Slave Narrative of James Bolton

Interviewer: Sarah H. Hall
Person Interviewed: James Bolton
Location: Athens, Georgia
Age: 85

“It never was the same on our plantation atter we done laid Mistess away,” said James Bolton, 85 year old mulatto ex-slave. “I ain’t never forget when Mistess died—she had been so good to every nigger on our plantation. When we got sick, Mistess allus had us tended to. The niggers on our plantation all walked to church to hear her funeral sermon and then walked to the graveyard to the buryin’.”

James, shrivelled and wrinkled, with his bright eyes taking in everything on one of his rare visits to town, seemed glad of the chance to talk about slavery days. He spoke of his owner as “my employer” and hastily corrected himself by saying, “I means, my marster.”

“My employer, I means my marster, and my mistess, they was sho’ all right white folkses,” he continued. “They lived in the big ‘ouse. Hit was all painted brown. I heard tell they was more’n 900 acres in our plantation and lots of folkses lived on it. The biggest portion was woods. My paw, he was name Whitfield Bolton and Liza Bolton was my maw. Charlie, Edmund, Thomas and John Bolton was my brothers and I had one sister, she was Rosa. We belonged to Marse Whitfield Bolton and we lived on his plantation in Oglethorpe County near Lexington, not far from the Wilkes County line.

“We stayed in a one room log cabin with a dirt floor. A frame made outen pine poles was fastened to the wall to hold up the mattresses. Our mattresses was made outen cotton bagging stuffed with wheat straw. Our kivers was quilts made outen old clothes. Slave ‘omens too old to work in the fields made the quilts.

“Maw, she went up to the big house onc’t a week to git the ‘lowance or vittles. They ‘lowanced us a week’s rations at a time. Hit were generally hog meat, corn meal and sometimes a little flour. Maw, she done our cookin’ on the coals in the fireplace at our cabin. We had plenty of ‘possums and rabbits and fishes and sometimes we had wild tukkeys and partidges. Slaves warn’t spozen to go huntin’ at night and everybody know you can’t ketch no ‘possums ‘ceppin’ at night! Jus’ the same, we had plenty ‘possums and nobody ax how we cotch ’em!” James laughed and nodded. “Now, ’bout them rabbits! Slaves warn’t ‘lowed to have no guns and no dogs of they own. All the dogs on our plantation belonged to my employer—I means, to my marster, and he ‘lowed us to use his dogs to run down the rabbits. Nigger mens and boys ‘ud go in crowds, sometimes as many as twelve at one time, and a rabbit ain’t got no chance ‘ginst a lot of niggers and dogs when they light out for to run ‘im down!

“What wild critters we wanted to eat and couldn’t run down, we was right smart ’bout ketchin’ in traps. We cotch lots of wild tukkeys and partidges in traps and nets. Long Crick runned through our plantation and the river warn’t no fur piece off. We sho’ did ketch the fishes, mostly cats, and perch and heaps and heaps of suckers. We cotch our fishes mos’n generally with hook and line, but the carpenters on our plantation knowed how to make basket traps that sho’ nuff did lay in the fishes! God only knows how long it’s been since this old nigger pulled a big shad out of the river. Ain’t no shads been cotch in the river round here in so long I disremembers when!

“We didn’ have no gardens of our own round our cabins. My employer—I means, my marster—had one big gyarden for our whole plantation and all his niggers had to work in it whensomever he wanted ’em to, then he give ’em all plenty good gyarden sass for theyselfs. They was collards and cabbage and turnips and beets and english peas and beans and onions, and they was allus some garlic for ailments. Garlic was mostly to cure wums (worms). They roasted the garlic in the hot ashes and squez the juice outen it and made the chilluns take it. Sometimes they made poultices outen garlic for the pneumony.

“We saved a heap of bark from wild cherry and poplar and black haw and slippery ellum trees and we dried out mullein leaves. They was all mixed and brewed to make bitters. Whensomever a nigger got sick, them bitters was good for—well ma’am, they was good for what ailed ’em! We tuk ’em for rheumatiz, for fever, and for the misery in the stummick and for most all sorts of sickness. Red oak bark tea was good for sore throat.

“I never seed no store bought clothes twel long atter freedom done come! One slave ‘oman done all the weavin’ in a separate room called the ‘loom house.’ The cloth was dyed with home-made coloring. They used indigo for blue, red oak bark for brown, green husks offen warnicks (walnuts) for black, and sumacs for red and they’d mix these colors to make other colors. Other slave ‘omans larned to sew and they made all the clothes. Endurin’ the summertime we jus’ wore shirts and pants made outen plain cotton cloth. They wove wool in with the cotton to make the cloth for our winter clothes. The wool was raised right thar on our plantation. We had our own shoemaker man—he was a slave named Buck Bolton and he made all the shoes the niggers on our plantation wore.

“I waren’t nothin’ but chillun when freedom come. In slavery-time chilluns waren’t ‘lowed to do no wuk kazen the marsters wanted they niggers to grow up big and strong and didn’ want ’em stunted none. Tha’s howcome I didn’ git no mo’ beatin’s than I did! My employer—I means, my marster, never did give me but one lickin’. He had done told me to watch the cows and keep ’em in the pastur’. I cotch lots of grasshoppers and started fishin’ in the crick runnin’ through the pastur’ and fust thing I knowed, the overseer was roundin’ up all the other niggers to git the cows outen the cornfields! I knowed then my time had done come!”

James was enjoying the spotlight now, and his audience did not have to prompt him. Plantation recollections crowded together in his old mind.

“We had one overseer at a time,” he said, “and he allus lived at the big ‘ouse. The overseers warn’t quality white folkses like our marster and mistess but we never heard nuffin’ ’bout no poor white trash in them days, and effen we had heard sumpin’ like that we’d have knowed better’n to let Marster hear us make such talk! Marster made us call his overseer ‘Mister.’ We had one overseer named Mr. Andrew Smith and another time we had a overseer named Mr. Pope Short. Overseers was jus’ there on the business of gettin’ the work done—they seed atter everybody doin’ his wuk ‘cordin’ to order.

“My employer—I means, my marster, never ‘lowed no overseer to whup none of his niggers! Marster done all the whuppin’ on our plantation hisself. He never did make no big bruises and he never drawed no blood, but he sho’ could burn ’em up with that lash! Niggers on our plantation was whupped for laziness mostly. Next to that, whuppings was for stealin’ eggs and chickens. They fed us good and plenty but a nigger is jus’ bound to pick up chickens and eggs effen he kin, no matter how much he done eat! He jus’ can’t help it. Effen a nigger ain’t busy he gwine to git into mischief!

“Now and then slaves ‘ud run away and go in the woods and dig dens and live in ’em. Sometimes they runned away on ‘count of cruel treatment, but most of the time they runned away kazen they jus’ didn’t want to wuk, and wanted to laze around for a spell. The marsters allus put the dogs atter ’em and git ’em back. They had black and brown dogs called ‘nigger hounds’ what waren’t used for nothin’ but to track down niggers.

“They waren’t no such place as a jail whar we was. Effen a nigger done sumpin’ disorderly they jus’ natcherly tuk a lash to ‘im. I ain’t never seed no nigger in chains twel long atter freedom done come when I seed ’em on the chain gangs.

“The overseer woke us up at sunrise—leas’n they called it sunrise! We would finish our vittles and be in the fields ready for wuk befo’ we seed any sun! We laid off wuk at sunset and they didn’t drive us hard. Leas’wise, they didn’ on our plantation. I done heard they was moughty hard on ’em on other plantations. My marster never did ‘low his niggers to wuk atter sundown. My employer, I means my marster, didn’t have no bell. He had ’em blow bugles to wake up his hands and to call ’em from the fields. Sometimes the overseer blowed it. Mistess done larned the cook to count the clock, but none of the rest of our niggers could count the clock.

“I never knowed Marster to sell but one slave and he jus’ had bought her from the market at New Orleans. She say it lonesome off on the plantation and axed Marster for to sell her to folkses livin’ in town. Atter he done sold her, every time he got to town she beg ‘im to buy her back! But he didn’ pay her no more ‘tention. When they had sales of slaves on the plantations they let everybody know what time the sale gwine to be. When the crowd git togedder they put the niggers on the block and sell ’em. Leas’wise, they call it ‘puttin’ on the block’—they jus’ fotch ’em out and show ’em and sell ’em.

“They waren’t no church for niggers on our plantation and we went to white folkses church and listened to the white preachers. We set behind a partition. Sometimes on a plantation a nigger claim he done been called to preach and effen he kin git his marster’s cawn-sent he kin preach round under trees and in cabins when t’aint wuk time. These nigger preachers in slavery time was called ‘chairbackers.’ They waren’t no chairbackers ‘lowed to baptize none of Marster’s niggers. White preachers done our baptizin’ in Long Crick. When we went to be baptized they allus sang, ‘Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound!'”

The old negro’s quavery voice rose in the familiar song. For a moment he sat thinking of those long-ago Sundays. His eyes brightened again, and he went on:

“We never done no wuk on Sundays on our plantation. The church was ’bout nine miles from the plantation and we all walked there. Anybody too old and feeble to walk the nine miles jus’ stayed home, kazen Marster didn’t ‘low his mules used none on Sunday. All along the way niggers from other plantations ‘ud jine us and sometimes befo’ we git to the church house they’d be forty or fifty slaves comin’ along the road in a crowd! Preaching generally lasted twel bout three o’clock. In summertime we had dinner on the ground at the church. Howsomever we didn’ have no barbecue like they does now. Everybody cooked enough on Sadday and fotched it in baskets.

“I was thirty years old when I jined the church. Nobody ought to jine no church twels’t he is truly borned of God, and effen he is truly borned of God he gwine know it. Effen you want a restin’ place atter you leaves this old world you ought to git ready for it now!

“When folkses on our plantation died Marster allus let many of us as wanted to go, lay offen wuk twel atter the buryin’. Sometimes it were two or three months atter the buryin’ befo’ the funeral sermon was preached. Right now I can’t rekelleck no song we sung at funerals cep’n ‘Hark from the tombs a doleful sound.'”

The reedy old voice carried the funeral hymn for a few minutes and then trailed off. James was thinking back into the past again.

“Spring plowin’ and hoein’ times we wukked all day Saddays, but mos’en generally we laid off wuk at twelve o’clock Sadday. That was dinnertime. Sadday nights we played and danced. Sometimes in the cabins, sometimes in the yards. Effen we didn’ have a big stack of fat kindling wood lit up to dance by, sometimes the mens and ‘omans would carry torches of kindling wood whils’t they danced and it sho’ was a sight to see! We danced the ‘Turkey Trot’ and ‘Buzzard Lope’, and how we did love to dance the ‘Mary Jane!’ We would git in a ring and when the music started we would begin wukkin’ our footses while we sang ‘You steal my true love and I steal your’n!’

“Atter supper we used to gether round and knock tin buckets and pans, we beat ’em like drums. Some used they fingers and some used sticks for to make the drum sounds and somebody allus blowed on quills. Quills was a row of whistles made outen reeds, or sometimes they made ’em outen bark. Every whistle in the row was a different tone and you could play any kind of tune you wants effen you had a good row of quills. They sho’ did sound sweet!

“‘Bout the most fun we had was at corn shuckin’s whar they put the corn in long piles and called in the folkses from the plantations nigh round to shuck it. Sometimes four or five hunnert head of niggers ‘ud be shuckin’ corn at one time. When the corn all done been shucked they’d drink the likker the marsters give ’em and then frolic and dance from sundown to sunup. We started shuckin’ corn ’bout dinnertime and tried to finish by sundown so we could have the whole night for frolic. Some years we ‘ud go to ten or twelve corn shuckin’s in one year!

“We would sing and pray Easter Sunday and on Easter Monday we frolicked and danced all day long! Christmas we allus had plenty good sumpin’ to eat and we all got togedder and had lots of fun. We runned up to the big ‘ouse early Christmas mornin’ and holler out: ‘Mornin’, Christmas Gif’!’ Then they’d give us plenty of Sandy Claus and we would go back to our cabins to have fun twel New Year’s day. We knowed Christmas was over and gone when New Year’s day come, kazen we got back to wuk that day atter frolickin’ all Christmas week.

“We didn’ know nuttin’ ’bout games to play. We played with the white folkses chilluns and watched atter ’em but most of the time we played in the crick what runned through the pastur’. Nigger chilluns was allus skeered to go in the woods atter dark. Folkses done told us Raw-Head-and-Bloody Bones lived in the woods and git little chilluns and eat ’em up effen they got out in the woods atter dark!

“‘Rockabye baby in the tree trops’ was the onliest song I heard my maw sing to git her babies to sleep. Slave folkses sung most all the time but we didn’ think of what we sang much. We jus’ got happy and started singin’. Sometimes we ‘ud sing effen we felt sad and lowdown, but soon as we could, we ‘ud go off whar we could go to sleep and forgit all ’bout trouble!” James nodded his gray head with a wise look in his bright eyes. “When you hear a nigger singin’ sad songs hit’s jus’ kazen he can’t stop what he is doin’ long enough to go to sleep!”

The laughter that greeted this sally brought an answering grin to the wrinkled old face. Asked about marriage customs, James said:

“Folkses didn’ make no big to-do over weddings like they do now. When slaves got married they jus’ laid down the broom on the floor and the couple jined hands and jumped back-uds over the broomstick. I done seed ’em married that way many a time. Sometimes my marster would fetch Mistess down to the slave quarters to see a weddin’. Effen the slaves gittin’ married was house servants, sometimes they married on the back porch or in the back yard at the big ‘ouse but plantation niggers what was field hands married in they own cabins. The bride and groom jus’ wore plain clothes kazen they didn’ have no more.

“When the young marsters and mistesses at the big houses got married they ‘lowed the slaves to gadder on the porch and peep through the windows at the weddin’. Mos’en generally they ‘ud give the young couple a slave or two to take with them to they new home. My marster’s chilluns was too young to git married befo’ the war was over. They was seven of them chilluns; four of ’em was gals.

“What sort of tales did they tell ‘mongs’t the slaves ’bout the Norf befo’ the war? To tell the troof, they didn’t talk much like they does now ’bout them sort of things. None of our niggers ever runned away and we didn’ know nuthin’ ’bout no Norf twel long atter freedom come. We visited round each other’s cabins at night. I did hear tell ’bout the patterollers. Folkses said effen they cotched niggers out at night they ‘ud give ’em ‘what Paddy give the drum’.

“Jus’ befo’ freedom comed ’bout 50 Yankee sojers come through our plantation and told us that the bull-whups and cow-hides was all dead and buried. Them sojers jus’ passed on in a hurry and didn’ stop for a meal or vittles or nuffin’. We didn’t talk much ’bout Mr. Abbieham Lincum endurin’ slavery time kazen we was skeered of him atter the war got started. I don’t know nothin’ ’bout Mr. Jef’son Davis, I don’t remember ever hearin’ ’bout him. I is heard about Mr. Booker Washin’ton and they do say he runned a moughty good school for niggers.

“One mornin’ Marster blowed the bugle his own self and called us all up to the big ‘ouse yard. He told us: ‘You all jus’ as free as I is. You are free from under the taskmarster but you ain’t free from labor. You gotter labor and wuk hard effen you aims to live and eet and have clothes to wear. You kin stay here and wuk for me, or you kin go wharsomever you please.’ He said he ‘ud pay us what was right, and Lady, hit’s the troof, they didn’t nary a nigger on our plantation leave our marster then! I wukked on with Marster for 40 years atter the war!”

James had no fear of the Ku Klux.

“Right soon atter the war we saw plenty of Ku Kluxers but they never bothered nobody on our plantation. They allus seemed to be havin’ heaps of fun. ‘Course, they did have to straighten out some of them brash young nigger bucks on some of the other farms round about. Mos’ of the niggers the Ku Kluxers got atter was’n on no farm, but was jus’ roamin’ ’round talkin’ too much and makin’ trouble. They had to take ’em in hand two or three times befo’ some of them fool free niggers could be larned to behave theyselfs! But them Ku Kluxers kept on atter ’em twels’t they larned they jus got to be good effen they ‘spects to stay round here.

“Hit was about 40 years atter the war befo’ many niggers ‘gun to own they own lan’. They didn’ know nothin’ ’bout tendin’ to money business when the war done ended and it take ’em a long time to larn how to buy and sell and take care of what they makes.” James shook his head sadly. “Ma’am, heaps of niggers ain’t never larned nothin’ ’bout them things yit!

“A long time atter the war I married Lizy Yerby. I didn’ give Liza no chanc’t for to dress up. Jus’ went and tuk her right outer the white folkses’ kitchen and married her at the church in her workin’ clothes. We had 13 chilluns but they ain’t but two of ’em livin’ now. Mos’ of our chilluns died babies. Endurin’ slavery Mistess tuk care of all the nigger babies borned on our plantations and looked atter they mammies too, but atter freedom come heap of nigger babies died out.”

James said he had two wives, both widows.

“I married my second wife 37 years ago. To tell the troof, I don’t rightly know how many grandchilluns I got, kazen I ain’t seed some of ’em for thirty years. My chilluns is off fum here and I wouldn’ know to save my life whar they is or what they does. My sister and brothers they is done dead out what ain’t gone off, I don’t know for sho’ whar none of ’em is now.”

A sigh punctuated James’ monologue, and his old face was shadowed by a look of fear.

“Now I gwine tell you the troof. Now that it’s all over I don’t find life so good in my old age, as it was in slavery time when I was chillun down on Marster’s plantation. Then I didn’ have to worry ’bout whar my clothes and my somepin’ to eat was comin’ from or whar I was gwine to sleep. Marster tuk keer of all that. Now I ain’t able for to wuk and make a livin’ and hit’s sho’ moughty hard on this old nigger.”

Bolton, Yerby,

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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