Mississippi Slave Narratives

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

I don’t know how many Americans have read any slave narratives, but John Derbyshire recently pointed me toward an Adams County, Mississippi slave narrative, from 100-year-old Charlie Davenport:

I was named Charlie Davenport an’ encordin’(according) to de way I figgers I ought to be nearly a hund’ed years old. Nobody knows my birthday, ’cause all my white folks is gone.


Aventine, where I was born an’ bred, was acrost Secon’ Creek. It was a big plantation wid ’bout a hund’ed head o’ folks a-livin’ on it. It was only one o’ de marster’s places, ’cause he was one o’ de riches’ an’ highes’ quality gent’men in de whole country. I’s tellin’ you de trufe, us didn’ b’long to no white trash. De marster was de Honorable Mister Gabriel Shields hisse’f. Ever’body knowed ’bout him. He married a Surget.

Dem Surgets was pretty devilish; for all dey was de riches’ fam’ly in de lan’. Dey was de out-fightin’es’, out-cussin’es’, fastes’ ridin’, hardes’ drinkin’, out-spendin’es’ folks I ever seen. But Lawd! Lawd! Dey was gent’men even in dey cups. De ladies was beautiful wid big black eyes an’ sof’ white han’s, but dey was high strung, too.

Southern slaves ate surprisingly well:

Us slaves was fed good plain grub. ‘Fore us went to de fiel’ us had a big braskfas’ o’ hot bread, ‘lasses, fried salt meat dipped in corn meal, an’ fried taters. Sometimes us had fish an’ rabbit meat. When us was in de fiel’, two women ‘ud come at dinner-time wid basket’s filled wid hot pone, baked taters, corn roasted in de shucks, onion, fried squash, an’ b’iled pork. Sometimes dey brought buckets o’ cold butter-milk. It sho’ was good to a hongry man. At supper-time us had hoecake an’ cold vi’tals. Sometimes dey was sweetmilk an’ collards.

Mos’ ever’ slave had his own little garden patch an’ was ‘lowed to cook out o’ it.

Mos’ ever plantation kep’ a man busy huntin’ an’ fishin’ all de time. (If dey shot a big buck, us had deer meat roasted on a spit.)

On Sundays us always had meat pie or fish or fresh game an’ roasted taters an’ coffee. On Chris’mus de marster ‘ud give us chicken an’ barrels o’ apples an’ oranges. ‘Course, ever’ marster warnt as free handed as our’n was. (He was sho’ ‘nough quality.) I’se hear’d dat a heap o’ cullud people never had nothin’ good t’eat.

I find his take on the Civil War fascinating:

De marster’s some went to war. De one what us loved bes’ never come back no more. Us mourned him a-plenty, ’cause he was so jolly an’ happy-lak, an’ free wid his change. Us all felt cheered when he come ‘roun’.

Us Niggers didn’ know nothin’ ’bout what was gwine on in de outside worl’. All us knowed was dat a war was bein’ fit. Pussonally, I b’lieve in what Marse Jefferson Davis done. He done de only thing a gent’man could a-done. He tol’ Marse Abe Lincoln to ‘tend to his own bus’ness an’ he’d ‘tend to his’n. But Marse Lincoln was a fightin’ man an’ he come down here an’ tried to run other folks’ plantations. Dat made Marse Davis so all fired mad dat he spit hard ‘twixt his teeth an’ say, ‘I’ll whip de socks off den dam Yankees.’

Dat’s how it all come ’bout.

My white folks los’ money, cattle, slaves, an’ cotton in de war, but dey was till better off dan mos’ folks.

Lak all de fool Niggers o’ dat time I was right smart bit by de freedom bug for awhile. It sounded pow’ful nice to be tol’:

“You don’t have to chop cotton no more. You can th’ow dat hoe down an’ go fishin’ whensoever de notion strikes you. An’ you can roam ‘roun’ at night an’ court gals jus’ as late as you please.”

Aint no marster gwine a-say to you, “Charlie, you’s got to be back when de clock strikes nine.”

I was fool ‘nough to b’lieve all dat kin’ o’ stuff. But to tell de hones’ truf, mos’ o’ us didn’ know ourse’fs no better off. Freedom meant us could leave where us’d been born an’ bred, but it meant, too, dat us had to scratch for us ownse’fs. Dem what lef’ de old plantation seamed so all fired glad to git back dat I made up my min’ to stay put. I stayed right wid my white folks as long as I could.

My white folks talked plain to me. Dey say real sad-lak, ‘Charlie, you’s been a dependence, but now you can go if you is so desirous. But if you wants to stay wid us you can share-crop. Dey’s a house for you an’ wood to keep you warm an’ a mule to work. We aint got much cash, but dey’s de lan’ an’ you can count on havin’ plenty o’ vit’als. Do jus’ as you please.’ When I looked at my marster an’ knowed he needed me, I pleased to stay. My marster never forced me to do nary thing ’bout it. Didn’ nobody make me work after de war, but dem Yankees sho’ made my daddy work. Dey put a pick in his han’ stid o’ a gun. Dey made ‘im dig a big ditch in front o’ Vicksburg. He worked a heap harder for his Uncle Sam dan he’d ever done for de marster.

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