Walter Rimm

In this excerpt, which the interviewer records in the first person, Walter Rimm shares several stories of runaway enslaved people. 
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Excerpt:

…You want to know about slavery? Well, a great deal happened besides that, but …

…My Pappy wasn’t afraid of anything. He is light colored from the white blood, and he ran away several times. There are big woods all around and we saw lots of runaways. One old fellow named John has been a runaway for four years and the [slave] patterroller tries all their tricks, but they can’t catch him. They wanted him badly, because it inspired other slaves to run away if he stays a-loose… One day I was in the woods and met a … run-awayer [runaway enslaved person]. He came to the cabin and Mammy made him a bacon and egg sandwich and we never saw him again. Maybe he did get clear to Mexico, where a lot of the slaves ran to.  


Interviewee 
Formerly enslaved person
Birth Year (Age)Interviewer
WPA Volunteer
Enslaver’s Name
Walter RimmUnknown (80)UnknownUnknown
Interview LocationResidence StateBirth Location
Fort Worth, TXTXSan Patricio County, TX
Themes & KeywordsAdditional Tags:
Slave Patrollers, ResistanceFirst Person

Rimm_W_1

George Thompson

In this excerpt, the interviewer records George Thompson’s memories of enslavement in the first person.  After describing how enslaved people were named, George Thompson explains how despite wanting to learn how to read, his enslaver used violence to prevent him from learning.  
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Excerpt:

…I [George Thompson] was quite a small boy when our family, which included an older sister, was sold to Ed. Thompson in Metcalfe Co. Kentucky, who owned about 50 other slaves, and as was the custom then we were given the name of our new master, “Thompson”.

I was hardly twelve years old when slavery was abolished, yet I can remember at this late date most of the happenings as they existed at that time.

I was so young and inexperienced when freed I remained on the Thompson plantation for four years after the war and worked for my board [shelter] and clothes as coach boy and any other odd jobs around the plantation.

I have no education, I can neither read nor write, as a slave I was not allowed to have books. On Sundays, I would go into the woods and gather ginseng which I would sell to the doctors for from 10¢ to 15¢ a pound, and with this money, I would buy a book that was called the Blue Back Speller. Our master would not allow us to have any books and when we were lucky enough to own a book we would have to keep it hidden, for if our master would find us with a book he would whip us and take the book from us. After receiving three severe whippings I gave up and never again tried for any learning, and to this day I can neither read nor write…


Interviewee 
Formerly enslaved person
Birth Year (Age)Interviewer
WPA Volunteer
Enslaver’s Name
George Thompson1854 (approx. 83)William R. MaysManfred Furgeson, Ed Thompson
Interview LocationResidence StateBirth Location
Johnson County, ININHart, KY
Themes & KeywordsAdditional Tags:
Education, Literacy, Emancipation, ViolenceMetcalf County, Hart County, Monroe County, First Person, Whipped, Sold, Slave Patrollers 

Thompson_G_1

Callie Williams

Callie Williams was four years old when the Civil War ended.  In this first person excerpt, the interviewer documents Callie Williams’ description of the life of enslaved people that was passed on to Callie Williams by her mother.  In this excerpt, Callie Williams describes the role of song in the life of enslaved people.
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Excerpt:

…Most of the time the slaves would be too tired to do anything but go to bed at night, but sometimes they would sit around and sing after supper and they would sing and pray on Sunday. One of the songs that was used most was ’Yon Comes Old Master Jesus.’ If I remember, it went something like this:     

‘I really believe Christ is coming again    
He’s coming in the morning    
He’s coming in the morning    
He’s coming with a rainbow on his shoulder    
He’s coming again by and by’ 

They tried to make them stop singing and praying during the [Civil] war because all they’d ask for was to be set free, but the slaves would get in the cabins and turn a big wash pot upside down and sing into that, and the noise couldn’t get out….


Interviewee 
Formerly enslaved person
Birth Year (Age)Interviewer
WPA Volunteer
Enslaver’s Name
Callie WilliamsApprox. 1861 (Unknown)Mary A. PooleHiram McLemore
Interview LocationResidence StateBirth Location
Mobile, ALALUnknown
Themes & KeywordsAdditional Tags:
Religion, SongsThird Person, Dialect, Slave Patrollers, Hired Out

Williams_C_3

Callie Williams

In this first person excerpt, the interviewer documents Callie Williams’ description of emancipation and enslaved people getting married. Since Callie Williams was only four years old when the Civil War ended, she explains that she is retelling stories told to her by her mother Vicey.  Hiram McLemore, referred to as “Master” in the excerpt, enslaved over three hundred people, including Callie Williams and her parents, Vicey and Harry.

*Historically-used terms that are offensive, marginalizing and/or disparaging have been removed from the transcripts and replaced with [redacted].  See more information.
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Excerpt:

… I don’t remember anything about this except what Mammy [Vicey] said.  When the Surrender [end of the Civil War] came, she said that a whole regiment of soldiers rode up to the house yelling to the [redacted] that they were free. Then the soldiers took the meat out of the smokehouse and got all the molasses and meal and gave it all to the [redacted]. They robbed the bees and then they’d eat dinner and go on to the next place, taking the menfolk with them, all except the ones too old, my pappy among them. 

After it was all over my pappy rented land on Mr. McLemore’s place and he and mammy stayed there till they died. They were buried in the same graveyard that Mr. McLemore had set aside for his slaves. 

I married Frank Williams in Montgomery, Alabama, but our marriage was nothing like mammy said her and pappy’s was. She said they ’jumped the broomstick.’ When any of the slaves wanted to get married they would go to the big house and tell Master and he’d get his broomstick and said, ’Harry, do you want Vicey?’ And Harry said ’Yes.’ Then Master said, ’Vicey, do you want Harry?’, and she said ’Yes.’ Then Master said, ’Join hands and jump the broomstick and you are married.’ The ceremony wasn’t much but they stuck lots closer then, and you didn’t hear about so many divorces and such as that.  


Interviewee 
Formerly enslaved person
Birth Year (Age)Interviewer
WPA Volunteer
Enslaver’s Name
Callie WilliamsApprox. 1861 (Unknown)Mary A. PooleHiram McLemore
Interview LocationResidence StateBirth Location
Mobile, ALALUnknown
Themes & KeywordsAdditional Tags:
Family, Marriage, Emancipation, Civil WarThird Person, Dialect, Slave Patrollers, Hired Out

Williams_C_2

Callie Williams

In this first person excerpt, the interviewer documents Callie Williams’ description of daily life for enslaved people. Hiram McLemore enslaved over 300 people, including Callie Wiliams and her family.  Since Callie Williams was only four years old when the Civil War ended, she explains that she is retelling stories told to her by her mother Vicey, who she calls “Mammy” in this excerpt.
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Excerpt:

…My mammy said that they [enslaved people] waked up in the morning when they heard the sweep. That was a piece of iron hanging by a string and it made a loud noise when it was banged with another piece of iron. They had to get up at four o’clock and be at work by sun up. To do this, they almost all the time cooked breakfast the night before.  

Pappy was a driver under the overseer, but Mammy said that she stayed at the little nursery cabin and looked after all the little babies. They had a cabin fixed up with homemade cradles and things where they put all the babies. Their mammies would come in from the field at about ten o’clock to nurse them and then later in the day, my mammy would feed the [other children]…

The slaves got rations every Monday night. There would be three pounds of meat and a peck of meal. There was a big garden that all of them worked and they had all the vegetables they needed and there was always plenty of skimmed milk. They cooked the meals on open fireplaces in the big iron ‘spiders’, big pots hanging over the fire from a hook. They’d do the cooking at night and then warm it over the next day if they wanted it that way. 

While mammy was tending the babies she had to spin cotton and she was supposed to spin two ’cuts’ a day. Four ’cuts’ was a hard day’s work. What was a cut? You ought to know that! They had a reel and when it had spun three hundred yards it popped. That was a “cut.” When it had been spun, then another woman took it to the loom to make cloth for the slaves. They always took Saturday afternoon to clean up the clothes and cabins, because they always had to start work on Monday morning clean as a pin. If they didn’t, they got whipped for being dirty…

Most of the time the slaves would be too tired to do anything but go to bed at night, but sometimes they would sit around and sing after supper and they would sing and pray on Sunday…


Interviewee 
Formerly enslaved person
Birth Year (Age)Interviewer
WPA Volunteer
Enslaver’s Name
Callie WilliamsApprox. 1861 (Unknown)Mary A. PooleHiram McLemore
Interview LocationResidence StateBirth Location
Mobile, ALALUnknown
Themes & KeywordsAdditional Tags:
Economics, Child CareThird Person, Dialect, Slave Patrollers, Hired Out

Williams_C_1

Anna Toll Smith

Anna Smith was married and had a young daughter when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This excerpt is the beginning of the interview.  Here, the interviewer Geo. H. Conn offers his own personal assessment of Anna Smith.  This excerpt offers teachers a chance to explore with students the context in which the WPA interviews occurred and how the interviewer influences the interview and its resulting narrative. 

*Historically-used terms that are offensive, marginalizing and/or disparaging have been removed from the transcripts and replaced with [redacted].  See more information.
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Excerpt:

…In a little old rocking chair, sits an old [redacted] known to her friends as “Grandma” Smith, spending the remaining days with her grandchildren. Small of stature, tipping the scales at about 100 lbs. but alert to the wishes and cares of her children, this old lady keeps posted on current events from those around her. With no stoop or bent back and with a firm step she helps with the housework and preparing of meals, waiting, when permitted, on others. In odd moments, she like to work at her favorite task of “hooking” rag rugs. Never having worn glasses, her eyesight is the envy of the younger generation. She spends most of the time at home, preferring her rocker and pipe (she has been smoking for more than eighty year) to a back seat in an automobile.  

When referring to Civil War days, her eyes flash and words flow from her with a fluency equal to that of any youngster. Much of her speech is hard to understand as she reverts to the early idiom and pronunciation of her race. Her head, tongue, arms and hands all move at the same time as she talks.  A note of hesitancy about speaking of her past shows at times when she realizes she is talking to one not of her own race, but after eight years in the north, where she has been treated courteously by her white neighbors, that old feeling of inferiority under which she lived during slave days and later on a plantation in Kentucky has about disappeared.  


Interviewee 
Formerly enslaved person
Birth Year (Age)Interviewer
WPA Volunteer
Enslaver’s Name
Anna Toll Smith1835 (101 or 102)Geo. H. ConnJudge Toll
Interview LocationResidence StateBirth Location
Summit County, OHOHHenderson, KY
Themes & KeywordsAdditional Tags:
InterviewerThird Person, Veteran or Widow, Slave Patrollers, Henderson County

Smith_An_2

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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Excerpt:

…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…


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

Gragston_A_3

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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Excerpt:

…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…


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

Gragston_A_2

Arnold Gragston

Unlike most of the interviewers 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 a, “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…”  

The majority of this remarkable interview is included below as it offers a rare, rich, personal account of a conductor on the Underground Railroad.  This account is accessible to students and documents Arnold Gragston’s actions and also his motivations.  Martin Richardson recounts in the first person Arnold Gragston’s experience as an enslaved person, how he became a conductor, the process of escaping, the attitudes of multiple White enslavers, and finally Arnold Gragston’s own escape.  
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Excerpt:

…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…

…Mr. Tabb [who enslaved Arnold Gragston] 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.

He wasn’t a Democrat like the rest of them in the county; he belonged to the ‘know-nothin’ party and he was a real leader in it. He used to always be making speeches, and sometimes his best friends wouldn’t be speaking to him for days at a time.

Mr. Tabb was always especially good to me. He used to let me go all about–I guess he had to; couldn’t get too much work out of me even when he kept me right under his eyes. I learned fast, too, and I think he kinda liked that..’

It was because he 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.

What did my passengers look like? I can’t tell you any more about it than you can, and you wasn’t there. After that first girl–no, I never did see her again–I never saw my passengers. I would have to be the black nights of the moon when I would carry them, and I would meet them out in the open or in a house without a single light. The only way I knew who they were was to ask them; What you say? And they would answer, Menare. I don’t know what that word meant–it came from the Bible. I only know that that was the password I used, and all of them I took over told it to me before I took them.

I guess you wonder what I did with them after I got them over the river. Well, there in Ripley was a man named Mr. Rankins; I think the rest of his name was John. He had a regular station there on his place for escaping slaves. You see, Ohio was a free state and once they got over the river from Kentucky or Virginia. Mr. Rankins could strut them all around town, and nobody would bother them. The only reason we used to land quietly at night was so that whoever brought them could go back for more, and because we had to be careful that none of the owners had followed us. Every once in a while they would follow a boat and catch their slaves back. Sometimes they would shoot at whoever was trying to save the poor devils.

Mr. Rankins had a regular station for the slaves. He had a big lighthouse in his yard, about thirty feet high and he kept it burning all night. It always meant freedom for slave if he could get to this light.

Sometimes Mr. Rankins would have twenty or thirty slaves that had run away on his place at the time. It must have cost him a whole lots to keep them and feed them, but I think some of his friends helped him.

Those who wanted to stay around that part of Ohio could stay, but didn’t many of them do it, because there was too much danger that you would be walking along free one night, feel a hand over your mouth, and be back across the river and in slavery again in the morning. And nobody in the world ever got a chance to know as much misery as a slave that had escaped and been caught.

So a whole lot of them went on North to other parts of Ohio, or to New York, Chicago or Canada; Canada was popular then because all of the slaves thought it was the last gate before you got all the way inside of heaven. I don’t think there was much chance for a slave to make a living in Canada, but didn’t many of them come back. They seem like they rather starve up there in the cold than to be back in slavery.

The Army soon started taking a lot of them, too. They could enlist in the Union Army and get good wages, more food than they ever had, and have all the little gals waving at them when they passed. Them blue uniforms was a nice change, too.

No, I never got anything from a single one of the people I carried over the river to freedom. I didn’t want anything; after had made a few trips I got to like it, and even though I could have been free any night myself, I figured I wasn’t getting along so bad so I would stay on Mr. Tabb’s place and help the others get free. I did it for four years.

I don’t know to this day how he never knew what I was doing; I used to take some awful chances, and he knew I must have been up to something; I wouldn’t do much work in the day, would never be in my house at night, and when he would happen to visit the plantation where I had said I was going I wouldn’t be there. Sometimes I think he did know and wanted me to get the slaves away that way so he wouldn’t have to cause hard feelings by freeing them.

I think Mr. Tabb used to talk a lot to Mr. John Fee; Mr. Fee was a man who lived in Kentucky, but Lord! how that man hated slavery! He used to always tell us (we never let our owners see us listening to him, though) that God didn’t intend for some men to be free and some men be in slavery. He used to talk to the owners, too, when they would listen to him, but mostly they hated the sight of John Fee.

In the night, though, he was a different man, for every slave who came through his place going across the river he had a good word, something to eat and some kind of rags, too, if it was cold. He always knew just what to tell you to do if anything went wrong, and sometimes I think he kept slaves there on his place till they could be rowed across the river. Helped us a lot.

I almost ran the business in the ground after I had been carrying the slaves across for nearly four years. It was in 1863, and one night I carried across about twelve on the same night. Somebody must have seen us, because they set out after me as soon as I stepped out of the boat back on the Kentucky side; from that time on they were after me. Sometimes they would almost catch me; I had to run away from Mr. Tabb’s plantation and live in the fields and in the woods. I didn’t know what a bed was from one week to another. I would sleep in a cornfield tonight, up in the branches of a tree tomorrow night, and buried in a haypile the next night; the River, where I had carried so many across myself, was no good to me; it was watched too close.

Finally, I saw that I could never do any more good in Mason County, so I decided to take my freedom, too. I had a wife by this time, and one night we quietly slipped across and headed for Mr. Rankin’s bell and light. It looked like we had to go almost to China to get across that river: I could hear the bell and see the light on Mr. Rankin’s place, but the harder I rowed, the farther away it got, and I knew if I didn’t make it I’d get killed. But finally, I pulled up by the lighthouse, and went on to my freedom–just a few months before all of the slaves got theirs. I didn’t stay in Ripley, though; I wasn’t taking no chances. I went on to Detroit and still live there with most of 10 children and 31 grandchildren.

The bigger ones don’t care so much about hearing it now, but the little ones never get tired of hearing how their grandpa brought Emancipation to loads of slaves he could touch and feel, but never could see…


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

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Anna Toll Smith

In this excerpt, the interviewer recounts the life of Anna Smith in the third person.  Anna Smith was married and had a young daughter when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In this excerpt, the interviewer describes Anna Smith’s memories of life as an enslaved person before and during the Civil War.  The excerpt ends with Anna Smith describing her emancipation.   

*Historically-used terms that are offensive, marginalizing and/or disparaging have been removed from the transcripts and replaced with [redacted].  See more information.
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Excerpt:

… Mrs. Smith remembers her father who died at the age of 117 years.  Her oldest brother was 50 when he joined the confederate army. Three other brothers were sent to the front [to fight in the Civil War]. One was an ambulance attendant, one belonged to the cavalry, one an orderly seargeant [sic] and the other joined the infantry. All were killed in action. Anna Smith’s husband later joined the war and was reported killed.  

When she became old enough for service she was taken into the “Big House” of her master, where she served as kitchen helper, cook, and later a nurse, taking care of her mistress’ second child.  She learned her A.B.C.’s by listening to the tutor teaching the children of Judge Toll…

Many instances during those terrible war days are fresh in her mind: men and boys, in pairs and groups passing the “big house” on their way to the recruiting station on the public square, later going back in squads and companies to fight; Yankee soldiers raiding the plantation, taking corn and hay or whatever could be used by the northern army; and continual apprehension [worry] for the menfolk at the front.  She remembers the baying of blood hounds [barking of dogs] at night along the Ohio River, trying to follow the scent of escaping [redacted] and the crack of firearms as white people, employed by the plantation owners attempted to halt the [redacted] in their efforts to cross the Ohio River into Ohio [where they would be free] or to join the Federal [Union] army…

When President Lincoln issued his proclamation freeing the slaves, and the news reached the plantation, she went to her master to learn if she was free. On learning it was true she returned to her parents who were living on another plantation…   


Interviewee 
Formerly enslaved person
Birth Year (Age)Interviewer
WPA Volunteer
Enslaver’s Name
Anna Toll Smith1835 (101 or 102)Geo. H. ConnJudge Toll
Interview LocationResidence StateBirth Location
Summit County, OHOHHenderson, KY
Themes & KeywordsAdditional Tags:
Civil War, Education, Emancipation, Lincoln, EconomicsThird Person, Veteran or Widow, Slave Patrollers, Henderson County

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