Adah Isabelle Suggs

Stories from Ex-Slaves

5th District

Vanderburgh County

Lauana Creel

1415 S. Barker Avenue, Evansville, Indiana


Among the interesting stories connected with former slaves one of the

most outstanding ones is the life story of Adah Isabelle Suggs, indeed

her escape from slavery planned and executed by her anxious mother,

Harriott McClain, bears the earmarks of fiction, but the truth of all

related occurences has been established by the aged negro woman and her

daughter Mrs. Harriott Holloway, both citizens of Evansville, Indiana.

Born in slavery before January the twenty-second, 1862 the child Adah

McClain was the property of Colonel Jackson McClain and Louisa, his


According to the customary practice of raising slave children, Adah was

left at the negro quarters of the McClain plantation, a large estate

located in Henderson county, three and one half miles from the village

of Henderson, Kentucky. There she was cared for by her mother. She

retains many impressions gained in early childhood of the slave

quarters; she remembers the slaves singing and dancing together after

the day of toil. Their voices were strong and their songs were sweet.

"Master was good to his slaves and never beat them" were her words

concerning her master.

When Adah was not yet five years of age the mistress, Louisa McClain,

made a trip to the slave quarters to review conditions of the negroes.

It was there she discovered that one little girl there had been

developing ideas and ideals; the mother had taught the little one to

knit tiny stockings, using wheat straws for knitting needles.

Mrs. McClain at once took charge of the child taking her from her

mother's care and establishing her room at the residence of the McClain


Today the aged Negro woman recalls the words of praise and encouragement

accorded her accomplishments, for the child was apt, active, responsive

to influence and soon learned to fetch any needed volume from the

library shelves of the McClain home.

She was contented and happy but the mother knew that much unhappiness

was in store for her young daughter if she remained as she was situated.

A custom prevailed throughout the southern states that the first born

of each slave maiden should be the son or daughter of her master and the

girls were forced into maternity at puberty. The mothers naturally

resisted this terrible practice and Harriott was determined to prevent

her child being victimized.

One planned escape was thwarted; when the girl was about twelve years of

age the mother tried to take her to a place of safety but they were

overtaken on the road to the ferry where they hoped to be put across the

Ohio river. They were carried back to the plantation and the mother was

mildly punished and imprisoned in an upstair room.

The little girl knew her mother was imprisoned and often climbed up to a

window where the two could talk together.

One night the mother received directions through a dream in which her

escape was planned. She told the child about the dream and instructed

her to carry out orders that they might escape together.

The girl brought a large knife from Mrs. McClain's pantry and by the aid

of that tool the lock was pried from the prison door and the mother made

her way into the open world about midnight.

A large tobacco barn became her refuge where she waited for her child.

The girl had some trouble making her escape; she had become a useful and

necessary member of her mistress' household and her services were hourly

in demand. The Daughter "young missus" Annie McClain was afflicted from

birth having a cleft palate and later developing heart dropsy which made

regular surgery imperative. The negro girl had learned to care for the

young white woman and could draw the bandages for the surgeon whey

"Young Missus" underwent surgical treatment.

The memory of one trip to Louisville is vivid in the mind of the old

negress today for she was taken to the city and the party stopped at the

Gault House and [TR: line not completed]

"It was a grand place," she declares, as she describes the surroundings;

the handsome draperies and the winding stairway and other artistic

objects seen at the grand hotel.

The child loved her young mistress and the young mistress desired the

good slave should be always near her; so, patient waiting was required

by the negro mother before her daughter finally reached their


Under cover of night the two fugitives traveled the three miles to

Henderson, there they secreted themselves under the house of Mrs.

Margaret Bentley until darkness fell over the world to cover their

retreat. Imagine the frightened negroes stealthily creeping through the

woods in constant fear of being recaptured. Federal soldiers put them

across the river at Henderson and from that point they cautiously

advanced toward Evansville. The husband of Harriott, Milton McClain and

her son Jerome were volunteers in a negro regiment. The operation of the

Federal Statute providing for the enlistment of slaves made enlisted

negroes free as well as their wives and children, so, by that statute

Harriott McClain and her daughter should have been given their freedom.

When the refugees arrived in Evansville they were befriended by free

negroes of the area. Harriott obtained a position as maid with the

Parvine family, "Miss Hallie and Miss Genevieve Parvine were real good

folks," declares the aged negro Adah when repeating her story. After

working for the Misses Parvine for about two years, the negro mother had

saved enough money to place her child in "pay school" there she learned


Adah McClain was married to Thomas Suggs January 18, 1872. Thomas was a

slave of Bill McClain and it is believed he adopted the name Suggs

because a Mr. Suggs had befriended him in time of trouble. Of this fact

neither the wife nor daughter have positive proof. The father has

departed this life but Adah Suggs lives on with her memories.

Varied experiences have attended her way. Wifehood and devotion;

motherhood and care she has known for she has given fifteen children to

the world. Among them were one set of twins, daughters and triplets, two

sons and a daughter. She is a beloved mother to those of her children

who remain near her and says she is happy in her belief in God and

Christ and hopes for a glorious hereafter where she can serve the Lord

Jesus Christ and praise him eternally.

What greater hope can be given to the mortal than the hope cherished by

Adah Isabelle Suggs?

Ada Moorehead Adaline Johnson facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail