An Interview With an American Slave


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This is the account of an ex-slave by the name of William Barker who now resides in Bethany, AL. He is approximately 95 years old and lives in a little shack with a plot of land. He has worked for some local townsfolk doing some grounds keeping and gardening since he was freed when he was 20. But for the most part, Barker keeps to himself. He has no wife and no children. He is only 5 foot 4 and may weigh about 145 lbs. As a slave he worked as a gardner, and later learned to cook, but soon thereafter was freed. Gardening is all he seems to know. However, he seems very proficient at hunting. He says that is the only way he keep alive, living off what God gives him from the land and water. He was son to Frances William and Eliza William. His father died in the war. Because of his size and ability to cook, William Barker did not go to war. His mammy died within weeks of being free due to starvation. Here is his account

What is your name:
My name is William Barker. That's not my name when I was a slave. It then was Scott William.

Why did it change?
Well my Messas name was Nole William, and we were named for him. But when we was freed, we were told to take freed names.

How old are you?
Well I spose I am 95. But I am not so sure. Most days I feel olders, others I feels a bit younger.

Why don't you know your age?
My Messa told me whens I was freed I was 20. He wasn't so sure though. Some days I count my birthday as the day I was freed.

Were you born a slave?
Oh yessa, I was. An my mammy and daddy was too.

Did you know your parents?
I knew my mammys real well. My daddy went to fight in the war. He never did come back. Before that, he was working in the fields. He was a big man, not like me. I was too little, too small to do dem fields work. So I nevers did see him. Sometimes I would see him by the moonlight. He worked from the time the sun came up till just before it came up again. They sho did work him to the ground.

And your mother?
Well, yes, I knew her.

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She raised me good too. She worked as a spinner, sometimes as a gardner, and even as a cook sometimes. I even once saw her work in the fields with the mens. The Messa wife said my mammy could do anything on the plantation, even plow.
Were there other children in your family?
Oh, there was. I had me a brother. He was big like my daddy. He got killed by another slave over some woman. He was always fighting. Just like my daddy.

Were you ever beaten?
No, no I wasn't. But my daddy was. Oh and he sure did get whipped some days. I could hear him cry. But my mammy said if my daddy would just hush, no harm would ever come his way. So I should just hush and do as I am told. So that's what I did.

What were your Masters like?
They were good people most days. But mess was one to get angry. That's mostly when his wife was being rotten as women do some months. But they lived so well. I don't know why she complained so much. Big white house with floors. Even had rugs. Row and rows of rooms, filled with pretty furniture and silver. I can still see the silver.

Were they Christian?
Oh, yes they were. On Sunday anyway. They even let us go to church. They were good Babtists.

Did they let you be educated?
I don't know nothing about being educated. Never did learn to read or write. You got whipped for even wanting to read. They said the only thing worth reading was being read to us on Sunday. We weren't sposed to be smart. Just strong.

What were you quarters like?
Oh, better than some as far as I heard from the other slaves. So I wont complain. It was a one room shack, just rows of shacks just like mine. Dirt floor and a sack to sleep on. Kept me warm and away from the bears. All I cared about.

What did you wear?
Jus some shirt my mammy made me. No shoes though. Really didn't know what shoes was for.

Did you have anything you looked forward too?
Oh, on a good day, the dinner bell. But Saturdays, dem some good nights. We danced. We didn't work but half the day. So we danced.

How did you hear you were freed?
Well, one day, some Yankees showed up and talked to Messa. He came and lined us up and told us we were just as free as he was. Didn't really know what he meant. But we soon learned. He told us the government would keep us now. Never saw that though. Except for this little old shack here.

What was life like then?
Well, I hads me a wife. She had a son one night. They died both the same night. That wouldn't happened if I wasn't freed. My messa would have made sure she was right taken care of. Baby slaves was a "vestment" to him. But free, no sir. No help. None for me. None for my baby and wife.
I work my field here, and I work for some people in town, taken care of their gardens. I eats what I grow and what I catch.. Aint no bell telling me to work and none telling me there is food to eat. Sho do miss that bell.

Did they feed you well?
When the Messa was being kind. We ate some real good most those days. But them days he wasn't, we hunted our own. Turkey if God was blessing us, skunk if he wasn't.

And now?
Now I eats me fish. Some corn cakes and collard greens, just like when I was being raised. Never gonna get past all that corn I spose.

Did you fear the Klu Klux Klan?
No, I keeps to myself, you know. I still think of the white man as my Messa. They calls me a good honest dark skinned fella. Just like my mammy said, just hush, and no harm will come to you.

How do you feel about being free?
Well, I don't know. I miss my friend most days. Mammy wouldn't died if we weren't freed. I was sho taken care of most times. But now, only me taken up for me. No one care if I live or die. Before, I think my Messa would have cared about me and my baby. He said he always liked me more than most. I always made him laugh. I feels as though I had to, since my daddy was so mean. He would give me candy. No one else did the Messa give candy to. Cept one other boy. But he was a house boy, the was always treated better.
No candy now. I sho would like some candy.

Anything else you would like to share?
I like my freedom. It what you make of it I spose. But I sho do wonder if the government and the Yankees know just what they didn't give us when the said that we was freed. Sure does feel like slavery to me. Just different Messa's.

End

In summation, It seems as though there was a great deal of mixed feelings. It is as though, in hindsight, the freedom that they wanted was the freedom that their life offered them. That was to live. They didn't know anything more than that. Those that were treated fairly, would have been just as happy to remain slaves. For those that were treated poorly, they would have rather died than take another beating. But when freedom came, all that was promised was not what thy received. And their new burden, or yoke to bear, was how were they going to take care of themselves and their families. They were not educated enough by our standards, but they were smart enough to know that this was not what was right in either circumstance. The only freedom they had came from within.
Their stories meant so much to me and what I take for granted every day. Even if just a chance to read freely.


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