Slave Narrative of Duncan Gaines

Interviewer: Pearl Randolph
Person Interviewed: Duncan Gaines
Location: Madison, Florida
Age: 83?
Occupation: Field Worker

Duncan Gaines, the son of George and Martha Gaines was born on a plantation in Virginia on March 12, 1853. He was one of four children, all fortunate enough to remain with their parents until maturity. They were sold many times, but Duncan Gaines best remembers the master who was known as “old man Beever.” On this plantation were about 50 slaves, who toiled all day in the cotton and tobacco fields and came home at dusk to cook their meals of corn pone, collards and sweet potatoes on the hearths of their one room cabins. Biscuits were baked on special occasions by placing hot coals atop the iron tops of long legged frying pans called spiders, and the potatoes were roasted in the ashes, likewise the corn pone. Their masters being more or less kind, there was pork, chicken, syrup and other foodstuffs that they were allowed to raise as their own on a small scale. This work was often done by the light of a torch at night as they had little time of their own. In this way slaves earned money for small luxuries and the more ambitious sometimes saved enough money to buy their freedom, although this was not encouraged very much.

The early life of Duncan was carefree and happy. With the exception of carrying water to the laborers and running errands, he had little to do. Most of the time of the slave children was spent in playing ball and wrestling and foraging the woods for berries and fruits and playing games as other children. They were often joined in their play by the master’s children, who taught them to read and write and fired Duncan with the ambition to be free, so that he could “wear a frill on his collar and own a pair of shoes that did not have brass caps on the toes” and require the application of fat to make them shine. Wearing his shoes shined as explained above and a coarse homespun suit dyed with oak bark, indigo or poke berries, he went to church on Sunday afternoons after the whites had had their services and listened to sermons delivered by white ministers who taught obedience to their masters. After the services, most of the slaves would remove their shoes and carry them in their hands, as they were unaccustomed to wearing shoes except in winter. The women were given Saturday afternoons off to launder their clothes and prepare for Sunday’s services. All slaves were required to appear on Monday mornings as clean as possible with their clothing mended and heads combed.

Lye soap was used both for laundering and bathing. It was made from fragments of fat meat and skins that were carefully saved for that purpose. Potash was secured from oak ashes. This mixture was allowed to set for a certain period of time, then cooked to a jelly-like consistency. After cooling, the soap was cut into square bars and “lowanced out” (allowance) to the slaves according to the number in each family. Once Duncan was given a bar of “sweet” soap by his mistress for doing a particularly nice piece of work of polishing the harness of her favorite mare and so proud was he of the gift that he put it among his Sunday clothes to make them smell sweet. It was the first piece of toilet sopa that he had ever seen; and it caused quite a bit of envy among the other slave children.

Duncan Gaines does not remember his grandparents but thinks they were both living on some nearby plantation. His father was the plantation blacksmith and Duncan liked to look on as plowshares, single trees, horse shoes, etc were turned out or sharpened. His mother was strong and healthy, so she toiled all day in the fields. Duncan always listened for his mother’s return from the field, which was heraled by a song, no matter how tired she was. She was very fond of her children and did not share the attitude of many slave mother who thought of their children as belonging solely to the masters. She lived in constant fear that “old marse Seever” would meet with some adversity and be forced to sell them separately. She always whispered to them about “de war” and fanned to a flame their desire to be free. At that time Negro children listened to the tales of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, various animal stories and such childish ditties as:

“Little Boy, Little Boy who made your breeches? Mamma cut ’em out and pappa sewed de stitches.”

Children were told that babies were dug out of tree stumps and were generally made to “shut up” if they questioned their elders about such matters. Children with long or large heads were thought to be marked to become “wise men.” Everyone believed in ghosts and entertained all the superstitions that have been handed down to the present generation. There was much talk of “hoodooism” and anyone ill for a long time without getting relief from herb medicines was thought to be “fixed” or suffering from some sin that his father had committed.

Duncan was 12 years of age when freedom was declared and remembers the hectic times which followed. He and other slave children attended schools provided by the Freedmen’ Aid and other social organizations fostered by Northerners. Most of the instructors were whites sent to the South for that purpose. The Gaines were industrious and soon owned a prosperous farm. They seldom had any money but had plenty of foodstuffs and clothing and a fairly comfortable home. All of the children secured enough learning to enable them to read and write, which was regarded as very unusual in those days. Slaves had been taught that their brain was inferior to the whites who owned them and for this reason, many parents refused to send their children to school, thinking it a waste of time and that too much learning might cause some injury to the brain of their supposedly weak-minded children.

Of the various changes, Duncan remembers very little, so gradual did they occur in his section. Water was secured from the spring or well. Perishable foodstuffs were let down into the well to keep cool. Shoes were made from leather tanned by setting in a solution of red oak bark and water; laundering was done in wooden tubs, made from barrels cut in halves. Candles were used for lighting and were made from sheep and beef tallow. Lightwood torches were used by those not able to afford candles. Stockings were knitted by the women during cold or rainy weather. Weaving and spinning done by special slave women who were too old to work in the fields; others made the cloth into garments. Everything was done by hand except the luxuries imported by the wealthy. Duncan Gaines is now a widower and fast becoming infirm. He looks upon this “new fangled” age with bare tolerance and feels that the happiest age of mankind has passed with the discarding of the simple, old fashioned way of doing things.

Beever, Gaines,

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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