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Mary Estes Peters

From: Arkansas

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."

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