Getting to Know the Slaves

The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War

edited by Robert Manson Myers
Yale, 1,845 pp., $19.95

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 1: From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community

by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 208 pp., $10.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 2: South Carolina Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 694 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 3: South Carolina Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 561 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 4: Texas Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 603 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 5: Texas Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 516 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 6: Alabama and Indiana Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 653 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 7: Oklahoma and Mississippi Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 536 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 8: Arkansas Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 705 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 9: Arkansas Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 703 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 10: Arkansas Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 739 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 11: Arkansas and Missouri Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 709 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 12: Georgia Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 709 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 13: Georgia Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 710 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 14: North Carolina Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 460 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 15: North Carolina Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 436 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 16: Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, and Tennessee Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 471 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 17: Florida Narratives

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 379 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 18: Unwritten History of Slavery

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 322 pp., $25.00

The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Volume 19: God Struck Me Dead

edited by George P. Rawick
Greenwood Publishing Company, 218 pp., $25.00

De white folks was hard on us. Dey would whup us ‘bout de leas’ li’l thang.” Mingo White, ex-slave from Alabama, could not remember his age, but, although he had been only a boy in slavery times, he could remember some other things. His parents had been separated by sale and his childhood had been filled with fear and hard work. He was among a minority of the slaves of the South in having had to work hard as a boy, for whatever the sins of the slaveholders, they did not normally send young blacks to the cotton fields before the age of twelve and then they kept them as half-hands for several years. Mingo White, however, had to keep up with the adults or suffer the driver’s lash. When slaves on his plantation did not get whipped for slow or poor work, they got whipped for holding prayer meetings without permission or for a variety of other, often more trivial, matters.

William Towns, also of Alabama, had a different story to tell. “Mr. Young,” he said of his master, “didn’t have to worry ‘bout his hands runnin’ away, ‘cause he wasn’t a mean man like some of de slaveholders was…. Life was kiner happy durin’ slavery ‘cause we never knowed nothing ‘bout any yuther sort of life or freedom.” He too had been just a boy—age seven at the beginning of the war—but his childhood had been the more typical. Children on the plantations were usually allowed to be children until rather late. If they did not have to witness their parents being whipped or suffer their parents being sold away from them, they were in a good position to enjoy some carefree years. The miseries came later.

Both Towns and White, along with more than 2,000 other black men and women, were interviewed by members of a special WPA project in the 1930s. Most of these aged ex-slaves insisted that they “had de good massa”; in fact, more often than not, they “had de bestest massa in de worl’.” Yet a close reading of their accounts reveals that for them “bestest” was a relative term. For some it meant that the master did not separate families; for others that he did little or no whipping; or that he was generous with food, clothing, shelter, and leisure time. Towns describes some grim experiences on the plantation of “de good massa,” and White describes some bright moments and acts of kindness on the plantation of his “mean massa.” If we put aside the occasional saints and sadists, the slaveholders and their regimes usually mixed humanity with severity, and the slaves experienced some of both most of the time, but in different proportions, as we see from the narratives.

Sometimes,” said Towns, “I visits wid ol’ Mingo White an’ me an’ him talks over dem days dat me an’ him was boys. We gits to talkin’ an’ ‘fore you knows it ol’ Mingo is …

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Letters

Disclaimer November 25, 1976