Laura Thornton

Interviewer: Samuel S. Taylor

Person Interviewed: Laura Thornton

1215 W. Twenty-Fourth Street, Little Rock, Arkansas

Age: 105?

"My native home is Alabama. I was born not far from Midway, Alabama,

about twelve miles from Clayton. Midway, Clayton, and Barber are all

nearby towns. We used to go to all of them.

"My master was Tom Eford. When he died, I fell to Polly Eford. Polly

Eford was the old lady. I don't know where they is and they don't know

nothing about where I is. It's been so long. Because I done lef' Alabama

fifty years. I don't know whether any of them is living or not. It's

been so long.

"Their baby boy was named Giles Eford. His mother was Miami Eford and my

father's name was Perry Eford. That is the name he went in. My mother

went in that name too. My father died the second year of the surrender.

My mother was a widow a long time. I was a grown-up woman and had

children when my father died.

"I married during slavery time. I don't remember just how old I was

then. My old man knows my age, but I can't remember it. But he's

been dead this year makes thirteen years. I had one child before the

surrender. I was just married to the one man. I was married after the

surrender. I don't want to be married again. I never seed a man I would

give a thought to since he died. Lord knows how long we'd been married

before he died.

"We came here and stayed four years and we bought a home down on Arch

Street Pike about ten miles from here. I lived there sixty years. I've

got the tax receipts for sixty years back. I ain't never counted the

ones I paid since he's been dead.

"I was the mother of three children and none of them are living. All of

them dead but me.

"They made like they was goin' to give old slave folks a pension. They

ain't gimme none yit. I'm just livin' on the mercy of the people. I

can't keep up the taxes now. I wish I could git a pension. It would help

keep me up till I died. They won't even as much as give me nothin' on

the relief. They say these grandchildren ought to keep me up. I have to

depend on them and they can't hardly keep up theirselves.

"When the Civil War broke out, my baby was about seven years old. My

mother was here when the stars fell. She had one child then.

"I remember a war before the Civil War. I heard the white folks talking

about it. They wouldn't tell colored folks nothing. They'd work them to

death and beat them to death. They'd sell them just like you sell hogs.

My mother was sold from me when I was little. Old lady Eford, she was

my mistress and mammy too. If she ever slapped me, I don't know nothin'

'bout it.

"My daddy made his farm jus' like colored people do now. White man would

give him so much ground if he'd a mind to work it. He had a horse he


"We lived a heap better than the people live now. They fed you then.

You ate three times a day. When twelve o'clock come, there dinner was,

cooked and ready. Nothin' to do but eat it, and then set down and res'

with the other people. There was them that was good.

"But them what was mean done the colored folks bad.

Early Days

"I was little when my mother was sold from me. I was runnin' about

though in the yard. I couldn't do nothing. But I was a smart girl. The

first work I can remember doin' was goin' to the field ploughing. That

is the first thing I remember. I was little. I just could come up to the

plough. I cut logs when I was a little child like them children there

(children about ten years old playing in the street). I used to clean up

new ground--do anything.

"My mother and father both worked in the field. My father was sold away

from me jus' like my mother was. Old lady Eford was my mother and father

too. That was in Clayton, Alabama. Old Tom Eford had three boys--one

named Tom, one named William, and there was the one named Giles what I

told you about. William was the oldest, Tom was the second, and Giles

was the youngest.

"I never learnt to read and write. In slave time, they didn't let you

have no books. My brother though was a good reader. He could write as

well as any of them because he would be with the white children and they

would show him. That is the way my brother learnt. He would lay down all

day Sunday and study. The good blessed Lord helped him.


"The man I married was on the plantation. They married in slave time

just like they do these days. When I married, the justice of peace

married me. That was after freedom, our folks would give big weddings

just like they do now (just after the war). I ain't got my license now.

Movin' 'round, it got lost. I was married right at home where me and my

old man stayed. Wasn't nobody there but me and him and another man named

Dr. Bryant. That wasn't far from Midway.

"I can't talk much since I had those strokes. Can't talk plain, just

have to push it out, but I thank God I can do that much. The Lord let me

stay here for some reason--I don't know what. I would rather go, but he

ain't called me.

How the Day Went

"We got up after daylight. Tom Eford didn't make his folks git up early.

But after he was dead and gone, things changed up. The res' made 'em git

up before daylight. He was a good man. The Lord knows. Yes Lord, way

before day. You'd be in the field to work way before day and then work

way into the night. The white folks called Eford's colored people poor

white folks because he was so good to them. Old Tom Eford was the

sheriff of Clayton.

"His folks came back to the house at noon and et their dinner at the

house. He had a cook and dinner was prepared for them just like it was

for the white folks. The colored woman that cooked for them had it ready

when they came there for it. They had a great big kitchen and the hands

ate there. They came back to the same place for supper. And they didn't

have to work late either. Old Tom Eford never worked his hands extra.

That is the reason they called his niggers poor-white folks. Folks lived

at home them days and et in the same place. When my old man was living,

I had plenty. Smokehouse was full of good meat. Now everything you git,

you have to buy.

"Next morning, they all et their breakfast in the same kitchen. They et

three meals a day every day. My mother never cooked except on Sunday.

She didn't need to.


"Me and old lady Eford would be out in the yard and I would hear her

cuss the pateroles because they didn't want folks to 'buse their

niggers. They had to git a pass from their masters when they would be

out. If they didn't have a pass, the pateroles would whip them.


"The jayhawkers would catch folks and carry them out in the woods and

hang them up. They'd catch you and beat you to death.


"Colored folks what would run away, old lady Eford would call them

'rottenheads' and 'bloody bones.' We would hear the hounds baying after

them and old lady Eford would stand out in the yard and cuss them--cuss

the hounds I mean. Like that would do any good. Some slaves would kill

theirselves before they would be caught. They would hear them dogs. I

have seen old Tom Eford. He would have them dogs. He was sheriff and he

had to do it. He carried them dogs. He would be gone two weeks before

he would be back sometimes. Alden or Alton was the place they said they

carried the runaways.

Slave Breeding

"They never kept no slaves for breeding on any plantation I heard of.

They would work them to death and breed them too. There was places where

old massa kept one for hisself.


"Folks had heap more pleasure than they do now in slave time. They had

parties and dances and they would bow 'round. They had fiddles and

danced by them. Folks danced them days. They don't dance now, just mess

around. My brother could scrape the fiddle and dance on, all at the same

time. Folks would give big suppers and ask people out. They would feed

nice times with one another. Folks ain't got no love in their hearts

like they used to have.

"Folks would give quiltings. They don't think about quilting now. They

would quilt out a quilt and dance the rest of the night. They would have

a big supper at the quilting. Nice time too. They would kill a hog and

barbecue it. They would cook chicken. Have plenty of whiskey too. Some

folks would get drunk. That was whiskey them days. They ain't got no

whiskey now--old poison stuff that will kill people.

My daddy was jus' drunk all the time. He had plenty of whiskey. That was

what killed old Tom Eford. He kept it settin' on the dresser all the

time. You couldn't walk in his house but what you would see it time you

got in. Folks hide it now. I have drunk a many a glass of it. I would go

and take a glass whenever I wanted to.

How Freedom Came

"The old white folks told me I was free. They had me hired out. I wasn't

staying with my owner. There wasn't nobody there with me but the white

folks where I was staying. That morning I got up to get breakfast

and there wasn't no fire and there wasn't so matches. I went to some

neighbors to get a chunk of fire and they told me to go back to my folks

because I was free. When I got back to the house they was mad and wanted

to whip me. So I just put the fire down and never cooked no breakfast

but jus' went on to my brother's. The reason they wanted to whip me was

because I had gone outside of the house without their knowing it.

"When I went to my brother's, I had to walk twelve miles. My brother

carried me to my mother and father. And then he took me back to old lady

Eford, and she told me to go on to my mother, that I was free now. So he

took me on back to my ma and pa. He said he'd do that so that I could

stay with them.

Slave Earnings

"Slaves had money in slave time. My daddy bought a horse. He made a crop

every year. He made his bale of cotton. He made corn to feed his horse

with. He belonged to his white folks but he had his house and lot right

next to theirs. They would give him time you know. He didn't have to

work in the heat of the day. He made his crop and bought his whiskey.

The white folks fed 'im. He had no expenses 'cept tending to his crop.

He didn't have to give Tom Eford anything he made. He just worked his

crop in his extra time. Many folks too lazy to git theirselves somethin'

when they have the chance to do it. But my daddy wasn't that kind. His

old master gave him the ground and he made it give him the money.

"My daddy left me plenty but I ain't got it now. I didn't care what

happened when he died. People made out like they was goin' to put my

money in the bank for me and took it and destroyed it. Used it for

theirselves I reckon. Now I need it and ain't got it--ain't got a

penny. For five or six years at my home, I made good crops. We raised

everything we needed at home. Didn't know what it was to come to town to

buy anything. If anybody had told me twenty years ago I would be in this

shape, I wouldn't have believed it because I had plenty.

What Slaves Got When Freed

"They said they was gwine a give the slaves something, but they never

did do it. Then the master made out like he was gwine a give the slaves

so much if they stayed 'round and made his crops for him, but he didn't

do it.

Come Again

"If the Lord lets you git back tomorrow, try and come a little sooner in

the day than you did today. I gits up about six in the morning. I don't

believe in layin' in bed late. I go to bed directly after dark and I

wake up early. The Lord never did mean for nobody to sleep all day."

Interviewer's Comment

A number of people testify to Laura Thornton's age. I am trying to check

up on it. Results later. If she isn't a hundred [HW: and] five years

old, she is "mighty nigh" it. She has feeble health, but a surprisingly

alert mind, and a keen sharp memory. She has a tendency to confuse

Reconstruction times with slavery times, but a little questioning always

brings out the facts.

She doesn't like to talk much about marriage in slavery. Evidently she

dislikes the fact that one of her children ms born before emancipation.

She was evidently married only once, as questioning brought out; but she

will refer to the marriage before emancipation and the one afterward as

though they were to different persons.

[HW: Curtis, Ark.

Emma (Bama?) Tidwell]



Ah'm one uv dem ole timers. Ah been here since way back yonder. Fust

thing ah kin member is a bad storm an mah ma put us undah de baid. She

wuz skeered hit would blow us away. Ah use tuh play till ah got bigger

nuff tuh work. Ah member we use tuh play runnin. We'd play walkin tuh

see which one uv us could walk de fastest tuh de field tuh carry dinner.

We use tuh jump an we use tuh ride stick hosses an limbs offn trees.

Ole boss learnt mah pa how tuh make shoes an de way he done: Dey kilt a

cow an a deer an take dey hides an tanned dem. De way he tanned hit wuz

tuh take red oak bark an white oak bark an put in vats. Dese vats wuz

somethin like troughs dat helt water an he put a layer uv oak ashes

an or layer uv ashes an a layer uv leather till he got hit all in an

covered wid water. Aftuh dat dey let hit soak till de hair come offn de

hide den dey would take de hide oft an hit wuz ready fuh tannin. Den de

hide wuz put tuh soak in wid de redoak bark. Hit stayed in de water till

de hide turnt tan den pa took de hide out uv de redoak dye an hit would

be a purty tan. Hit didn' have tuh soak so long. Den he would git his

pattern an cut an make tan shoes outn dat tanned hide. We called dem

brogans. We all wore shoes cause mah pa made em.

We planted indigo an hit growed jes like wheat. When hit got ripe we

gathered hit an we would put hit in a barrel an let hit soak bout er

week den we would take de indigo stems out an squeeze all de juice outn

dem, put de juice back in de barrel an let hit stay dere bout nother

week, den we jes stirred an stirred one whole day. We let hit set three

or four days den drained de water offn hit an dat left de settlings an

de settlings wuz blueing jes like we have dese days. We cut ours in

little blocks. Den we dyed clothes wid hit. We had purty blue cloth. De

way we set de color we put alumn in hit. Dat make de color stay right


Ah'll tell yuh how tuh dye. Er little beech bark dyes slate color set

wid copper. Hickory bark an bay leaves dyes yellow set wid chamber lye;

bamboo dyes turkey red, set color wid copper. Pine straw an sweetgum

dyes purple, set color wid chamber lye. Ifn yuh dont bleave hit try em


Mah ma made cloth while mah pa made shoes. Ah member jes as good when

dey handcuff mah ma's two brothers tuh keep um from runnin off when dey

got ready tuh sell em. Ah seed um handcuff as many as eight tugethuh

when dey marched dem tuh de pen. Yuh know dey had uh pen kinder like de

pond pen fer cows an hosses. Well dey would drive us niggers tuh de pond

pen an dey had er big block in de pen an dey put one uv us niggers on

hit at a time. Bid us off tuh de highest bidder. Mah ole boss wuz a

gambler. People talk bout dis gamblin an drinkin bein a late thing--dem

white fokes done hit way back yonder 90 years ergo, cause mah ole boss

gambled me off, ah clare he did. Gambled me off one Sunday mornin'. Ole

Boss made whiskey jes like dey do tuhday.

Black preachers couldn' preach tuh us. Ole boss would tie em tuh a tree

an whoop em if dey caught us eben praying. We had er big black washpot

an de way we prayed we'd go out an put our mouths to der groun an pray

low an de sound wud go up under de pot an ole boss couldn' bear us. De

white preacher would call us under a tree Sunday evenin tuh preach tuh

us. Dis is whut his text would be: "Mind yo mistress." Den he would ceed

tuh preach--"Don't steal der potatoes; don't lie bout nothin an don'

talk back tuh yo boss; ifn yo does yo'll be tied tuh a tree an stripped

neckid. When dey tell yuh tuh do somethin run an do it." Dat's de kind

uv gospel we got.

We cooked on fiuhplaces in er iron pot; cooked bread in a ubben. We had

ash cakes. We et purty good.

Ah didn go tuh school. Ah wuz awful sly. Ah wanted tuh learn tuh read so

ah hung eroun ole mistess when she wuz teachin huh chillun tuh read. Ah

listened an when she put de book down an went out ah got de book. Ah

kep' hit up till ah learnt tuh read. Ah been teachin one Bible class in

Curtis 42 years. Some uv em dare ask me how ah learnt tuh read so good

an ah tole dem dat a person dat couldn' learn tuh read in a hunnert

years ought tuh be daid.

Ah wuz twenty-two when de silver war broke. Ah know when hit started

but ah don' know whut hit wuz erbout. All I know Jeff Davis an Abraham

Lincoln wuz de two presidents. Lincoln wuz somethin like regular

president an Jeff Davis wuz somethin like er confedric president or

somethin. Ah didn' know jes how hit wuz. Jeff Davis ah think wuz er

rebel and Lincoln republic. When de fight come up dey wuzn fightin tuh

set de niggers free, ah don' think. At de time dey wuz fightin ovah de

Union but aftuh de slave owners wuz gwianter take de innocent slaves an

make dem fight on dey side. Den Lincoln said hit wouldn' be. So dat when

he sot em free. Whoopee! Yo ought ter seed dem Yankees fightin. Aftuh de

battle wuz ovah we would walk ovah de battle groun' an look at de daid

bones, skellums ah think dey called em. Aftuh de white fokes tole us we

wuz free dey didn' give us nothin. Turnt us out widout a place tuh stay,

no clo'es but whut we had on our back an nuthin tuh eat. We jes slept

undah trees an roun bout. Didn' have nuthin tuh eat cept parched corn.

We stole dat. Had tuh do somethin. De nex year de white fokes let us

make a crop wid den fuh somethin tuh eat an clo'es an de women could

work fuh a few clo'es an somethin tuh eat. So in er year er two niggers

went tuh tryin tuh duh somethin fuh demselves, an been tryin tuh help

dey selfs evah since. Ah know all bout hit. Ah wuz tall an ah is now

when dey cried "Free!" Ain't growed nairy nother inch.

Laura Sorrell Laurence Downing facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail