Person Interviewed: Katie Rowe
Location: Tulsa, Oklahoma
I can set on de gallery, what de sunlight shine bright, and sew a powerful fine seam when my grandchillun wants a special purty dress for de school doings, but I ain’t worth much for nothing else I reckon. These same old eyes seen powerful lot of tribulations in my time, and when I shets ’em now I can see lots of l’ll chillun jest lak my grand-chillun, toting hoes bigger dan dey is, and dey pore little black hands and legs bleeding whar dey scratched by de brambledy weeds, and whar dey got whuppings ’cause dey didn’t git out all de work de overseer set out for ’em. I was one of dem little slave gals my own self, and I never seen nothing but work and tribulations till I was a grown up woman, jest about. De niggers had hard traveling on de plantation whar I was born and raised, ’cause old Master live in town and jest had de overseer on de place, but iffen he had lived out dar hisself I speck it been as bad, ’cause he was a hard driver his own self. He git biling mad when de Yankees have dat big battle at Pea Ridge and scatter de ‘Federates all down through our country all bleeding and tied up and hungry, and he jest mount on his hoss and ride out to de plantation what we all hoeing corn. He ride up and tell old man Saunders dat de overseer to bunch us all up round de lead row man dat my own uncle Sandy and den he tell us de law! “You niggers been seeing de ‘Federate soldiers coming by here locking purty raggedy and hurt and wore out.” he say, “but dat no sign day licked! “Dem Yankees ain’t gwine git dis fur, but iffen dey do you all ain’t gwine git free by ‘en, ‘couse I gwine free you befo’ dat. When dey git here dey going find you already free, ’cause I gwine line you up on de back of Bods d’ Are Creek and free you wid my shotgun! Anybody wise jest one liek wid de kee, or one step in de line, or one clay of dat tell, or one toot of de horn, and he gwine be free and talding to de debil long befo’ he ever see a pair of blue britches!” Dat de way he talk to us, and dat de way he cat wid us all de tize. We live in de log quarters on de plantation not far from Washington, Arkansas, close to Bois d’ Are Ored, in de olge of de Little River bottom. Oldlkster’s name was Dr. Isane Jones, and he live in de town, dar he keep four, five house niguers, but he have about 300 on de plantation big and little, and old man Seundors eversee ‘en at de time of de war. Old Mistress name was Betty, and she had a daughter name Betty about grown, and then they was three boys, Tom, Eryan, and Bob, but they was too young to go to de war. I never did see ’em but once or twice ’til after de war. Old Master didn’t go to de war, ’cause he was a doctor and de onliest one left in Washington, and purty soon he was dead anyhow. Next fall after he ride out and tell us dat he shoot us befo’ he lot us free he come out to see how his steam gin doing. Be gin box was a little old thing ’bout as big as a bedstead, wid a long belt running through de side of de gin house out to de’engine and boiler in de yard. De boiler burn cord wood, and it have a little crack in it whar de nigger ginner been trying to fix it. Old Master come out, hopping mad ’cause de gin shot down, and ast de ginner, old Brown, what de matter. Old Brown say de boiler week and it liable to bust, but old Master jump down off’n his hoss and go ’round to do boiler and say, “Cuss fire to your black heart! Dat boiler all right! Throw on some cordwood, cuss fire to your heart!”
Old Brown start to de wood pile grumbling to hisself and old Master stoop down to look at de boiler again, and it blow right up and him standing right dar! Old Master was blowed all to pieces, and dey jest find little bitsy chunks of his clothes and parts of him to bury. De wood pile blow down, and old Brown land way off in de woods, but he wasn’t killed. Two wagons of cotton blowed over, and de mules run away, and all de niggers was scared nearly to death ’cause we knowed de overseer gwine be a lot worse, now dat old Master gone. Before de war when Master was a young men de slaves didn’t have it so hard, my mammy tell me. Her name was Fanny and her old mammy name was Nanny. Grandma Nanny was alive during de war yet. How she come in de Jones family was dis way: old Mistress was jest a little girl, and her older brother bought Nanny and give her to her. I think his name was Little John, anyways we called him Master Little John. He drawed. up a paper what say dat Nanny allus belong to Miss Betty and all de chillun Nanny ever have belong to her, too, and nobody can’t take ’em for a debt and things like dat. When Miss Betty marry, old Master he can’t sell Nanny or any of her chillun neither. Dat paper hold good too, and grandmammy tell me about one time it hold good and keep my own mammy on do place. Grandmammy say mammy was jest a little gal and was playing out in de road wid three, four other little chillun when a white man and old Master rid up. The white man had a paper about some kind of a debt, and old Master say take his pick of de nigger chillun and give him back de paper. Jest as Grandmammy go to de cabin door and hear him say dat de nan git off his hoss and pick up my mammy and put her up in front of him and start to ride off down de road. Pretty soon Mr. Little john come riding up and say something to old Master, and see grandmammy standing in de yard screaming and crying. He jest job de spar in his hose and go kiting off down de road after dat white man. Mammy say he kotch up wid him jest as he git to Bois d’ Arc Creek and start to wade de hose across. Mr. Littlejohn holler to him to come back wid lat little nigger ’cause de paper don’t kiver dat child, ’cause she old Mistress’ own child, and when de man jest ride on, Mr. Littlejohn throw his big old long pistol down on his and make him come back. De man hopping mad, but he have to give over my mammy and take one de other chillun on de debt paper. Old Master allus kind of techy ’bout old Mistress having niggers he can’t trade or sell, and one day he have his whole family and some more white folks out at de plantation. He chewing ‘en all de quarters when we all come in from de field in de evening, and he call all de niggers up to let de folks see ’em. He make grandmammy and mammy and me stand to one side and den he say to the other niggers, “Dese niggers belong to my wife but you belong to me, and I’m de only one you is to call Master. “Dis is Tom. and Bryan, and Bob, and Miss Betty, and you is to call ’em dat, and don’t you ever call one of ’em Young Master or Young Mistress, cass fire to your black hearts!” All de other white folks look kind of funny, and old Mistress look ‘shamed of old Master. My own pappy was in dat bunch, too. His name was Frank, and after de war he took de name of Frank Kenderson, ’cause he was born. under dat name, but I allus went by Jones, de name I was born under. Long about de middle of de war, after old Master was killed, de soldiers begin coming ’round de place and camping. Dey was Southern soldiers and dey say dey have to take de mules and most de corn to git along on. Jest go in de barns and cribs and take anything day want, and us niggers didn’t have no sweet ‘taters nor Irish ‘taters to eat on when dey gone neither. One bunch come and stay in de woods across de road from de overseer’s house, and dey was all on hosses. Dey lead de hosses down to Bois d’ Arc Creek every morning at daylight and late every evening to git water. When we going to de field and when we coming in we allus see dem leading big bunches of hosses. Dey bugle go jest ’bout de time our old horn blow in de morning and when we come in dey eating supper, and we smell it and sho’ git hungry! Before old Master died he sold off a whole lot of hosses and cattle, and some niggers too. He had do sales on de plantation, and white men from around dar come to bid, and some traders come. He had a big stump what he made de niggers stand while day was being sold, and de men and boys had to strip off to de waist to show day musele and iffen dey had any sears or hurt places, but de women and gals didn’t have to strip to de waist. De white men come up and look in de slave’s mouth jest lak he was a mule or a hoss. After old Master go, de overseer hold one sale, but mostly he jest trade wid de traders what come by. He make de niggers git on de sturrup, through. Do traders all had big bunches of slaves and dey have ‘en all strung out in a line going down de road. Some had wagons and de chillun could ride, but not many. Dey didn’t chain or tie ‘en ’cause dey didn’t have no place dey could run to anyway. I seen chillun sold off and de mammy not sold, and sometimes de Mammy sold and a little baby kept on de place and give to another woman to raise. Den white folks didn’t cere nothing ’bout how de slaves grieved when dey tore up a family. Old man Saunders was de hardest overseer of anybody. He would git ped and give a whipping some time and de slave wouldn’t even know whet it wes about.
My uncle Sanoy wes de lead row nigger, and he wes a good nigger and never would tech a drep of likker. One night some de niggers git hold of sone likker somehow, and dey leave de jug half full on de step of Sendy’s cabin. Hent morning old man Saunders come out in de field so med he was pale. He jest go to de lerd row and tell Sendy to go wid him, and start toward de woods along Bois d’ Arc Creek wid Sandy follering behind. De overseer always carry a big heavy stick, but we didn’t know he was so med, and dey jest went off in de woods. Purty soon we hear Sandy hollering and we know old overseer pouring in on, den de overseer come back by his self and go on up to de house. Come late evening he come and see what we done in de day’s work, and go back to de quarters wid us all. When he git to mancy’s cabin, whar grandmammy live too, he say to grandmammy. “I sent Sandy down in de woods to hunt a hoss, he gwine come in hungry purty soon. You better make him a extra hoe cake,” and he kind of laugh and go on to his house. Jest soon as he gone we all tell grandmammy we think he got a whipping. and sho’ nuff he didn’t come in. De next day some white boys find uncle Sandy where dat overseer done killed him and throwed him in a little pond, and dey never done nothing to old man Saunders at all! When he go to whip a nigger he make him strip to de waist, and he take a cat-o-nine teils and bring de blisters, and den bust de blisters wid a wide strep of leather fastened to a stick handle. I seen de blood running out’n many a beck, all de way fron de neck to de waist! Many de time a nigger git blistered and cut up so dat we have to git a sheet and greese it wid lard and wrap ’em up in it, and dey have to wear a greasy cloth wrapped around dey body under de shirt for three-four days after dey git a big whipping! Later on in de war de Yankees come in all around us and camp, and de overseer git sweet as honey in de comb! Hobody git a whipping all de time de Yankees der! Dey come and took all de meat and corn and ‘taters dey want too, and day tell us. “Why don’t you poor darkeys take all de meat and molasses you want? You made it and it’s your’s much as anybody s!” But we know dey soon be gone, and den we git a whipping iffen we do. Some niggers run off and went wid de Yankees, but dey had to work jest as hard for den, and dey didn’t eat so good and often wid de soldiers.
I never forget de day we was set free!
Dat morning we all go to de cotton field early, and den a house nigger come out from old Mistress on a hoss and say she want de overseer to come into town, and he leave and go in. After while de old horn blow up at de overseer’s house, and we all stop and listen, ’cause it de wrong time of day for de horn. We start chopping again, and dar go de horn again. De lead row nigger holler “Hold up!” And we all stop again. “We better go on it. Dat our horn,” he holler at de head nigger, and de head nigger think so too, but he say he afraid we catch de devil from de overseer iffen we quit widout him dar, and de lead row man say maybe he back from town and blowing de horn hisself, so we line up and go in. When we git to de quarters we see all de old ones and de children up in de overseer’s yard, so we go on up dar. De overseer setting on de end of de gallery wid a paper in his hand, and when we all come up he say come and stand close to de gallery. Den he call off everybody’s name and see we all dar. Setting on de gallery in a hide-bottom chair was a man we never see before. He had on a big broad black hat lak de Yankees wore but it din’t have no yaller string on it lak most de Yankees had, and he was in store clothes dat wasn’t homespun or jeans, and dey was black. His hair was plumb gray and so was his beard, and it come way down here on his chest, but he didn’t look lak he was very old, ’cause his face was king of fleshy and healthy looking. I think we all been sold off in a bunch, and I notice some kind of smiling, and I think they sho’ glad of it. De man say, “You darkies know what day dis is.” He talk kind, and smile, We all don’t know of course, and we jest stand dar and grin. Pretty soon he ask again and de head man say, No, we don’t know. “Well dis de fourth day of June, and dis is 1865, and I want you all to ‘member de date, ’cause you allus going ‘member de day. Today you is free. Jest lak I is, and Mr. Sunders and your Mistress and all us white people,” de man say. “I come to tell you”, he say’, “and I wants to be sho’ you all understand, ’cause you don’t have to git up and go by de horn no more. You is your own bosses now, and you don’t have to have no passes to go and come.” We never did have no passes, nohow, but we knowed lots of other niggers on other plantations got ’em. “I wants to bless you and hope you always is happy, and tell you got all de right and lief dat any white people got”, de man say, and den he git on his hoss and ride off. We all jest watch him go on down de road, and den we go up to Mr. Saunders and ask him what he want us to do. He jest grunt and say do lak we dau please, he reckon, but git off dat place to do it, less’n any of us wants to stay and make de crop for half of what we make. None of us lonow whar to go, so we all stay, and he split up de field’s and show us which part we got to work in, and we go on lak we was, and made de croy and git it in, but dey ain’t no more horn after dat day. Bome Le niggers lany and don’t git in de field early, and dey git it took any from ’em, but dey plead eroued and git it back and work better de rect of dat year. But we all gits fooled on dat first go-out! When de crop all in we con’t git Walf! Old Mistress sick in town, and de overseer was still on de place and he charge us half de crop for de quarters and do mules and tools and grik! Den he leave, and we gitz another white man, and he sets up a work, and give us half de next year, and take out for what we use up, but we all got comething left over after dat first go-out. Old Mistress never git well after she lose all her niggers, and one day de white bose tell us she just dray over dead setting in her chair, and we know her heart jest broke. Next year de chillun sell off most de place and we scatter off, and I and many go into Little Bock and do work in de town. Grandmammy done dead. I git married to John Waite in Little Rock, but he died and we didn’t have no chillun. Den in four, five years I marry Billy Rowe. He was a Cherokee cittsen and he had belonged to a Cherokee name Dave Rowe, and lived east of Thlequrh before de war. We married in Little Rock, but he had land in de Cherokee Nation, and we come to east of Tahlequah and lived ’til he died, and den I come to Tulsa to live wid my youngest daughter. Billy Rowe and me had three chillun, Ellie, John, and Jula. Lula married a Thomas, and it’s her I lives with. Lots of old people lak me say dat dey has happy in slavery, end dat dey had de worst tribulations after freedom, but I knows dey didn’t have no white master and overseer lak we all had on our place. Dey both dead now I reckon, and dey no use talking ’bout de dead, but I know I been gone long ago iffen dat white man Saunder didn’t lose his hold on me. It was de fourth day of June in 1865 I begins to live, and I gwine take de picture of dat old man in de big black hat and long whiskers, setting on de gallery and talking kind to us, clean into my grave wid me. Ho, bless God, I ain’t never seen no more black boys bleeding all up and down de back under a cet o’ nine tails, and I never to by no cabin and hear no poor nigger groaning, all wrapped up in a lardy sheet no morel I hear my chillun read about General Lee, and I know he was a good mas, I didn’t know nothing about him den, but I know now he wasn’t fighting for dat kind of white folks. Maybe dey dat kind still yet, but dey don’t show it up no more, and I got lots of white friends too. All my chillun and grandchillun been to school, and dey git along good, and I know we living in a better world, what dey ain’t nobody “cussing fire to my black heart!”
I sho’ thank de good Lewd I got to see it.