Ellen Cragin

Interviewer: Samuel S. Taylor

Person interviewed: Ellen Cragin

815-1/2 Arch Street, Little Rock, Arkansas

Age: Around 80 or more

[May 31 1939]

[HW: Escapes on Cow]

"I was born on the tenth of March in some year, I don't know what one. I

don't know whether it was in the Civil War or before the Civil War. I

forget it. I think that I was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi; I'm not

sure, but I think it was.

"My mother was a great shouter. One night before I was born, she was at

a meeting, and she said, 'Well, I'll have to go in, I feel something.'

She said I was walkin' about in there. And when she went in, I was born

that same night.

"My mother was a great Christian woman. She raised us right. We had to

be in at sundown. If you didn't bring it in at sundown, she'd whip

you,--whip you within an inch of your life.

"She didn't work in the field. She worked at a loom. She worked so long

and so often that once she went to sleep at the loom. Her master's boy

saw her and told his mother. His mother told him to take a whip and wear

her out. He took a stick and went out to beat her awake. He beat my

mother till she woke up. When she woke up, she took a pole out of the

loom and beat him nearly to death with it. He hollered, 'Don't beat me

no more, and I won't let 'em whip you.'

"She said, 'I'm goin' to kill you. These black titties sucked you, and

then you come out here to beat me.' And when she left him, he wasn't

able to walk.

"And that was the last I seen of her until after freedom. She went out

and got on an old cow that she used to milk--Dolly, she called it. She

rode away from the plantation, because she knew they would kill her if

she stayed.

"My mother was named Luvenia Polk. She got plumb away and stayed away.

On account of that, I was raised by my mother. She went to Atchison,

Kansas--rode all through them woods on that cow. Tore her clothes all

off on those bushes.

"Once a man stopped her and she said, 'My folks gone to Kansas and I

don't know how to find 'em.' He told her just how to go.

"My father was an Indian. 'Way back in the dark days, his mother ran

away, and when she came up, that's what she come with--a little Indian

boy. They called him 'Waw-hoo'che.' His master's name was Tom Polk.

Tom Polk was my mother's master too. It was Tom Polk's boy that my

mother beat up.

"My father wouldn't let nobody beat him either. One time when somethin'

he had did didn't suit Tom Polk--I don't know what it was--they cut

sores on him that he died with. Cut him with a raw-hide whip, you know.

And then they took salt and rubbed it into the sores.

"He told his master, 'You have took me down and beat me for nothin', and

when you do it again, I'm goin' to put you in the ground.' Papa never

slept in the house again after that. They got scared and he was scared

of them. He used to sleep in the woods.

"They used to call me 'Waw-hoo'che' and 'Red-Headed Indian Brat.' I got

in a fight once with my mistress' daughter,--on account of that.

"The children used to say to me, 'They beat your papa yesterday.'

"And I would say to them, 'They better not beat my papa,' and they would

go up to the house and tell it, and I would beat 'em for tellin' it.

"There was an old white man used to come out and teach papa how to read

the Bible.

"Papa said, 'Ain't you 'fraid they'll kill you if they see you?'

"The old man said, 'No; they don't know what I'm doing, and don't you

tell 'em. If you do, they will kill me.'

Signs of the War

"One night my father called me outside and told me that he saw the

elements opened up and soldiers fighting in the heavens.

"'Don't you see them, honey?' he said; but I couldn't see them. And he

said there was going to be a war.

"I went out and told it. The white people said they ought to take him

out and beat him and make him hush his mouth. Because if they got such

talk going 'round among the colored people, they wouldn't be able to do

nothin' with them. Dr. Polk's wife's father, Old Man Woods, used to say

that the niggers weren't goin' to be free. He said that God had showed

that to him.

Mean Masters

"Dr. Polk and his son, the one my mother beat up and left lying on the

ground, were two mean men. When the slaves didn't pick enough cotton for

them, they would take them down the field, and turn up their clothes,

till they was naked, and beat them nearly to death.

"Mother was a breeder. While she did that weaving, she had children

fast. One day, Tom Polk hit my mother. That was before she ran away. He

hit her because she didn't pick the required amount of cotton. When

there was nothin' to do at the loom, mother had to go in the field, you

know. I forget how much cotton they had to pick. I don't know how many

times he hit her. I was small. I heard some one say, 'They got Clarisay

Down, down there!' I went to see. And they had her down. She was stout,

and they had dug a hole in the ground to put her belly in. I never did

get over that. I'm an old woman, but Tom Polk better not come 'round me

now even.

"I have heard women scream and holler, 'Do pray, massa, do pray.' And I

was sure glad when she beat up young Tom and got away. I didn't have no

use for neither one of 'em, and ain't yet.

"It wasn't her work to be in the field. He made her breed and then made

her work at the loom. That wasn't nothin'. He would have children by a

nigger woman and then have them by her daughter.

"I went out one day and got a gun. I don't know whose gun it was. I said

to myself, 'If you whip my mother today, I am goin' to shoot you.' I

didn't know where the gun belonged. My oldest sister told me to take it

and set it by the door, and I did it.

How Freedom Came

"Dr. Polk had a fine horse. He came riding through the field and said,

'All you all niggers are free now. You can stay here and work for me or

you can go to the next field and work.'

"I had an old aunt that they used to make set on a log. She jumped off

that log and ran down the field to the quarters shouting and hollering.

"The people all said, 'Nancy's free; they ain't no ants biting her

today.' She'd been setting on that log one year. She wouldn't do no kind

of work and they make her set there all day and let the ants bite her.

"Big Niggers"

"They used to call my folks 'big niggers.' Papa used to get things off a

steamboat. One day he brought a big demi-john home and ordered all the

people not to touch it. One day when he went out, I went in it. I had to

see what it was. I drunk some of it and when he came home he said to me,

'You've been in that demi-john.' I said, 'No, I haven't.' But he said,

'Yes, you have; I can tell by the way you look.' And then I told him the


"He would get shoes, calico goods, coffee, sugar, and a whole lot of

other things. Anything he wanted, he would get. That he didn't, he would

ask him to bring the next trip.

"It was a Union gunboat, and ran under the water. You could see the

smoke. The white people said, 'That boat's goin' to carry some of these

niggers away from here one of these days.'

"And sure enough, it did carry one away.

Buried Treasure and a Runaway

"I went to the big gate one morning and there was a nigger named Charles


"I said, 'What you doing out here so early this morning?'

"He said to me, 'You hush yo' mouth and get on back up to the house.'

"I went back to the house and told my mother, 'I saw Charles out there.'

That was before my mother ran away.

"My mother said, 'He's fixing to run away. And he's got a barrel of

money. And it belongs to the Doctor. 'Cause he and the Dr. went out to

bury it to keep the Yankees from getting it.'

"He ran away, and he took the money with him, too. He went out to Kansas

City and bought a home. We didn't think much of it, because we knew it

was wrong to do it. But Old Master Tom had done a heap of wrong too. He

was the first one spotted the boat that morning--Charles was. And he

went away on it.

Plenty to Eat

"My father would kill a hog and keep the meat in a pit under the house.

I know what it is now. I didn't know then. He would clean the hog and

everything before he would bring him to the house. You had to come down

outside the house and go into the pit when you wanted to get meat to

eat. If my father didn't have a hog, he would steal one from his

master's pen and cut its throat and bring it to the pit.

"My folks liked hog guts. We didn't try to keep them long. We'd jus'

clean 'em and scrape 'em and throw 'em in the pot. I didn't like to

clean 'em but I sure loved to eat 'em. Father had a great big pot they

called the wash pot and we would cook the chit'lins in it. You could

smell 'em all over the country. I didn't have no sense. Whenever we had

a big hog killin', I would say to the other kids, 'We got plenty of meat

at our house.'

"They would say back, 'Where you got it?'

"I would tell 'em. And they would say, 'Give us some.'

"And I would say to them, 'No, that's for us.'

"So they called us 'big niggers.'

Marriages Since Freedom

"My first baby was born to my husband. I didn't throw myself away. I

married Mr. Cragin in 1867. He lived with me about fifteen years before

he died. He got kicked. He was a baker. During the War, he was the cook

in a camp. He went to get some flour one morning. He snatched the tray

too hard and it kicked him in his bowels. He never did get over it. The

tray was full of flour and it was big and heavy. It was a sliding tray.

It rolled out easy and fast and you had to pull it careful. I don't know

why they called it a kick.

"I married a second husband--if you can call it that--a nigger named

Jones. He had a spoonful of sense. We didn't live together three months.

He came in one day and I didn't have dinner ready. He slapped me. I had

never been slapped by a man before. I went to the drawer and got my

pistol out and started to kill him. But I didn't. I told him to leave

there fast. He had promised to do a lot of things and didn't do them,

and then he used to use bad language too.


"I've always sewed for a living. See that sign up there?" The sign read:



"I can't cut out no dress and make it, but I can use a needle on

patching and quilting. Can't nobody beat me doin' that. I can knit, too.

I can make stockings, gloves, and all such things.

"I belong to Bib Bethel Church, and I get most of my support from the

Lord. I get help from the government. I'm trying to get moved, and I'm

just sittin' here waiting for the man to come and move me. I ain't got

no money, but he promised to move me."


There it was--the appeal to the slush fund. I have contributed to lunch,

tobacco, and cold drinks, but not before to moving expenses. I had only

six cents which I had reserved for car fare. But after you have talked

with people who are too old to work, too feeble to help themselves in

any effective fashion, hemmed up in a single room and unable to pay rent

on that, odds and ends of broken and dilapidated furniture, ragged

clothes, and not even plenty of water on hand for bathing, barely

hanging on to the thread of life without a thrill or a passion, then it

is a great thing to have six cents to give away and to be able to walk

any distance you want to.

Ellen Claibourn Ellen Fitzgerald facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail