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Interviewer: W. W. Dixon
Person Interviewed: Benjamin Russell
Location: South Carolina
Ex-Slave 88 Years
“I was born fourteen miles north of Chester, S.C. the property of Mrs. Rebecca Nance. After eighty-eight years, I have a vivid recollection of her sympathy and the ideal relations she maintained with her slaves.
“My father was just Baker, my mother just Mary. My father was bought out of a drove of slaves from Virginia. I have been told my mother was born on the Youngblood place. (Youngblood name of my mistress’ people in York County.) My father was a slave of a Mr. Russell and lived two or three miles from the Nance place, where mother lived. He could only visit her on a written pass. As he was religiously inclined, dutiful and faithful as a slave, my mother encouraged the relation that included a slave marriage between my father and mother. My mother in time, had a log house for herself and children. We had beds made by the plantation’s carpenter. As a boy I remember plowing from sun to sun, with an hour’s intermission for dinner, and feeding the horses.
“Money? Yes, sometimes white folks and visitors would give me coppers, 3-cent pieces, and once or twice dimes. Used them to buy extra clothing for Sundays and fire crackers and candy, at Christmas. We had good food. In the busy seasons on the farm the mistress saw to it that the slaves were properly fed, the food cooked right and served from the big kitchen. We were given plenty of milk and sometimes butter. We were permitted to have a fowl-house for chickens, separate from the white folks. We wore warm clothes and stout brogan shoes in winter; went barefooted from April until November and wore cotton clothes in summer. The master and some of the women slaves spun the thread, wove the cloth and made the clothes. My mother lived in a two-story farm house. Her children were: William, Mattie and Thomas. We never had an overseer on the place. Sometimes she’d whip the colored children, but only when it was needed for correction.
“Yes, sir, I went with my young master, William, to Chester Court House, and saw slaves put on a block and auctioned off to the highest bidder, just like land or mules and cattle. Did we learn to read and write? We were taught to read, but it was against the law to teach a slave to write. The Legislature passed an act to that effect. A number of cases in which slaves could write, the slave would forge a pass and thereby get away to free territory. They had a time getting them back. On one occasion I run in on my young master, William, teaching my Uncle Reuben how to write. They showed their confusion.
“All slaves were compelled to attend church on Sunday. A gallery around the interior of the church, contained the blacks. They were permitted to join in the singing. Favorite preacher? Well, I guess my favorite preacher was Robert Russell. He was allowed sometimes to use the white folks school, which wasn’t much in those days, just a little log house to hold forth in winter. In summer he got permission to have a brush arbor of pine tops, where large numbers came. Here they sang Negro spirituals. I remember one was called: ‘Steal away to Jesus.’
“Runaway slaves? Yes, we had one woman who was contrary enough to run away: Addie, she run off in the woods. My mistress hired her out to the McDonald family. She came back and we had to pelt and drive her away.
“How did we get news? Many plantations were strict about this, but the greater the precaution the alerter became the slaves, the wider they opened their ears and the more eager they became for outside information. The sources were: Girls that waited on the tables, the ladies’ maids and the drivers; they would pick up everything they heard and pass it on to the other slaves.
“Saturday afternoons? These were given to women to do the family washing, ironing, etc., and the men cut fire wood, or worked in the garden, and special truck crops. Christmas? Christmas was a holiday, but the fourth of July meant very little to the slave people. Dances? There was lots of dancing. It was the pastime of the slave race. The children played shimmy and other games, imitating the white children, sometimes with the white folks.
“The master and mistress were very particular about the slave girls. For instance, they would be driving along and pass a girl walking with a boy. When she came to the house she would be sent for and questioned something like this: ‘Who was that young man? How come you with him? Don’t you ever let me see you with that ape again. If you cannot pick a mate better than that I’ll do the picking for you.’ The explanation: The girl must breed good strong serviceable children.
“No, I never saw a ghost, but there was a general belief among the race in ghosts, spirits, haunts and conjuration. Many believe in them yet. I can never forget the fright of the time my young master, William was going off to the war. The evening before he went, a whippoorwill lighted on the window sill and uttered the plaintive ‘whip-poor-will.’ All the slaves on the place were frightened and awed and predicted bad luck to Master Will. He took sick in war and died, just wasted away. He was brought back in rags toward the end of the struggle.
“Mistress always gave the slaves a big dinner on New Year’s Day and talked to us out of the catechism. She impressed on us after dinner that time, that we were free. Some were sorry, some hurt, but a few were silent and glad. I and many of the others had been well treated. When we were sick she visited us and summoned a doctor the first thing, but the remedies those days were castor oil, quinine, turpentine, mustard plaster and bleeding.”