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Emancipated slaves who lived in Oklahoma City left behind firsthand accounts



(Editor's note: To maintain the integrity of the Oklahoma Writers' Project, some of the verbatim quotes from the slave narratives contain misspellings and offensive subject matter, particularly the racial classifications. Research shows they were part of the vernacular in many instances in that time and would not be used in today's discourse. This article, based on original documents, provides a snapshot of a set of circumstances shared by emancipated slaves living in Depression-era Oklahoma City.)

Martha Ann Ratliff didn't know her birthday. She wasn't even sure of her age. Ratliff only knew she was born in Cotton Plant, Miss., and she figured she was nearly 100 years old in 1937.

From the cradle to the slave
Life on the plantation
Master and servant
Hunted by bloodhounds
Free at last
How accurate are the narratives?
Oklahoma City's ex-slaves

As J.S. Thomas interviewed Ratliff at her daughter's home on N.E. Sixth Street in Oklahoma City, the ex-slave told her story, from plantation life through emancipation to living in Depression-era Oklahoma. Firsthand accounts were told to field workers from the Oklahoma Writers' Project, which hired unemployed scribes as part of the Federal Writers' Project that operated under the Works Progress Administration umbrella.

Project personnel gathering these testimonies provided an oral history of those emancipated and living in the state during the Depression. They were published in the 1996 University of Oklahoma Press book "The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives," which was edited by T. Lindsay Baker and Julie P. Baker.

Larry O'Dell, director of collections in the research division of the Oklahoma History Center, said these accounts are indispensable to the true fabric of American history.

"The WPA slave narratives provided a rare opportunity to gather the stories of an African- American generation all but lost to recorded, first-person history," O'Dell said. "The project also helped complete the story of ex-slaves who migrated to what they thought would be a kind of Utopia, Oklahoma."

The general public can access this typewritten reference material with a library card at the Oklahoma History Center, where the OU Press book was researched, said Jan Richardson, archivist in the center's research division.

Meta G. Carstarphen, who is working on a research project looking at the history of black and Native American newspapers in the 19th century, said the original narratives are an amazing treasure considering that literacy laws prohibited ex-slaves from learning to read, write or record their stories.

"I think there is an appreciation and an understanding of the historical significance of being able to have from the mouths of people who lived through great hardships what some of those experiences were like," said Carstarphen, Gaylord Family Endowed Professor and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

"As painful as they can be to read, it is vitally important that we never forget and that we also find a place in the historical record to account for those experiences. It is part of who we are."

She said publishing the narratives, which detail racism and the atrocities of slavery, will elicit a range of reactions from readers.

"I cannot speak for all black Americans, but I think the reactions are going to be varied and mixed, as it should be, because people are going to have individual responses depending upon their experiences " maybe their age, where they grew up and a whole host of factors," she said. "I would daresay that Anglo readers should have a mixed set of reactions to this as well."

From the cradle to the slave

Many OKC residents documented in these narratives were born into slavery. Raleigh, N.C., native Betty Foreman Chessier said her mother was Melinda Manley, slave of Gov. Charles Manley of North Carolina. Meanwhile, Lewis Jenkins, born to a mixed union in 1844 in Greene County, Ala., said his pregnant white mother was hidden away from her playmates.

"I never got a chance to nurse my mother," said Jenkins, who was taken away from her at childbirth and moved to Texas around age 7. "After she got up and come down, she wanted to see her baby. She looked in all the houses on the place for me, her baby. Then she commenced screaming, tearing her clothes off and tearing her hair out."

If families weren't separated at birth, they had to survive the auction block. Carrie E. Davis, a native of Winnsboro, S.C., said she was auctioned seven or eight times.

"Dey would have a large crowd of masters gathered 'round and dey would put de slaves on a stump or block and roll de sleeves and pants legs up and say, 'Dis is good stock; got good muscles, and he's good hard-working nigger,'" Davis said. "Why, dey sold 'em just like you see 'em sell stock now.

"If de woman was a good breeder she would sell for big money, 'cause she could raise children. They felt all over the women folks. Mr. Hughes, the official slave seller, would buy all the good looking nigger girls for him and his brother and take 'em home and put 'em in they private home, not they plantation, and raise families by them or just use 'em for they enjoyment, iffen they didn't have no children."

Nancy Gardner from Franklin, Tenn., described being sold "like cattle" in Memphis, Tenn.

"Dey sold me and ma together and dey sold pa and de boys together," Gardner said.
Healthier slaves were worth more. Stripped to allow potential bidders to see any visible scars, the slaves were chained together, with mothers tucked away from their week-old children to be sold separately, according to Jenkins.

"I have seen men sold from their wives and I thought that was such a crime," said Octavia George, a Louisiana native. "I knew that God would settle things someday."

Purchased slaves were loaded by wagon and transported to work on cotton farms. If a slave woman gave birth while traveling by boat to the farms, the baby was thrown into the river, according to Alice Douglass, a slave born in Sumner County, Tenn., in 1860.

Life on the plantation
Like many ex-slaves, Douglass did not have a formal education.

"In dem days you better not be caught with a newspaper, else you got a beating and your back almost cut off," she said.

Hal Hutson, a slave from Tennessee, learned clandestinely at an early age.

"Master Brown's boy and I were the same age you see (14 years old) and he would send me to school to protect his kids, and I would have to sit up there until school was out," Hutson said. "So while sitting there I listened to what the white teacher was telling the kids, and caught on how to read, write and figger " but I never let on, 'cause if I was caught trying to read or figger dey would whip me something terrible."

Jenkins, who had a white mother, said his youngest mistress (who happened to be his aunt) was nearly whipped to death when she was caught teaching him to read and write.

At the dinner table, Texas native Lewis Bonner recalled eating bacon, greens and potatoes with his mistress, Celia Swanson.

When George wasn't looking after the master's children in Louisiana, she fed the slave children.

"I remember quite well how those poor little children used to have to eat," George said. "They were fed in boxes and troughs, under the house. They were fed corn meal mush and beans. When this was poured into their box they would gather around it the same as we see pigs, horses and cattle gather around troughs today."

Ben Lawson, who was born in Danville, Ill., would eat table scraps on the back porch in the summer or in the kitchen during winter.

For clothing, Robert Burns wore only cotton shirts during summers spent working south of Nashville, Tenn.

"I never seed any under-wear until I wuz bout 12 years of age," Burns said. "We all wore hats made from wheat straw. Dare wuz no shoes for de slaves a-tall. In winter de women would tie dar feet up in rags."

Chessier said she didn't have any underclothes, either, and only owned two dresses: one calico and one gingham.

Doctors were too expensive on the plantation, according to Davis.

"De slaves had to take roots and herbs and make our own medicine," she said. "I 'member some of de slaves wearing charms but I never did believe in dem much, and dat's why I don't know nothing 'bout dem now."

Days were long. George recalled rising at 5 a.m. and working until dark.

"Then we would have to go home to do our night work, that is cook, milk, and feed the stock," said George, who would then go off to sleep on a homemade moss mattress.

Each slave family received one blanket in winter, according to Texas native Harriett Robinson.

"(The master's) barn was much better than the house we lived in," George said.
Other slaves recalled beds fashioned from cotton, straw, grass and leaves, while others had no mattresses.

"We slept on the floor like hogs," Hutson said.

Master and servant
Gardner was just a baby when the Civil War began, but she had fond memories of her master, Dr. Perkins.

"He was a rich man, and had a big fine house and thousands of acres of land," said Gardner, who lived on South Klein Avenue in OKC. "He was good to his niggers too. We had a good house too, better dan some of dese houses I see folks living in now.

"Course Dr. Perkins' niggers had to work, but dey didn't mind 'cause he would let dem have little patches of dey own such as 'tatoes, corn, cotton and garden. Jest a little, you know. He couldn't let dem have much, there was so many on Dr. Perkins' plantation."

Robinson said slaves would have to bow down to their master's children.

"The master would be over 'hind the bed and he'd say, 'Here's a new little mistress or master you got to work for.' You had to say, 'Yessuh Master' and bow real low or the overseer would crack you. Them was slavery days, dog days."

When work was deemed unsuitable, overseers would flog slaves with a red and blue bullwhip, said Sam Anderson during a 1937 interview at the C.L. Bryant Orphanage and Old Folks Home in OKC.

"We had a overseer back on Colonel Threff 's plantation and my mother said he was the meanest man on earth," said Alice Alexander from Louisiana. "He'd jest go out in de fields and beat dem niggers."

After repeated whippings, one slave turned the tables and killed his overseer, Davis said. For punishment, the retaliating slave was burned alive while his wife watched in agony.

"Dey tied his hand and feet to some stakes, poured turpentine all over his body and den stuck a match to it," Davis said. "It was awful! We couldn't look off, we had to look right at dat poor man. De poor fellow screamed three times and dat was all for him."

Hunted by bloodhounds
Slave patrollers would hunt for escapees, unmercifully whipping the fugitives upon capture, Burns said. Runaways smeared fresh cow manure on their feet to mask their scent from bloodhounds, said Sam Jordan, a quarter-Cherokee slave from Alabama. Some slaves would kill the hounds and escape, George said.

"De slaves would lie down in de dark and grunt like a hog and de patrollers would go on thinking dem to be hogs," Burns said.

Annie Young's aunt tried to elude sexual advances from her master, but hounds eventually tracked her.

"He knocked a hole in her head and she bled like a hog, and he made her have him," said Young, a Tennessee native. "She told her mistress, and mistress told her to go ahead and be wid him 'cause he's gonna kill you. And he had dem two women and she had some chillun nearly white, an master and dey all worked in de fields side by side."

With no jails, whipping became the only punishment, said George Conrad Jr. of Kentucky.

"If whipping didn't settle the crime the Negro committed " the next thing would be to hang him or burn him at stake," said Octavia George.

Marriage licenses were uncommon, Tennessee native Bert Luster said, as slaves received a permit from their master and jumped over a broomstick to tie the knot. Mississippi slave Charles Willis said his wife was sold for $800.

While Bonner claimed having "the best church" during slavery, Francis Bridges from Texas said the closest congregation was too far away to attend. Meanwhile, Davis did not have a church in South Carolina, where slaves stood outside waiting for the segregated service to conclude. Then the preacher would read the Bible to them on the outside steps.

"De white preachers who would call dem selves preaching to de slaves would only preach to de niggers about being good, obedient and work good and hard for dare moster," Burns said. "He would preach and tell de nigger dat dey didn't have any souls, and that niggers didn't go to heaven. Only white people had souls and went to heaven. He told dem dat niggers had no more souls than dogs, and dey couldn't go to heaven any more than could a dog."

Free at last
When news of emancipation arrived, George hid on the Mississippi River, roasting hand-caught fish for food. Meanwhile, Hannah McFarland's mother whipped her after the South Carolina girl had shown Yankee soldiers where affluent residents had hidden their valuables.

"I 'member when we was told dat we was free," Davis said. "It was the 19th of June. We danced all day and all night."

Bonner stayed with his master three years after emancipation.

"We got a little money, but we got room and board and didn't have to work too hard," Bonner said.

With the end of slavery, Burns said he hoped God would treat the ex-masters as they treated their slaves when the plantation owners arrived in hell. While the Yankees made sure the ex-slaves attended school, Jordan said, the Ku Klux Klan didn't thrive until Reconstruction, Hutson said.

Luster's master was driven off his plantation. After hiding in a cornfield, he finally arrived on a farm near OKC in 1891. Luster, who worked as an Oklahoma State Board of Agriculture clerk, won a blue ribbon for his cotton bales in Guthrie and was dubbed "cotton king."

George said a morning did not pass without donning a black armband to remember Abraham Lincoln after he was assassinated. Other ex-slaves had different opinions about the president, however.

"Lincoln was a durn fool man, but he was better'n John de Baptist; next to Christ," said George W. Harmon, a native of Lamar County, Texas. "Don't think much of Jefferson Davis. He's durn poor trash."

Alexander said she walked nearly the entire trek from Louisiana to Oklahoma in search of education.

"We come to Oklahoma looking for de same thing then that darkies go North looking fer now," Alexander said. "But we got disappointed. What little I learned I quit taking care of it and seeing after it and lost it all."

William L. Bethel documented in his autobiographical narrative that he moved to Oklahoma Territory in 1901, living in Kingfisher and Anadarko before arriving in OKC three years later.

"I am now an Honorable retired and Pastor Emeritus of the Bethany Presbyterian Church," wrote Bethel, an 1882 graduate of Lincoln University.

Georgia native Doc Daniel Dowdy, along with Davis, Douglass and Hutson, said they were members of Tabernacle Baptist Church, constituted in 1896 and noted in "The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives" as a prominent African-American institution.

"I love de Lawd and I think all de people should be Christians, 'case de Lawd lifted dat heavy burden of slavery from dere heads, and dat ain't all he do if de folks will only live by his teachings," Davis said. "And de main things is to treat your fellow men right, regardless of his color."

References: "The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives," edited by T. Lindsay Baker and Julie P. Baker, University of Oklahoma Press; Library of Congress; Oklahoma History Center; "Ex-Slave Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery," Norman R. Yetman; and "The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Vol. 12," George P. Rawick

How accurate are the narratives?
In his article "Ex-Slave Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery," Norman R. Yetman wrote about the subjectivity of personal recollection, noting those interviewed in the Federal Writers' Project's Slave Narrative collection were elderly and living in abject poverty during the Depression.

"They fondly described events and situations that had not been, in reality, so positive as they recalled them to be," wrote Yetman, professor emeritus at Kansas University's sociology department.

"It is apparent that some informants, mistaking the interviewer for a government representative who might somehow assist them in their economic plight, replied to questions with flattery and calculated exaggeration in an effort to curry the interviewer's favor."

Yetman also argued that the interviewer's race influenced the narratives by influencing ex-slaves to self-censor their stories.

"Because the etiquette of Southern race relations influenced the definition of the interview situation for these aged blacks, they may frequently have told the white interviewers, some of whom were even from the families of former slaveholders, 'what they wanted to hear,'" he wrote.

Yetman described the quality of the typewritten narratives as "grossly uneven," noting that some of the interviewers virtually ignored a questionnaire crafted by folklorist John Lomax, while others followed it too closely. Still, the narratives provide a corrective view of slavery that had been" and in some places still is " recalled through the lenses of a dominant group: the powerful.

"The distortions that resulted from the traditional white view of slavery as a paternalistic, 'civilizing,' and benevolent institution are demolished in the process of reviewing this collective portrait of a people and bares the reality of slavery in all its myriad forms and dimensions," Yetman said."Rob Collins

Oklahoma City's ex-slaves
The following provided slave narratives for the Oklahoma Writers' Project during the Depression. They are listed with birth information along with their age and place of residence in Oklahoma City at the time of the interviews. The links go to photos of the first page of their account, or a different transcription of their account. All photos/Mark Hancock.

Alice Alexander
Born 1849 in Jackson Parish, La.
Age 88 in 1937
409 E. Grand in OKC

Sam Anderson
Born 1839, location unknown
Age 98 in 1937
Interviewed at 501 N. Missouri, C.L.
Bryant Orphanage and Old Folks Home, in OKC

William L. Bethel
Born May 4, 1844, in Forsyth
County, N.C.
Age 92 in 1936
129-31 S. Klein in OKC

Lewis Bonner (aka L.B. Barner)
Born 1850 in Palestine, Texas
Age 87 in 1937
507 N. Durland in OKC

Francis Bridges
Born 1864 in Red River County,
Age 73 in 1937
314 N.E. Second in OKC

Robert Burns
Born March 1856 south of
Nashville, Tenn.
Age 81 in 1937
530 Mass. St. in OKC

Betty Foreman Chessier
Born July 11, 1843, in Raleigh, N.C.
Age 94 in 1937
624 N.E. Fifth in OKC

George Washington Claridy
Born Oct. 5, 1853, in Howard
County, Ark.
Age 84 in 1937
305 N.E. First in OKC

George Conrad Jr.
Born Feb. 23, 1860, in Connersville, Ken.
Age 77 in 1937
217 S. Ellison in OKC

Carrie E. Davis
Born May 8, 1842, in Winnsboro, S.C.
Age 97 in 1938
820 S.E. Sixth in OKC

Alice Douglass
Born Dec. 22, 1860, in Sumner
County, Tenn.
Age 77 in 1937
505 N. Fonshill in OKC

Doc Daniel Dowdy
Born June 6, 1856, in Madison
County, Ga.
Age 81 in 1937
1104 N.E. Seventh in OKC

Nancy Gardner
Born 1858 in Franklin, Tenn.
Age 79 in 1937
South Klein Avenue in OKC

Octavia George
Born in 1852 in Mansura, La.
Age 85 in 1937
709 S.E. Fourth in OKC

Robert R. Grinstead
Born Feb. 17, 1857, in Lawrence
County, Miss.
Age 80 in 1937
614 N. Kate in OKC

Mattie Hardman
Born Jan. 2, 1859, Texas
Age 78 in 1937
524 N. Bath in OKC

George W. Harmon
Born Dec. 25, 1854, in Lamar
County, Texas
Age 83 in 1937
528 Massachusetts in OKC

Ida Henry
Born 1854 in Marshall, Texas
Age 83 in 1937
530 N. Nebraska in OKC

Hal Hutson
Born Oct. 12, 1847, in Tennessee
Age 90 in 1937
605 N.E. Second in OKC

Lewis Jenkins
Born January 1844 in Greene
County, Ala.
Age 93 in 1937
18 S. Douglass in OKC

Sam Jordan
Birthday unknown in Crenshaw
County, Ala.
Age unknown in 1937
612 N. Missouri in OKC

Ben Lawson
Birthday unknown in Danville, Ill.
Age 84 in 1937
714 N. Wisconsin in OKC

Bert Luster
Born 1853 in Tennessee
Age 85 in 1937
512 N. Lindsay in OKC

Marshall Mack
Born Sept. 10, 1854
Age 83 in 1937
501 N.E. Fourth in OKC

Stephen McCray
Born 1850 in Huntsville, Ala.
Age 88 in 1937
Address unknown in OKC

Hannah McFarland
Born Feb. 29, 1853, in Georgetown, S.C.
Age 85 in 1937
Address unknown in OKC

Jane Montgomery
Born March 15, 1857, in Homer, La.
Age 80 in 1937
Address unknown in OKC

Amanda Oliver
Born Nov. 9, 1857, in Missouri
Age 80 in 1937
410 N.E. Fourth in OKC

Martha Ann Ratliff
Birthday unknown in Cotton Plant, Miss.
Age unknown in 1937
1335 N.E. Sixth in OKC

Red Richardson
Born July 21, 1862, in Grimes County, Texas
Age 75 in 1937
917 E. Sixth in OKC

Harriett Robinson
Born Sept. 1, 1842, in Bastrop, Texas
Age 95 in 1937
500 block N. Fonshill in OKC

Alfred Smith
Birthday unknown in Calhoun, Ga.
Age unknown in 1937
1021 N.E. Seventh in OKC

Charles Willis
Birthday unknown in Lawrence
County, Miss.
Age unknown in 1938
714 N.E. Fourth in OKC

Annie Young
Born 1851 in Sumner County, Tenn.
Age 86 in 1937
1304 N.E. Sixth in OKC

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