Ruth Thompson, Interviewing
Hamilton Co., District 12
515 Poplar St.,
"Ah never fit in de wah; no suh, ah couldn't. Mah belly's been broke!
But ah sho' did want to, and ah went up to be examined, but they didn't
receive me on account of mah broken stomach. But ah sho' tried, 'cause
ah wanted to be free. Ah didn't like to be no slave. Dat wasn't good
Richard Toler, 515 Poplar Street, century old former slave lifted a bony
knee with one gnarled hand and crossed his legs, then smoothed his thick
white beard. His rocking chair creaked, the flies droned, and through
the open, unscreened door came the bawling of a calf from the building
of a hide company across the street. A maltese kitten sauntered into the
front room, which served as parlor and bedroom, and climbed complacently
into his lap. In one corner a wooden bed was piled high with feather
ticks, and bedecked with a crazy quilt and an number of small,
brightly-colored pillows; a bureau opposite was laden to the edges with
a collection of odds and ends--a one-legged alarm clock, a coal oil
lamp, faded aritifical flowers in a gaudy vase, a pile of newspapers. A
trunk against the wall was littered with several large books (one of
which was the family Bible), a stack of dusty lamp shades, a dingy
sweater, and several bushel-basket lids. Several packing cases and
crates, a lard can full of cracked ice, a small, round oil heating
stove, and an assorted lot of chairs completed the furnishings. The one
decorative spot in the room was on the wall over the bed, where hung a
large framed picture of Christ in The Temple. The two rooms beyond
exhibited various broken-down additions to the heterogeneous collection.
"Ah never had no good times till ah was free", the old man continued.
"Ah was bo'n on Mastah Tolah's (Henry Toler) plantation down in ole
V'ginia, near Lynchburg in Campbell County. Mah pappy was a slave befo'
me, and mah mammy, too. His name was Gawge Washin'ton Tolah, and her'n
was Lucy Tolah. We took ouah name from ouah ownah, and we lived in a
cabin way back of the big house, me and mah pappy and mammy and two
"They nevah mistreated me, neithah. They's a whipping the slaves all the
time, but ah run away all the time. And ah jus' tell them--if they
whipped me, ah'd kill 'em, and ah nevah did get a whippin'. If ah
thought one was comin' to me, Ah'd hide in the woods; then they'd send
aftah me, and they say, 'Come, on back--we won't whip you'. But they
killed some of the niggahs, whipped 'em to death. Ah guess they killed
three or fo' on Tolah's place while ah was there.
"Ah nevah went to school. Learned to read and write mah name after ah
was free in night school, but they nevah allowed us to have a book in
ouah hand, and we couldn't have no money neither. If we had money we had
to tu'n it ovah to ouah ownah. Chu'ch was not allowed in ouah pa't
neithah. Ah go to the Meth'dist Chu'ch now, everybody ought to go. I
think RELIGION MUST BE FINE, 'CAUSE GOD ALMIGHTY'S AT THE HEAD OF IT."
Toler took a small piece of ice from the lard can, popped it between his
toothless gum, smacking enjoyment, swished at the swarming flies with a
soiled rag handkerchief, and continued.
"Ah nevah could unnerstand about ghos'es. Nevah did see one. Lots of
folks tell about seein' ghos'es, but ah nevah feared 'em. Ah was nevah
raised up undah such supastitious believin's.
"We was nevah allowed no pa'ties, and when they had goin' ons at the big
house, we had to clear out. Ah had to wo'k hard all the time every day
in the week. Had to min' the cows and calves, and when ah got older ah
had to hoe in the field. Mastah Tolah had about 500 acres, so they tell
me, and he had a lot of cows and ho'ses and oxens, and he was a big
fa'mer. Ah've done about evahthing in mah life, blacksmith and stone
mason, ca'penter, evahthing but brick-layin'. Ah was a blacksmith heah
fo' 36 yea's. Learned it down at Tolah's.
"Ah stayed on the plantation during the wah, and jes' did what they tol'
me. Ah was 21 then. And ah walked 50 mile to vote for Gen'l Grant at
Vaughn's precinct. Ah voted fo' him in two sessions, he run twice. And
ah was 21 the fust time, cause they come and got me, and say, 'Come on
now. You can vote now, you is 21.' And theah now--mah age is right
theah. 'Bout as close as you can get it.
"Ah was close to the battle front, and I seen all dem famous men. Seen
Gen'l Lee, and Grant, and Abe Lincoln. Seen John Brown, and seen the
seven men that was hung with him, but we wasn't allowed to talk to any
of 'em, jes' looked on in the crowd. Jes' spoke, and say 'How d' do.'
[HW: Harper's Ferry is not [TR: rest illegible]]
"But ah did talk to Lincoln, and ah tol' him ah wanted to be free, and
he was a fine man, 'cause he made us all free. And ah got a ole histry,
it's the Sanford American History, and was published in 1784[HW:18?].
But ah don't know where it is now, ah misplaced it. It is printed in the
book, something ah said, not written by hand. And it says, 'Ah am a ole
slave which has suvved fo' 21 yeahs, and ah would be quite pleased if
you could help us to be free. We thank you very much. Ah trust that some
day ah can do you the same privilege that you are doing for me. Ah have
been a slave for many years.' (Note discrepancy).
"Aftah the wah, ah came to Cincinnati, and ah was married three times.
Mah fust wife was Nannie. Then there was Mollie. They both died, and
than ah was married Cora heah, and ah had six child'en, one girl and fo'
boys. (Note discrepancy) They's two living yet; James is 70 and he is
not married. And Bob's about thutty or fo'ty. Ah done lost al mah
rememb'ance, too ole now. But Mollie died when he was bo'n, and he is
crazy. He is out of Longview (Home for Mentally Infirm) now fo' a while,
and he jes' wanders around, and wo'ks a little. He's not [TR: "not" is
crossed out] ha'mless, he wouldn't hurt nobody. He ain't married
"After the wah, ah bought a fiddle, and ah was a good fiddlah. Used to
be a fiddlah fo' the white girls to dance. Jes' picked it up, it was a
natural gif'. Ah could still play if ah had a fiddle. Ah used to play at
our hoe downs, too. Played all those ole time songs--Soldier's Joy,
Jimmy Long Josey, Arkansas Traveler, and Black Eye Susie. Ah
remembah the wo'ds to that one."
Smiling inwardly with pleasure as he again lived the past, the old Negro
swayed and recited:
Black Eye Susie, you look so fine,
Black Eye Susie, ah think youah mine.
A wondahful time we're having now,
Oh, Black Eye Susie, ah believe that youah mine.
And away down we stomp aroun' the bush,
We'd think that we'd get back to wheah we could push
Black Eye Susie, ah think youah fine,
Black Eye Susie, Ah know youah mine.
Then, he resumed his conversational tone:
"Befo' the wah we nevah had no good times. They took good care of us,
though. As pa'taculah with slaves as with the stock--that was their
money, you know. And if we claimed a bein' sick, they'd give us a dose
of castah oil and tu'pentine. That was the principal medicine cullud
folks had to take, and sometimes salts. But nevah no whiskey--that was
not allowed. And if we was real sick, they had the Doctah fo' us.
"We had very bad eatin'. Bread, meat, water. And they fed it to us in a
trough, jes' like the hogs. And ah went in may shirt tail till I was 16,
nevah had no clothes. And the flo' in ouah cabin was dirt, and at night
we'd jes' take a blanket and lay down on the flo'. The dog was supe'ior
to us; they would take him in the house.
"Some of the people I belonged to was in the Klu Klux Klan. Tolah had
fo' girls and fo' boys. Some of those boys belonged. And I used to see
them turn out. They went aroun' whippin' niggahs. They'd get young girls
and strip 'em sta'k naked, and put 'em across barrels, and whip 'em till
the blood run out of 'em, and then they would put salt in the raw pahts.
And ah seen it, and it was as bloody aroun' em as if they'd stuck hogs.
"I sho' is glad I ain't no slave no moah. Ah thank God that ah lived to
pas the yeahs until the day of 1937. Ah'm happy and satisfied now, and
ah hopes ah see a million yeahs to come."
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