Voices of Slavery

One of the goals of this project is to collect as many source documents as possible that pertain to slavery in Kentucky, the initial focus of our series. Perhaps the most powerful of these are the first-person testimonials of the enslaved themselves. Unfortunately, there are no known audio or video recordings of formerly enslaved Kentuckians, but there were numerous print interviews that were done in the 1930s, some by African American scholars, most by writers and folklorists associated with the WPA Writers’ Project. Here is a selection of some of them, the rest of which will be published online when our series airs in March 2020. (Please note that some of these interviews were transcribed phonetically using dialect that was common at the time when rendering the words of African Americans. They are reproduced here precisely as they were published in the 1930s.)

John W. Fields in 1937

John W. Fields (Owensboro)

“My name is John W. Fields and I’m eighty-nine (89) years old. I was born March 27, 1848 in Owensboro, Ky. That’s 115 miles below Louisville, Ky. There was 11 other children besides myself in my family. When I was six years old, all of us children were taken from my parents, because my master died and his estate had to be settled. We slaves were divided by this method. Three disinterested persons were chosen to come to the plantation and together they wrote the names of the different heirs on a few slips of paper. These slips were put in a hat and passed among us slaves. Each one took a slip and the name on the slip was the new owner. I happened to draw the name of a relative of my master who was a widow. I can’t describe the heartbreak and horror of that separation. I was only six years old and it was the last time I ever saw my mother for longer than one night. Twelve children taken from my mother in one day. Five sisters and two brothers went to Charleston, Virginia, one brother and one sister went to Lexington Ky., one sister went to Hartford, Ky., and one brother and myself stayed in Owensburg, Ky. My mother was later allowed to visit among us children for one week of each year, so she could only remain a short time at each place.

My life prior to that time was filled with heart-aches and despair. We arose from four to five O’clock in the morning and parents and children were given hard work, lasting until nightfall gaves us our respite. After a meager supper, we generally talked until we grew sleepy, we had to go to bed. Some of us would read, if we were lucky enough to know how.

In most of us colored folks was the great desire to able to read and write. We took advantage of every opportunity to educate ourselves. The greater part of the plantation owners were very harsh if we were caught trying to learn or write. It was the law that if a white man was caught trying to educate a negro slave, he was liable to prosecution entailing a fine of fifty dollars and a jail sentence. We were never allowed to go to town and it was not until after I ran away that I knew that they sold anything but slaves, tobacco and wiskey. Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us. We knew we could run away, but what then? An offender guilty of this crime was subjected to very harsh punishment.

When my masters estate had been settled, I was to go with the widowed relative to her place, she swung me up on her horse behind her and promised me all manner of sweet things if I would come peacefully. I didn’t fully realise what was happening, and before I knew it, I was on my way to my new home. Upon arrival her manner changed very much, and she took me down to where there was a bunch of men burning brush. She said, “see those men” I said: yes. Well, go help them, she replied. So at the age of six I started my life as an independent slave. From then on my life as a slave was a repetition of hard work, poor quarters and board. We had no beds at that time, we just “bunked” on the floor. I had one blanket and manys the night I sat by the fireplace during the long cold nights in the winter.

My mistress had separated me from all my family but one brother with sweet words, but that pose was dropped after she reached her place. Shortly after I had been there, she married a northern man by the name of David Hill. At first he was very nice to us, but he gradually acquired a mean and overbearing manner toward us, I remember one incident that I don’t like to remember. One of the women slaves had been very sick and she was unable to work just as fast as he thought she ought to. He had driven her all day with no results. That night after completing our work he called us all together. He made me hold a light, while he whipped her and then made one of the slaves pour salt water on her bleeding back. My innards turn yet at that sight.

At the beginning of the Civil War I was still at this place as a slave. It looked at the first of the war as if the south would win, as most of the big battles were won by the South. This was because we slaves stayed at home and tended the farms and kept their families.

To eliminate this solid support of the South, the Emancipation Act was passed, freeing all slaves. Most of the slaves were so ignorant they did not realize they were free. The planters knew this and as Kentucky never seceded from the Union, they would send slaves into Kentucky from other states in the south and hire them out to plantations. For these reasons I did not realize that I was free until 1864. I immediately resolved to run away and join the Union Army and so my brother and I went to Owensboro, Ky. and tried to join. My brother was taken, but I was refused as being too young. I tried at Evansville, Terre Haute and Indianapolis but was unable to get in. I then tried to find work and was finally hired by a man at $7.00 a month. That was my first independent job. From then on I went from one job to another working as a general laborer. I married at 24 years of age and had four children. My wife has been dead for 12 years and 8 months.”

Barney Stone (Spencer County)

“My name is Barney Stone, I was born in slavery, May 17, 1847, in Spencer County, Kentucky. I was a slave on the plantation of Lemuel Stone (all slaves bore the last name of their master) for nearly seventeen years and was considered a leader among the young slaves on our plantation. My Mammy was mother to ten children, all slaves, and my Pappy, Buck Grant, was a buck slave on the plantation of John Grant, his Mastah; my pappy was used much as a male cow is used on the stock farm and was hired out to other plantation owners for that purpose and was regarded as a valuable slave. His Mastah permitted him to visit my mother each week-end on our plantation.

My Mastah was a hard man when he was angry, drinking or not feeling well, then at times he was kind to us. I was compelled to pick cotton and do other work when I was a very small boy. Mastah would never sell me because I was regarded as the best young slave on the plantation. Different from many other slaves, I was kept on the plantation from the day I was born until the day I ran away.

Slaves were sold in two ways, sometimes at private sale to a man who went about the Southland buying slaves until he has many in his possession, then he would have a big auction sale and would re-sell them to the highest bidder, much in the same manner as our live-stock are sold now in auction sales. Professional slave buyers in those days were called “nigger buyers”. He came to the plantation with a doctor. He would point out two or three slaves which looked good to him and which could be spared by the owner, and would have the doctor examine the slave’s heart. If the doctor pronounced the slave as sound, then the nigger buyer would make an offer to the owner and if the amount was satisfactory, the slave was sold. Some large plantation owners, having a large number of slaves, would hold a public auction and dispose of some of them, then he would attend another sale and buy new slaves, this was done sometimes to get better slaves and sometimes to make money on the sale of them.

Many times, as I have said before, our treatment on our plantation was horrible. When I was just a small boy, I witnessed my sister sold and taken away. One day one of horses came into the barn and Mastah noticed that she was crippled. He flew into a rage and thought I had hurt the horse, either that, or that I knew who did it. I told him that I did not do it and he demanded that I tell him who did it, if I didn’t. I did not know and when I told him so, he secured a whip tied me to a post and whipped me until I was covered with blood. I begged him, “Mastah, Mastah, please don’t whip me, I do not know who did it.” He then took out his pocket knife and I would have been killed if Missus (his dear wife) had not make him quit. She untied me and cared for me.

Many has been the time, I have seen my mammy beaten mercilessly and for no good reason. One day, not long before the out-break of the Civil War, a nigger buyer came and I witnessed my dear Mammy and my one year old baby brother, sold. I seen er taken away, never to see her again until I found her twenty-seven years later at Clarksburg, Tennessee. My baby brother was with her, but I did not know him until Mammy told me who he was, he had grown into a large man. That was a happy meeting. After those experiences of sixteen long years in hell, as a slave, I was very bitter against the white man, until after I ran away and joined the Union army.

At the out-break of the Civil War and when the Northern army was marching into the Southland, hundreds of male slaves were shot down by the Rebels, rather than see them join with the Yankees. One day when I learned that the Northern troops were very close to our plantation, I ran away and hid in a culvert, but was found and I would have been shot had the Yankee troops not scattered them and that saved me. I joined that Union army and served one year, eight months and twenty-two days, and fought with them in the battle of Fort Wagnor, and also in the battle of Milikin’s Bend. When I went into the army, I could not read or write. The white soldiers took an interest in me and taught me to write and read, and when the war was over I could write a very good letter. I taught what little I knew to colored children after the War.

I studied day and night for the next three years at the home of a lawyer, educating myself and in 1868, I started preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ and have continued to do so for sixty-nine years. In that time I have been instrumental in the building of seven churches in Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana. I did this good work through gratefulness to God for my deliverance and my salvation. During my life, I have joined the K. of P. Lodge, and I.O.O.F and Masonic Lodge. I have preached for the up-life and advancement of the colored races. I have accomplished much good in this life and have raised a family of eight children. I love and am loyal to my country and have received great compensation from my government for my services. I am in good health and still able to work, and I am thankful to my God and my country.”

Sophia Word (Clay County)

The following story of slave days is the exact words of one who had the bitter experience of slavery. Sophia Word, who is now ninety-nine years of age, born February 2, 1837. She tells me she was in bondage for nineteen years and nine months. I shall repeat just as she told the story:

“I wuz here in time of Mexican War and seed ’em get up volunteers to go. They wuz dressed in brown and band played ‘Our Hunting Shirts are Fringed with Doe and away We march to Mexico’.

My grandmother came straight from Africa and wuz auctioned off and bought by William Reid’s father. When he died William Reid inherited my mother. Mother married a Bates and had ten of us children.

Our Master didn’t auction off his slaves as the other masters would for he was a better master than most of them. When he started to sale one of us he would go out and talk to the old slave trader like he wuz g’wine to sale a cow or sometin and then he would come back to git the slave he wanted. This wuz the way my mothers’ brother and sister wuz sold. When the other masters at other places sold a slave they put the slave on the auction block and the slave trader had a long whop that he hit them with to see if they could jump around and wuz strong. The largest and brought the money.

I wuz a slave nineteen yeahs and nine months but somehow or nuther I didn’t belong to a real mean pet of people. The white folks said I was the meanest nigger that ever wuz. One day my Mistress Lydia called fer me to come in the house, but no, I wouldn’t go. She walks out and says she is Gwine make me go. So she takes and drags me in the house. Then I grabs that white woman, when she turned her back, and shook her until she begged for mercy. When the master comes in, I wuz given a terrible beating with a whip but I did’nt care fer I give the mistress a good’un too.

We lived off to the back of the masters house in a little log cabin, that had one winder in the side. We lived tobly well and didn’t starve fer we had enough to eat but we didn’t have as good as the master and mistress had. We would slip in the house after the master and mistress wuz sleeping and cook to suit ourselves and cook what we wanted.

My master wuzn’t as mean as most masters. Hugh White was so mean to his slaves that I know of two gals that killt themselfs. One nigger gal Sudie wuz found across the bed with a pen knife in her hand. He whipped another nigger gal most to death fer fergiting to put onions in the stew. The next day she went down to the river and fer nine days they searched fer her and her body finally washed upon the shore. The master could never live in that house again as when he would go to sleep he would see the nigger standing over his bed. Then he moved to Richmond and there he stayed until a little later when he hung himself.

I’ve seed ten thousand of the Union Soldiers and a great many of the rebel soldiers. The Rebel soldiers would take everything they could get their hands on but I never did know of the Union Soldier taking anything. The rebels have stole my masters cows and horses and we would have to hide the meat in a box and bury it in the ground.”

[Editor’s Note: the Hugh White she mentions is General Hugh White, one of the most prominent citizens of Clay County, a major salt miner, and patriarch of one of the most powerful families in Clay County history. His son John became the Speaker of the U. S. House in the 1840s. We haven’t been able to find any records of him hanging himself, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t.]

Arnold Gragston in 1937

Arnold Gragston (Mason County)

“Most of the slaves didn’t know when they was born, but I did. You see, I was born on a Christmas mornin’ 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. Lawd only knows how many; might have been as much as two-three hundred. It was ‘way more than a hundred, I know. But that all came after I was a young man, ‘grown’ enough to know a pretty girl when I saw one, and to go chasing after her, too. I was born on a plantation that b’longed to Mr. Jack Tabb in Mason County, just across the river in Kentucky.

Mr. Tabb 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 nothin’ 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 figger. Mr. Tabb liked us to know how to figger. But sometimes when he would send for us and we would be a long time comin’, he would ask us where we had been. If we told him we had been learnin’ to read, he would near beat the daylights out of us–after gettin’ somebody to teach us; I think he did some of that so that the other owners wouldn’t say he was spoilin’ his slaves.

He was funny about us marryin’, too. He would let us go a-courtin’ 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 b’longed 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 spoilin’ us.

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

Mr. Tabb was always specially 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. He used to call Sandy Davis, the slave who taught me, ‘the smartest Nigger in Kentucky.’ It was ’cause he used to let me go around in the day and night so much that I came to be the one who carried the runnin’ away slaves over the river. It was funny the way I started it too.

I didn’t have no idea of ever gettin’ 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 ‘courtin,’ 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 feelin’, so it wasn’t long before I was listenin’ 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 shootin’ 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. 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 worryin’. 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 tremblin’ all over again, and prayin’. 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 holdin’ me I think I
would have fell backward into the river.

That was my first trip; it took me a long time to get over my scared feelin’, but I finally did, and I soon found myself goin’ 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.

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. It looked like we had to go almost to China to get across that river. But finally, I pulled up by the lighthouse, and went on to my freedom–just a few months before all of the slaves got their’s. 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 hearin’ it now, but the little ones never get tired of hearin’ how their grandpa brought Emancipation to loads of slaves he could touch and feel, but never could see.”