Arnold Gragston

Unlike most of the interviews in this collection, the interviewer Martin Richardson was part of the Negro Writers’ Unit in Florida, a subgroup of the Federal Writers’ Project that employed Black workers.   

Interviewer Martin Richardson’s introduction notes that he is recording, “Verbatim Interview with Arnold Gragston, 97-year-old ex-slave whose early life was spent helping slaves to freedom across the Ohio River, while he, himself, remained in bondage. As he puts it, he guesses he could be called a ‘conductor’ on the underground railway.”  Arnold Gragston estimated that he rowed two or three hundred enslaved people to freedom.  In this excerpt, Arnold Gragston describes how his enslaver treated enslaved people, describing education and marriage practices. 
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…Mr. Tabb [Arnold Gragston’s enslaver] was a pretty good man. He used to beat us, sure; but not nearly so much as others did, some of his own kin people, even. But he was kinda funny sometimes; he used to have a special slave who didn’t have nothing to do but teach the rest of us–we had about ten on the plantation, and a lot on the other plantations near us–how to read and write and figure. Mr. Tabb liked us to know how to figure. But sometimes when he would send for us and we would be a long time coming, he would ask us where we had been. If we told him we had been learning to read, he would near beat the daylights out of us–after getting somebody to teach us; I think he did some of that so that the other owners wouldn’t say he was spoiling his slaves.

He was funny about us marrying, too. He would let us go a-courting on the other plantations near anytime we liked, if we were good, and if we found somebody we wanted to marry, and she was on a plantation that

belonged to one of his kin folks or a friend, he would swap a slave so that the husband and wife could be together. Sometimes, when he couldn’t do this, he would let a slave work all day on his plantation, and live with his wife at night on her plantation. Some of the other owners was always talking about his spoiling us…

Formerly enslaved person
Birth Year (Age)Interviewer
WPA Volunteer
Enslaver’s Name
Arnold Gragston1840 (97)Martin RichardsonJack Tabb
Interview LocationResidence StateBirth Location
Themes & KeywordsAdditional Tags:
Underground Railroad, Conductor of Underground Railroad, Education, Marriage, Family, ViolenceFirst Person, Dialect, Whipped, Slave Patrollers, Notable, Mason County