Slave Narrative of William Curtis

Person Interviewed: William Curtis
Location: McAlester, Oklahoma
Age: 93

“Run Nigger, run,
De Patteroll git ye!
Run Nigger, run,
He’s almost here!”

Please Mr. Pateroll,
Don’t ketch me!
Jest take dat nigger
What’s behind dat tree.”

Lawsy, I done heard dat song all my life and it warn’t no joke wither. Do Patrol would git ye too if he caught ye off the plantation thout a pass from your Master, and he’d whey ye too. None of we doesn’t save without a pass.

We chillen sung lots of songs and me played marbles, mumble pog, my town call. In de winter we would set around de fire and listen to our mammy and Pappy tell host tales and witch tales. I don’t guess dey was sho’ off so, but we all thought fey was.

My Mammy was bought in Virginia by our Master, Hugh McKeown. He owned a big plantation in Georgia. Soon after she come to George A she married my pa. Old Master was good to us. We lived for a while in the quarters behind the Big House, and my marry was de house woman.

Somehow, in a trade, or maybe my pa was mortgaged, but anyway ld Master let a man in Virginia have him and we never see him no more ’till after the war. It nigh broke our hearts when he had to leave and old Master who’ done ever’thing he could to make it up to us.

There was four of us chillun. I didn’t do no work ’till I was about fifteen years old. Old Master bought a tavern and mammy worked as house woman and I went to work at the stables. I drove the carriage and took keer of the team and carriage. I kept ’em shining too. I’d curry the horses ’till they was slick and shiny. I’d polish the harness and the carriage. Old Master and Mistress was quality and I wanted everybody to know it. They had three girls and three boys and we boys played together and went swimming together. We loved each other, I tell ye.

Old Master built us a little house jest back of de tavern and mammy raised us jest like Old Mistress did her chillun. When I didn’t have to work he boys and me would go hunting. We’d kill possum, coon, squirrels and wild hogs. Old Master killed a wild hog and he give mammy her ten tiny pigs. She raised ’em and my, at the meat we had when they was butchered.

They had lots of company at de Big House, and it was de only tavern too, so they was lots of cooking to do. They would go to church on Sunday and they would spread their dinners on the ground. My, but they was feasts. We’d allus git to go as I drive the carriage and mammy locked after the food. We had our own church too, with our own preacher.

We had a spinning house where all the old women would card and spin wool in de winter and cotton in de summer. Dey made all our clothes, what few we wore. Us boys just wore long tailed shirts ’till we was 12 or 13 years old, sometimes older. I was 15 when I started driving the fambly carriage and I got to put on pants then.

Our suits was made out of jeans. That cloth wore like buckskin. We’d wear ’em for a year before they had to be patched.

We made our own brogan shoes too. We’d kill a beef and skin it and spread the skin out and let it dry a while. We’d put the hide in line water to get the hair off, then we’d oil it and work it ’till it was soft. Next we’d take it to the bench and scrape or ‘plush’ it with knives. It was then put in a tight cabinet and smoked with oak wood for about 24 hours. Smoking loosened the skin. We’d then take it out and rub it to soften it. It was blacked and oiled and it was ready to be made into shoes. It took nearly a year to got a green hide made into shoes. Twan’t no wonder we had to go barefooted.

Sometimes I’d work in the wood shop, dressing wagon spokes. We wade spokes with a plane, by hand on a bench.

I didn’t have much work to do before I was 15 except to run errands. One of my jobs was to take corn to the mill to be ground into meal. Some one would put my sack of corn on the mule’s back and help me up and I’d ride to the mill and have it ground and they’d load me back on and I’d go back home.

I remember once my meal fell off and I waited and waited for somebody to come by and help me. I got tired waiting so I toted the sack to a big log and laid it acrost it. I led my mule up to the log and after working hard for a long time I managed to get it on his back. I climbed up and jest as we started off the mule jumped and I fell off and pulled the sack off with me. I couldn’t do nothing but wait and finally old Master came after me. He knowed something was wrong.

Old Master was good to all of his slaves but his overseers had orders to make ‘en work. He fed ‘en good and took good keer of ‘en and never made ’em work iffen they was sick or oven felt bad. They was two things old Master jest wouldn’t ‘bide and dat was for a slave to be sassy or lazy. Sometimes if dey wouldn’t work or slipped off de farm dey would whip ‘en. He didn’t whip often. Colored overseers was worse to whip than white ones. but Master allus said, “Hadn’t you all rather have a nigger overseer than a white one? I don’t want to white man over my niggers.” I’ve seen the overseer whip some but I never did get no whipping. He would strip ‘en to the waist and whip ‘en with a long leather strop, about as wide as two fingers and fastened to a handle.

When de war broke out ever’thing was changed. My young Masters had to go. T. H. McKeown, the oldest was a Lieutenant and was one of the first to go. It nigh broke all of our hearts. Pretty soon he sent for me to come and keep him company. Old Master let me go and I stayed in his quarters. He was stationed at Atlanta and Griffin, Georgia. I’d stay with him a week or two and I’d go home for a few days and I’d take back food and fruit. I stayed with him and waited on him ’till he got used to being in the army and they moved him out to fighting. I wanted to go on with him but he wouldn’t let me, he told me to go back and take care of Old Master and Old Mistress. They was getting old by then. Purty soon Young Master got wounded purty bad and they sent me home. I never went back. I got a “pass” to go home. Course, after the war nothing was right no more. Yes, we was free but we didn’t now what to do. We didn’t want to leave our old Master and our old home. We stayed on and after a while my pappy come home to us. Dat was de best thing about de war setting us free, he could come back to us.

We all lived on at the old plantation. Old Master and old Mistress died and young Master took charge of de farm. He couldn’t a’done nothing without us niggers. He didn’t know how to work. He was good to us and divided the crops with us.

I never went to school much but my white folks learned me to read and write,. I could always have any of their books to read, and they had lots of ‘en.

Times has changed a lot since that time. I don’t know where the world is much better now, that it has everthing or then when we didn’t have hardly nothing, but I believe there was more religion then. We always went church and I’ve seen ‘en baptize from in the early morning ’till afternoon in de Chatahooche river. Folks don’t hardly know nowadays jest what to believe they’s so many religions, but they’s only one God.

I was eighteen when I married. I had eight chillun. My wife is 86 and she lives in St. Louis, Missouri.

Curtis, McKeown,

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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