FEDERAL WRITERS' PROJECT
American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)
Martin Richardson, Field Worker
March 18, 1937
Bill Austin--he says his name is NOT Williams--is an ex-slave who gained
his freedom because his mistress found it more advantageous to free him
than to watch him.
Austin lives near Greenwood, Jackson County, Florida, on a small farm
that he and his children operate. He says that he does not know his age,
does not remember ever having heard it. But he must be pretty old, he
says, "'cause I was a right smart size when Mistuh Smith went off to
fight." He thinks he may be over a hundred--and he looks it--but he is
Austin was born between Greene and Hancock Counties, on the Oconee
River, in Georgia. He uses the names of the counties interchangeably; he
cannot be definite as to just which one was his birthplace. "The line
between 'em was right there by us," he says.
His father was Jack; for want of a surname of his own he took that of
his father and called himself Jack Smith. During a temporary shortage of
funds on his master's part, Jack and Bill's mother was sold to a planter
in the northern part of the state. It was not until long after his
emancipation that Bill ever saw either of them again.
Bill's father Jack was regarded as a fairly good carpenter, mason and
bricklayer; at times his master would let him do small jobs of repairing
of building for neighboring planters. These jobs sometimes netted him
hams, bits of cornmeal, cloth for dresses for his wife and children, and
other small gifts; these he either used for his small family or
bartered with the other slaves. Sometimes he sold them to the slaves for
money; cash was not altogether unknown among the slaves on the Smith
Austin gives an interesting description of his master, Thomas Smith. He
says that "sumptimes he was real rich and all of us had a good time. The
wuk wasn't hard then, cause if we had big crops he would borrow some
he'p from the other white folks. He used to give us meat every day, and
plenty of other things. One time he bought all of us shoes, and on
Sunday night would let us go to wherever the preacher was holdin'
meeting. He used to give my papa money sumptimes, too.
"But they used to whisper that he would gamble a lot. We used to see a
whole lot of men come up to the house sumptimes and stay up most of the
night. Sumptimes they would stay three or four days. And once in a while
after one of these big doings Mistuh Smith would look worried, and we
wouldn't get no meat and vary little of anything else for a long time.
He would be crabby and beat us for any little thing. He used to tell my
papa that he wouldn't have a d--- cent until he made some crops."
A few years before he left to enter the war the slave owner came into
possession of a store near his plantation. This store was in Greensboro.
Either because the business paid or because of another of his economic
'bad spells', ownership of his plantation passed to a man named Kimball
and most of the slaves, with the exception of Bill Austin and one or two
women--either transferred with the plantation or sold. Bill was kept to
do errands and general work around the store.
Bill learned much about the operation of the store, with the result that
when Mr. Smith left with the Southern Army he left his wife and Bill to
continue its operation. By this time there used to be frequent stories
whispered among the slaves in the neighborhood--and who came with their
masters into the country store--of how this or that slave ran away, and
with the white man-power of the section engaged in war, remained at
large for long periods or escaped altogether.
These stories always interested Austin, with the result that one morning
he was absent when Mrs. Smith opened the store. He remained away 'eight
or nine days, I guess', before a friend of the Smiths found him near
Macon and threatened that he would 'half kill him' if he didn't return
Either the threat--or the fact that in Macon there were no readily
available foodstuffs to be eaten all day as in the store--caused Austin
to return. He was roundly berated by his mistress, but finally forgiven
by the worried woman who needed his help around the store more than she
needed the contrite promises and effusive declarations that he would
'behave alright for the rest of his life.'
And he did behave; for several whole months. But by this tine he was 'a
great big boy', and he had caught sight of a young woman who took his
fancy on his trip to Macon. She was free herself; her father had bought
her freedom with that of her mother a few years before, and did odd jobs
for the white people in the city for a livelihood. Bill had thoughts of
going back to Macon, marrying her, and bringing her back 'to work for
Missus with me.' He asked permission to go, and was refused on the
grounds that his help was too badly needed at the store. Shortly
afterward he had again disappeared.
'Missus', however, knew too much of his plans by this time, and it was
no difficult task to have him apprehended in Macon. Bill may not have
had such great objections to the apprehension, either, he says, because
by this time he had learned that the young woman in Macon had no
slightest intention to give up her freedom to join him at Greensboro.
A relative of Mrs. Smith gave Austin a sound beating on his return; for
a time it had the desired effect, and he stayed at the store and gave no
further trouble. Mrs. Smith, however, thought of a surer plan of keeping
him in Greensboro; she called him and told him he might have his
freedom. Bill never attempted to again leave the place--although he did
not receive a cent for his work--until his master had died, the store
passed into the hands of one of Mr. Smith's sons, and the emancipation
of all the slaves was a matter of eight or ten years' history!
When he finally left Greene and Hancock Counties--about fifty-five years
ago, Austin settled in Jackson County. He married and began the raising
of a family. At present he has nineteen living children, more
grandchildren than he can accurately tell, and is living with his third
wife, a woman in her thirties.
1. Henry Harvey, old resident of Jackson County; Greenwood-Malone Road,
about 2-1/2 miles N.W. of Greenwood, Florida
2. Interview with subject, near Greenwood, Florida, (Rural Route 2,
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