Tuesday, January 19, 2010

no easy living

The History of Greene County, Georgia, by Dave Buckhout, paints a dismal picture of struggle and loss among African American tenant farmers and sharecroppers from the Civil War down to the beginning of World War II. For generations of ex-slaves and their offspring, life was hard and prospects few save for a brief period of hope during the years of Reconstruction. By the time that Dorothea Lange arrived in July 1937, most black farmers had been forced to leave the land, emigrating to Northern cities or to the few cities within the state. Those who remained on the land suffered. Many of these holdouts were aged and quite a few had been born into slavery. During her travels in Greene County on assignment from the Farm Security Administration Lange encountered some of these ex-slaves.

These photos of hers come from the FSA collections of the Library of Congress. The captions are taken from information supplied by Dorothea Lange. Unfortunately, no images in this set are available in high resolution.

{This man was born a slave in Greene County, Georgia, 1937 July.}

{Ex-slave and wife who live in a decaying plantation house. Greene County, Georgia, 1937 July.}

{Ex-slave and wife on steps of plantation house now in decay. Greene County, Georgia, 1937 July.}

{Old Negress of Greene County, Georgia, 1937 July.}

{Interior of plantation house now vacant but for two rooms occupied by an old Negro couple. Negro tenants, Greene County, Georgia, 1937 July.}

{Antebellum plantation. Greene County, Georgia, 1937 July.}

The Library of Congress also holds typescripts of interviews with ex-slaves conducted by employees of the Federal Writers' Project in the Works Project Administration. A few of the subjects came from Greene County. One, Emmaline Kilpatrick, was interviewed by Sarah Howell Hall only two months before Lange's arrival.

Hall was a granddaughter of Kilpatrick's plantation owner. She presents her interview as a story which unselfconsciously reveals the persistence of an Edenic myth of happy slaves in a parent-child relationship with benevolent owners. Beloved of white landowning families, this myth was sometimes parroted by ex-slaves in dealing with whites. This narrative gives an instance.1

Hall's little story also reveals a pernicious attitude of racial superiority that was near universal among people of her class at that time.

Read the whole narrative here.2

It makes me cringe to read it; maybe you too.

Here is an extract:
EX-SLAVE INTERVIEW: EMMALINE KILPATRICK, Age 74, Born a slave on the plantation of Judge William Watson Moore, White Plains, (Greene County) Georgia. Interviewer: SARAH H. HALL ATHENS, GA. [Date Stamp: MAY 8 1937]

"My mammy say dat whan Marse Billie cum hom' frum de War, he call all his niggers tergedder en tell 'am dey is free, en doan b'long ter nobody no mo'. He say dat eny uf 'um dat want to, kin go 'way and live whar dey laks, en do lak dey wanter. Howsome ebber, he do say effen enybody wants ter stay wid him, en live right on in de same cabins, dey kin do it, effen dey promise him ter be good niggers en mine him lak dey allus done."

"Most all de niggers stayed wid Marse Billie, 'ceppen two er thee brash, good fer nuthin's."

"Marse Billie made all his niggers wuk moughty hard, but he sho' tuk good keer uv 'em. Miss Margie allus made 'em send fer her when de chilluns wuz bawned in de slave cabins. My mammy, she say, Ise 'bout de onliest slave baby Miss Margie diden' look after de bawnin, on dat plantation. When any nigger on dat farm wuz sick, Marse Billie seed dat he had medicine an lookin' atter, en ef he wuz bad sick Marse Billie had da white folks doctor come see 'bout 'im."

"En is you got ter git on home now, Miss Sarah? Lemme tote dat hoe en trowel ter yer car fer yer. Yer gwine ter take me home in yer car wid yer, so ez I kin weed yer flower gyarden fo' night? Yassum, I sho' will be proud ter do it fer de black dress you wo' las' year. Ah gwine ter git evvy speck er grass outer yo' flowers, kaze ain' you jes' lak yo' grammaw--my Miss Margie."
Other Greene County slave narrators were not so meekly subservient. Here is an extract from the interview with a plantation-born slave a few years older than Emmaline Kilpatrick. You can read the whole transcript here.3
PLANTATION LIFE AS VIEWED BY EX-SLAVE WILLIAM McWHORTER, Age 78, 383 W. Broad Street Athens, Georgia. Written by: Mrs. Sadie B. Hornsby, Athens. Sept. 30, 1938.

William, better known as "Shug," is a very black man of medium build. He wore a black slouch hat pulled well down over tangled gray hair, a dingy blue shirt, soiled gray pants, and black shoes. The smile faded from his face when he learned the nature of the visit. "I thought you was de pension lady 'comin' to fetch me some money," he said, "and 'stid of dat you wants to know 'bout slavery days. I'se disapp'inted."
Dem houses slaves had to live in, dey warn't much, but us didn't know no better den. Dey was jus' one-room log cabins wid stick and dirt chimblies. De beds for slaves was home-made and was held together wid cords wove evvy which away. If you didn't tighten dem cords up pretty offen your bed was apt to fall down wid you. Suggin sacks was sewed together to make our mattress ticks and dem ticks was filled wid straw. Now, don't tell me you ain't heared of suggin sacks a-fore! Dem was coarse sacks sort of lak de guano sacks us uses now. Dey crowded jus' as many Niggers into each cabin as could sleep in one room, and marriage never meant a thing in dem days when dey was 'rangin' sleepin' quarters for slaves.

I 'members dat my pa's ma, Grandma Cindy, was a field hand. I was named for Grandpa Billy, but I never seed him.

Slaves never had no gardens of deir own; dey never had no time of deir own to wuk no garden.

White folks had to make slaves what b'longed to 'em mind and be-have deyselfs in dem days or else dere woulda been a heap of trouble.

Dey told me, atter I was old enough to take it in, dat de overseer sho did drive dem slaves; dey had to be up and in de field 'fore sunup and he wuked 'em 'til slap, black dark. When dey got back to de big house, 'fore dey et supper, de overseer got out his big bull whip and beat de ones dat hadn't done to suit him durin' de day. He made 'em strip off deir clothes down to de waist, and evvywhar dat old bull whip struck it split de skin. Dat was awful, awful! Sometimes slaves dat had been beat and butchered up so bad by dat overseer man would run away, and next day Aunt Suke would be sho to go down to de spring to wash so she could leave some old clothes dar for 'em to git at night. I'se tellin' you, slaves sho did fare common in dem days.

My Aunt Mary b'longed to Marse John Craddock and when his wife died and left a little baby--dat was little Miss Lucy--Aunt Mary was nussin' a new baby of her own, so Marse John made her let his baby suck too. If Aunt Mary was feedin' her own baby and Miss Lucy started cryin' Marse John would snatch her baby up by the legs and spank him, and tell Aunt Mary to go on and nuss his baby fust. Aunt Mary couldn't answer him a word, but my ma said she offen seed Aunt Mary cry 'til de tears met under her chin.

I ain't never heared nothin' 'bout no jails in slavery time. What dey done den was 'most beat de life out of de Niggers to make 'em be-have. Ma was brung to Bairdstown and sold on de block to Marse Joe long 'fore I was borned, but I ain't never seed no slaves sold.

Dey jus' beat 'em up bad when dey cotched 'em studyin' readin' and writin'.

None of our Niggers never knowed enough 'bout de North to run off up dar. Lak I done told you, some of 'em did run off atter a bad beatin', but dey jus' went to de woods. Show me a slavery-time Nigger dat ain't heared 'bout paterollers! Mistess, I 'clar to goodness, paterollers was de devil's own hosses. If dey cotched a Nigger out and his Marster hadn't fixed him up wid a pass, it was jus' too bad; dey most kilt him. You couldn't even go to de Lord's house on Sunday 'less you had a ticket sayin': 'Dis Nigger is de propity of Marse Joe McWhorter. Let him go.'

Dere warn't never no let-up when it come to wuk. When slaves come in from de fields atter sundown and tended de stock and et supper, de mens still had to shuck corn, mend hoss collars, cut wood, and sich lak; de 'omans mended clothes, spun thread, wove cloth, and some of 'em had to go up to de big house and nuss de white folks' babies. One night my ma had been nussin' one of dem white babies, and atter it dozed off to sleep she went to lay it in its little bed. De child's foot cotch itself in Marse Joe's galluses dat he had done hung on de foot of de bed, and when he heared his baby cry Marse Joe woke up and grabbed up a stick of wood and beat ma over de head 'til he 'most kilt her. Ma never did seem right atter dat and when she died she still had a big old knot on her head.

Marse Joe let his slaves have one day for holiday at Christmas and he give 'em plenty of extra good somepin t'eat and drink on dat special day. New Year's Day was de hardest day of de whole year, for de overseer jus' tried hisself to see how hard he could drive de Niggers dat day.

Marse Joe never did tell his Niggers dey was free.

[After they found out], jus' as de Niggers was branchin' out and startin' to live lak free folks, dem nightriders come 'long beatin', cuttin', and slashin' 'em up,
Here's an extract from a third narrative from Greene County slavery days from a man considerably older than the previous two, who had served as man-servant to a Confederate officer.4
Greene County, NC - Nathan Best - Slave Narrative. Age 92. Inmate of Beauvoir, Confederate Soldiers' Home, on Beach between Biloxi and Gulfport. About 5 ft. 5 in. tall, weight 115. Dark chocolate color, white mustache and hair, sight and hearing fairly good, medium intelligence, solemn in disposition.
I run away once, (he laughed) I didn' start to go nowhere jes' laid out in de woods, hidin' from de overseer. He come down de street in de Quarters dat mawnin' jes' a beatin' an' a whuppin' an' de niggahs all a cryin' an' a screamin' an' before he got to where I was, I was done lef' an hid in de woods. My ole mistis, thought dat de overseer had kilt me, an' she tole him not to bother me ef I was foun'. Ole mistis was mean too, she would tell de overseer to whup de niggahs, but she didn' low him to kill none of us, 'kase dat would lose her money. Well, dey foun' me an' took me to de Great House, but dey didn' whup me. Dey ship me off from dat place ober to her son's plantation. He was mah'ied off an his place was about 3 miles from ole mistis.

De war had been goin' on 'bout a year an' a half when I went wid my marster's younges' brother, Rufus [as a man servant]. I stayed in it den, till it ended. I was in a heap of battles, but I cain' remember none of deir names, 'cept Petersburg an' Richmon'. My marster never did get wounded - one time a bullet went under his arm an' tore a bundle away, but it didn' hurt him. My marster was a Cap'n an' dey didn' rush de riches' folks to de fron' to fight dey rushed de poor folks in firs'.

[After the war] I has seen Klukluxes an' I has run from 'em. Dey sot atter me, but dey didn' get me. Dey was atter us, jes' kase we was free. Dey killed up seberal of de cullud folks, dey would get atter 'em in de night.
For more information on this subject, see:

Slave Narratives of William McWhorter and Emeline Stepney of Greene County

American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology

Slave Narratives and the New Debate about Slavery by Norman R. Yetman

Preface to peasantry: a tale of two black belt counties by Arthur Franklin Raper, with an introduction by Louis Mazzari (Univ of South Carolina Press, 2005)

Sarah H. Hall and the Ex-Slave Narratives: Exploring the Validity of the WPA Georgia Writer's Project

Women of the Great Depression

Arthur F. Raper, article in the New Georgia Encyclopedia


Previous posts in this series of photos by Dorothea Lange: ----------


1 In a study of Greene and Macon counties in the 1930s, the sociologist, Arthur Raper, showed how this servility became second-nature to poor blacks.

2 Citation: Emmaline Kilpatrick. White Plains, Georgia. Interviewer: Sarah H. Hall. 6 pages. WPA Slave Narrative Project, Georgia Narratives, Volume 4, Part 3. Federal Writer's Project, United States Work Projects Administration (USWPA); Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

3 Citation: William McWhorter. Ex-slave - age 78. Athens, Georgia. Interviewer: Mrs. Sadie B. Hornsby. 13 pages. WPA Slave Narrative Project, Georgia Narratives, Volume 4, Part 3. Federal Writer's Project, United States Work Projects Administration (USWPA); Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. I've made a full transcript of the page images. You can find it here.

4 You can read the whole narrative here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thank you.