Slave Narrative of Henry Ryan

Interviewer: G. Leland Summer
Person Interviewed: Henry Ryan
Date of Interview: August 18, 1937
Location: Newberry, South Carolina
Place of Birth: Edgefield County SC
Date of Birth: (about) 1854

“I was born in Edgefield county, S.C., about 1854. I was the son of Larkin and Cheny Ryan who was the slaves of Judge Pickens Butler who lived at Edgefield Courthouse. I has some brothers and sisters, but don’t remember them all. We lived in a log house with but one room. We had good beds to sleep in, and always had plenty to eat. Old Judge Butler was a good man. I was 10 years old when he died. Before then I worked in and around the house, and freedom come I stayed with the Butler family two years, then went to Dr. Maxwell’s.

“In slavery time we had extra patches of ground to work for ourselves which we sometimes worked on Saturday afternoons as we had dat time off. Judge Butler used to give us a little money, too, before freedom come, for our work. We bought clothes and things we had to have. We had a big plantation garden dat the overseers planted for all on de place to eat out of.

“We used to hunt ‘possums, rabbits, squirrels, wild turkeys, doves, partridges, and set traps for partridges and set box gums for rabbits. We had good food then, plenty peas, cornbread, and wild game. When winter time come we put on wool clothes and heavy shoes.

“Old Marse Butler and his mistress was good, de best folks in de country. They lived in a big house, had a girl and a boy, and over 1000 or maybe 2,000 acres of land, on several farms. One was on Saluda River. His overseers some was no good, but master wouldn’t let them treat slaves cruel, just light whipping.

“We used to have to wake up at sun-up and work till sundown. We didn’t learn to read and write; but we had a prayer house on de plantation where we could go to sometimes, until freedom come, then we went on to it just the same. Old man Bennefield, a nigger preacher, talked to us there. I can ‘member one of de favorite songs we sung:

‘Show pity, O Lord, forgive,
Let e’er repentant sinner live;
Are not thy mercies large and free,
May not a sinner trust in Thee.’

‘My crimes are great, and can’t surpass,
“None of Major Pickens Butler’s slaves ever went away from him, but some in de neighborhood did run away, and day never heard of dem again.

“The paderrollers would catch a nigger if he didn’t have a pass. Some would pass and re-pass in the road, and maybe get catched and such scuffling would go on!

“We worked on Saturday afternoons unless boss give time off to work our own little patches or do some other work we had to do. But some would frolic then and wash up for Sunday, or set around. On Sunday we went to church and talked to neighbors. On Christmas we celebrated by having a big dinner which the master give us. We had three days holiday or sometimes a week. We had New Year’s Day as a special day for working, ’cause it was a sign if we worked good dat day, we would work good all de year. The white folks had corn-shuckings and cotton pickings in slavery and after freedom, too. Den would have big supper. Some neighbors walk ten miles, like walking to church or to school. Didn’t think anything of walking dat far.

“Some of de games played by children were marbles, jump-rope.

“Once an old man had his dog trained to say his prayers. The dog was fed but wouldn’t be allowed to eat until he put his paws in front and bow his head on dem; de old man say to him, ‘No, no, you die and go to hell if you don’t say your prayers.’

“Once another fellow, a nigger, said he was going to his wife’s house to see her; but he had to pass his old partner’s place on de way, who was dead. When he got opposite the partner’s place something, maybe a ghost, came to him and wrestled with him and wouldn’t let him go on to see his wife, so he come back to his master’s house and stayed.

“When the slaves got sick they had doctors, and used old herbs. ‘Jerusalem Ore’ was a kind of herb for children, to build them up, and there was field grass roots and herb roots which was boiled and tea drunk for fevers. And ‘Primer-rhine’ tea which was drunk, too. Sometimes they would hang garlic around small boys and girls necks to keep away any kind of sickness.

“We didn’t have schools; started them the second year after freedom. Old General Butler give us old slaves a home each and a small patch to work.

“I married when I was 21 years old, the first time in Edgefield County, now called Saluda County. I have six children, nine grand-children, and four great-grand-children.

“I think Abe Lincoln was good man and he was Providential arrangement. I think Jeff Davis was good man, same. Booker T. Washington is good man, done lots for young niggers. I rather like it now, and not slavery time. I joined church when I was 18 to turn from evil ways and to live a better life.”

Butler, Ryan,

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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