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Person Interviewed: Dennis Simms
Date of Interview: September 19, 1937
Location: Baltimore, Maryland
Place of Birth: Contee, Prince Georges County, Maryland
Date of Birth: June 17, 1841
Place of Residence: 629 Mosher St., Baltimore, Maryland
Reference: Personal interview with Dennis Simms, ex-slave, September 19, 1937, at his home, 629 Mosher St., Baltimore.
Born on a tobacco plantation at Contee, Prince Georges County, Maryland, June 17, 1841, Dennis Simms, Negro ex-slave, 628 Mosher Street, Baltimore, Maryland, is still working and expects to live to be a hundred years old.
He has one brother living, George Simms, of South River, Maryland, who was born July 18, 1849. Both of them were born on the Contee tobacco plantation, owned by Richard and Charles Contee, whose forbears were early settlers in the State.
Simms always carries a rabbit’s foot, to which he attributes his good health and long life. He has been married four times since he gained his freedom. His fourth wife, Eliza Simms, 67 years old, is now in the Providence Hospital, suffering from a broken hip she received in a fall. The aged Negro recalls many interesting and exciting incidents of slavery days. More than a hundred slaves worked on the plantation, some continuing to work for the Contee brothers when they were set free. It was a pretty hard and cruel life for the darkeys, declares the Negro.
Describing the general conditions of Maryland slaves, he said: “We would work from sunrise to sunset every day except Sundays and on New Year’s Day. Christmas made little difference at Contee, except that we were given extra rations of food then. We had to toe the mark or be flogged with a rawhide whip, and almost every day there was from two to ten thrashings given on the plantations to disobedient Negro slaves.
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“When we behaved we were not whipped, but the overseer kept a pretty close eye on us. We all hated what they called the ‘nine ninety-nine’, usually a flogging until fell over unconscious or begged for mercy. We stuck pretty close to the cabins after dark, for if we were caught roaming about we would be unmercifully whipped. If a slave was caught beyond the limits of the plantation where he was employed, without the company of a white person or without written permit of his master, any person who apprehended him was permitted to give him 20 lashes across the bare back.
“If a slave went on another plantation without a written permit from his master, on lawful business, the owner of the plantation would usually give the offender 10 lashes. We were never allowed to congregate after work, never went to church, and could not read or write for we were kept in ignorance. We were very unhappy.
“Sometimes Negro slave runaways who were apprehended by the patrollers, who kept a constant watch for escaped slaves, besides being flogged, would be branded with a hot iron on the cheek with the letter ‘R’.” Simms claimed he knew two slaves so branded.
Simms asserted that even as late as 1856 the Constitution of Maryland enacted that a Negro convicted of murder should have his right hand cut off, should be hanged in the usual manner, the head severed from the body, divided into four quarters and set up in the most public places of the county where the act was committed. He said that the slaves pretty well knew about this barbarous Maryland law, and that he even heard of dismemberments for atrocious crimes of Negroes in Maryland.
“We lived in rudely constructed log houses, one story in heighth, with huge stone chimneys, and slept on beds of straw. Slaves were pretty tired after their long day’s work in the field. Sometimes we would, unbeknown to our master, assemble in a cabin and sing songs and spirituals. Our favorite spirituals were—Bringin’ in de sheaves, De Stars am shinin’ for us all, Hear de Angels callin’, and The Debil has no place here. The singing was usually to the accompaniment of a Jew’s harp and fiddle, or banjo. In summer the slaves went without shoes and wore three-quarter checkered baggy pants, some wearing only a long shirt to cover their body. We wore ox-hide shoes, much too large. In winter time the shoes were stuffed with paper to keep out the cold. We called them ‘Program’ shoes. We had no money to spend, in fact did not know the value of money.
“Our food consisted of bread, hominy, black strap molasses and a red herring a day. Sometimes, by special permission from our master or overseer, we would go hunting and catch a coon or possum and a pot pie would be a real treat.
“We all thought of running off to Canada or to Washington, but feared the patrollers. As a rule most slaves were lazy.”
Simms’ work at Contee was to saddle the horses, cut wood, and make fires and sometimes work in the field.
He voted for President Lincoln and witnessed the second inauguration of Lincoln after he was set free.