In their own words: Stories of former S.C. slaves told by descendants
HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) – During the 1930s, the federal government paid writers to travel to 17 states and interview and transcribe the stories and memories of more than 2,000 former slaves.
The interviews done in South Carolina take up more than four volumes of the collected works.
Murrells Inlet native Genevieve Willcox Chandler recorded narratives from former slaves who were born on plantations along the Waccamaw Neck in Horry and Georgetown counties.
Many descendants of slaves still live in Horry and Georgetown counties, part of the rich Gullah culture that continues to thrive.
Great-great-great granddaughters and grandsons grew up hearing their ancestors' stories of hardship and opposition.
Their powerful words, spoken and recorded in authentic Gullah dialect, come to life from the old typewriter pages through their descendants, who help paint a picture of what it was like to live during slavery.
"And Sund'y, come we have to go to the Big House for Marse Josh to see how the clothes fit," said Ron Daise, reading the words of former slave Ben Horry. "And him and Miss Bess make us run races to see who run the fastest. That the happiest time I members when I wuz a boy to Brookgreen."
Some of the stories were oftentimes funny.
"Doctor say something wrong with my teeth," said Veronica Gerald, reading the words of Hagar Brown. "I tell 'em say, 'Ain't nothing wrong with my teeth! My teeth good!' He been wantin' take 'em out. I say, 'Mm-mm, no, can't take 'em out.'"
Others were sad.
"Have to run when you go church," said Gerald, reading Brown's words. "Going to come in and catch you and do any mischievous thing. Come carry you. Come carry you place. They gonna beat you and in a suit of white, old white man to the wilderness plantation."
But it was life as they knew, told by them, in their own words.
"Fore freedom? Fore freedom? Well now, fore freedom we were treated by our former owners I will say good–cording to situation of time," said Daise, reading Horry's words. "Every year when Massa and Missus gone mountains, they call up obersheer (overseer) and say, 'Don't treat them anyway severe. Don't beat them. Don't maul them.' Some these white people that day something! They either manage you or kill you."
After freedom, a term commonly used during his time, Horry, who was born on Brookgreen Plantation, now the site of the gardens, lived in his own cabin, on his own land, with his second wife Stella.
"After freedom, from my behavior wid my former owner, I wuz pinted (appointed) head man on Brookgreen Plantation," said Daise, reading Horry's words.
Horry estimated that he was about 89.
"I the oldest liver left on Waccamaw Neck that belong to Brookgreen, Prospect, Longwood, Alderly plantations," said Daise, reading Horry's words. "I been here! I seen things! I tell you. Thousand of them things happen but I try to forget 'em."
According to Horry, rice was just the same as having money during that time.
"My father fore he dead been the head man for old Colonel Josh Ward," said Daise, reading Horry's words. "Lived to Brookgreen. They say Colonel Ward the biggest rice man been on Waccamaw. He start that big gold rice in the country. He the head rice cap'n in dem time. My father the head man, he tote the barn key. Rice been money dem day and time."
And while Horry's father may have been the head man, it was the cruelty of an overseer that left horrific images of his own mother seared in his memory.
"The worst thing I members was the colored oberseer," said Daise, reading Horry's words. "He was the one straight from Africa. He the boss over all the mens and womens and if omans don't do all he say, he lay task on 'em they ain't able to do. My mother won't do all he say. When he say, 'You go barn and stay till I come,' she ain't do dem. So he have it in for my mother and lay task on 'em she ain't able for do. Then for punishment my mother is take to the barn and strapped down on thing called the 'pony.' Hands spread like this and strapped to the floor and all two both she feet been tie like this. And she been give 25 to 50 lashes till the blood flow. And my father and me stand right there and look and ain't able to lift a hand! Blood on floor in that rice barn when barn tear down by Huntingdon."
The blood of Horry's mother was still on the barn floor when it was torn down decades later.
For those who look through the pages, they will find dozens of stories like that of Horry, Mariah Heywood, Margaret Brown, Welcome Bees and Sabe Gutledge, all former slaves that spent their lives on the very ground locals walk on today.
Veronica Gerald heads the new institute for Gullah studies at Coastal Carolina University. Her great-great-great-great aunt was a woman named Hagar Brown, another former slave who Chandler spoke with in the 1930s about her memories of slavery and the violence that came along with it.
"Ma say some dem plan to run way," said Gerald, reading Hagar Brown's words. "Say, 'Less run! Less run!' Master ketch dem and fetch dem in. Lay 'em cross barrel. Beat dem till they wash in blood. Fetch 'em back. Place 'em cross the barrel — hogsket barrel — Christ! They ramp wash in blood! Beat ma sister. He sister sickly. Never could clear task like he want. My ma have to work he self to death to help Henritta so sickly."
Brown was born on the Oaks Plantation and, according to family stories, was kidnapped by the Ku Klux Klan for being too close to white people
"I remember them Klu Kluh (klux) would come getcha out of church and they take you to some place," said Gerald, reading Brown's words. "They do tings to you, you ain't wanna been tell nobody bout 'em. And you tink to yourself 'bout dem people that hate ya so bad. Then you look 'round and you sing the song like them old people use sa sing, 'Stay in the field! Stay in the field!
Stay in the field till the war been end!'"
Aunt Hagar, as she was called, remembered when that war did end and she was freed.
"Eberybody in church been sing, been a sing, 'Freedom! Freedom! Freedom ta come!,'" said Gerald, reading Brown's words. "And everybody been so glad for Yettie bout that time when they all over. Today I be sit down and think to myself that there been a time that I ain't been free but now I free. And now I look back on 'em and I think about what it use to be and what it is today. And I thank God and I truss God for havin' meke (make) me come this far by feeth (faith)."
Further information about former slaves Hagar Brown, Ben Horry and others can be found in "Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves," from the Library of Congress.
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