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Interviewer: Martin D. Richardson
Person Interviewed: Samuel Smalls
Location: Jacksonville, Florida
A voluntary slave for seven years.
The story of a free Negro of Connecticut, who came south to observe conditions of slavery, found them very distasteful, then voluntarily entered that slavery for seven years is the interesting tale that Samuel Smalls, 84 year old ex-slave of 1704 Johnson Street, Jacksonville, tells of his father Cato Smith.
Smith had been born in Connecticut, son of domestic slaves who were freed while he was still a child. He grew to young manhood in the northern state, making a living for himself as a carpenter and builder. At these trades he is said to have been very efficient.
Still unmarried at the age of about 30, he found in himself a desire to travel and see how other Negroes in the country lived. This he did, going from one town to another, working for periods of varying length in the cities in which he lived, eventually drifting to Florida.
His travels eventually brought him to Suwannee County, where he worked for a time as overseer on a plantation. On a nearby plantation where he sometimes visited, he met a young woman for whom he grew to have a great affection. This plantation is said to have belonged to a family of Cones, and according to Smalls, still exists as a large farm.
Smith wanted to marry the young woman, but a difficulty developed; he was free and she was still a slave. He sought her owner. Smith was told that he might have the woman, but he would have to “work out” her cost. He was informed that this would amount to seven years of work on the plantation, naturally without pay.
Within a few days he was back with his belongings, to begin “working out” the cost of his wife. But his work found favor in his voluntary master’s eyes; within four years he was being paid a small sum for the work he did, and by the time the seven years was finished, Smith had enough money to immediately purchase a small farm of his own.
Adversity set in, however, and eventually his children found themselves back in slavery, and Smith himself practically again enslaved. It was during this period that Smalls was born.
All of the Florida slaves were soon emancipated, however and the voluntary slave again became a free man. He lived in the Suwannee County vicinity for a number of years afterward, raising a large family.