Slave Narrative of John W. Matheus

Interviewer: Bishop & Isleman
Person Interviewed: John Williams Matheus
Location: Steubenville, Ohio
Age: 77
Place of Residence: 203 Dock Street

WPA in Ohio Federal Writers’ Project Bishop & Isleman Reporter: Bishop (Revision) July 8, 1937

Topic: Ex-Slaves Jefferson County, District #5


“My mothers name was Martha. She died when I was eleven months old. My mother was owned by Racer Blue and his wife Scotty. When I was bout eleven or twelve they put me out with Michael Blue and his wife Mary. Michael Blue was a brother to Racer Blue. Racer Blue died when I was three or four. I have a faint rememberance of him dying suddenly one night and see him laying out. He was the first dead person I saw and it seemed funny to me to see him laying there so stiff and still.”

“I remember the Yankee Soldier, a string of them on horses, coming through Springfield, W. Va. It was like a circus parade. What made me remember that, was a colored man standing near me who had a new hat on his head. A soldier came by and saw the hat and he took it off the colored man’s head, and put his old dirty one on the colored man’s head and put the nice new one on his own head.”

“I think Abraham Lincoln the greatest man that ever lived. He belonged to no church; but he sure was Christian. I think he was born for the time and if he lived longer he would have done lots of good for the colored people.”

“I wore jeans and they got so stiff when they were wet that they would stand up. I wore boots in the winter, but none in the summer.”

“When slavery was going on there was the ‘underground railway’ in Ohio. But after the surrender some of the people in Ohio were not so good to the colored people. The old folks told me they were stoned when they came across the river to Ohio after the surrender and that the colored people were treated like cats and dogs.”

“Mary Blue had two daughters, both a little older than me and I played with them. One day they went to pick berries. When they came back they left the berries on the table in the kitchen and went to the front room to talk to their mother. I remember the two steps down to the room and I came to listen to them tell about berry pickin’. Then their mother told me to go sweep the kitchen. I went and took the broom and saw the berries. I helped myself to the berries. Mary wore soft shoes, so I did not hear her coming until she was nearly in the room. I had berries in my hand and I closed my hand around the handle of the broom with the berries in my hand. She says, ‘John, what are you doin’? I say, ‘nothin’. Den she say, ‘Let me see your hand! I showed her my hand with nothin’ in it. She say, ‘let me see the other hand! I had to show her my hand with the berries all crushed an the juice on my hand and on the handle of the broom.”

“Den she say; ‘You done two sins’. ‘You stole the berries!, I don’t mind you having the berries, but you should have asked for them. ‘You stole them and you have sinned. ‘Den you told a lie! She says, ‘John I must punish you, I want you to be a good man; don’t try to be a great man, be a good man then you will be a great man! She got a switch off a peach tree and she gave me a good switching. I never forgot being caught with the berries and the way she talked bout my two sins. That hurt me worse than the switching. I never stole after that.”

“I stayed with Michael and Mary Blue till I was nineteen. They were supposed to give me a saddle and bridle, clothes and a hundred dollars. The massa made me mad one day. I was rendering hog fat. When the crackling would fizzle, he hollo and say ‘don’t put so much fire.’ He came out again and said, ‘I told you not to put too much fire,’ and he threatened to give me a thrashing. I said, ‘If you do I will throw rocks at you.'”

“After that I decided to leave and I told Anna Blue I was going. She say, ‘Don’t do it, you are too young to go out into the world.’ I say, I don’t care, and I took a couple of sacks and put in a few things and walked to my uncle. He was a farmer at New Creek. He told me he would get me a job at his brothers farm until they were ready to use me in the tannary. He gave me eight dollars a month until the tanner got ready to use me. I went to the tanner and worked for eight dollars a week. Then I came to Steubenville. I got work and stayed in Steubenville 18 months. Then I went back and returned to Steubenville in 1884.”


Mr. John William Matheus is about 5’4″ and weighs about 130 pounds. He looks smart in his bank messenger uniform. On his sleeve he wears nine stripes. Each stripe means five years service. Two years were served before he earned his first strip, so that gives him a total of 47 years service for the Union Savings Bank and Trust Company, Steubenville, Ohio. He also wears a badge which designates him as a deputy sheriff of Jefferson County.

Mr. Matheus lives with his wife at 203 Dock Street. This moderate sized and comfortable home he has owned for over 40 years. His first wife died several years ago. During his first marriage nine children came to them. In his second marriage one child was born.

His oldest son is John Frederick Matheus. He is a professor at [Charleston] [HW: West Virginia] State College Institute. He was born in Steubenville and graduated from Steubenville High School. Later he studied in Cleveland and New York. He speaks six languages fluently and is the author of many published short stories.

Two other sons are employed in the post office, one is a mail carrier and the other is a janitor. His only daughter is a domestic servant.

Mr. Matheus attended school in Springfield, W. Va., for four years. When he came to Steubenville he attended night school for two winters. Mr. Dorhman J. Sinclair who founded the Union Savings Bank and Trust Co., employed Mr. Matheus from the beginning and in recognition of his loyal service bequeated to Mr. Matheus a pension of fifty dollars per month.

Mr. Matheus is a member of the office board of the Quinn Memorial A.M.E. He has been an elder of that church for many years and also trustee and treasure. He frequently serves on the jury. He is well known and highly respected in the community.

Blue, Matheus,

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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