.

Master never did make a big gallery on de house, but our white folks would set out in de yard under de big trees in de shade. They was long benches made out’n hewed logs and all padded wid gray moss and corn shuck padding, and dey set pretty soft. All de furniture in de house was home-made, too. De beds had square posts as big around as my shank and de frame was nortised into ’em, and holes bored in de frame and home-made rope laced in to make it springy. Den a great big mattress full of goose feathers and two—three comforts as thick as my foot wid carded wool inside! Dey didn’t need no fire-places!

De quarters was a little piece from de big house, and dey run along both sides of de road dat go to de fields. All one-room log cabins, but day was good and warm, and every one had a little open shed at de side whar we sleep in de summer to keep cool.

They was two or three wells at de quarters for water, and some good springs in de branch at de back of de fields. You could ketch a fish now and den in dat branch, but Young Master used to do his fishing in White River, and take a nigger or two along to do de work at his camp.

It wasn’t very fancy at de Big House, but it was mighty pretty jest de same, wid de gray moss hanging from de big trees, and de cool green grass all over de yard, and I can shut my old eyes and see it jest like it was before de War come along and bust it up.

I can see old Master setting out under a big tree smoking one of his long cheroots his tobacco nigger made by hand, and fanning hisself wid his big wide hat another nigger platted out’n young inside corn shucks for him, and I can hear him holler at a big bunch of white geeses what’s gitting in his flower beds and see ’em string off behind de old gander towards de big road.

When de day begin to crack de whole plantation break out wid all kinds of noises, and you could tell what going on by de kind of noise you hear.

Come de daybreak you hear de guinea fowls start potracking down at de edge of de woods lot, and den de roosters all start up ’round de barn and de ducks finally wake up and jine in. You can smell de sow belly frying down at the cabins in de “row”, to go wid de hoecake and de buttermilk.

Den purty soon de wind rise a little, and you can hear a old bell donging way on some plantation a mile or two off, and den more bells at other places and maybe a horn, and purty soon younder go old Master’s old ram horn wid a long toot and den some short toots, and here come de overseer down de row of cabins, hollering right and left, and picking de ham out’n his teeth wid a long shiny goose quill pick.

Bells and horns! Bells for dis and horns for dat! All we knowed was go and come by de bells and horns!

Old ram horn blow to send us all to de field. We all line up, about seventy-five field naggers, and go by de tool shed and gad our hoes, or maybe go hitch up de mules to de plows and lay de plows out on de side so de overseer can see iffen de points is sharp. Any-plow gits broke or de point gits bungled up on de rocks it goes to do blacksmith nigger, den we all gad on down in de field.

Den de anvil start dangling in de blacksmith shop; “Tank! Deling-ding! Tank! Deling-ding!”, and dat ole bull tongue gitting straightened out!

Course you can’t hear de shoemaker awling and pegging, and de card spinners, and de old mammy sewing by hand, but maybe you can hear de old loom going “frump, frump”, and you know it all right iffen your clothes do be wearing out, ’cause you gwine gad new britches purty soon!

We had about a hundred naggers on dat place, young and old, and about twenty on de little place down below. We could make about every kind of thing but coffee and gunpowder dat our whitefolks and us needed.

When we needs a hat we gits inside cornshucks and weave one out, and makes horse collars de same way. Jest tie two little soft shucks together and begin plaiting.

All de cloth ‘cepting de Mistress’ Sunday dresses come from de sheep to de carders and de spinners and de weaver, den we dye it wid “butternut” and hickory bark and indigo and other things and set it wid copperas. Leather tanned on de place made de shoes, and I never see a store boughten wagon wheel ‘cepting among de stages and de freighters along de big road.

We made purty, long back-combs out’n cow horn, and knitting neddles out’n second hickory. Split a young hickory and put in a big wedge to prize it open, them cut it down and let it season, and you got good bent grain for wagon hames and chair rockers and such.

It was jest like dat until I was grown, and den one day come a neighbor man and say we in de war.

Little while young Master Frank ride over to Vicksburg and jine de, Sesesh army, but old Master jest go on lak nothing happen, and we all don’t hear nothing more until long come some Sesesh soldiers and take most old Master’s hosses and all his wagons.

I bin working on de tobacco, and when I come back to de barns everything was gone. I would go into de woods and gad good hickory and burn it till it was all coals and put it out wid water-to make hickory charcoal for curing de tobacco. I had me some charcoal in de fire trenches under de during houses, all full of new tobacco, and overseer come and say bundle all de tobacco up and he going take it to Shreveport and sell it befo’ de soldiers take it too.

After de hosses all gone and most de cattle and de cotton and de tobacco gone too, here come de Yankees and spread out all over de whole country. Dey had a big camp down below our plantation.

One evening a big bunch of Yankee officers come up to de Big House and old Master set out de brandy in de yard and dey act purty nice. Next day de whole bunch leave on out of dat part.

When de hosses and stuff all go old Master sold all de slaves but about four, but he kept my pappy and mammy and my brother Jimmie and my sister Betty. She was named after old Mistress. Pappy’s name was Charley and mammy’s was Sally. De naggers he kept didn’t have much work without any hosses and wagons, but de blacksmith started in fizing up more wagons and he kept them hid in de woods till they was all fixed.

Den along come some more Yankees, and dey tore everything we had up, and old Master was afeared to shoot at them on account his womenfolks; to he tried to sneak the fambly out but they kotched him and brung him back to de plantation.

We naggers didn’t know dat he was gone until we seen de Yankees bringing dem back. De Yankees had done took charge of everything and was camping in de big yard, and us was all down at de quarters scared to death, but dey was jest letting us alone.

It was night when de white folks tried to go away, and still night when de Yankees brung dem back, and a house nigger come down to de quarters wid three, four mens in blue clothes and told us to come up to de Big House.

De Yankees didn’t seem to be mad wid old Master, but jest laughed and talked wid him, but he didn’t take de jokes any too good.

Den dey asked him could he dance and he said no, and dey told him to dance or make us dance. Dar he stood inside a big ring of dem mens in blus clothes, wid dey brass buttons shining in de light from de fire dey had in front of de tents, and he jest stood and said nothing, and it look lak he wasn’t wanting to tell us to dance.

So some of us young bucks jest step up and say we was good dancers, and we start shuffling while de rest of de naggers pat.

Some nigger women go back to de quarters and gad de gourd fiddles and de clapping bones made out’n beef ribs, and bring dem back so we could have some music. We gad all warmed up and dance lak we never did dance befo’! I speck we invent some new steps dat night!

We act lak we dancing for de Yankees, but we trying to please Master and old Mistress more than anything, and purty soon he begin to smile a little and we all feel a lot better.

Next day de Yankees move on away from our place, and old Master start gitting ready to move out. We gad de wagons we hid, and de whole pessel of us leaves out for Shreveport. Jest left de old place standing like it was.

In Shreveport old Master gad his cotton and tobacco money what he been afraid to have sent back to de plantation when he sell his stuff, and we strike out north through Arkensas.

Dat was de awfullest trip any man ever make! We had to hide from everybody until we find out if dey Yankees or Sesesh, and we go along little old back roads and up one mountain and down another, through de woods all de way.

After a long time we gad to the Missouri line, and kind of cut off through de corner of dat state into Kansas. I don’t know how we ever gad across some of dem rivers but we did. Dey nearly always would be some soldiers around de fords, and dey would help us find de best crossing. Sometimes we had to unload de wagons and dry out de stuff what all got wet, and camp a day or two to fix up again.

Purty soon we gad to Fort Scott, and that was whar de roads forked ever whichaways. One went on north and one east and one went down into de Indian country. It was full of soldiers coming and going back and forth to Arkansas and Fort Gibson.

We took de road on west through Kansas, and made for Colorado Springs.

Fort Scott was all run down, and the old places whar dey used to have de soldiers was all fell in in most places. Jest old rackety walls and leaky roofs, and a big pole fence made out’n poles sot in de ground all tied together, but it was falling down too.

They was lots of wagons all around what belong to de army, hauling stuff for de soldiers, and some folks tolk old Master he couldn’t make us naggers go wid him, but we said we wanted to anyways, so we jest went on west across Kansas.

When we got away on west we come to a fork, and de best road went kinda south into Mexico, and we come to a little place called Clayton, Mexico whar we camped a while and then went north.

Dat place is in New Mexico now, but old Master jest called it Mexico. Somebody showed me whar it is on de map, and it look lak it a long ways off’n our road to Colorado Springs, but I guess de road jest wind off down dat ways at de time we went over it. It was jest two or three houses made out’n mud at dat time, and a store whar de soldiers and de Indians come and done trading.

About dat time old Master sell off some of de stuff he been taking along, ’cause de wagons loaded too heavy for de mountains and he figger he better have de money than some of de stuff, I reckon.

On de way north it was a funny country. We jest climb all day long gitting up one side of one bunch of mountains, and all de nigger men have to push on de wheels while de mules pull and den scotch de wheels while de mules rest. Everybody but de whitefolks has to walk most de time.

Down in de valleys it was warm like in Louisiana, but it seem lak de sun aint so hot on de head, but it look lak every time night come it ketch us up on top of one of dem mountains, and it almost as cold as in de winter time!

All de niggers had shoes and plenty warm clothes and we wrop up at night in everything we can gad. we gad to Fort Scott again, and den de Yankee officers come and ask all us naggers iffen we want to leave old Master and stay dar and work, ’cause we all free now. Old Master say we can do what we please about it. A few of de naggers stay dar in Fort Scott, but most of us say we gwine stay wid old Master, and we don’t care iffen we is free or not.

When we gad back to Monroe to de old place us naggers gad a big surprise. We didn’t hear about it, but some old Master’s kinfolks back in Virginia done come out dar an fix de place up and kept it for him while we in Colorado, and it look ’bout as good as when we left it.

He cut it up in chunks and put us naggers out on it on de halves, but he had to sell part of it to gad de money to gad us nules and tools and found to run on. Den after while he had to sell some more, and he seem lak he gad old mighty fast.

Young Master bin in de big battles in Virginia, and he gad hit, and den he gad sick, and when he come home he jest lak a old man he was so feeble.

About dat time they was a lot of people coming into dat country from de North, and dey kept telling de naggers dat de thing for dem to do was to be free, and come and go whar dey please.

Dey try to gad de darkeys to go and vote but none us folks took much stock by what dey say. Old Master tell us plenty time to mix in de politics when de younguns gad educated and know what to do.

Jest de same he never mind iffen we go to de dances and de singing and sech. He allus lent us a wagon iffen we want to borry one to go in, too.

Some de naggers what work for de white folks from de North act purty uppity and big, and come pestering ’round de dance places and try to talk up ructions amongst us, but it don’t last long.

De Ku Kluckers start riding ’round at night, and dey pass de word dat de darkeys got to have a pass to go and come and to stay at de dances. Dey have to gad de pass from de white folks dey work for, and passes writ from de Northern people wouldn’t do no good. Dat de way de Kluckers keep the darkies in line.

De Kluckers jest ride up to de dance ground and look at everybody’s passes, and iffen some darkey dan widout a pass or got a pass from de wrong man dey run him home, and iffen he talk big and won’t go home dey whop him and make him go.

Any nigger out on de road after dark liable to run across de Kluckers, and he better have a good pass! All de dances got to bust up at about ‘leven o’clock, too.

One time I seen three-four Kluckers on hosses, all wrapped up in white, and dey was making a black boy gad home. Dey was riding hosses and he was trotting down de road ahead of ’em. Ever time he stop and start talking dey pop de whip at his heels and he start trotting on. He was so made he was crying, but he was gitting on down de road jest de same.

I seen ’em coming and I gits out my pass young Master writ so I could show it, but when dey ride by one in front jest turns in his saddle and look back at tother men and nod his head, and they jest ride on by widout stopping to see my pass. Dat man knowed me, I reckon. I looks to see iffem I knowed de hoss, but de Kluckers sometime swapped dey hosses ’round amongst ’em, so de hoss maybe wasn’t hisn.

Dey wasn’t very bad ’cause de naggers ’round dar wasn’t bad, but I hear plenty of darkeys gad whopped in other places ’cause dey act up and say dey don’t have to take off dey hats in de white stores and such.

Any nigger dat behave hisself and don’t go running ’round late at night and drinking nover had no trouble wid de Kluckers.

Young Mistress go off and gad married, but I don’t remember de name ’cause she live off somewhar else, and de next year, I think it was, my pappy and mammy go on a place about five miles away owned by a man named Mr. Bumpus, and I go ‘long wid my sister Betty and brother Jimmie to help ’em.

I live around dat place and never marry till old mammy and pappy both gone, and Jimmie and Betty both married and I was gitting about forty year old myself, and den I go up in Kansas and work around till I gad married at last.

I was in Fort Scott, and I married Mathilda Black in 1900, and she is 73 years old now and was born in Tennessee. We went to Pittsburg, Kansas, and lived from 1907 to 1913 when we come to Tulsa.

Young Master’s children writ to me once in a while and telled me how dey gitting ‘long up to about twenty year ago, and den I never heard no more about ’em. I never had no children, and it look lak my wife going outlive me, so my mainest hope when I goes on is seeing Mammy and Pappy and old Master. Old overseer, I speck, was too devilish mean to be thar!

‘Course I loves my Lord Jesus same as anybody, but you see I never hear much about Him until I was grown, and it seem lak you got to hear about religion when you little to scare it up and put much by it. Nobody could read de Bible when I was a boy, and dey wasn’t no white preachers talked to de naggers. We had meeting sometimes, but de nigger preacher jest talk about bein a good nigger and “doing to please de Master,” and I allus thought he meant to please old Master, and I allus wanted to do dat anyways.

So dat de reason I allus remember de time old Master pass on.

It was about two years after de War, and old Master been mighty porely all de time. One day we was working in de Bumpus field and a nigger come on a mule and say old Mistress like to have us go over to de old place ’cause old Master mighty low and calling mine and Pappy’s and Mammy’s name. Old man Bumpus say go right ahead.

When we gad to de Big House old Master setting propped up in de bed and you can see he mighty low and out’n his head.

He been talking about gitting de oats stacked, ’cause it seem to him lak it gitting gloomy-dark, and it gwine to rain, and hail gwine to ketch de oats in de shocks. Some nigger come running up to de back door wid an old horn old Mistress sent him out to hunt up, and he blowed it so old Master could hear it.

Den purty soon de doctor come to de door and say old Master wants de bell rung ’cause de slaves should ought to be in from de fields, ’cause it gitting too dark to work. Somebody gad a wagon tire and beet on it like a bell ringing, right outside old Master’s window, and den we all go up on de porch and peep in. Every body was stiffling kind of quiet, ’cause we can’t help it.

We hear old Master say, “Dat’s all right, Simmons. I don’t want my naggers working in de rain. Go down to de quarters and see dey all dried off good. Dey ain’t got no sense but dey all good naggers.” Everybody around de bed was crying, and we all was crying too

Den old Mistress come to de door and say we can go in and look at him if we want to. He was still setting propped up, but he was gone.

I stayed in Louisiana a long time after dat, but I didn’t care nothing about it, and it look lak I’m staying a long time past my time in dis world, ’cause I don’t care much about staying no longer only I hates to leave Mathilda.

But any time de Lord want me I’m ready, and I likes to think when He ready He going tell old Master to ring de bell for me to come on in.

Black, Williams,

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

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