Mary Estes Peters

Interviewer: S.S. Taylor

Person interviewed: Mary Estes Peters,

3115 W. 17th Street, Little Rock, Arkansas

Age: 78


Mary Estes Peters was born a slave January 30, 1860 in Missouri

somewhere. Her mother was colored and her father white, the white

parentage being very evident in her color and features and hair. She is

very reticent about the facts of her birth. The subject had to be

approached from many angles and in many ways and by two different

persons before that part of the story could be gotten.

Although she was born in Missouri, she was "refugeed" first to

Mississippi and then here, Arkansas. She is convinced that her mother

was sold at least twice after freedom,--once into Mississippi, one into

Helena, and probably once more after reaching Arkansas, Mary herself

being still a very small child.

I think she is mistaken on this point. I did not debate with her but I

cross-examined her carefully and it appears to me that there was

probably in her mother's mind a confused knowledge of the issuance of

the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Lincoln's Compensation

Emancipation plan advocated in March 1863, the Abolition in the District

of Columbia in 1862 in April, the announcement of Lincoln's Emancipation

intention in July 1862, the prohibition of slavery in present and future

territories, June 19, 1862, together with the actual issuance of the

Emancipation in September 1862, and the effectiveness of the

proclamation in January 1, 1863, would well give rise to an impression

among many slaves that emancipation had been completed.

As a matter of fact, Missouri did not secede; the Civil War which

nevertheless ensued would find some slaveholders exposed to the full

force of the 1862 proclamation in 1863 at the time of its first

effectiveness. Naturally it did not become effective in many other

places till 1865. It would very naturally happen then that a sale in

Missouri in the latter part of 1862 or any time thereafter might be well

construed by ex-slaves as a sale after emancipation, especially since

they do not as a rule pay as much attention to the dates of occurrences

as to their sequence. This interpretation accords with the story. Only

such an explanation could make probable a narrative which places the

subject as a newborn babe in 1860 and sold after slavery had ceased

while still too young to remember. Her earliest recollections are

recollections of Arkansas.

She has lived in Arkansas ever since the Civil War and in Little Rock

ever since 1879. She made a living as a seamstress for awhile but is now

unable to sew because of fading eyesight. She married in 1879 and led a

long and contented married life until the recent death of her husband.

She lives with her husband's nephew and ekes out a living by fragmentary

jobs. She has a good memory and a clear mind for her age.

Slave After Freedom

"My mother was sold after freedom. It was the young folks did all that

devilment. They found they could get some money out of her and they did

it. She was put on the block in St. Louis and sold down into Vicksburg,

Mississippi. Then they sold her into Helena, Arkansas. After that they

carried her down into Trenton (?), Arkansas. I don't know whether they

sold her that time or not, but I reckon they did. Leastways, they

carried her down there. All this was done after freedom. My mother was

only fifteen years old when she was sold the first time, and I was a

baby in her arms. I don't know nothing about it myself, but I have heard

her tell about it many and many a time. It was after freedom. Of course,

she didn't know she was free.

"It was a good while before my mother realized she was free. She noticed

the other colored people going to and fro and she wondered about it.

They didn't allow you to go round in slave times. She asked them about

it and they told her, 'Don't you know you are free?' Some of the white

people too told her that she was free. After that, from the way she

talked, I guess she stayed around there until she could go some place

and get wages for her work. She was a good cook.

Mean Mistress

"I have seen many a scar on my mother. She had mean white folks. She had

one big scar on the side of her head. The hair never did grow back on

that place. She used to comb her hair over it so that it wouldn't show.

The way she got it was this:

"One day her mistress went to high mass and left a lot of work for my

mother to do. She was only a girl and it was too much. There was more

work than she could get done. She had too big a task for a child to get

done. When her old mistress came back and her work was not all done, she

beat my mother down to the ground, and then she took one of the skillets

and bust her over the head with it--trying to kill her, I reckon. I have

seen the scar with my own eyes. It was an awful thing.

"My mother was a house servant in Missouri and Mississippi. Never done

no hard work till she came here (Arkansas). When they brought her here

they tried to make a field hand out of her. She hadn't been used to

chopping cotton. When she didn't chop it fast as the others did, they

would beat her. She didn't know nothing about no farmwork. She had all

kinds of trouble. They just didn't treat her good. She used to have good

times in Missouri and Mississippi but not in Arkansas. They just didn't

treat her good. In them days, they'd whip anybody. They'd tie you to the

bed or have somebody hold you down on the floor and whip you till the

blood ran.

"But, Lawd, my mother never had no use for Catholics because it was a

Catholic that hit her over the head with that skillet--right after she

come from mass.


"My mother said that they used to pour the food into troughs and give it

to the slaves. They'd give them an old, wooden spoon or something and

they all eat out of the same dish or trough. They wouldn't let the

slaves eat out of the things they et out of. Fed them just like they

would hogs.

"When I was little, she used to come to feed me about twelve o'clock

every day. She hurry in, give me a little bowl of something, and then

hurry right on out because she had to go right back to her work. She

didn't have time to stay and see how I et. If I had enough, it was all

right. If I didn't have enough, it was all right. It might be pot liquor

or it might be just anything.

"One day she left me alone and I was lying on the floor in front of the

fireplace asleep. I didn't have no bed nor nothing then. The fire must

have popped out and set me on fire. You see they done a whole lot of

weaving in them days. And they put some sort of lint on the children.

"I don't reckon children them days knowed what a biscuit was. They just

raked up whatever was left off the table and brung it to you. Children

have a good time nowadays.

"People goin' to work heard me hollering and came in and put out the

fire. I got scars all round my waist today I could show you.

"Another time my mother had to go off and leave me. I was older then. I

guess I must have gotten hungry and wanted to get somethin' to eat. So I

got up and wandered off into the woods. There weren't many people living

round there then. (This was in Trenton (?), Arkansas, a small place not

far from Helena.) And the place was [HW: not] built up much then and they

had lots of wolves. Wolves make a lot of noise when they get to trailin'

anything. I got about a half mile from the road and the wolves got after

me. I guess they would have eat me up but a man heard them howling, and

he knew there wasn't no house around there but ours, and he came to see

what was up, and he beat off the wolves and carried me back home. There

wasn't nare another house round there but ours and he knew I must have

come from there.

"Mother was working then. It was night though. They brung the news to

her and they wouldn't let her come to me. Mother said she felt like

getting a gun and killin' them. Her child out like that and they

wouldn't let her go home.

"That must have happened after freedom, because it was the last mistress

she had. Almost all her beatings and trouble came from her last

mistress. That woman sure gave her a lot of trouble.

Age, Good Masters

"All I know about my age is what my mother told me.

"The first people that raised my mother had her age in the Bible. She

said she was about fifteen years old when I was born. From what she told

me, I must be about seventy-eight years old. She taught me that I was

born on Sunday, on the thirtieth of January, in the year before the War.

"My mother's name was Myles. I don't know what her first master's name

was. She told me I was born in Phelps County, Missouri; I guess you'd

call it St. Louis now. I am giving you the straight truth just as she

gave it to me.

"From the way she talked, the people what raised her from a child were

good to her. They raised her with their children. Them people fed her

just like they fed their own children.

Color and Birth

"There was a light brownskin boy around there and they give him anything

that he wanted. But they didn't like my mother and me--on account of my

color. They would talk about it. They tell their children that when I

got big enough, I would think I was good as they was. I couldn't help my

color. My mother couldn't either.

"My mother's mistress had three boys, one twenty-one, one nineteen, and

one seventeen. Old mistress had gone away to spend the day one day.

Mother always worked in the house. She didn't work on the farm in

Missouri. While she was alone, the boys came in and threw her down on

the floor and tied her down so she couldn't struggle, and one after the

other used her as long as they wanted for the whole afternoon. Mother

was sick when her mistress came home. When old mistress wanted to know

what was the matter with her, she told her what the boys had done. She

whipped them and that's the way I came to be here.

Sales and Separations

"My mother was separated from her mother when she was three years old.

They sold my mother away from my grandmother. She don't know nothing

about her people. She never did see her mother's folks. She heard from

them. It must have been after freedom. But she never did get no full

understanding about them. Some of them was in Kansas City, Kansas. My

grandmother, I don't know what became of her.

"When my mother was sold into St. Louis, they would have sold me away

from her but she cried and went on so that they bought me too. I don't

know nothing about it myself, but my mother told me. I was just nine

months old then. They would call it refugeeing. These people that had

raised her wanted to get something out of her because they found out

that the colored people was going to be free. Those white people in

Missouri didn't have many slaves. They just had four slaves--my mother,

myself, another woman and an old colored man called Uncle Joe. They

didn't get to sell him because he bought hisself. He made a little money

working on people with rheumatism. They would ran the niggers from state

to state about that time to keep them from getting free and to get

something out of them. My mother was sold into Mississippi after

freedom. Then she was refugeed from one place to another through Helena

to Trenton (?), Arkansas.


"My mother used to laugh at that. The master would do all the marryin'.

I have heard her say that many a time. They would call themselves

jumpin' the broom. I don't know what they did. Whatever the master said

put them together. I don't know just how it was fixed up, but they helt

the broom and master would say, 'I pronounce you man and wife' or

something like that.

Ku Klux

"My mother talked about the Ku Klux but I don't know much about them.

She talked about how they would ride and how they would go in and

destroy different people's things. Go in the smoke house and eat the

people's stuff. She said that they didn't give the colored people much

trouble. Sometimes they would give them something to eat.

"When they went to a place where they didn't give the colored people

much to eat, what they didn't destroy they would say, 'Go get it.' I

don't know how it was but the Ku Klux didn't have much use for certain

white people and they would destroy everything they had.

"I have lived in Arkansas about all my life. I have been in Little Rock

ever since January 30, 1879. I don't know how I happened to move on my

birthday. My husband brought me here for my rheumatism.

"I married in 1879 and moved here from Marianna. I had lived in Helena

before Marianna.


"The niggers voted in Marianna and in Helena. They voted in Little Rock

too. I didn't know any of them. It seems like some of the people didn't

make so much talk about it. They did, I guess, though. Many of the

farmers would tell their hands who they wanted them to vote for, and

they would do it.

"Them was critical times. A man would kill you if he got beat. They

would say, 'So and so lost the lection,' and then somebody would go to

Judgment. I remember once they had a big barbecue in Helena just after

the 'lection. They had it for the white and for the colored alike. We

didn't know there was any trouble. The shooting started on a hill where

everybody could see. First thing you know, one man fell dead. Another

dropped down on all fours bleeding, but he retch in under him and

dragged out a pistol and shot down the man that shot him. That was a sad

time. Niggers and white folks were all mixed up together and shooting.

It was the first time I had ever been out. My mother never would let me

go out before that.


"I ain't able to do much of anything now. I used to make a good living

as a dressmaker. I can't sew now because of my eyes. I used to make many

a dollar before my eyes got to failing me. Make pants, dresses,

anything. When you get old, you fail in what you been doing. I don't get

anything from the government. They don't give me any kind of help."

Mary Ellen Johnson Mary Ferguson facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail