Slave Narrative of James Southall

Person Interviewed: James Southall
Location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Place of Birth: Clarksville, Tennessee
Age: 82

I was born in Clarksville, Tenn. My father was Wesley and my mother was Hagar Southall. Our owner was Dr. John Southall, an old man. Father always belonged to him but he bought my mother when she was a young girl and raised her. She never knew anything ’bout her people but my father’s mother lived with us in de quarter’s at Master Southall’s. Master John never sold any of his slaves. We was known as “Free niggers.” Master said he didn’t believe it was right to own human beings just because dey was black, and he freed all his slaves long before de war. He give ‘en all freedom papers and told dem dat dey was as free as he was and could go anywhere dey wanted. Dey didn’t have no where to go so we all stayed on wid him. It was nice though to know we could go where we pleased ‘thout having to get a pass and could come back when we pleased even if we didn’t take advantage of it. He told his slaves dat dey could stay on at his farm but dey would have to work and make a living for deyselves and families. Old Master managed de farm and bought all de food and clothes for us all. Everybody had to work, but dey had a good time. We had good clothes, plenty of food and good cabins. We had what was known as Georgia bedsteads. Dey was wooden bedsteads wid holes bored in de side pieces and in de foot and head-boards. Ropes was laced back and forth across and this took de place of both slats and springs. De ropes would git loose and we had what was called a “following-pin” to tighten ’em wid. We’d take a block of wood wid a notch in it and catch de rope and hold it till de following-pin could be driven-in and den we’d twist de ropes tight again. We had grass or cotton beds and we slept good, too. We had tin plates but no knives or forks so we et with our fingers. Old Master was a doctor and we had good attention when we was sick. We had no wish to take advantage of our freedom for we was a lot better off even than we is now and we knowed it. We never had to worry about anything. De quarters was about a half mile from de “Big House” as we called Master John’s house. It really wasn’t such a big house as it had only four or five rooms in it. It was a common boxed house, painted white and wid a long gallery across de front. Maybe it was de gallery dat made it look so big to us. We liked to set on de steps at night and listen to Master John talk and to hear old Mistress and de girls sing. Sometimes we’d join in wid dem and fairly make de woods ring. Everybody thought dey was crazy to let us have so much freedom but dey wasn’t nothing any of us black folks wouldn’t a done for that family. He never employed any overseers as he done his own overseeing. He’d tell de older hands what he wanted done and dey would see it was done. He was never punished. Just iffen dey didn’t work dey didn’t have nothing to eat and wear and de hands what did work wouldn’t divide wid ’em iffen dey didn’t work. Old Master sho’ was wise fer he knowed iffen we was ever set free dat we would have to work and he sure didn’t bide no laziness in his hands. Dey got up ’bout four o’clock in de morning and was at work as soon as dey could see. Dey would work and sing as happy as you please. We used to hear stories ’bout how slaves was punished but we never sew any of it. Dey would punish ’em by whupping ’em or by making ’em stand on one foot for a long time, tie ’em up by de thumbs as high as dey could reach and by making ’em do hard tasks and by going without food for two-three days. Niggers was very religious and dey had church often. Dey would annoy de white folks wid shouting and singing and praying and dey would take cooking pots and put over dey mouths so de white folks couldn’t hear ’em. Dey would dig holes in de ground too, and lie down when dey prayed. Old Master let us have church in de homes. We had prayer-meeting every Wednesday night. All our cullud preachers could read de Bible. He let dem teach us how to read iffen we wanted to learn. In de evening when we was through wid our work dey would gather at one of de cabins and visit and sing or dance. We’d pop corn, eat walnuts. peanuts, hickory nuts, and tell ghost stories. We didn’t have any music instruments so de music we danced by wasn’t so very good. Everybody sang and one or two would beat on tin pans or beat bones together. Us boys played marbles. I got to be a professional. I could hit de middler ever time. We made a square and put a marble in each corner and one in de middle and got off several feet from de ring and shot at de marbles. Iffen you hit de middler you got de game. I could beat ’em all. Old Master kept us through de war. We saw Yankee soldiers come through in droves lak Coxsey’s Army. We wasn’t afraid for ourselves but we was afraid dey would catch old Master or one of de boys when dey would come home on a furlough. We’d hep After de war we stayed until old Master died. It broke us all up for we knowed we had lost de best friend dat we ever had or ever would have. He was a sort of father to all of us. Old Mistress went to live with her daughter and we started wandering ’round. Some folks from de North come down and made de cullud folks move on. I guess dey was afraid dat we’d help our masters rebuild dey homes again. We lived in a sort of bondage for a long time. De white folks in de South as well as de cullud folks lost de best friend dey had when Abe Lincoln was killed. He was God’s men and it was a great loss when he died. God created us all free and equal. Somewhere along de road we lost out. Cullud folks would have been better off iffen dey had been left alone in Africa. We’d a-had better opportunities. We should have some compensation for what we have suffered. Yes, we could be sent back and we’d like it if dey would help us to get started out again. Dat’s where our forefathers come from. I learned a long time ago dat dey was nothing to charms. How could a rabbit’s foot bring me good luck? De Bible teaches me better’n dat. I believes in dreams though. I’ve seen de end of time in my dreams. Saw de great trouble we going through right now, years ago in a dream. It’s clear in my mind how de world is coming to a end. I believe all Christians should all join up together as dat makes ’em stronger. I believe in praying fer what we want and need. I’m a licensed preacher in de Baptist church. I’ve been a member for forty years but have just been a licensed preacher about ten years biggest time. Log rollings. Clearing the new ground for planting. Cutting the trees, burning the bresh, making ready for the plow. The best worker wins hisself a prize at these log rollings, too. Them kind of good times makes me think of Christmas. Didn’t have no Christmas tree, but they set up a long pine table in the house and that plank table was covered with presents and none of the Negroes was ever forgot on that day. Master Jess didn’t work his slaves like other white folks done. Wasn’t no four o’clock wake-up horns and the field work started at seven o’clock. Quitting time was five o’clock – just about union hours nowadays. The Master believed in plenty of rest for the slaves and they work better that way, too. One of my brother took care of the Master’s horse while on the plantation. When the Master join in with rebels that horse went along. So did brother. Master need them both and my brother mighty pleased when he get to go. ’em git away and just swear dat dey hadn’t been home a-tall. When Master come back from the war and tell us that brother is dead, he said brother was the best boy in all the army. The Tenneyson slaves wasn’t bothered with patrollers, neither the Klan. The Master said we was all good Negroes nobody going to bother a good Negro. We was taught to work and have good manners. And to be honest. Just doing them three things will keep anybody out of trouble.


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

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