slave narrative

I do like they done.

Martha Ann Tyson Dixon of DeValls Bluff, Arkansas, sat for an interview with a Federal Writers Project worker in the late 1930s. Dixon had spent her childhood enslaved near Saratoga, Wilson County, and she and her husband Luke D. Dixon had migrated west in the late 1880s. More than 50 years after Emancipation, she vividly described the hardships of life during and after slavery.

“I am eighty-one years old. I was born close to Saratoga, North Carolina. My mother died before I can recollect and my grandmother raised me. They said my father was a white man. They said Jim Beckton [Becton]. I don’t recollect him. My mother was named Mariah Tyson.

“I recollect how things was. My grandmother was Miss Nancy Tyson’s cook. She had one son named Mr. Seth Tyson. He run her farm. They et in the dining room, we et in the kitchen. Clothes and somethng to eat was scarce. I worked at whatever I was told to do. Grandma told me things to do and Miss Nancy told me what to do. I went to the field when I was pretty little. Once my uncle left the mule standing out in the field and went off to do something else. It come up a hard shower. I crawled under the mule. If I had been still it would have been all right but my hair stood up and tickled the mule’s stomach. The mule jumped and the plough hit me in my hip here at the side. It is a wonder I didn’t get killed.

“After the Civil War was times like now. Money scarce and prices high, and you had to start all over new. Pigs was hard to start, mules and horses was mighty scarce. Seed was scarce. Everything had to be started from the stump. Something to eat was mighty plain and scarce and one or two dresses a year had to do. Folks didn’t study about going so much.”

“I had to rake up leaves and fetch em to the barn to make beds for the little pigs in cold weather. The rake was made out of wood. It had hickory wood teeth and about a foot long. It was heavy. I put my leaves in a basket bout so high [three or four feet high.] I couldn’t tote it — I drug it. I had to get leaves in to do a long time and wait till the snow got off before I could get more. It seem like it snowed a lot. The pigs rooted the leaves all about in day and back up in the corners at night. It was ditched all around. It didn’t get very muddy. Rattle snakes was bad in the mountains. I used to tote water — one bucketful on my head and one bucketful in each hand. We used wooden buckets. It was a lot of fun to hunt guinea nests and turkey nests. When other little children come visiting that is what we would do. We didn’t set around and listen at the grown folks. We toted up rocks and then they made rows [terraces] and rock fences about the yard and garden. They looked so pretty. Some of them would be white, some gray, sometimes it would be mixed. They walled wells with rocks too. All we done or knowed was work. When we got tired there was places to set and rest. The men made plough stocks and hoe handles and worked at the blacksmith shop in snowy weather. I used to pick up literd [lightwood] knots and pile them in piles along the road so they could take them to the house to burn. They made a good light and kindling wood.

“They didn’t whoop Grandma but she whooped me a plenty.

“After the war some white folks would tell Grandma one thing and some others tell her something else.  She kept me and”

“cooked right on. I didn’t know what freedom was. Seemed like most of them I knowed didn’t know what to do. Most of the slaves left the white folks where I was raised. It took a long time to ever get fixed. Some of them died, some went to the cities, some up North, some come to the country. I married and come to Fredonia, Arkansas in 1889. I had been married since I was a young girl. But as I was saying the slaves still hunting a better place and more freedom. Grandma learnt me to set down and be content. We have done better out here than we could done in North Carolina but I don’t believe in so much rambling.

“We come on the passenger train and paid our own way to Arkansas. It was a wild and sickly country and has changed. Not like living in the same country. I try to live like the white folks and Grandma raised me. I do like they done. I think is the reason we have saved and have good a living as we got. We do on as little as we can and save a little for the rainy day.”

——

In the 1860 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: farmer Nancy Scarborough, 47; Victoria, 10, Susan, 6, and Laurina Scarborough, 3; farm manager Seth Tyson, 23; and Julia, 18, Nancy, 17, Aaron, 15, and Abner Tyson, 13.

In the 1870 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: Mary Tyson, 62, with Edith, 23, John, 21, Abraham, 16, and Martha Tyson, 11.

In the 1880 census of Lower Town Creek township, Edgecombe County: Martha Tyson, 20, was a cook in the household of white marchant/farmer Mark Atkinson.

Martha Tyson, 26, married Luke Dixon, 26, in Wilson County on 12 February 1885. Minister E.H. Ward performed the ceremony in the presence of Charles Batts, Tempey Cotton and Green Taylor.

In the 1910 census of Watensaw township, Prairie County, Arkansas: Luke Dixon, 49, saw filer at Bar factory, and wife Martha M., 52.

In the 1920 census of DeValls Bluff, Prairie County, Arkansas: on Cedar Street, farmer Luke Dixon, 58; wife Martha, 59; and cousins Margaret Tyson, 14, and Oleo McClarin, 9.

In the 1930 census of DeValls Bluff, Prairie County, Arkansas: on Cypress Street, owned and valued at $2000, Luke D. Dixon, 70, born in Virginia, and wife Martha, 70, born in North Carolina, with cousin Allen Reaves, 8.

In the 1940 census of DeValls Bluff, Prairie County, Arkansas: on Cypress Street, owned and valued at $2000, Luke Dixon, 84, born in Virginia, and wife Martha A., 84, born in North Carolina.

Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 2, Cannon-Evans, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mesn.022.

I was seven years old when the Surrender was.

WPA writer Samuel S. Taylor interviewed Martha Ruffin, age 80, 1310 Cross Street, Little Rock, Arkansas. (He also interviewed her husband Thomas Ruffin, born in Franklin County, North Carolina. The couple were one of dozens of Wilson County families that migrated to Arkansas in the 1880s and ’90s.)

“I was born in North Carolina, and I was seven years old when the Surrender was. Every one of my children can tell you when they was born, but I can’t. My mother, Quinettie Farmer was her name. Brother Robert Farmer is my cousin. He is about the same age as my husband. He got married one week and me and my husband the next. My father’s name was Valentine Farmer. My grandmother on my mother’s side was Mandy Harrison, and my grandfather’s name on my mother’s side was Jordan Harrison. My grandpa on my father’s side was named Reuben Farmer, and his wife was Nancy Farmer. I have seed my grandpa and grandma on my father’s side. But my mother didn’t see them on my mother’s side.

“I ‘members my daddy’s white folks’ names, Moses Farmer. My father never was sold. My daddy, Valentine Farmer, was a ditcher, shoemaker, and sometimes a farmer. My mother was a house girl. She washed and ironed. I couldn’t tell exactly what my grandparents did. My grandparents, so my parents told me, were mostly farmers. I reckon Moses Farmer owned about three hundred slaves.

“I was born on Robert Bynum’s place. He was my mother’s owner. He married one of the Harrison girls and my mother fell to that girl. My mother done just about as she pleased. She didn’t know nothin’ about workin’ in the field till after the Surrender.

“The way my mother and father happened to meet — my old master hired my daddy to do some work for him and he met my mama that way.

“The way my folks learned they was free was, a white school-teacher who was teaching school where we stayed told my mother she was free, but not to say nothing about it. About three weeks later, the Yankees come through there and told them they was free and told my old boss that if he wanted them to work he would have to hire them and pay them. The school-teacher stayed with mother’s folks — mother’s white folks. The school-teacher was teaching white folks, not niggers. She was a Yankee, too. My mother was the house girl, and the school-teacher stayed with her folks. The War was so hot she couldn’t git no chance to go back home.

“My daddy farmed after the War. He farmed on shares the first year. The next year, he bought him a horse. He finally owned his own farm. He owned it when he died. He had about one hundred acres of land.

“I have pretty fair health for an old woman like I am. I am bothered with the rheumatism. The Lawd wouldn’t let both of us git down at the same time. (Here she refers to her husband who was sick in bed at the time she made the statement. You have his story already. It was difficult for her to tell her story, for he wanted it to be like his.  — Ed.)

“I belong to the Primitive Baptist Church. I haven’t changed my membership from my home.

“I got married in 1882, in February. How many years is that? I got so I can’t count up nothin’. Fifty-six years. Yes, that’s it; that’s how long I been married. I had a little sister that got married with me. She didn’t really git married; she just stood up with me. She was just a little baby girl. They told me I was pretty near twenty-three years old when I married. I have a daughter that’s been married twenty-five years. We had older daughters, but that one was the first one married. I have got a daughter over in North Little Rock that is about fifty years old.

“Her husband is dead. We had ten children. My daughter is the mother of ten children too. She got married younger than I did. This girl I am living with is my baby. I have four children living — three girls and one boy. A woman asked me how many children I had and I told her three. She was a fortuneteller and she wanted to tell me my fortune. But I didn’t want her to tell me nothin’. God was gittin’ ready to tell me somethin’ I didn’t want to hear. I’ve got five great-grandchildren. We don’t have no great-great-grandchildren. Don’t want none.”

Interviewer’s Comment

The old lady’s style was kind of cramped by the presence of her husband. Every once in a while, when she would be about to paint something in lurid colors, he would drop in a word and she would roll her phrases around in her mouth, so to speak, and shift and go ahead in a different direction and on another gear.

Very pleasant couple though — with none of the bitterness that old age brings sometimes. The daughter’s name is Searles.

——

In 1866, Reuben Dew and Nancy Farmer swore to their 52-year cohabitation before a Wilson County justice of the peace, thereby legitimating their marriage.

In the 1870 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: Vance [Valentine] Farmer, 40, wife Quinnie, 30, and children Clara, 13, Patsey [Martha], 11, Isaac, 10, Nancy, 8, Leah, 6, and Mattie, 2. Also, in Wilson township: Reuben Farmer, 68, wife Nancy, 71, and Luke Farmer, 11.

In the 1880 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Bullie [“Vallie”] Farmer, 50, wife Qunnia, 46, and children Patsie, 21, Isaac, 20, Nannie, 18, Lera, 16, Mattie, 10, Caroline, 8, Bettie, 6, Mary J., 4, Charles, 3, and Sarah E., 2, plus Nancy Farmer, 90.

On 5 February 1882, Vaul Farmer, 52, married Mary E. Ruffin, 43, in Wilson County. On 19 March 1882, in the town of Stantonsburg, Robert Farmer, 19, married Marinda Bynum, 18. I have not found Martha Farmer Ruffin’s marriage record.

In the 1900 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer Valintine Farmer, 70, wife Mary, 58, children Mattie, 30, Elizabeth, 26, Mary J., 24, and Elizar, 22, son-in-law Charly Freeman and daughter Carolina. All did farm work except Elizabeth, who was a cook, and Elizar, who was a schoolteacher. Meanwhile, in Brodie, Pulaski County, Arkansas: North Carolina-born Thomas Ruffin, 48, his North Carolina-born wife Patsie, 42, and children Wiley, 14, Marina, 12, James, 10, Mammie, 8, and Lucy, 4. The last two children were born in Arkansas.

Valentine Farmer made out his will the following spring, and his estate went into probate in 1906:

North Carolina, Wilson County  }  I, Valentine Farmer, of the aforesaid County and State, being of sound mind, but considering the uncertainty of my earthly existence, do make and declare this my last will and testament.

First: My executor hereinafter named, shall give my body a decent burial, and pay all funeral expenses, together with all my Just debts out of the first money which may come into her hands belonging to my estate.

Second: I give to my daughter Clary Batts, the wife of Amos Batts, and Patsy Ruffin, the wife of Thomas Ruffin, the sum of one dollar each.

Third: I give and bequeath to my beloved wife, Mary Eliza Farmer, during her lifetime or widowhood, my entire estate, both real and personal.

Fourth: At the death or marriage of my wife, I give and bequeath to my four daughters, hereinafter named — Mattie Farmer, Elizabeth Farmer, Mary Jane Farmer and Sarah Eliza Farmer, all of my personal property of whatsoever kind.

Fifth: At the death or marriage of my wife, I give and bequeath to my children hereinafter named, viz: Nannie Farmer, Louvenia Farmer, Elizabeth Farmer, Mary Jane Farmer, Charlie Farmer and Sarah Eliza Farmer all of my real estate.

Sixth: I hereby constitute and appoint my wife Mary Eliza Farmer my lawful executor to all intents and purposes to execute this my last will and testament, according to the true intent and meaning thereof; hereby revoking and declaring void all other wills and testaments by me heretofore made.

In witness whereof, I, the said Valentine Farmer, do hereunto set my hand and seal this 9th day of April, 1901.   Valentine (X) Farmer

Signed, sealed, published and declared by the said Valentine Farmer to be his last will and testament in the presence of us, who at his request and in his presence do subscribe our names as witnesses thereto   /s/ E.O. McGowan, W.H. Dixon

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938, Arkansas Narratives, Volume 2, Part 6. Federal Writers Project, United States Work Projects Administration; Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. 

 

Yes ‘um, I’se had a bad time.

An interview with Blount Baker, 106 Spruce Street, Wilson, North Carolina, interviewer Mary A. Hicks:

“Yes’um, I ‘longed ter Marse Henry Allen of Wilson County an’ we always raise terbacker. Marse Henry wus good ter us so we had a heap of prayer meetin’s an’ corn shuckin’s an’ such. “I ‘members de big meetin’s dat we’d have in de summer time an’ dat good singin’ we’d have when we’d be singin’ de sinners through. We’d stay pretty nigh all night to make a sinner come through, an’ maybe de week after de meetin’ he’d steal one of this marster’s hogs. Yes’um, I’se had a bad time.

“You know, missy, dar ain’t no use puttin’ faith in nobody, they’d fool you ever time anyhow. I know once a patteroller tol’ me dat iffen I’d give him a belt I found dat he’d let me go by ter see my gal dat night, but when he kotch me dat night he whupped me. I tol’ Marse Henry on him too so Marse Henry takes de belt away from him an’ gives me a possum fer hit. Dat possum shore wus good too, baked in de ashes like I done it.

“I ain’t never hear Marse Henry cuss but once an’ dat wus de time dat some gentlemens come ter de house an’ sez dat dar am a war ‘twixt de north an’ de south. He sez den, ‘Let de damn yaller bellied Yankees come on an’ we’ll give ’em hell an’ sen’ dem a-hoppin’ back ter de north in a hurry.’

“We ain’t seed no Yankees ‘cept a few huntin’ Rebs. Dey talk mean ter us an’ one of dem says dat we niggers am de cause of de war. ‘Sir,’ I sez, ‘folks what am a wantin’ a war can always find a cause’. He kicks me in de seat of de pants fer dat, so I hushes.

“I stayed wid Marse Henry till he died den I moved ter Wilson. I has worked everwhere, terbacker warehouses an’ ever’thing. I’se gittin’ of my old age pension right away an’ den de county won’t have ter support me no mo’, dat is if dey have been supportin’ me on three dollars a month.”

Slave Narratives (1936-1939), Works Project Administration [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com.   

I wus sold fust time in my mammy’s arms.

An interview with Chaney Spell, 101 years old, Contena Heights, Wilson, North Carolina:

“I really doan know who my first marster wus, case I has been sold an’ hired so much since den. I reckin dat I wus borned in New Hanover er Beaufort County an’ I wus sold fust time in my mammy’s arms. We wus sold ter a man in Carteret County and from dar de speculators took me ter Franklin County. I wus sold ter a Mr. McKee an’ dat’s de fust thing dat I ‘members.

“I doan ‘member anything ’bout maw ‘cept dat dey called her Sal an’ dat she died years an’ years ago. I reckin dat I once had a pappy, but I ain’t neber seed him.

“Marster McKee wus mean to us, an’ we ain’t had nothin’ to eat nor wear half of de time. We wus beat fer ever’ little thing. He owned I reckin two er three hundret slaves an’ he had four overseers. De overseers wus mean an’ dey often beat slaves ter death.

“I worked in de house, sometime ’round de table, but I ain’t got so much to eat.

“When word come dat we wus to be sold I wus glad as I could be. Dey tol’ me dat de marster has gambled away his money an’ lost ever’thing but a few slaves. Later I learned dat he had lost me to a Mr. Hartman in Nash County.

“Marse Sid Hartman wus good as he could be, sometimes his overseers wusn’t but when he foun’ it out he let dem go. Marse Sid ain’t got but one weakness an’ dat am pretty yaller gals. He just can’t desist dem at all. Finally Mis’ Mary found it out an’ it pretty near broke her heart. De ole marster, Marster Sid’s daddy, said dat long as he could ride a hoss he could look out fer de plantation so Marse Sid took Mis’ Mary to de mountains.

“Soon atter dey went away de war broke an’ ole marster wus right busy, not dat de slaves ain’t stuck to him but de Yankees won’t let dem stick. When Marse Sid an’ Mis’ Mary come home de war wus closin’ an’ dey has lost dere slaves. De slaves still loves ’em do’ an’ dey goes over an’ cleans house an’ fixes for de young folks.

“Atter de war I married Lugg Spell an’ we had five chilluns. He’s been dead dese many years an’ I’se worked, worked an’ worked to raise de chilluns. I has been on charity a long time now, a long time.”

S123_1208-1278

Slave Narratives (1936-1939), Works Project Administration [database on-line], http://www.ancestry.com.