American Slave Narratives

Monday, July 29th, 2013

Tempe Herndon DurhamFrom 1936 to 1938 the Works Progress Administration paid writers and journalists to interview former slaves, like 103-year-old Tempe Herndon Durham:

I was thirty-one years ole when de surrender come. Dat makes me sho nuff ole. Near bout a hundred an’ three years done passed over dis here white head of mine. I’se been here, I mean I’se been here. ‘Spects I’se de oldest n—– in Durham. I’se been here so long dat I done forgot near ’bout as much as dese here new generation knows or ever gwine know.

My white fo’ks lived in Chatham County. Dey was Marse George an’ Mis’ Betsy Herndon. Mis Betsy was a Snipes befo’ she married Marse George. Dey had a big plantation an’ raised cawn, wheat, cotton an’ ‘bacca. I don’t know how many field n—–s Marse George had, but he had a mess of dem, an’ he had hosses too, an’ cows, hogs an’ sheeps. He raised sheeps an’ sold de wool, an’ dey used de wool at de big house too. Dey was a big weavin’ room whare de blankets was wove, an’ dey wove de cloth for de winter clothes too. Linda Hernton an’ Milla Edwards was de head weavers, dey looked after de weavin’ of da fancy blankets. Mis’ Betsy was a good weaver too. She weave de same as de n—–s. She say she love de clackin’ soun’ of de loom an’ de way de shuttles run in an’ out carryin’ a long tail of bright colored thread. Some days she set at de loom all de mawnin’ peddlin’ wid her feets an’ her white han’s flittin’ over de bobbins.

Read the whole short narrative, but her conclusion stands out:

Freedom is all right, but de n—–s was better off befo’ surrender, kaze den dey was looked after an’ dey didn’ get in no trouble fightin’ an’ killin’ like dey do dese days. If a n—– cut up an’ got sassy in slavery times, his Ole Marse give him a good whippin’ an’ he went way back an’ set down an’ ‘haved hese’f. If he was sick, Marse an’ Mistis looked after him, an’ if he needed store medicine, it was bought an’ give to him; he didn’ have to pay nothin’. Dey didn’ even have to think ’bout clothes nor nothin’ like dat, dey was wove an’ made an’ give to dem. Maybe everybody’s Marse and Mistis wuzn’ good as Marse George and Mis’ Betsy, but dey was de same as a mammy an’ pappy to us n—–s.”


  1. Ross says:

    Would be interesting to hear Ms. Durham’s thoughts on slaves being better off not only pre-Civil War than post Civil War, but also better off once they got here from some African country? ( i.e. something a bit broader than the recent Ise-post “they got taller”…)

  2. Dan Kurt says:

    I urge you and your readers to search out comments about the Blacks by the “great humaniterian” Albert Schweitzer. Tempe Herndon Durham would, if she heard his comments about blacks, be nodding her head in agreement I believe.

  3. Isegoria says:

    “The African is my brother — but he is my younger brother by several centuries.”

    — Albert Schweitzer, as quoted in The Observer (1955-10-23).

    He later repudiated this statement, saying “The time for speaking of older and younger brothers has passed.”

    According to Wikiquote, a more damning statement has been misattributed to him:

    “I have given my life to try to alleviate the sufferings of Africa. There is something that all white men who have lived here like I must learn and know: that these individuals are a sub-race. They have neither the intellectual, mental, or emotional abilities to equate or to share equally with white men in any function of our civilization. I have given my life to try to bring them the advantages which our civilization must offer, but I have become well aware that we must retain this status: the superior and they the inferior. For whenever a white man seeks to live among them as their equals they will either destroy him or devour him. And they will destroy all of his work. Let white men from anywhere in the world, who would come to Africa, remember that you must continually retain this status; you the master and they the inferior like children that you would help or teach. Never fraternize with them as equals. Never accept them as your social equals or they will devour you. They will destroy you.”

  4. Baduin says:

    This is straight from Gospel:

    Matthew 7:6
    “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

  5. “Would be interesting to hear Ms. Durham’s thoughts on slaves being better off not only pre-Civil War than post Civil War, but also better off once they got here from some African country?”

    That their children were three to five inches taller is a pretty massive indicator.

  6. Ross says:

    James A. Donald: Sure, I mentioned height in my one sentence comment. Height increases are great — indicators of a relatively enriched childhood diet.

    But I remain curious about broader things: metrics pertaining to safety, education, longevity, et cetera.

    ‘scool if Einstein can shoot hoops an’ all, but yo, he got my tensor algebra, Bro?

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