Slave Narrative of Ellen Claibourn

Interviewer: Mrs. Margaret Johnson
Person Interviewed: Ellen Claibourn
Location: Augusta, Georgia

Ellen was born August 19, 1852, on the plantation of Mr. Hezie Boyd in Columbia County, her father being owned by Mr. Hamilton on an adjoining plantation. She remembers being given, at the age of seven, to her young mistress, Elizabeth, who afterward was married to Mr. Gabe Hendricks. At her new home she served as maid, and later as nurse. The dignity of her position as house servant has clung to her through the years, forming her speech in a precision unusual in her race.

“I ‘member all our young marsters was drillin’ way back in 1860, an’ the Confed’rate War did not break out till in April 1861. My mistis’ young husband went to the war, an’ all the other young marsters ’round us. Young marster’s bes’ friend came to tell us all goodby, an’ he was killed in the first battle he fought in.

“Befo’ the war, when we was little, we mostly played dolls, and had doll houses, but sometime young marster would come out on the back porch and play the fiddle for us. When he played ‘Ole Dan Tucker’ all the peoples uster skip and dance ’bout and have a good time. My young mistis played on the piano.

“My granpa was so trusty and hon’able his old marster give him and granma they freedom when he died. He give him a little piece of land and a mule, and some money, and tole him he didn’t b’long to nobody, and couldn’t work for nobody ‘cept for pay. He couldn’t free granpa’s chilrun, ’cause they already b’longed to their young marsters and mistises. He worked for Mr. Hezie Boyd one year as overseer, but he say he didn’t wanter lose his religion trying to make slaves work, so he took to preaching. He rode ’bout on his mule and preach at all the plantations. I never ‘member seein’ granma, but granpa came to see us of’en. He wore a long tail coat and a big beaver hat. In that hat granma had always pack a pile of ginger cakes for us chilrun. They was big an’ thick, an’ longish, an’ we all stood ’round to watch him take off his hat. Every time he came to see us, granma sent us clothes and granpa carried ’em in his saddle bags. You ever see any saddle bags, ma’am? Well they could sho’ hold a heap of stuff!

“My pa uster come two or three times a week to our plantashun, an’ just so he was back by sun-up for work, nobody didn’t say nothin’ to him. He just lived ’bout three or four miles way from us.

“Yes ma’am we went to church, and the white preachers preached for us. We sat in the back of the church just like we sits in the back of the street cars now-days. Some of the house servants would go one time and some another. All the hands could go but ev’rybody had to has a pass, to sho’ who they b’long to.

“Yes ma’am, the slaves was whipped if they didn’t do they taskwork, or if they steal off without a pass, but if our marster found a overseer whipped the slaves overmuch he would git rid of him. We was always treated good and kind and well cared for, and we was happy.

“No ma’am, no overseer ever went to marster’s table, or in the house ‘cept to speak to marster. Marster had his overseers’ house and give ’em slaves to cook for ’em and wait on ’em, but they never go anywhere with the fam’ly.

“The house servants’ houses was better than the fiel’-hands’—and Marster uster buy us cloth from the ‘Gusta Fact’ry in checks and plaids for our dresses, but all the fiel’-hands clothes was made out of cloth what was wove on mistis’ own loom. Sometime the po’ white folks in the neighborhood would come an’ ask to make they cloth on mistis’ loom, and she always let ’em.

“Yes, ma’am, we had seamsters to make all the clothes for everybody, and mistis had a press-room, where all the clothes was put away when they was finished. When any body needed clothes mistis would go to the press-room an’ get ’em.

“During the war mistis had one room all fixed up to take care of sick soldiers. They would come stragglin’ in, all sick or shot, an’ sometimes we had a room full of ’em. Mistis had one young boy to do nothin’ but look after ’em and many’s the night I got up and helt the candle for ’em to see the way to the room.

“Oh my Gawd, I saw plenty wounded soldiers. We was right on the road to Brightsboro, and plenty of ’em pass by. That Confed’rate war was the terriblest, awfullest thing.

“Nobody but me knowed where mistis buried her gold money and finger rings and ear-rings and breat-pins. [TR: breast-pins?] I helt the candle then, too. Mistis and marster, (he was home then) an’ me went down back of the grape arbor to the garden-house. Marster took up some planks, an’ dug a hole like a grabe and buried a big iron box with all them things in it; then he put back the planks. Nobody ever found ’em, and after the war was over we went and got ’em.

“Yes, ma’am, everybody did they own work. De cook cooked, and the washer, she didn’t iron no clothes. De ironer did that. De housemaid cleaned up, and nurse tended the chilrun. Then they was butlers and coachmen. Oh, they was a plenty of us to do eve’ything.

“We didn’t have a stove, just a big fire place, and big oven on both sides, and long-handle spiders. When we was fixin’ up to go to Camp Meeting to the White Oak Camp meeting grounds, they cooked chickens and roasted pigs, and put apples in they mouth and a lot of other food—good food too. De food peoples eat these days, you couldn’t have got nobody to eat. Camp Meetin’ was always in August and September. It was a good Methodis’ meetin’, and eve’ybody got religion. Sometimes a preacher would come to visit at the house, an’ all the slaves was called an’ he prayed for ’em. Sometimes the young ones would laugh, an’ then marster would have ’em whipped.

“My young mistis had a sister older than her. She married Mr. Artie Boyd, an’ they had a big weddin’ but she loved her home and her mother and father so much she wouldn’t leave home. She just stayed on living there. When her baby come she died, and I tell you, ma’am, her fun’al was most like a weddin’, with so many people an’ so many flowers. All the people from the plantashun came to the house, an’ the wimmen had they babies in they arms. One the ladies say, “How come they let all these niggers and babies come in the house?” But marster knowed all us loved mistis, and he call us in. Marse Artie he wrote a long letter an’ all the things he got from mistis he give back to her fam’ly an’ all his own things he give to his brother, an’ then he died. Some say his heart strings just broke ’cause mistis died, and some say he took something.

“No, ma’am, I wasn’t married till after freedom. I was married right here in ‘Gusta by Mr. Wharton, the First Baptist Church preacher, an’ I lived and worked here ever since.”

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

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