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Person Interviewed: Mary James
Date of Interview: Sept. 23, 1937
Location: Baltimore, Maryland
Place of Residence: 618 Haw St., Baltimore, MD
Reference: Personal interview with Mary James, ex-slave, Sept. 23, 1937, at her home, 618 Haw St., Baltimore, Md.
“My father’s name was Caleb Harris James, and my mother’s name was Mary Moriah. Both of them were owned by Silas Thornton Randolph, a distant relative of Patrick Henry. I have seen the picture of Patrick Henry many a time in the home place on the library wall. I had three sisters and two brothers. Two of my sisters were sold to a slave dealer from Georgia, one died in 1870. One brother ran away and the other joined the Union Army; he died in the Soldiers’ Home in Washington in 1932 at the age of 84.
“How let me ask you, who told you about me? I knew that a stranger was coming, my nose has been itching for several days. How about my home life in Virginia, we lived on the James River in Virginia, on a farm containing more than 8,000 acres, fronting 3-1/2 miles on the river, with a landing where boats used to come to load tobacco and unload goods for the farm.
“The quarters where we lived on the plantation called Randolph Manor were built like horse stables that you see on race tracks; they were 1-1/2 story high, about 25 feet wide, and about 75 feet long, with windows in the sides of the roofs. A long shelter on the front and at the rear. In front, people would have benches to sit on, and on the back were nails to hang pots and pans. Each family would have rooms according to the size of the family. There were 8 such houses, 6 for families and one for the girls and the other for the boys. In the quarters we had furniture made by the overseer and colored carpenters; they would make the tables, benches and beds for everybody. Our beds were ticking filled with straw and covers made of anything we could get.
“I have a faint recollection of my grandparents. My grandfather was sold to a man in South Carolina, to work in the rice field. Grandmother drowned herself in the river when she heard that grand-pap was going away. I was told that grandpap was sold because he got religious and prayed that God would set him and grandma free.
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“When I was ten years old I was put to work on the farm with other children, picking weeds, stone up and tobacco worms and to do other work. We all got new shoes for Christmas, a dress and $2.50 for Christmas or suits of clothes. We spent our money at Mr. Randorph’s store for things that we wanted, but was punished if the money was spent at the county seat at other stores.
“We were allowed fat meat, corn meal, black molasses and vegetables, corn and grain to roast for coffee. Mother cooked my food after stopping work on the farm for the day, I never ate possum. We would catch rabbits in guns or traps and as we lived on the rivers, we ate any kind of fish we caught. The men and everybody would go fishing after work. Each family had a garden, we raised what we wanted.
“As near as I can recall, we had about 150 sheep on the farm, producing our own wool. The old women weaved clothes; we had woolen clothes in the winter and cotton clothes in the summer. On Sunday we wore the clothes given to us at Christmas time and shoes likewise.
“I was married on the farm 1863 and married my same husband by a Baptist preacher in 1870 as I was told I had not been legally married. I was married in the dress given to me at Christmas of 1862. I did not get one in 1863.
“Old Silas Randolph was a mean man to his slaves, especially when drunk. He and the overseer would always be together, each of whom carried a whip, and upon the least provocation would whip his slaves. My mistress was not as mean as my master, but she was mean. There was only one son in the Randolph family. He went to a military school somewhere in Virginia. I don’t know the name. He was captured by the Union soldiers. I never saw him until after the war, when he came home with one arm.
“The overseer lived on the farm. He was the brother of Mrs. Randolph. He would whip men and women and children if he thought they were not working fast.
“The plantation house was a large brick house over-looking the river from a hill, a porch on three sides, two-stories and attic. In the attic slept the house servants and coachman. We did not come in contact with the white people very much. Our place was away from the village.
“There were 8,000 acres to the plantation, with more than 150 slaves on it. I do not know the time slaves woke up, but everybody was at work at sunrise and worked to sundown. The slaves were whipped for not working fast or anything that suited the fancy of the master or overseer.
“I have seen slaves sold on the farm and I have seen slaves brought to the farm. The slaves were brought up the river in boats and unloaded at the landing, some crying and some seem to be happy.
“No one was taught to read or write. There was no church on the farm. No one was allowed to read the Bible or anything else.
“I have heard it said that the Randolph’s lost more slaves by running away than anyone in the county. The patrollers were many in the county; they would whip any colored person caught off the place after night. Whenever a man wanted to run away he would go with someone else, either from the farm or from some other farm, hiding in the swamps or along the river, making their way to some place where they thought would be safe, sometimes hiding on trains leaving Virginia.
“The slaves, after going to their quarters, cooked, rested or did what they wanted. Saturdays was no different from Monday.
“On Christmas morning all the slaves would go up to the porch, get the $2.50, shoes and clothes, go back to the cabins and do what they wanted.
“On New Year’s Day everybody was scared as that was the day that slaves were taken away or brought to the farm.
“You have asked about stories, I will tell you one I know. It is true.
“During the war one day some Union soldiers came to the farm looking for Rebels. There were a number of them in the woods near the landing; they had come across the river in boats. At night while the Union soldiers were at the landing, they were fired on by the Rebels. The Union soldiers went after them, killed ten, caught I think six and some were drowned in the river. Among the six was the overseer, and from that night people have heard shooting and seen soldiers. One night many years after the Civil War, while visiting a friend who now lives within 500 feet from the landing where the fighting took place, there appeared some soldiers carrying a man out of the woods whom I recognized as being the overseer. He had been seen hundreds of times by other people. White people will tell you the same thing. I will tell you for sure this is true.
“You must excuse me I wanted to see some friends this evening.”