"[Patsey] had a genial and pleasant temper, and was faithful and obedient. Naturally, she was a joyous creature, a laughing, light-hearted girl, rejoicing in the mere sense of existence. Yet Patsey wept oftener and suffered more than any of her companions. She had been literally excoriated. Her back bore the scars of a thousand stripes, not because she was backward in her work, nor because she was of an unmindful and rebellious spirit, but because it had fallen to her lot to be the slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress. She shrank before the lustful eye of the one, and was in danger even of her life at the hands of the other, and between the two she was indeed accursed.
In the great house, for days together, there were high and angry words, poutings and estrangement, whereof she was the innocent cause. Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see her suffer, and more than once, when Epps had refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp. Gladly would Patsey have appeased this unforgiving spirit if it had been in her power, but not like Joseph, dared she escape from Master Epps, leaving her garment in his hand. Patsey walked under a cloud. If she uttered a word in opposition to her master’s will, the lash was resorted to at once to bring her to subjection. If she was not watchful when about her cabin, or when walking in the yard, a billet of wood or a broken bottle, perhaps, hurled from her mistress’ hand, would smite her unexpectedly in the face. The enslaved victim of lust and hate, Patsey had no comfort of her life."
SOLOMON NORTHUP, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, 1853
National Humanities Center, On the Masters’ Sexual Abuse of Slaves: Selections from 19th- & 20th-c. Slave Narratives
The slave traders would buy young and able farm men and well developed young girls with fine physique to barter and sell. They would bring them to the taverns where there would be the buyers
and traders, display them and offer them for sale. At one of these gatherings a colored girl, a mulatto of fine stature and good looks, was put on sale. She was of high spirits and determined disposition.
At night she was taken by the trader to his room to satisfy his bestial nature. She could not be coerced or forced, so she was attacked by him. In the struggle she grabbed a knife and with it, she sterilized him and from the result of injury he died the next day. She was charged with murder.
Gen. Butler, hearing of it, sent troops to Charles County [Maryland] to protect her, they brought her to to Baltimore, later she was taken to Washington where she was set free… This attack was the result of being goodlooking, for which many a poor girl in Charles County paid the price. There are several cases I could mention, but they are distasteful to me… .
— RICHARD MACKS, enslaved in Maryland, interviewed 1937 [WPA Slave Narrative Project]
"On Sundays the slaves were permitted to have a religious meeting of their own. This usually took place in the backyard or in a building dedicated for this purpose. They sang spirituals which gave vent to their true feelings. Many of these songs are sung today. There was one person who did the preaching. His sermon was always built according to the master’s instructions which were that slaves must always remember that they belonged to their masters and were intended to lead a life of loyal servitude. None of the slaves believed this, although they pretended to believe because of the presence of the white overseer. If this overseer was absent sometimes and the preacher varied in the text of his sermon, that is, if he preached exactly what he thought and felt, he was given a sound whipping."
William Ward, born a slave in the early 1830s in Georgia, as reported by his interviewer, ca. 1936
Excerpts from the digital collection Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 in American Memory, Library of Congress
Jasper, Texas, July 1937
“The white chillun tries teach me to read and write but I didn’ larn much, ‘cause I allus workin’. Mother was workin’ in the house, and she cooked too. She say she used to hide in the chimney corner and listen to what the white folks say. When freedom was ‘clared, marster wouldn’t tell ‘em, but mother she hear him tellin’ mistus that the slaves was free but they didn’ know it and he’s not gwineter tell ‘em till he makes another crop or two. When mother hear that she say she slip out the chimney corner and crack her heels together four times and shouts, ‘I’s free, I’s free!’ Then she runs to the field, ‘gainst marster’s will and tol’ all the other slaves and they quit work. Then she run away and in the night she slip into a big ravine near the house and have them bring me to her. Marster, he come out with his gun and shot at mother but she run down the ravine and gits away with me.”
WPA Slave Narrative Project, Texas Narratives, Volume 16, Part 1
Federal Writer’s Project, United States Work Projects Administration (USWPA); Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
James Green, San Antonio, Texas, July 1937
“My mother was owned by John Williams of Petersburg, Virginia. I come born to her on a plantation, and den my father went about getting me free. He was a full blooded Indian, and had done some big favor for a big man high up in de courts, and by and bye Mr. Williams comes to my mother and says I am a ‘free boy’. I never knowd what was mixed up in it, but Mr. Williams used to laugh and call me ‘free boy, Jim’. I never had to do much work for nobody but my mother.
“Then, one day, along comes a Friday. Friday is my unlucky star and it is my lucky star day, too. I was playin’ around de house, Mr. Williams comes up and says:
“‘Delia, will you let Jim walk down the street with me?’
“‘All right, moster,’ says my mother. ‘And, Jim, you be a good boy.
“Dat was de last time I ever heard my mother speak, or ever see her. We walks down where de houses grows close together, and pretty soon we comes to de slave market. I ain’t ever seed one before and didn’t knowd what it was. Mr. Williams says to me to get up on de block. It was about so high —(three feet). I gets up like I was told. As soon as I stood straight I got a funny feelin’. I knows somehow what was happenin’. But I just stood there. In a few minutes they told me to get down and turned me over to a man named John Pinchback.”
WPA Slave Narrative Project, Texas Narratives, Volume 16, Part 2
Federal Writer’s Project, United States Work Projects Administration; Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Former slave Tom Holland (age 97 at the time of interview)
Madisonville, Texas, between 1936 and 1938
“…after the war the Negro had a hard struggle, ‘cause he was turned loose just like he came into the world and no education or ‘sperience. If the Negro wanted to vote the Klu Kluxes was right there to keep him from votin’. Negroes was ‘fraid to git out and try to exert they freedom. They’d ride up by a Negro and shoot him just like a wild hog and never a word said or done ‘bout it.”
WPA Slave Narrative Project, Texas Narratives, Volume 16, Part 2
Federal Writer’s Project, US Works Projects Administration; Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
"In most of us colored folks was the great desire to [be] able to read and write. We took advantage of every opportunity to educate ourselves. The greater part of the plantation owners were very harsh if we were caught trying to learn or write. It was the law that if a white man was caught trying to educate a negro slave, he was liable to prosecution entailing a fine of fifty dollars and a jail sentence. We were never allowed to go to town and it was not until after I ran away that I knew that they sold anything but slaves, tobacco, and wiskey. Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us. We knew we could run away, but what then? An offender guilty of this crime was subjected to very harsh punishment."
John W. Fields, age 89
Interviewed in Lafayette, Indiana on September 17, 1937 by Cecil C. Miller
WPA Slave Narrative Project, Indiana Narratives, Volume 5
Federal Writer’s Project, United States Work Projects Administration; Library of Congress