Gus Clark

Mississippi Federal Writers

Slave Autobiographies


Howison, Mississippi]

Uncle Gus Clark and his aged wife live in a poverty-stricken deserted

village about an eighth of a mile east of Howison.

Their old mill cabin, a relic of a forgotten lumber industry, is

tumbling down. They received direct relief from the ERA until May, 1934,

when the ERA changed the dole to work relief. Uncle Gus, determined to

have a work card, worked on the road with the others until he broke down

a few days later and was forced to accept direct relief. Now, neither

Gus nor Liza is able to work, and the only help available for them is

the meager State Old Age Assistance. Gus still manages to tend their

tiny garden.

He gives his story:

"I'se gwine on 'bout eighty-five. 'At's my age now. I was born at

Richmond, Virginny, but lef' dare right afte' de War. Dey had done

surrendered den, an' my old marster doan have no mo' power over us. We

was all free an' Boss turned us loose.

"My mammy's name was Judy, an' my pappy was Bob. Clark was de Boss's

name. I doan 'member my mammy, but pappy was workin' on de railroad

afte' freedom an' got killed.

"A man come to Richmond an' carried me an' pappy an' a lot of other

niggers ter Loos'anna ter work in de sugar cane. I was little but he

said I could be a water boy. It sho' was a rough place. Dem niggers

quar'l an' fight an' kills one 'nother. Big Boss, he rich, an' doan 'low

no sheriff ter come on his place. He hol' cou't an' settle all 'sputes

hisself. He done bury de dead niggers an' put de one what killed him

back to work.

"A heap of big rattlesnakes lay in dem canebrakes, an' dem niggers shoot

dey heads off an' eat 'em. It didn' kill de niggers. Dem snakes was fat

an' tender, an' fried jes lak chicken.

"Dere in Loos'anna we doan get no pay 'til de work is laid by. Den we'se

paid big money, no nickels. Mos' of de cullud mens go back to where dey

was raised.

"Dat was afte' freedom, but my daddy say dat de niggers earn money on

Old Boss' place even durin' slav'ry. He give 'em every other Sat'dy fer

deyse'ves. Dey cut cordwood fer Boss, wimmens an' all. Mos' of de mens

cut two cords a day an' de wimmens one. Boss paid 'em a dollar a cord.

Dey save dat money, fer dey doan have to pay it out fer nothin'. Big

Boss didn' fail to feed us good an' give us our work clo'es. An' he paid

de doctor bills. Some cullud men saved enough to buy deyse'ves frum

Boss, as free as I is now.

"Slav'ry was better in some ways 'an things is now. We allus got plen'y

ter eat, which we doan now. We can't make but fo' bits a day workin' out

now, an' 'at doan buy nothin' at de sto'. Co'se Boss only give us work

clo'es. When I was a kid I got two os'berg[FN: Osnaberg: the cheapest

grade of cotton cloth] shirts a year. I never wo' no shoes. I didn' know

whut a shoe was made fer, 'til I'se twelve or thirteen. We'd go rabbit

huntin' barefoot in de snow.

"Didn' wear no Sunday clo'es. Dey wa'nt made fer me, 'cause I had

nowhere ter go. You better not let Boss ketch you off'n de place, less'n

he give you a pass to go. My Boss didn' 'low us to go to church, er to

pray er sing. Iffen he ketched us prayin' er singin' he whupped us. He

better not ketch you with a book in yo' han'. Didn' 'low it. I doan know

whut de reason was. Jess meanness, I reckin. I doan b'lieve my marster

ever went to church in his life, but he wa'nt mean to his niggers, 'cept

fer doin' things he doan 'low us to. He didn' care fer nothin' 'cept


"Dere wa'nt no schools fer cullud people den. We didn' know whut a

school was. I never did learn to read.

"We didn' have no mattresses on our beds like we has now. De chullun

slep' under de big high beds, on sacks. We was put under dem beds 'bout

eight o'clock, an' we'd jes better not say nothin' er make no noise

afte' den. All de cullud folks slep' on croker sacks full of hay er


"Did I ever see any niggers punished? Yessum, I sho' has. Whupped an'

chained too. Day was whupped 'til de blood come, 'til dey back split all

to pieces. Den it was washed off wid salt, an' de nigger was put right

back in de fiel'. Dey was whupped fer runnin' away. Sometimes dey run

afte' 'em fer days an nights with dem big old blood houn's. Heap o'

people doan b'lieve dis. But I does, 'cause I seed it myse'f.

"I'se lived here forty-five years, an' chipped turpentine mos' all my

life since I was free.

"I'se had three wives. I didn' have no weddin's, but I mar'ied 'em

'cordin to law. I woan stay with one no other way. My fust two wives is

dead. Liza an' me has been mar'ied 'bout 'leven years. I never had but

one chile, an' 'at by my fust wife, an' he's dead. But my other two

wives had been mar'ied befo', an' had chullun. 'Simon here,' pointing to

a big buck of fifty-five sitting on the front porch, 'is Liza's oldest


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