Slave Narrative of Tempie Herndon Durham

Interviewer: Travis Jordan
Person Interviewed: Tempie Herndon Durham
Location: 1312 Pine St., Durham, North Carolina
Age: 103

I was thirty-one years ole when de surrender come. Dat makes me sho nuff ole. Near ’bout a hundred an’ three years done passed over dis here white head of mine. I’se been here, I mean I’se been here. ‘Spects I’se de olest nigger in Durham. I’se been here so long dat I done forgot near ’bout as much as dese here new generation niggers knows or ever gwine know.

My white fo’ks lived in Chatham County. Dey was Marse George an’ Mis’ Betsy Herndon. Mis Betsy was a Snipes befo’ she married Marse George. Dey had a big plantation an’ raised cawn, wheat, cotton an’ ‘bacca. I don’t know how many field niggers Marse George had, but he had a mess of dem, an’ he had hosses too, an’ cows, hogs an’ sheeps. He raised sheeps an’ sold de wool, an’ dey used de wool at de big house too. Dey was a big weavin’ room whare de blankets was wove, an’ dey wove de cloth for de winter clothes too. Linda Hernton an’ Milla Edwards was de head weavers, dey looked after de weavin’ of de fancy blankets. Mis’ Betsy was a good weaver too. She weave de same as de niggers. She say she love de clackin’ soun’ of de loom, an’ de way de shuttles run in an’ out carryin’ a long tail of bright colored thread. Some days she set at de loom all de mawnin’ peddlin’ wid her feets an’ her white han’s flittin’ over de bobbins.

De cardin’ an’ spinnin’ room was full of niggers. I can hear dem spinnin’ wheels now turnin’ roun’ an’ sayin’ hum-m-m-m, hum-m-m-m, an’ hear de slaves singin’ while dey spin. Mammy Rachel stayed in de dyein’ room. Dey wuzn’ nothin’ she didn’ know’ bout dyein’. She knew every kind of root, bark, leaf an’ berry dat made red, blue, green, or whatever color she wanted. Dey had a big shelter whare de dye pots set over de coals. Mammy Rachel would fill de pots wid water, den she put in de roots, bark an’ stuff an’ boil de juice out, den she strain it an’put in de salt an’ vinegar to set de color. After de wool an’ cotton done been carded an’ spun to thread, Mammy take de hanks an’ drap dem in de pot of bollin’ dye. She stir dem’ roun’ an’ lif’ dem up an’ down wid a stick, an’ when she hang dem up on de line in de sun, dey was every color of de rainbow. When dey dripped dry dey was sent to de weavin’ room whare dey was wove in blankets an’ things.

When I growed up I married Exter Durham. He belonged to Marse Snipes Durham who had de plantation ‘cross de county line in Orange County. We had a big weddin’. We was married on de front po’ch of de big house. Marse George killed a shoat an’ Mis’ Betsy had Georgianna, de cook, to bake a big weddin’ cake all iced up white as snow wid a bride an’ groom standin’ in de middle holdin’ han’s. De table was set out in de yard under de trees, an’ you ain’t never seed de like of eats. All de niggers come to de feas’ an’ Marse George had a dram for everybody. Dat was some weddin’. I had on a white dress, white shoes an’ long white gloves dat come to my elbow, an’ Mis’ Betsy done made me a weddin’ veil out of a white net window curtain. When she played de weddin ma’ch on de piano, me an’ Exter ma’ched down de walk an’ up on de po’ch to de altar Mis’ Betsy done fixed. Dat de pretties’ altar I ever seed. Back ‘gainst de rose vine dat was full or red roses, Mis’ Betsy done put tables filled wid flowers an’ white candles. She done spread down a bed sheet, a sho nuff linen sheet, for us to stan’ on, an’ dey was a white pillow to kneel down on. Exter done made me a weddin’ ring. He made it out of a big red button wid his pocket knife. He done cut it so roun’ an’ polished it so smooth dat it looked like a red satin ribbon tide ‘roun’ my finger. Dat sho was a pretty ring. I wore it ’bout fifty years, den it got so thin dat I lost it one day in de wash tub when I was washin’ clothes.

Uncle Edmond Kirby married us. He was de nigger preacher dat preached at de plantation church. After Uncle Edmond said de las’ words over me an’ Exter, Marse George got to have his little fun: He say, ‘Come on, Exter, you an’ Tempie got to jump over de broom stick backwards; you got to do dat to see which one gwine be boss of your househol’.’ Everybody come stan’ ‘roun to watch. Marse George hold de broom ’bout a foot high off de floor. De one dat jump over it backwards an’ never touch de handle, gwine boss de house, an’ if bof of dem jump over widout touchin’ it, dey won’t gwine be no bossin’, dey jus’ gwine be ‘genial. I jumped fus’, an’ you ought to seed me. I sailed right over dat broom stick same as a cricket, but when Exter jump he done had a big dram an’ his feets was so big an’ clumsy dat dey got all tangled up in dat broom an’ he fell head long. Marse George he laugh an’ laugh, an’ tole Exter he gwine be bossed ‘twell he skeered to speak less’n I tole him to speak. After de weddin’ we went down to de cabin Mis’ Betsy done all dressed up, but Exter couldn’ stay no longer den dat night kaze he belonged to Marse Snipes Durham an’ he had to back home. He lef’ de nex day for his plantation, but he come back every Saturday night an’ stay ‘twell Sunday night. We had eleven chillun. Nine was bawn befo’ surrender an’ two after we was set free. So I had two chillun dat wuzn’ bawn in bondage. I was worth a heap to Marse George kaze I had so manny chillun. De more chillun a slave had de more dey was worth. Lucy Carter was de only nigger on de plantation dat had more chillun den I had. She had twelve, but her chillun was sickly an’ mine was muley strong an’ healthy. Dey never was sick.

When de war come Marse George was too ole to go, but young Marse Bill went. He went an’ took my brother Sim wid him. Marse Bill took Sim along to look after his hoss an’ everything. Dey didn’ neither one get shot, but Mis’ Betsy was skeered near ’bout to death all de time, skeered dey was gwine be brung home shot all to pieces like some of de sojers was.

De Yankees wuzn’ so bad. De mos’ dey wanted was sumpin’ to eat. Dey was all de time hungry, de fus’ thing dey ax for when dey came was sumpin’ to put in dey stomach. An’ chicken! I ain’ never seed even a preacher eat chicken like dem Yankees. I believes to my soul dey ain’ never seed no chicken ‘twell dey come down here. An’ hot biscuit too. I seed a passel of dem eat up a whole sack of flour one night for supper. Georgianna sif’ flour ‘twell she look white an’ dusty as a miller. Dem sojers didn’ turn down no ham neither. Dat de onlies’ thing dey took from Marse George. Dey went in de smoke house an’ toted off de hams an’ shoulders. Marse George say he come off mighty light if dat all dey want, ‘sides he got plenty of shoats anyhow.

We had all de eats we wanted while de war was shootin’ dem guns, kaze Marse George was home an’ he kep’ de niggers workin’. We had chickens, gooses, meat, peas, flour, meal, potatoes an’ things like dat all de time, an’ milk an’ butter too, but we didn’ have no sugar an’ coffee. We used groun’ pa’ched cawn for coffee an’ cane ‘lasses for sweetnin’. Dat wuzn’ so bad wid a heap of thick cream. Anyhow, we had enough to eat to ‘vide wid de neighbors dat didn’ have none when surrender come.

I was glad when de war stopped kaze den me an’ Exter could be together all de time ‘stead of Saturday an’ Sunday. After we was free we lived right on at Marse George’s plantation a long time. We rented de lan’ for a fo’th of what we made, den after while be bought a farm. We paid three hundred dollars we done saved. We had a hoss, a steer, a cow an’ two pigs, ‘sides some chickens an’ fo’ geese. Mis’ Betsy went up in de attic an’ give us a bed an’ bed tick; she give us enough goose feathers to make two pillows, den she give us a table an’ some chairs. She give us some dishes too. Marse George give Exter a bushel of seed cawn an some seed wheat, den he tole him to go down to de barn an’ get a bag of cotton seed. We got all dis den we hitched up de wagon an’ th’owed in de passel of chillun an’ moved to our new farm, an’ de chillun was put to work in de fiel’; dey growed up in de fiel’ kaze dey was put to work time dey could walk good.

Freedom is all right, but de niggers was better off befo’ surrender, kaze den dey was looked after an’ dey didn’ get in no trouble fightin’ an’ killin’ like dey do dese days. If a nigger cut up an’ got sassy in slavery times, his Ole Marse give him a good whippin’ an’ he went way back an’ set down an’ ‘haved hese’f. If he was sick, Marse an’ Mistis looked after him, an’ if he needed store medicine, it was bought an’ give to him; he didn’ have to pay nothin’. Dey didn’ even have to think’ bout clothes nor nothin’ like dat, dey was wove an’ made an’ give to dem. Maybe everybody’s Marse an’ Mistis wuzn’ good as Marse George an’ Mis’ Betsy, but dey was de same as a mammy an’ pappy to us niggers.


Federal Writers' Project. WPA Slave Narratives. Web. 2007.

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