Slave narratives provide clues and are oral history too

Do not overlook the value of slave narratives when searching for clues about your ancestor.  Even though you may not find your ancestor's interview among, you may find a slave master's name or a narrative of an ex-slave with the same surname or a record of someone who lived on the same or nearby plantation.

I search slave narratives for common surnames, geographical areas, and words that lead to more information about events.  Some of the words I search that help me understand history and slave life are Yankee, church, Lincoln, Christmas, war, Davis, etc.

Many of the slave narratives that I have found can be accessed here: African American Resources:  Slave Narratives

The following is a narrative from an ex-slave, Lila Rutherford of Newberry, South Carolina, who was born in the same area where my ancestors lived during slavery.  I recognize the surnames Suber and Rutherford and Cannon.   Surprisingly, in this particular narrative, Lila speaks about things not being so bad even though she cites things such as whippings, having to work from sun-up to sun-down, not having a school or church nearby.  Perhaps slavery did not seem so bad anymore because she is speaking in hindsight over 70 years later. 

One thing quite interesting is the account of her marriage.  See the account below.


"I was born about 1849 in the Dutch Fork of Newberry County, S.C. I was slave of Ivey Suber and his good wife. My daddy was Bill Suber and my mammy was Mary Suber. I was hired by Marse Suber as a nurse in the big house, and I waited on my mistress when she was sick, and was at her bed when she died. I had two sisters and a brother and when we was sold they went to Mr. Suber's sister and I stayed with him.

"My master was good to his slaves. He give them plenty to eat, good place to sleep and plenty of clothes. The young men would hunt lots, rabbits, possums, and birds. My white folks had a big garden and we had eats from it. They was good cooks, too, and lived good. We card and spin and weave our own clothes on mistress's spinning wheels.
"Marse Suber had one overseer who was good to us. We went to work at sun-up and worked 'till sun-down, none of us worked at night. We sometimes got a whipping when we wouldn't work or do wrong, but it wasn't bad.

"We never learned to read and write. We had no church and no school on the plantation, but we could go to the white folk's church and sit in the gallery. Some of us was made to go, and had to walk 10 miles. Of course, we never thought much about walking that far. I joined the church because I was converted; I think everybody ought to join the church.[58]

"The patrollers rode 'round and ketched slaves who ran away without passes. They never bothered us. When our work was over at night, we stayed home, talked and went to sleep. On Saturday afternoons white folks sometimes give us patches of ground to work, and we could wash up then, too. We raised corn on the patches and some vegetables. On Sunday we just rested and went to neighbor's house or to church. On Christmas we had big eats.
"Corn-shuckings and cotton-pickings always had suppers when work was done. Master made whiskey up at his sister's place, and at these suppers he had whiskey to give us.
"When we was sick we had a doctor—didn't believe much in root teas.

"I married when I was 15 years old at a white man's place, Mr. Sam Cannon's. A negro man named Jake Cannon married us. Supper was give us by Mr. Sam Cannon after it was over.

"When freedom came, my mother moved away, but I stayed on.
"I think Abraham Lincoln was a good man, and Jeff Davis was a good man. I don't know anything about Booker Washington."
SOURCE: Lila Rutherford (86), Newberry, S.C., RFD
Interviewer: G. Leland Summer, 1707 Lindsey St., Newberry, S.C.


Prepared by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of South Carolina, page 57, Project Gutenberg eBook of Slave Narratives:  Lila Rutherford (86). Accessed Feb 10, 2011.

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