Person Interviewed: Sarah Byrd
An Interview On Slavery Obtained From Mrs. Sarah Byrd—ex-Slave
Mrs. Sarah Byrd claims to be 95 years of age but the first impression one receives when looking at her is that of an old lady who is very active and possessing a sweet clear voice. When she speaks you can easily understand every word and besides this, each thought is well expressed. Often during the interview she would suddenly break out in a merry laugh as if her own thoughts amused her.
Mrs. Sarah Byrd was born in Orange County Virginia the youngest of three children. During the early part of her childhood her family lived in Virginia her mother Judy Newman and father Sam Goodan each belonging to a different master. Later on the family became separated the father was sold to a family in East Tennessee and the mother and children were bought by Doctor Byrd in Augusta, Georgia. Here Mrs. Byrd remarked “Chile in them days so many families were broke up and some went one way and der others went t’other way; and you nebber seed them no more. Virginia wuz a reg’lar slave market.”
Dr. Byrd owned a large plantation and raised such products as peas potatoes, cotton corn (etc). There were a large number of slaves. Mrs. Byrd was unable to give the exact number but remarked. “Oh Lordy Chile I nebber could tell just how many slaves that man had t’wuz too many uv em.”
The size of the plantation required that the slaves be classified according to the kind of work each was supposed to do. There were the “cotton pickers”, the “plow hands,” the “hoe hands,” the “rail splitters,” etc. “My very fust job,” remarked Mrs. Byrd, “wuz that uv cotton picking.” Mrs Byrd’s mother was a full [TR: field?] hand.
Houses on the Byrd Plantation were made of logs and the cracks were daubed with mud. The chimnies were made of mud and supported by sticks.
Each fireplace varied in length from 3 to 4 feet because they serve the purpose of stoves; and the family meals were prepared in those large fireplaces often two and three pots were suspended from a rod running across the fireplace. Most of the log houses consisted of one room; however if the family was very large two rooms were built. The furnishings consisted only of a home-made table, benches, and a home-made bed, the mattress of which was formed by running ropes from side to side forming a framework. Mattresses were made by filling a tick with wheatstraw. The straw was changed each season. Laughing Mrs. Byrd remarked, “Yessirree, them houses wuz warmer than some are ter day.”
Doctor Byrd was rather kind and tried to help his slaves as much as possible, but according to Mrs. Byrd his wife was very mean and often punished her slaves without any cause. She never gave them anything but the coarsest foods. Although there of plenty of milk and butter, she only gave it to the families after it had soured. “Many a day I have seed butter just sittin around in pans day after day till it got good and spoiled then she would call some uv us and give it ter us. Oh she wuz a mean un,” remarked Mrs. Byrd. Continuing Mrs. Byrd remarked “she would give us bread that had been cooked a week.” Mr. Byrd gave his slave families good clothes. Twice a year clothing was distributed among his families. Every June summer clothes were given and every October winter clothes were given. Here Mrs. Byrd remarked “I nebber knowed what it wuz not ter have a good pair uv shoes.” Cloth for the dresses and shirts was spun on the plantation by the slaves.
The treatment of the slaves is told in Mrs. Byrd’s own words:
“We wuz always treated nice by Master Byrd and he always tried ter save us punishment at the hands uv his wife but that ‘oman wuz somethin’ nother. I nebber will ferget once she sent me after some brush broom and told me ter hurry back. Well plums wuz jest gitting ripe so I just took my time and et all the plums I wanted after that I come on back ter the house. When I got there she called me upstairs, ‘Sarah come here.’ Up the steps I went and thar she stood with that old cow hide. She struck me three licks and I lost my balance and tumbled backward down the stairs. I don’t know how come I didn’t hurt myself but the Lord wuz wid me and I got up and flew. I could hear her just hollering ‘Come back here! come back here!’ but I ant stop fer nothing. That night at supper while I wuz fanning the flies from the table she sed ter the doctor. ‘Doctor what you think? I had ter whip that little devil ter day. I sent her after brush broom and she went off and eat plums instead of hurrying back.’ The doctor just looked at her and rolled his eyes but never sed a word. There wuz very little whipping on Byrd’s plantation, but I have gone ter bed many a night and heard ’em gittin whipped on the plantation next ter us. If dey runned away they would put the hounds on ’em.” Concluding her story on treatmeant Mrs. Byrd remarked “Yessirree I could tell that ‘oman wuz mean the first time I seed her after we came from Virginia cause she had red eyes.” “Pader rollers” stayed busy all the time trying to find slaves off their plantations without passes. Marriages were performed by having the couple jump the broom. If the [TR: ‘couple’ deleted, handwritten words above illegible] belonged to different masters oftentimes one master would purchase the other; but should neither wish to sell the man would then have to get passes to visit his wife on her plantation. “Dey would leave the plantation on Saturday afternoons and on Sunday afternoon you could see ’em coming in just lak they wuz coming from church,” remarked Mrs. Byrd.
There were frolics on the Byrd plantation any time that the slaves chose to have them. “Yes sir we could frolic all we want ter. I use ter be so glad when Saturday night came cause I knowed us wuz go have a frolic and I wouldn’t have a bit ‘uv appetite I would tell my ma we gwine dance ter night I dont want nothin teet. Yes sir us would frolic all night long sometimes when the sun rise on Sunday morning us would all be layin round or settin on the floor. They made music on the banjo, by knocking bones, and blowing quills.”
The Byrds did not provide a church on their plantation for their slaves neither were they allowed to attend the white church; instead they had prayer meetings in their own cabins where they could sing pray and shout as much as they wished. “I nebber will fergit the last prayer meeting us had,” remarked Mrs. Byrd. “Two woman named Ant Patsy and Ant Prudence came over from the next plantation. I believed they slipped over there wid out gittin a pass. Anyway, they old master came there and whipped ’em and made ’em go home. I reckin he thought us wuz praying ter git free.” Continuing—
I nebber will fergit the fust time I set eyes on them thar Yankees. I done already heard ’bout how they wuz going round ter the different plantations taking the horses and carrying away the money and other valuable things, but they had nebber come ter our place. So this day I saw ’em coming cross the railroad track and they look jest lack thunder there wuz so meny ‘uv em. When they got ter our house every body wuz sleep and they knocked and knocked. We had a bad dog that didn’t take no foolishness off nobody, so when he kept barking them Yankees cursed him and do you know he heshed up? I sid, ‘Dear Lord what sort of man is that all he got ter do is curse that dog and he don’t even growl.’ Well, when they finally got in all they wanted wuz ter know if Mr. Byrd could help feed the soldiers until Monday. Mr. Byrd told ’em he would. Soon after that the war ended and we wuz called ter gether and told us wuz free. Some uv’em stayed there and some uv’em left. Us left and moved ter another plantation.”
Mrs. Byrd who had previously given the writer an interview on folk-lore asked the writer to return at a later date and she would try to think up more information concerning superstitions, conjure, etc. The writer thanked her for the interview and promised to make another visit soon.