FEDERAL WRITERS' PROJECT
American Guide, (Negro Writers' Unit)
Martin Richardson, Field Worker
South Jacksonville, Florida
December 8, 1936
SHACK THOMAS, Centenarian
Beady-eyed, grey-whiskered, black little Shack Thomas sits in the sun in
front of his hut on the Old Saint Augustine Road about three miles south
of Jacksonville, 102 years old and full of humorous reminiscences about
most of those years. To his frequent visitors he relates tales of his
past, disjointedly sometimes but with a remarkable clearness and
The old ex-slave does not remember the exact time of his birth, except
that it was in the year 1834, "the day after the end of the Indian War."
He does not recall which of the Indian wars, but says that it was while
there were still many Indians in West Florida who were very hard for him
to understand when he got big enough to talk, to them.
He was born, he says on "a great big place that b'longed to Mister Jim
Campbell; I don't know just exactly how big, but there was a lot of us
working on it when I was a little fellow." The place was evidently one
of the plantations near Tallahassee; Thomas remembers that as soon as he
was large enough he helped his parents and others raise "corn, peanuts,
a little bit of cotton and potatoes. Squash just grew wild in the
woods; we used to eat them when we couldn't get anything else much."
The centennarian remembers his parents clearly; his mother was one Nancy
and his father's name was Adam. His father, he says, used to spend hours
after the candles were out telling him and his brothers about his
capture and subsequent slavery.
Adam was a native of the West Coast of Africa, and when quite a young
man was attracted one day to a large ship that had just come near his
home. With many others he was attracted aboard by bright red
handkerchiefs, shawls and other articles in the hands of the seamen.
Shortly afterwards he was securely bound in the hold of the ship, to be
later sold somewhere in America. Thomas does not know exactly where Adam
landed, but knows that his father had been in Florida many years before
his birth. "I guess that's why I can't stand red things now," he says;
"my pa hated the sight of it."
Thomas spent all of his enslaved years on the Campbell plantation, where
he describes pre-emancipation conditions as better than "he used to hear
they was on the other places." Campbell himself is described as
moderate, if not actually kindly. He did not permit his slaves to be
beaten to any great extent. "The most he would give us was a
'switching', and most of the time we could pray out of that."
"But sometimes he would get a hard man working for him, though," the old
man continues. "One of them used to 'buck and gag' us." This he
describes as a punishment used particularly with runaways, where the
slave would be gagged and tied in a squatting position and left in the
sun for hours. He claims to have seen other slaves suspended by their
thumbs for varying periods; he repeats, though, that these were not
During the years before "surrinder", Thomas saw much traffic in slaves,
he says. Each year around New Years, itinerant "speculators" would come
to his vicinity and either hold a public sale, or lead the slaves, tied
together, to the plantation for inspection or sale.
"A whole lot of times they wouldn't sell 'em, they'd just trade 'em like
they did horses. The man (plantation owner) would have a couple of old
women who couldn't do much any more, and he'd swap 'em to the other man
for a young 'un. I seen lots of 'em traded that way, and sold for money
Thomas recalls at least one Indian family that lived in his neighborhood
until he left it after the War. This family, he says, did not work, but
had a little place of their own. "They didn't have much to do with
nobody, though," he adds.
Others of his neighbors during these early years were abolition-minded
white residents of the area. These, he says would take in runaway slaves
and "either work 'em or hide 'em until they could try to get North."
When they'd get caught at it, though, they'd "take 'em to town and beat
'em like they would us, then take their places and run 'em out."
Later he came to know the "pu-trols" and the "refugees." Of the former,
he has only to say that they gave him a lot of trouble every time he
didn't have a pass to leave--"they only give me one twice a week,"--and
of the latter that it was they who induced the slaves of Campbell to
remain and finish their crop after the Emancipation, receiving
one-fourth of it for their share. He states that Campbell exceeded this
amount in the division later.
After 'surrinder' Thomas and his relatives remained on the Campbell
place, working for $5 a month, payable at each Christmas. He recalls how
rich he felt with this money, as compared with the other free Negroes in
the section. All of the children and his mother were paid this amount,
The old man remembers very clearly the customs that prevailed both
before and after his freedom. On the plantation, he says, they never
faced actual want of food, although his meals were plain. He ate mostly
corn meal and bacon, and squash and potatoes, he adds "and every now and
then we'd eat more than that." He doesn't recall exactly what, but says
it was "Oh, lots of greens and cabbage and syrul, and sometimes plenty
of meat too."
His mother and the other women were given white cotton--he thinks it may
have been duck--dresses "every now and then", he states, but none of the
women really had to confine themselves to white, "cause they'd dye 'em
as soon as they'd get 'em." For dye, he says they would boil wild
indigo, poke berries, walnuts and some tree for which he has an
Campbell's slaves did not have to go barefoot--not during the colder
months, anyway. As soon as winter would come, each one of them was given
a pair of bright, untanned leather "brogans," that would be the envy of
the vicinity. Soap for the slaves was made by the women of the
plantation; by burning cockle-burrs, blackjack wood and other materials,
then adding the accumulated fat of the past few weeks. For light they
were given tallow candles. Asked if there was any certain time to put
the candles out at night, Thomas answers that "Mr. Campbell didn't care
how late you stayed up at night, just so you was ready to work at
The ex-slave doesn't remember any feathers in the covering for his
pallet in the corner of his cabin, but says that Mr. Campbell always
provided the slaves with blankets and the women with quilts.
By the time he was given his freedom, Thomas had learned several trades
in addition to farming; one of them was carpentry. When he eventually
left his $5 a month job with his master, he began travelling over the
state, a practice he has not discontinued until the present. He worked,
he says, "in such towns as Perry, Sarasota, Clearwater and every town in
Florida down to where the ocean goes under the bridge." (Probably Key
He came to Jacksonville about what he believes to be half a century ago.
He remembers that it was "ever so long before the fire" (1901) and "way
back there when there wasn't but three families over here in South
Jacksonville: the Sahds, the Hendricks and the Oaks. I worked for all of
them, but I worked for Mr. Bowden the longest."
The reference is to R.L. Bowden, whom Thomas claims as one of his first
employers in this section.
The old man has 22 children, the eldest of those living, looking older
than Thomas himself. This "child" is fifty-odd years. He has been
married three times, and lives now with his 50 year old wife.
In front of his shack is a huge, spreading oak tree. He says that there
were three of them that he and his wife tended when they first moved to
Jacksonville. "That one there was so little that I used to trim it with
my pocket-knife," he states. The tree he mentioned is now about
two-and-a-half feet in diameter.
"Right after my first wife died, one of them trees withered," the old
man tells you. "I did all I could to save the other one, but pretty soon
it was gone too. I guess this other one is waiting for me," he laughs,
and points to the remaining oak.
Thomas protests that his health is excellent, except for "just a little
haze that comes over my eyes, and I can't see so good." He claims that
he has no physical aches and pains. Despite the more than a century his
voice is lively and his hearing fair, and his desire for travel still
very much alive. When interviewed he had just completed a trip to a
daughter in Clearwater, and "would have gone farther than that, but my
son wouldn't send me no fare like he promised!"
1. Interview with subject, Shack Thomas, living on Old Saint Augustine
Road, South Jacksonville, Florida
Next: Luke Towns
Previous: Acie Thomas