Slave Narrative of Robert Falls

Interviewer: Della Yoe
Person Interviewed: Robert Falls
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee
Place of Birth: Claiborne County, North Carolina
Date of Birth: December 14, 1840
Place of Residence: 608 South Broadway, Knoxville, Tennessee

Robert Falls was born on December 14, 1840, in the rambling one-story shack that accomodated the fifteen slaves of his Old Marster, [HW: Harry] Beattie Goforth, on a farm in Claiborne County, North Carolina. His tall frame is slightly stooped, but he is not subjected to the customary infirmities of the aged, other than poor vision and hearing. Fairly comfortable, he is spending his declining years in contentment, for he is now the first consideration of his daughter, Mrs. Lola Reed, with whom he lives at #608 S. Broadway, Knoxville, Tennessee. His cushioned rocking chair is the honor seat of the household. His apology for not offering it to visitors, is that he is “not so fast on his feet as he used to be.”

Despite Uncle Robert’s protest that his “mind comes and goes”, his memory is keen, and his sense of humor unimpaired. His reminiscences of slave days are enriched by his ability to recreate scenes and incidents in few words, and by his powers of mimicry. “If I had my life to live over,” he declares, “I would die fighting rather than be a slave again. I want no man’s yoke on my shoulders no more. But in them days, us niggers didn’t know no better. All we knowed was work, and hard work. We was learned to say, ‘Yes Sir!’ and scrape down and bow, and to do just exactly what we was told to do, make no difference if we wanted to or not. Old Marster and Old Mistress would say, ‘Do this!’ and we don’ it. And they say, ‘Come here!’ and if we didn’t come to them, they come to us. And they brought the bunch of switches with them.”

“They didn’t half feed us either. They fed the animals better. They gives the mules, ruffage and such, to chaw on all night. But they didn’t give us nothing to chaw on. Learned us to steal, that’s what they done. Why we would take anything we could lay our hands on, when we was hungry. Then they’d whip us for lieing when we say we dont know nothing about it. But it was easier to stand, when the stomach was full.”

“Now my father, he was a fighter. He was mean as a bear. He was so bad to fight and so troublesome he was sold four times to my knowing and maybe a heap more times. That’s how come my name is Falls, even if some does call me Robert Goforth. Niggers would change to the name of their new marster, every time they was sold. And my father had a lot of names, but kep the one of his marster when he got a good home. That man was Harry Falls. He said he’d been trying to buy father for a long time, because he was the best waggoner in all that country abouts. And the man what sold him to Falls, his name was Collins, he told my father, “You so mean, I got to sell you. You all time complaining about you dont like your white folks. Tell me now who you wants to live with. Just pick your man and I will go see him.” Then my father tells Collins, I want you to sell me to Marster Harry Falls. They made the trade. I disremember what the money was, but it was big. Good workers sold for $1,000 and $2,000. After that the white folks didn’t have no more trouble with my father. But he’d still fight. That man would fight a she-bear and lick her every time.”

“My mother was sold three times before I was born. The last time when Old Goforth sold her, to the slave speculators,-you know every time they needed money they would sell a slave,-and they was taking them, driving them, just like a pack of mules, to the market from North Carolina into South Carolina, she begun to have fits. You see they had sold her away from her baby. And just like I tell you she begun having fits. They got to the jail house where they was to stay that night, and she took on so, Jim Slade and Press Worthy-them was the slave speculators,-couldnt do nothing with her. Next morning one of them took her back to Marse Goforth and told him, “Look here. We cant do nothing with this woman. You got to take her and give us back our money. And do it now,’ they says. And they mean it too. So Old Marse Goforth took my mother and give them back their money. After that none of us was ever separated. We all lived, a brother and two sisters and my mother, with the Goforths till freedom.”

“And do you know, she never did get over having fits. She had them every change of the moon, or leastways every other moon change. But she kept on working. She was a hard worker. She had to be. Old Mistress see to that. She was meaner than old Marster, she was. She would sit by the spinning wheel and count the turns the slave women made. And they couldn’t fool her none neither. My mother worked until ten o’clock almost every night because her part was to ‘spend so many cuts’ a day, and she couldnt get through no sooner. When I was a little shaver, I used to sit on the floor with the other little fellows while our mothers worked, and sometimes the white folks girls would read us a Bible story. But most of the time we slept. Right there on the floor. Then later, when I was bigger, I had to work with the men at night shelling corn, to take to town early mornings.”

“Marster Goforth counted himself a good old Baptist Christian. The one good deed he did, I will never forget, he made us all go to church every Sunday. That was the onliest place off the farm we ever went. Every time a slave went off the place, he had to have a pass, except we didnt, for church. Everybody in thet country knowed that the Goforth niggers didn’t have to have no pass to go to church. But that didn’t make no difference to the Pattyroolers. They’d hide in the bushes, or wait along side of the road, and when the niggers come from meeting, the Pattyroolers’s say, ‘Whar’s your pass’? Us Goforth niggers used to start running soon as we was out of church. We never got caught. That is why I tell you I cant use my legs like I used to. If you was caught without no pass, the Pattyroolers give you five licks. They was licks! You take a bunch of five to seven Pattyroolers each giving five licks and the blood flows.”

“Old Marster was too old to go to the war. He had one son was a soldier, but he never come home again. I never seen a soldier till the war was over and they begin to come back to the farms. We half-grown niggers had to work the farm, because all the famers had to give,-I believe it was a tenth-of their crops to help feed the soldiers. So we didnt know nothing about what was going on, no more than a hog. It was a long time before we knowed we was free. Then one night Old Marster come to our house and he say he wants to see us all before breakfast tomorrow morning and to come on over to his house. He got something to tell us.”

“Next morning we went over there. I was the monkey, always acting smart. But I believe they liked me better than all of the others. I just spoke sassy-like and say, “Old Marster, what you got to tell us”? My mother said, “Shut your mouth fool. He’ll whip you!” And Old Marster say,-“No I wont whip you. Never no more. Sit down thar all of you and listen to what I got to tell you. I hates to do it but I must. You all aint my niggers no more. You is free. Just as free as I am. Here I have raised you all to work for me, and now you are going to leave me. I am an old man, and I cant get along without you. I dont know what I am going to do.” Well sir, it killed him. He was dead in less than ten months.”

“Everybody left right now, but me and my brother and another fellow. Old Marster fooled us to believe we was duty-bound to stay with him till we was all twenty-one. But my brother, that boy was stubborn. Soon he say he aint going to stay there. And he left. In about a year, maybe less, he come back and he told me I didnt have to work for Old Goforth, I was free, sure enough free, and I went with him and he got me a job railroading. But the work was too hard for me. I couldnt stand it. So I left there and went to my mother. I had to walk. It was forty-five miles. I made it in a day. She got me work there where she worked.”

“I remember so well, how the roads was full of folks walking and walking along when the niggers were freed. Didnt know where they was going. Just going to see about something else somewhere else. Meet a body in the road and they ask, ‘Where you going’? ‘Dont know.’ ‘What you going to do’? ‘Dont know.’ And then sometimes we would meet a white man and he would say, ‘How you like to come work on my farm’? And we say, ‘I dont know.’ And then maybe he say, “If you come work for me on my farm, when the crops is in I give you five bushels of corn, five gallons of molasses, some ham-meat, and all your clothes and vittals whils you works for me.” Alright! That’s what I do. And then something begins to work up here, (touching his forehead with his fingers) I begins to think and to know things. And I knowed then I could make a living for my own self, and I never had to be a slave no more.”

“Now, Old Marster Goforth, had four sisters what owned slaves, and they wasnt mean to them like our Old Marster and Mistress. Some of the old slaves and their folks are still living on their places right to this day. But they never dispute none with their brother about how mean he treat his slaves. And him claiming to be such a Christian! Well, I reckon he’s found out something about slave driving by now. The good Lord has to get his work in some time. And he’ll take care of them low down Pattyroolers and slave speculators and mean Marsters and Mistress’s. He’s took good care of me in the years since I was free’d, only now, we needs Him again now and then. I just stand up on my two feet, raise my arms to heaven, and say, ‘Lord, help me!’ He never fails me. I asked him this morning, didnt I Lola? Asked him to render help. We need it. And here you come. Lola, just watch that lady write. If you and me had her education, we’d be fixed now wouldnt we? I never had no learning.”

“Thank you Lady! (tucking the coin into his pocket wallet, along with his tobacco.) And thank you for coming. It does me a heap of good to see visitors and talk about the old times. Come again, wont you? And next time you come, I want to talk to you about old age pensions. I come here from Marian, N.C. three years ago, and they tell me I have to live here four, before I gets a pension. And as I done left North Carolina, I cant get a pension from them. But maybe you can tell me what to do. I likes this place. And I do hopes I get a pension before I gets to be a ‘hundred.”

Collins, Falls, Goforth, Reed,

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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