Interviewer: Henry Grant
Person Interviewed: Isom Roberts
Location: Columbia, South Carolina
Place of Residence: 1226 Waverly Street, Columbia, SC
Ex-Slave 80 Years Old
Isom Roberts rents one room at 1226 Waverly Street, Columbia, S.C., and lives alone. However frail he appears, he is able to support himself by working in the yards about the city.
“Well, sir, white folks, I is eighty years old, or leastwise I is so close to it, dat it don’t make much difference. But even if I is dat old, it don’t seem so long since I was a little boy. Years flies by mighty fas’ to old folks, ’cause deir ‘memberance is shorter, while young folks ‘members everything, and in dat way months and years drags ‘long slower to them.
“I was a very small boy when de Civil War was gwine on. It seems like I knows all ’bout Sherman’s army comin’ through dis State, a burnin’ Columbia and destroyin’ and takin’ away everything what folks had. I has heard so much ’bout slavery and all them times, from my mammy and daddy, dat it ‘pears to me dat I ‘sperienced it all. I ‘spects knowin’ ’bout things is just ’bout as good and true as seein’ them. Don’t you?
“My daddy and mammy b’long to Marster Sam Louie, who had a big plantation over in Calhoun County. He had ’bout fifty or more grown slaves, ‘sides many chillun of de slaves. Old marster was a good farmer; raised big crops and saved what he made. He sho’ was a fine business man but he was mighty hard on everybody he had anything to do wid. He told his slaves to work hard and make him a heap of money and that he would keep it, in case of hard times. Times was all de time hard wid old marster but de niggers never got no money. When news spread ’round dat de Yankees was comin’ to free de niggers, he called all de slaves up in de yard and showed them a big sack of money, what they had made for him, and told them dat he was gwine to kill all of them befo’ de Yankees set them free and that they wouldn’t need no money after they was done dead. All de slaves was mighty sad and troubled, all dat day, when old marster made dat speech to them. But somethin’ happened. It most makes me tremble to talk to you ’bout it now. Providence, or some kind of mercy spirit, was sho’ walkin’ ’round dat plantation dat night. Sometime in de night it was whispered ’round amongst de slaves dat old marster done took de smallpoxes and was mighty sick. Mammy said he must have been terrible sick, ’cause they buried him two days after dat.
“After old marster flew away, everything was different on de plantation. Miss Nancy, dat was old marster’s wife, told de slaves dat when de Yankees freed them, they could stay right there and work on shares or by the day, which ever way they wanted. Many stayed on de plantation after freedom while others went away. Me and my folks stayed on wid Miss Nancy until she die. Then us moved on another plantation in de lower side of de county. I stayed dere until my wife died, seventeen years ago.
“Does I ‘member anything ’bout how de slaves was treated in slavery time? Well, I ‘members a little myself and a heap of what others told me. Wid dis I has done told you, I believes I want to stop right dere. A low fence is easier to git over than a high one. Say little and you ain’t gwine to have a heap to ‘splain hereafter. Dere is a plenty of persons dat has lost deir heads by not lettin’ deir tongues rest. Marster Sam Louie is dead now. He can’t disturb nobody in his grave. He had his faults and done many things wrong but show me dat person what don’t mis-step sometimes. All of us, both white and black, is prone to step aside now and then. To tell de truth, old marster never knowed what Sunday was. Everybody on de plantation worked on dat day as same as any other day.
“But Boss, if my old marster was rough and hard and break de Sabbath and all dat, he was no worser than what young white folks and niggers is dese days. You can see them any time, floppin’ ’bout in dese automobiles, a drinkin’ and a carryin’ on. Sich stuff is abomination in de sight of a decent person, much less dat One up yonder. (He pointed upward).
“I’s gwine to tell you boss, dat slavery time was better for de average nigger than what they is gittin’ now. Folks say dat slavery was wrong and I ‘spose it was, but to be poor like a heap of niggers is now, is de worse thing dat has ever come upon them, I thinks. Dis gittin’ something wrong, ain’t right. De North had no business sellin’ niggers to de South and de South had no business buyin’ them from de North and makin’ slaves of them. Everything went on pretty nice for awhile, then de North got jealous of de South and de South got ‘spicious of de North. I believes dat if you can’t go over and you can’t go under, then you should try to go ’round. If de big men up North and here in de South had been good ‘nough and smart ‘nough, they might could a gone ’round dat terrible Civil War. I believes dat.
“I marry Lucy Nelson when I was ’bout thirty years old. She was a bright skin nigger, much brighter than I is. She was high tempered and high spirited, too. She was sho’ smart, and de best cook I has ever seen. Just plain corn bread, dat she cooked in de hot ashes of de fireplace, taste sweeter and better than de cake you buy now. But de least thing would git her temper ‘roused. I has knowed her to complain wid de old hound dog us had, ’cause he didn’t run some rabbits out de woods for me to shoot. Fuss wid de cats, ’cause they didn’t ketch de mouses in de house. Quarrel wid de hens, ’cause they eat, cackled, scratched and wallowed holes in de yard and wouldn’t lay. Told de old rooster many times dat she was gwine to chop his head off if he didn’t crow sooner and louder of mornin’s and wake me up so I could go to work. All dis sounds foolish I knows but you see how bent my back is. Well, I ‘spects it was bent from totin’ so many buckets of water from de spring for her to wash wid soon of mornin’s, so I could then do a day’s work.
“My wife thought she was doin’ right by workin’ like she did. She thought dat she was helpin’ me make a livin’ for our big family of eight chillun. Yes sir, I knows now she was right, but hard work broke her health and brought her to her bed where she lingered ’bout one year and then she went away from me. All dis took place seventeen years ago and, from then to dis, I ain’t seen no woman I would have for a wife, ’cause I ain’t gwine to find no woman Lucy’s equal. All my chillun are dead, ‘cept two, and I don’t know where they is.
“Does poor folks have any blessings and pleasure? Well, yes sir, in a way. You see they don’t have no worriments over what they has, like rich folks. They can sleep as hot as they want to in de summer time and raise as big families as anybody. Sho’, poor folks, and especially niggers, has a good time on hog-killin’ days. In early summer come them juicy brierberries dat they enjoy so much. They last until watermelon season. Then they has ‘possum and ‘tators in de fall. Most all livin’ beings has deir own way of doin’ things and deir way of existin’. De hog roots for his, de squirrel climbs for his, de chickens scratches for deirs, and de nigger, well, if dere ain’t nobody lookin’, I reckon they could slip deirs right handy.
“I sho’ has enjoyed talkin’ to you dis evening and now, if you will ‘scuse me, I’s gwine home and cook me a pot of turnips. I can almost taste them now, I is so hungry.”