The following data is extracted from Arkansas Slave Narratives.
Interviewer: Mary D. Hudgins Person interviewed: Tom Robinson Aged: 88 Home: Lives with his son on outskirts of Hot Springs
As I entered Goldstein Grade school for colored I passed an old fellow sitting on the sidewalk. There was somthing of that venerable, dignified, I've-been-a-slave look about him, so much of it that I almost stopped to question him. Inside I entered a classroom, where a young woman was in conference with a couple of sheepish youngsters who had been kept in after school.
Did she know the whereabouts of any ex-slaves? She beamed. Only the other day an old man had appeared on the school grounds. She appealed to her charges. Didn't they remember that she had told them about him and about what slavery had meant. Sheepish looks were gone. They were agog with interest. Yes 'um, they remembered. But none of the three knew his name or where to find him.
Another teacher entered the room. No, she couldn't remember the name. But the old man often came up to watch the children at play. He said it made him happy to see them getting opportunities he never could have had. Wait a minute-he might be outside at this very moment. A clatter of heels and calls of triumph. "Yes! Yes! Here he is!"
Outside I dashed to drop flat on the sidewalk[HW:?] beside the aged man I had passed a few minutes before. Out came my smile and a notebook. With only a few preliminaries and amenities the interview was in full swing. It neither startled nor confused him, to have an excited young woman plant herself on a public sidewalk at his side and demand his life's story. A man who had belonged to three different masters before the age of 15 was inured to minor surprises. Tom Robinson long since learned to take life as it came.
He is quite deaf in one ear and hears poorly with the other. Nobody within a quarter of a block could have been in doubt of what was going on. A youth moved closer. The kept-after-school pair emerged from the building and stood near us, goggle-eyed thruout the interview. When we were finished, Robinson turned to the children and gave them, a grandfatherly lecture about taking advantage of their opportunities, a lecture in which the white woman sitting beside him joined heartily-drawing liberally on comments of ex-slaves in recent interviews concerning the helplessness felt in not being able to write and read letters from well loved friends.
"Where was I born, ma'am? Why it's my understanding that it was Catawba County, North Carolina. As far as I remember, Newton was the nearest town. I was born on a place belonging to Jacob Sigmens. I can just barely remember my mother. I was not 11 when they sold me away from her. I can just barely remember her.
"But I do remember how she used to take us children and kneel down in front of the fireplace and pray. She'd pray that the time would come when everybody could worship the Lord under their own vine and fig tree-all of them free. It's come to me lots of times since. There she was a'praying, and on other plantations women was a'praying. All over the country the same prayer was being prayed. Guess the Lord done heard the prayer and answered it.
"Old man Sigmens wasn't a bad master. Don't remember so much about him. I couldn't have been 11 when he sold me to Pickney Setzer. He kept me for a little while and then he sold me to David Robinson. All three of them lived not so far apart in North Carolina. But pretty soon after he bought me old men Dave Robinson moved to Texas. We was there when the war started. We stayed there all during the war. I was set free there.
"We lived in Cass County. It was pretty close to the Arkansas border, and 'twasn't far from Oklahoma-as is now. I remember well when they was first gathering them up for the war. We used to hear the cannon often. Was I afraid? To be sure I was scared, right at first. Pretty soon we got used to it. Somebody even made up a song, 'Listen to the Home-made Thunder'. They'd sing it every time the cannon started roaring.
"No, ma'am, there never was any fighting right around us. I never really saw any fighting. Old man Dave Robinson was good to me. He didn't have a big farm-just owned me. Treated me almost like I was one of his own children. Course, I had to work. Sometimes he whipped me-but no more than he had to. I was just a child and any child has got to be made to mind. He was good to me, and old Miss was good to me. All my masters was pretty good to me-lots better than the usual run. Which one I like the best. Well, you might know. I kept the name Robinson, and I named my son Dave. You might know which one I think the most of.
"One day I was out milking the cows. Mr. Dave come down into the field, and he had a paper in his hand. 'Listen to me, Tom,' he said, 'listen to what I reads you.' And he read from a paper all about how I was free. You can't tell how I felt. 'You're jokin' me.' I says. 'No, I ain't,' says he. 'You're free.' 'No,' says I, 'it's a joke.' 'No,' says he, 'it's a law that I got to read this paper to you. Now listen while I read it again.'
"But still I wouldn't believe him. 'Just go up to the house,' says he, 'and ask Mrs. Robinson. She'll tell you.' so I went. 'It's a joke,' I says to her. 'Did you ever know your master to tell you a lie?' she says. 'No,' says I, 'I ain't.' 'Well,' she says, 'the war's over and you're free.'
"By that time I thought maybe she was telling me what was right. 'Miss Robinson,' says I, 'can I go over to see the Smiths?'-they was a colored family that lived nearby. 'Don't you understand,' says she, 'you're free. You don't have to ask me what you can do. Run along child.'
"And so I went. And do you know why I was a'going? I wanted to find out if they was free too." (a chuckle and toothy smile) "I just couldn't take it all in. I couldn't believe we was all free alike.
"Was I happy? Law Miss. You can take anything. No matter how good you treat it-it wants to be free. You can treat it good and feed it good and give it everything it seems to want-but if you open the cage-it's happy.
"What did I do after the war was over? I farmed. I farmed all my life, 'til I got too old. I stopped three-four years ago. I lives with my son-Dave Robinson-the one I named for my master.
"How did I farm? Did I share crop? No, ma'am!" (Sharply as tho repramanding the inquirer for an undeserved insult.) "I didn't share crop, except just at first to get a start. I rented. I paid thirds and fourths. I always rented. I wasn't a share-cropper.[A]
[A: Socially and economically sharp distinctions are drawn between the different classes of renters, both by owners and tenants themselves. Families whom ambition and circumstances have allowed to accumulate enough surplus to buy farm implements and have food for a year ahead look with scorn on fellow farmers who thru inertia or bad luck must be furnished food and the wherewithall to farm. In turn, families that have forged ahead sufficiently to be able to pay cash rent on farms they cultivate look down On both of the other groups.]
"It was awful hard going after the war. But I got me a place-had to share-crop for a year or two. But I worked hard and saved all I could. Pretty soon I had me enough that I could rent. I always raised the usual things-cotton and corn and potatoes and a little truck and that sort of thing-always raised enough to eat for us and the stock-and then some cotton for a cash crop.
"My first wife, well it was kind of funny; I wasn't more than 19. She had 11 children. Some of them was older than I was. No ma'am it wasn't so hard on me. They was all old enough to take care of themselves. I lived with that woman for 17 years. Then she died.
"I been married five times. Three of my children are living. One's here-that's Dave. Then there's one in Texarkana and there's one in Kansas City. Two of my children's dead. The youngest died just about last year. All my wives are dead.
"Almost every day I comes up to sit here and watch the children. It does me good to see 'em. Makes me feel good all over to think about all the fine chance they has to get a good education. Sonny, you hear me? You pay attention too, sonny. I'm watching you-you and all the other little boys. You mind me. You learn all you can. You ought to be so thankful you allowed to learn that you work hard. You mind me, sonny. When you're grown up, you'll know what I'm talking about-and know I'm right. Run along, sonny. No use hanging around the school yard too long."
Source: Arkansas Slave Narratives