Slave Narrative of Phillip Johnson

Interviewer: Guthrie
Person Interviewed: Phillip Johnson
Location: Poolesville, Maryland

Ref: Phillip Johnson, R.F.D. Poolesville, Md.

The subject of this sketch is a pure blooded Negro, whose kinky hair is now white, likewise his scraggy beard. He is of medium size and somewhat stooped with age, but still active enough to plant and tend a patch of corn and the chores about his little place at Sugarlands. His home is a small cabin with one or two rooms upstairs and three down, including the kitchen which is a leanto. The cabin is in great disrepair.

Phillip John is above the average in intelligence, has some education and is quite well versed in the Holy Scriptures, having been for many years a Methodist preacher among his people. He uses fairly good English and freely talks in answer to questions. Without giving the questions put to him by this writer, his remarks given in the first person and as near his own idiom are as follows:

“I’ll be ninety years old next December. I dunno the day. My Missis had the colored folks ages written in a book but it was destroyed when the Confederate soldiers came through. But she had a son born two or three months younger than me and she remember that I was born in December, 1847, but she had forgot the day of the month.

“I was born down on the river bottom about four miles below Edwards’ Ferry, on the Eight Mile Level, between Edwards’ Ferry and Seneca. I belonged to ole Doctah White. He owned a lot o’ lan down on de bottom. I dunno his first name. Everybody called him Doctah White. Yes, he was related to Doctah Elijah White. All the Whites in Montgomery County is related. Yes sah, Doctah White was good to his slaves. Yes sah, he had many slaves. I dunno how many. My Missis took me away from de bottom when I was a little boy, ’cause de overseer he was so cruel to me. Yes sah he was mean. I promised him a killin if ever I got big enough.

“We all liked the Missis. Everybody in dem days used to ride horseback. She would come ridin her horse down to de bottom with a great big basket of biscuits. We thought they were fine. We all glad to see de Missis a comin. We always had plenty to eat, such as it was. We had coarse food but there was plenty of it.

“The white folks made our clothes for us. They made linsey for the woman and woolen cloth for de men. They gave clothes sufficient to keep em warm. The men had wool clothes with brass buttons that had shanks on em. They looked good when they were new. They had better clothes then than most of us have now.

“They raised mostly corn an oats an wheat down on de river bottom in those days. They didn’t raise tobacco. But I’ve heard say that they used to raise it long before I was born. They cut grain with cradles in dem days. They had a lot ‘o men and would slay a lot ‘o wheat in a day. It was pretty work to see four or five cradlers in a field and others following them raking the wheat in bunches and others following binding them in bundles. The first reapers that came were called Dorsey reapers. They cut the grain and bunched it. It was then bound by hand.

“When my Missis took me away from the river bottom I lived in Poolesville where the Kohlhoss home and garage is. I worked around the house and garden. I remember when the Yankee and Confederate soldiers both came to Poolesville. Capn Sam White (son of the doctor) he join the Confederate in Virginia. He come home and say he goin to take me along back with him for to serve him. But the Yankees came and he left very sudden and leave me behind. I was glad I didn’t have to go with him. I saw all that fightin around Poolesville. I used to like to watch em fightin. I saw a Yankee soldier shoot a Confederate and kill him. He raised his gun twice to shoot but he kept dodgin around the house an he didn’ want to shoot when he might hit someone else. When he ran from the house he shot him.

“Yes sah, them Confederates done more things around here than the Yankees did. I remember once during the war they came to town. It was Sunday morning an I was sittin in the gallery of the ole brick Methodist church. One of them came to de door and he pointed his pistol right at that preacher’s head. The gallery had an outside stairs then. I ran to de door to go down de stairs but there was another un there pointing his gun and they say don’t nobody leave dis building. The others they was a cleanin up all the hosses and wagons round the church. The one who was guarding de stairs, he kept a lookin to see if dey was done cleaning up de hosses, and when he wasn’t watching I slip half way down de stairs, an when he turn his back I jump down and run. When he looks he jus laugh.

“My father he lived to be eighty nine. He died right here in this house and he’s buried over by the church. His name was Sam. They called my mother Willie Ann. She died when I was small. I had three brothers and one sister. My father married again and had seven or eight other children.

“I’ve had eleven children; five livin, six dead. I’ve been preaching for forty years and I have seen many souls saved. I don’t preach regular anymore but once in a while I do. I have preached in all these little churches around here. I preached six years at Sugar Loaf Mountain. The presidin elder he wants me to go there. The man that had left there jus tore that church up. I went up there one Sunday and I didn’t see anything that I could do. I think I’m not able for this. I said they needs a more experienced preacher than me. But the presidin elder keeps after me to go there and I says, well, I go for one year. Next thing it was the same thing. I stays on another year and so on for six years. When I left there that church was in pretty good shape.

“I think preaching the gospel is the greatest work in the world. But folks don’t seem to take the interest in church that they used to.”

Johnson, White,

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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