Slave Narrative of Sarah Debro

Interviewer: Travis Jordan
Person Interviewed: Sarah Debro
Location: Durham, North Carolina
Age: 90 Years

I was bawn in Orange County way back some time in de fifties.

Mis Polly White Cain an’ Marse Docter Cain was my white folks. Marse Cain’s plantation joined Mistah Paul Cameron’s land. Marse Cain owned so many niggers dat he didn’ know his own slaves when he met dem in de road. Sometimes he would stop dem an’ say: ‘Whose niggers am you?’ Dey’d say, ‘We’s Marse Cain’s niggers.’ Den he would say, ‘I’se Marse Cain,’ and drive on.

Marse Cain was good to his niggers. He didn’ whip dem like some owners did, but if dey done mean he sold dem. Dey knew dis so dey minded him. One day gran’pappy sassed Mis’ Polly White an’ she told him dat if he didn’ ‘have hese’f dat she would put him in her pocket. Gran’pappy wuz er big man an’ I ax him how Mis’ Polly could do dat. He said she meant dat she would sell him den put de money in her pocket. He never did sass Mis’ Polly no more.

I was kept at de big house to wait on Mis’ Polly, to tote her basket of keys an’ such as dat. Whenever she seed a chile down in de quarters dat she wanted to raise be hand, she took dem up to do big house an’ trained dem. I wuz to be a house maid. De day she took me my mammy cried kaze she knew I would never be ‘lowed to live at de cabin wid her no more Mis’ Polly was big an’ fat an’ she made us niggers mind an’ we had to keep clean. My dresses an’ aprons was starched stiff. I had a clean apron every day. We had white sheets on de beds an’ we niggers had plenty to eat too, even ham. When Mis’ Polly went to ride she took me in de carriage wid her. De driver set way up high an’ me an’ Mis’ Polly set way down low. Dey was two hosses with shiney harness. I toted Mis’ Polly’s bag an’ bundles, an’ if she dropped her hank’chief I picked it up. I loved Mis’ Polly an’ loved stayin’ at de big house.

I was ’bout wais’ high when de sojers mustered. I went wid Mis’ Polly down to de musterin’ fiel’ whare dey was marchin’. I can see dey feets now when dey flung dem up an’ down, sayin’, hep, hep. When dey was all ready to go an’ fight, de women folks fixed a big dinner. Aunt Charity an’ Pete cooked two or three days for Mis’ Polly. De table was piled wid chicken, ham, shoat, barbecue, young lam’, an’all sorts of pies, cakes an’ things, but nobody eat nothin much. Mis’ Polly an’ de ladies got to cryin.’ De vittles got cold. I was so sad dat I got over in de corner an’ cried too. De men folks all had on dey new sojer clothes, an’ dey didn’ eat nothin neither. Young Marse Jim went up an’ put his arm ‘roun’ Mis’ Polly, his mammy, but dat made her cry harder. Marse Jim was a cavalry. He rode a big hoss, an’ my Uncle Dave went wid him to de fiel’ as his body guard. He had a hoss too so if Marse Jim’s hoss got shot dare would be another one for him to ride. Mis’ Polly had another son but he was too drunk to hold a gun. He stayed drunk.

De first cannon I heard skeered me near ’bout to death. We could hear dem goin’ boom, boom. I thought it was thunder, den Mis Polly say, ‘Lissen, Sarah, hear dem cannons? Dey’s killin’ our mens.’ Den she ‘gun to cry.

I run in de kitchen whare Aunt Charity was cookin an’ tole her Mis’ Polly was cryin. She said: ‘She ain’t cryin’ kaze de Yankees killin’ de mens; she’s doin’ all dat cryin’ kaze she skeered we’s goin’ to be sot free.’ Den I got mad an’ tole her Mis’ Polly wuzn’ like dat.

I ‘members when Wheelers Cavalry come through. Dey was ‘Federates but dey was mean as de Yankees. Dey stold everything dey could find an’ killed a pile of niggers. Dey come ‘roun’ checkin’. Dey ax de niggahs if dey wanted to be free. If dey say yes, den dey shot dem down, but if dey say no, dey let dem alone. Dey took three of my uncles out in de woods an’ shot dey faces off.

I ‘members de first time de Yankees come. Dey come gallupin’ down de road, jumpin’ over de palin’s, tromplin’ down de rose bushes an’ messin’ up de flower beds. Dey stomped all over de house, in de kitchen, pantries, smoke house, an’ everywhare, but dey didn’ find much, kaze near ’bout everything done been hid. I was settin’ on de steps when a big Yankee come up. He had on a cap an’ his eyes was mean.

‘Whare did dey hide do gol’ an silver, Nigger?’ he yelled at me.

I was skeered an my hands was ashy, but I tole him I didn’ nothin’ ’bout nothin; dat if anybody done hid things dey hid it while I was sleep.

‘Go ax dat ole white headed devil,’ he said to me.

I got mad den kaze he was tawkin’ ’bout Mis’ Polly, so I didn’ say nothin’. I jus’ set. Den he pushed me off de step an’ say if I didn’ dance he gwine shoot my toes off. Skeered as I was, I sho done some shufflin’. Den he give me five dollers an’ tole me to go buy jim cracks, but dat piece of paper won’t no good. ‘Twuzn nothin’ but a shin plaster like all dat war money, you couldn’ spend it.

Dat Yankee kept callin’ Mis’ Polly a white headed devil an’ said she done ramshacked ’til dey wuzn’ nothin’ left, but he made his mens tote off meat, flour, pigs, an’ chickens. After dat Mis’ Polly got mighty stingy wid de vittles an’ de didn’ have no more ham.

When de war was over de Yankees was all ‘roun’ de place tellin’ de niggers what to do. Dey tole dem dey was free, dat dey didn’ have to slave for de white folks no more. My folks all left Marse Cain an’ went to live in houses dat de Yankees built. Dey wuz like poor white folks houses, little shacks made out of sticks an’ mud wid stick an’ mud chimneys. Dey wuzn’ like Marse Cain’s cabins, planked up an’ warm, dey was full of cracks, an’ dey wuzn’ no lamps an’ oil. All de light come from de lightwood knots burnin’ in de fireplace.

One day my mammy come to de big house after me. I didn’ want to go, I wanted to stay wid Mis’ Polly. I ‘gun to cry an’ Mammy caught hold of me. I grabbed Mis’ Polly an’ held so tight dat I tore her skirt bindin’ loose an’ her skirt fell down ’bout her feets.

‘Let her stay wid me,’ Mis’ Polly said to Mammy.

But Mammy shook her head. ‘You took her away from me an’ didn’ pay no mind to my cryin’, so now I’se takin’ her back home. We’s free now, Mis’ Polly, we ain’t gwine be slaves no more to nobody.’ She dragged me away. I can see how Mis’ Polly looked now. She didn’ say nothin’ but she looked hard at Mammy an’ her face was white.

Mammy took me to de stick an’ mud house de Yankees done give her. It was smoky an’ dark kaze dey wuzn’ no windows. We didn’ have no sheets an’ no towels, so when I cried an’ said I didn’ want to live on no Yankee house, Mammy beat me an’ made me go to bed. I laid on de straw tick lookin’ up through de cracks in de roof. I could see de stars, an’ de sky shinin’ through de cracks looked like long blue splinters stretched ‘cross de rafters. I lay dare an’ cried kaze I wanted to go back to Mis’ Polly.

I was never hungry til we waz free an’ de Yankees fed us. We didn’ have nothin to eat ‘cept hard tack an’ middlin’ meat. I never saw such meat. It was thin an’ tough wid a thick skin. You could boil it allday an’ all night an’ it wouldn’ cook dome, I wouldn’ eat it. I thought ‘twuz mule meat; mules dat done been shot on de battle field den dried. I still believe ‘twuz mule meat.

One day me an’ my brother was lookin’ for acorns in de woods. We foun’ sumpin’ like a grave in de woods. I tole Dave dey wuz sumpin’ buried in dat moun’. We got de grubbin hoe an’ dug. Dey wuz a box wid eleven hams in dat grave. Somebody done hid it from de Yankees an’ forgot whare dey buried it. We covered it back up kaze if we took it home in de day time de Yankees an’ niggers would take it away from us. So when night come we slipped out an’ toted dem hams to de house an’ hid dem in de loft.

Dem was bad days. I’d rather been a slave den to been hired out like I was, kaze I wuzn’ no fiel’ hand, I was a hand maid, trained to wait on de ladies. Den too, I was hungry most of de time an’ had to keep fightin’ off dem Yankee mens. Dem Yankees was mean folks.

We’s come a long way since dem times. I’se lived near ’bout ninety years an’ I’se seen an’ heard much. My folks don’t want me to talk ’bout slavery, day’s shame niggers ever was slaves. But, while for most colored folks freedom is de bes, dey’s still some niggers dat out to be slaves now. Dese niggers dat’s done clean forgot de Lawd; dose dat’s always cuttin’ an’ fightin’ an’ gwine in white folks houses at night, dey ought to be slaves. Dey ought to have an’ Ole Marse wid a whip to make dem come when he say come, an’ go when he say go, ’til dey learn to live right.

I looks back now an’ thinks. I ain’t never forgot dem slavery days, an’ I ain’t never forgot Mis’ Polly an’ my white starched aprons.

Cain, Debro,

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.

3 thoughts on “Slave Narrative of Sarah Debro”

  1. Beverly Scarlett

    I am researching Hardscrabble Plantation and would like to get any information that anyone has. I live near the Hardscrabble Slave Cemetery. My mother’s first cousin was the occupant of the plantation house for many years during my life time. I see the occupant’s older brother is mentioned as a pallbearer for the funeral of O.C.Cain (grandson of Doctor James Cain). So, there is some connection to the Harris Family and that plantation. I will like to know what that connection is.

  2. TS Taylor,

    Just saw your comment on the Sarah Debro narrative from 2018.
    I have been researching her life and would like very much to
    share with you about what I have found.

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