Autobiography of Elizabeth Sparks
(Interviewed at Matthews Court House, Virginia January 13, 1937. By
Claude W. Anderson.)
Come in boys. Sure am glad ter see ya. You're lookin' so well. That's
whut I say. Fight boys! Hold em! You're doin' alright. Me, I'm so mean
nothin' can hurt me. What's that! You want me to tell yer 'bout slavery
days. Well I kin tell yer, but I ain't. S'all past now; so I say let 'er
rest 's too awful to tell anyway. Yer're too young to know all that talk
anyway. Well I'll tell yer some to put in yer book, but I ain'ta goin'
tell yer the worse.
My mistress's name was Miss Jennie Brown. No, I guess I'd better not
tell yer. Done forgot about dat. Oh well, I'll tell yer. Some, I guess.
She died 'bout four years ago. Bless her. She 'uz a good woman. Course I
mean she'd slap an' beat yer once in a while but she warn't no woman fur
fighting fussin' an' beatin' yer all day lak some I know. She was too
young when da war ended fur that. Course no white folks perfect. Her
parents a little rough. Whut dat? Kin I tell yer about her parents? Lord
yes! I wasn't born then but my parents told me. But I ain't a goin' tell
yer nuffin. No I ain't. Tain't no sense fur yer ta know 'bout all those
mean white folks. Dey all daid now. They meany good I reckon. Leastways
most of 'em got salvation on their death beds.
Well I'll tell yer some, but I ain'ta goin' tell yer much more. No sir.
Shep Miller was my master. His ol' father, he was a tough one. Lord!
I've seen 'im kill 'em. He'd git the meanest overseers to put over 'em.
Why I member time after he was dead when I'd peep in the closet an' jes'
see his old clothes hangin' there an' jes' fly. Yessir, I'd run from
them clothes an' I was jes' a little girl then. He wuz that way with
them black folks. Is he in heaven! No, he ain't in heaven! Went past
heaven. He was clerk an' was he tough! Sometimes he beat 'em until they
couldn't work. Give 'em more work than they could do. They'd git beatin'
if they didn't get work done. Bought my mother, a little girl, when he
was married. She wuz a real Christian an' he respected her a little.
Didn't beat her so much. Course he beat her once in a while. Shep
Miller was terrible. There was no end to the beatin' I saw it wif my own
Beat women! Why sure he beat women. Beat woman jes' lak men. Beat women
naked an' wash 'em down in brine. Some times they beat 'em so bad, they
jes' couldn't stand it an' they run away to the woods. If yer git in the
woods, they couldn't git yer. Yer could hide an' people slip yer
somepin' to eat. Then he call yer every day. After while he tell one of
colored foreman tell yer come on back. He ain'ta goin' beat yer anymore.
They had colored foreman but they always have a white overseer. Foreman
git yer to come back an' then he beat yer to death again.
They worked six days fum sun to sun. If they forcin' wheat or other
crops, they start to work long 'fo day. Usual work day began when the
horn blow an' stop when the horn blow. They git off jes' long 'nuf to
eat at noon. Didn't have much to eat. They git some suet an' slice a
bread fo' breakfas. Well, they give the colored people an allowance
every week. Fo' dinner they'd eat ash cake baked on blade of a hoe.
I lived at Seaford then an' was roun' fifteen or sixteen when my
mistress married. Shep Miller lived at Springdale. I 'member jes' as
well when they gave me to Jennie. We wuz all in a room helpin' her
dress. She was soon to be married, an' she turns 'roun an' sez to us.
Which of yer niggers think I'm gonna git when I git married? We all say,
"I doan know." An' she looks right at me an' point her finger at me like
this an' sayed "yer!" I was so glad. I had to make 'er believe I 'us
cryin', but I was glad to go with 'er. She didn't beat. She wuz jes' a
young thing. Course she take a whack at me sometime, but that weren't
nuffin'. Her mother wuz a mean ol' thin'. She'd beat yer with a broom or
a leather strap or anythin' she'd git her hands on.
She uster make my aunt Caroline knit all day an' when she git so tired
aftah dark that she'd git sleepy, she'd make 'er stan' up an knit. She
work her so hard that she'd go to sleep standin' up an' every time her
haid nod an' her knees sag, the lady'd come down across her haid with a
switch. That wuz Miss Jennie's mother. She'd give the cook jes' so much
meal to make bread fum an' effen she burnt it, she'd be scared to death
cause they'd whup her. I 'member plenty of times the cook ask say,
"Marsa please 'scuse dis bread, hits a little too brown." Yessir! Beat
the devil out 'er if she burn dat bread.
I went wif Miss Jennie an' worked at house. I didn't have to cook. I got
permission to git married. Yer always had to git permission. White folks
'ud give yer away. Yer jump cross a broom stick tergether an' yer wuz
married. My husband lived on another plantation. I slep' in my
mistress's room but I ain't slep' in any bed. Nosir! I slep' on a
carpet, an' ole rug, befo' the fiahplace. I had to git permission to go
to church, everybody did. We could set in the gallery at the white folks
service in the mornin' an' in the evenin' the folk held baptize service
in the gallery wif white present.
Shep went to war but not for long. We didn't see none of it, but the
slaves knew what the war wuz 'bout. After the war they tried to fool the
slaves 'bout freedom an' wanted to keep 'em on a workin' but the Yankees
told 'em they wuz free. They sent some of the slaves to South Carolina,
when the Yankees came near to keep the Yankees from gittin' 'em. Sent
cousin James to South Carolina. I nevah will forgit when the Yankees
came through. They wuz takin' all the livestock an' all the men slaves
back to Norfolk, wid 'em to break up the system. White folks head wuz
jes' goin' to keep on havin' slaves. The slaves wanted freedom, but
they's scared to tell the white folks so. Anyway the Yankees wuz givin'
everythin' to the slaves. I kin heah 'em tellin' ol' Missy now. "Yes!
give'er clothes. Let'er take anythin' she wants." They even took some of
Miss Jennie's things an' offered 'em to me. I didn't take 'em tho' cause
she'd been purty nice to me. Whut tickled me wuz my husban', John
Sparks. He didn't want to leave me an' go cause he didn't know whah
they's takin' 'em nor what they's gonna do, but he wanted to be free; so
he played lame to keep fum goin'. He was jes' a limpin' 'round. It was
all I could do to keep fum laffin'. I kin hear Miss Jennie now yellin'
at them Yankees. No! who are yer to Judge. I'll be the judge. If John
Sparks wants to stay here, he'll stay. They was gonna take 'im anyhow
an' he went inside to pack an' the baby started cryin'. So one of 'em
said that as long as he had a wife an' a baby that young they guess he
could stay. They took all the horses, cows, and pigs and chickens an'
anything they could use an' left. I was about nineteen when I married. I
wuz married in 1861, my oldest boy was born in 1862 an' the fallin' of
Richmond came in 1865.
Before Miss Jennie was married she was born an' lived at her old home
right up the river heah. Yer kin see the place fum ou side heah. On the
plantation my mother wuz a house woman. She had to wash white folks
clothes all day an' huh's after dark. Sometimes she'd be washin' clothes
way up 'round midnight. Nosir, couldn't wash any nigguh's clothes in
daytime. My mother lived in a big one room log house wif an' upstairs.
Sometimes the white folks give yer 'bout ten cents to spend. A woman
with children 'ud git 'bout half bushel of meal a week; a childless
woman 'ud git 'bout a peck an' a half of meal a week. If yer wuz
workin', they'd give yer shoes. Children went barefooted, the yeah
'round. The men on the road got one cotton shirt an' jacket. I had five
sisters an' five brothers. Might as well quit lookin' at me. I ain't
gonna tell yer any more. Cain't tell yer all I know. Ol Shep might come
back an' git me. Why if I was to tell yer the really bad things, some of
dem daid white folks would come right up outen dere graves. Well, I'll
tell somemore, but I cain't tell all.
Once in a while they was free nigguhs come fum somewhah. They could come
see yer if yer was their folks. Nigguhs used to go way off in quarters
an' slip an' have meetin's. They called it stealin' the meetin'. The
children used to teach me to read. Schools! Son, there warn't no schools
for niggers. Slaves went to bed when they didn't have anything to do.
Most time they went to bed when they could. Sometimes the men had to
shuck corn till eleven and twelve o'clock at night.
If you went out at night the paddyrols 'ud catch yer if yer was out
aftah time without a pass. Mos' a the slaves was afeared to go out.
Plenty of slaves ran away. If they ketch 'em they beat 'em near to
death. But yer know dey's good an' bad people every where. That's the
way the white folks wuz. Some had hearts; some had gizzards 'stead o'
When my mothers's master died, he called my mother an' brother Major an'
got religion an' talked so purty. He say he so sorry that he hadn't
found the Lord before an' had nuttin' gainst his colored people. He was
sorry an' scared, but confessed. My mother died twenty years since then
at the age of seventy-fo'. She wuz very religious an' all white folks
set store to 'er.
Old Massa done so much wrongness I couldn't tell yer all of it. Slave
girl Betty Lilly always had good clothes an' all the priviliges. She wuz
a favorite of his'n. But cain't tell all! God's got all! We uster sing a
song when he was shippin' the slaves to sell 'em 'bout "Massa's Gwyne
Sell Us Termerrer." No, I cain't sing it for yer. My husban' lived on
the plantation nex' to my mistress. He lived with a bachelor master. He
tell us say once when he was a pickinnany ol' Marse Williams shot at
'im. He didn't shoot 'em; he jes' shoot in the air an' ol' man wuz so
sceered he ran home an' got in his mammy's bed. Massa Williams uster
play wif 'em; then dey got so bad that they'ud run an' grab 'is laige
so's he couldn't hardly walk so when he sees 'em he jes' shoots in de
air. Ol' Massa, he, jes' come on up ter the cabin an' say "mammy whah
dat boy?" She say, in dah undah the bed. Yer done scared 'im to deaf!
Ol' Massa go on in an' say, Boy! What's the mattah wid yer. Boy say, yer
shot me master yer shot me! Master say, aw Gwan!--Git up an' come along.
I ain't shot yer. I jes' shot an' scared yer. Heh! Heh! Heh! Yessir my
ol' husban' sayed he sure was scared that day.
Now yer take dat an' go. Put that in the book. Yer kin make out wif dat.
I ain't a gonna tell yer no more. Nosir. The end a time is at hand
anyway. 'Tain't no use ter write a book. The Bible say when it git so's
yer cain't tell one season from t'other the worl's comin' to end; here
hit is so warm in winter that [HW: it] feels like summer. Goodbye. Keep
lookin' good an' come again.
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