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.”  In this first person excerpt, Martin Richardson recounts Arnold Gragston’s account of how he became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. 
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…Most of the slaves didn’t know when they was born, but I did. You see, I was born on a Christmas morning–it was in 1840; I was a full grown man when I finally got my freedom.

Before I got it, though, I helped a lot of others get theirs. Lord only knows how many; might have been as much as two-three hundred. It was way more than a hundred, I know…

It was because he [Mr. Tabb, the man who enslaved Arnold Gragston] used to let me go around in the day and night so much that I came to be the one who carried the running away slaves over the river. It was funny the way I started it too.

I didn’t have no idea of ever getting mixed up in any sort of business like that until one special night. I hadn’t even thought of rowing across the river myself.

But one night I had gone on another plantation courting, and the old woman whose house I went to told me she had a real pretty girl there who wanted to go across the river and would I take her? I was scared and

backed out in a hurry. But then I saw the girl, and she was such a pretty little thing, brown-skinned and kinda rosy, and looking as scared as I was feeling, so it wasn’t long before I was listening to the old woman tell me when to take her and where to leave her on the other side.

I didn’t have nerve enough to do it that night, though, and I told them to wait for me until tomorrow night. All the next day I kept seeing Mister Tabb laying a rawhide across my back, or shooting me, and kept seeing that scared little brown girl back at the house, looking at me with her big eyes and asking me if I wouldn’t just row her across to Ripley. Me and Mr. Tabb lost, and soon as dust settled that night, I was at the old lady’s house.

I don’t know how I ever rowed the boat across the river the current was strong and I was trembling. I couldn’t see a thing there in the dark, but I felt that girl’s eyes. We didn’t dare to whisper, so I couldn’t tell her how sure I was that Mr. Tabb or some of the others owners would tear me up when they found out what I had done. I just knew they would find out.

I was worried, too, about where to put her out of the boat. I couldn’t ride her across the river all night, and I didn’t know a thing about the other side. I had heard a lot about it from other slaves but I thought it was just about like Mason County, with slaves and masters, overseers and rawhides; and so, I just knew that if I pulled the boat up and went to asking people where to take her I would get a beating or get killed.

I don’t know whether it seemed like a long time or a short time, now–it’s so long ago; I know it was a long time rowing there in the cold and worrying. But it was short, too, ’cause as soon as I did get on the other side the big-eyed, brown-skin girl would be gone. Well, pretty soon I saw a tall light and I remembered what the old lady had told me about looking for that light and rowing to it. I did; and when I got up to it, two men reached down and grabbed her; I started trembling all over again, and praying. Then, one of the men took my arm and I just felt down inside of me that the Lord had got ready for me. ‘You hungry, Boy?’ is what he asked me, and if he hadn’t been holding me I think I would have fallen backward into the river.

That was my first trip; it took me a long time to get over my scared feeling, but I finally did, and I soon found myself going back across the river, with two and three people, and sometimes a whole boatload. I got so I used to make three and four trips a month…

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, Escape, ResistanceFirst Person, Dialect, Whipped, Slave Patrollers, Notable, Mason County