Slave Narrative of Robert Toatley

Interviewer: W. W. Dixon
Person Interviewed: Robert Toatley
Location: Winnsboro, South Carolina
Date of Birth: May 15, 1855
Age: 82

Robert Toatley lives with his daughter, his son, his son’s wife, and their six children, near White Oak, seven miles north of Winnsboro, S.C. Robert owns the four-room frame house and farm containing 235 acres. He has been prosperous up from slavery, until the boll weevil made its appearance on his farm and the depression came on the country at large, in 1929. He has been compelled to mortgage his home but is now coming forward again, having reduced the mortgage to a negligible balance, which he expects to liquidate with the present 1937 crop of cotton.

Robert is one of the full blooded Negroes of pure African descent. His face, in repose, possesses a kind of majesty that one would expect in beholding a chief of an African tribe.

“I was born on de ‘Lizabeth Mobley place. Us always called it ‘Cedar Shades’. Dere was a half mile of cedars on both sides of de road leading to de fine house dat our white folks lived in. My birthday was May 15, 1855. My mistress was a daughter of Dr. John Glover. My master married her when her was twelve years old. Her first child, Sam, got to be a doctor, and they sho’ did look lak brother and sister. When her oldest child, Sam, come back from college, he fetched a classmate, Jim Carlisle, wid him. I played marbles wid them. Dat boy, Jim, made his mark, got ‘ligion, and went to de top of a college in Spartanburg. Marse Sam study to be a doctor. He start to practice and then he marry Miss Lizzie Rice down in Barnwell. Mistress give me to them and I went wid them and stayed ’til freedom.

“My childhood was a happy one, a playin’ and a rompin’ wid de white chillun. My master was rich. Slaves lived in quarters, 300 yards from de big house. A street run through the quarters, homes on each side. Beds was homemade. Mattresses made of wheat straw. Bed covers was quilts and counter-panes, all made by slave women.

“My mammy’s pappy was a slave brick-mason, b’longin’ to a white family named Partillo, from Warrington, Virginia. He couldn’t be bought ‘less you bought his wife and three chillun wid him.

“Never had any money; didn’t know what it was. Mammy was a house woman, and I got just what de white chillun got to eat, only a little bit later, in de kitchen. Dere was fifty or sixty other little niggers on de place. Want to know how they was fed? Well, it was lak dis: You’ve seen pig troughs, side by side, in a big lot? After all de grown niggers eat and git out de way, scraps and everything eatable was put in them troughs; sometimes buttermilk poured on de mess and sometimes potlicker. Then de cook blowed a cow horn. Quick as lightnin’ a passle of fifty or sixty little niggers run out de plum bushes, from under de sheds and houses, and from everywhere. Each one take his place, and souse his hands in de mixture and eat just lak you see pigs shovin’ ’round slop troughs. I see dat sight many times in my dreams, old as I is, eighty-two years last Saturday.

“‘Twas not ’til de year of ’66 dat we got ‘liable info’mation and felt free to go where us pleased to go. Most of de niggers left but mammy stayed on and cooked for Dr. Sam and de white folks.

“Bad white folks comed and got bad niggers started. Soon things got wrong and de devil took a hand in de mess. Out of it come to de top, de carpetbag, de scalawags and then de Ku Klux. Night rider come by and drap something at your door and say: ‘I’ll just leave you something for dinner’. Then ride off in a gallop. When you open de sack, what you reckon in dere? Liable to be one thing, liable to be another. One time it was six nigger heads dat was left at de door. Was it at my house door? Oh, no! It was at de door of a nigger too active in politics. Old Congressman Wallace sent Yankee troops, three miles long, down here. Lot of white folks was put in jail.

“I married Emma Greer in 1879; she been dead two years. Us lived husband and wife 56 years, bless God. Us raised ten chillun; all is doin’ well. One is in Winnsboro, one in Chester, one in Rock Hill, one in Charlotte, one in Chesterfield, one in New York and two wid me on de farm near White Oak, which I own. I has 28 grandchillun. All us Presbyterians. Can read but can’t write. Our slaves was told if ever they learned to write they’d lose de hand or arm they wrote wid.

“What ’bout whuppin’s? Plenty of it. De biggest whuppin’ I ever heard tell of was when they had a trial of several slave men for sellin’ liquor at da spring, durin’ preachin’, on Sunday. De trial come off at de church ’bout a month later. They was convicted, and de order of de court was: Edmund to receive 100 lashes; Sam and Andy each 125 lashes and Frank and Abram 75 lashes. All to be given on deir bare backs and rumps, well laid on wid strap. If de courts would sentence like dat dese days dere’d be more ‘tention to de law.

“You ask me ’bout Mr. Lincoln. I knowed two men who split rails side by side wid him. They was Mr. McBride Smith and Mr. David Pink. Poor white people ’round in slavery time had a hard tine, and dese was two of them.

“My white folks, de Mobleys, made us work on Sunday sometime, wid de fodder, and when de plowin’ git behind. They mighty neighborly to rich neighbors but didn’t have much time for poor buckra. I tell you poor white men have poor chance to rise, make sump’n and be sump’n, befo’ de old war. Some of dese same poor buckra done had a chance since then and they way up in ‘G’ now. They mighty nigh run de county and town of Winnsboro, plum mighty nigh it, I tell you. It makes me sad, on de other side, to see quality folks befo’ de war, a wanderin’ ’round in rags and tatters and deir chillun beggin’ bread.

“Well, I mus’ be goin’, but befo’ I goes I want to tell you I ‘members your ma, Miss Sallie Woodward. Your grandpa was de closest neighbor and fust cousin to Dr. Sam. Deir chillun used to visit. Your ma come down and spen’ de day one time. She was ’bout ten dat day and she and de chillun make me rig up some harness for de billy goat and hitch him to a toy wagon. I can just see dat goat runnin’ away, them little chillun fallin’ out backside de wagon and your ma laughin’ and a cryin’ ’bout de same time. I picks her up out de weeds and briars.”

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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