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Slavery, Part 2 – Life Under the Lash

September 25, 2016

So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt. 20: 16).

There is a short story by the great American author and famed humorist, Mark Twain, which contains no humor at all.  “A True Story Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It” is the life story of Mary Ann Cord, the family cook, as she told it one afternoon [1].

Born into slavery in Virginia, Mary Ann married and had seven children.  Tragically, her family – like many other slave families – was torn asunder.  Mary Ann’s husband and children were sold off in 1852, and lost to her.  All connection with them was severed.

A dozen years later, in North Carolina during the chaos of the Civil War, Mary Ann was startled by a familiar face, while preparing a meal for black troops occupying her owner’s plantation.  It was her youngest son Henry, now grown and fighting for the Union.

This is how Twain says Mary Ann described the scene:

“I was a-stoopin’ down by de stove, an’ I’d jist got de pan o’ hot biscuits in my han’ an’ was ‘bout to raise up, when I see a black face come aroun’ under mine, an’ de eyes a-lookin’ up into mine, an’ I jist stopped right dah, an’ never budged!  Jist gazed, an’ gazed, an’ de pan begin to tremble, an’ all of a sudden I knowed!  De pan drop’ on de flo’ an’ I grab his lef’ han’ an’ shove back his sleeve, an’ den I goes for his forehead an’ push de hair back so, an’ ‘Boy!’ I says, ‘if you ain’t my Henry, what is you doin’ wid dis welt on yo’ wris’ an’ dat sk-yar on yo’ forehead?  De Lord God ob heaven be praise’, I got my own ag’in!”

After 150 years, we can still feel the grief – and incalculable joy – of this mother [2].  The patois Twain recorded is no obstacle at all [3].  If anything, it makes the moment more intimate.  We are almost reluctant to intrude.

Federal Writers Project

From 1936 to 1938, the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviewed over 2300 former slaves, recording the details of their lives under slavery.

These first-person accounts are preserved in the Library of Congress.  They speak of destitute conditions, staggering workloads, whippings and beatings, a prohibition against literacy, and rigid restrictions on travel.

Above all, they reflect the humanity of enslaved people – their strength, their pride, their spirit of resistance, and their faith.

Here are excerpts from a few:

Alice Alexander, age 88, Oklahoma

“We lived in a one room log hut, and slept on homemade rail bed steads wid cotton, an’ sum times straw, mos’ly straw summers an’ cotton winners… Yas, we had a overseers an’ my mother said he was the meanest man on earth.  He’d jest go out in de fields and beat dem n_s, an’ my mother tole me one day he come out in de field beatin’ her sister an’ she jumped on ‘im an’ nelly beat ‘im half to death an’ ole Marster come up jest in time to see it all an’ fired dat overseer [4].  Said he diden want no man working fer ‘im dat a woman could whip.”

George Fleming, age 83, South Carolina

“Slaves started to work by de time dey was old enough to tote water and pick up chips to start fires wid.   Some of dem started to work in de fields when dey about ten, but most of ‘em was older… Women worked in de field same as de man. Some of dem plowed jes’ like de men and boys.  Couldn’t tell ‘em apart in de field, as dey wore pantelets or breeches.  Dey tied strings ‘round de bottom of de legs so de loose dirt wouldn’t git in deir shoes… Us didn’t pay much mind to de clock.  We worked frum sun to sun.”

Matilda Hatchett, age approximately 99, Arkansas

“Didn’t git no chance to learn nothin’ in slavery.  Sometimes the children would teach the darkies ‘round the house their ABC’s.  I’ve heard of folks teachin’ their slaves to read the Bible.  They didn’t teach us to read nothin’.  I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never seen it, that some folks would cut off the first finger of a n_r that could write.”

Henry Turner, age 93, Arkansas

“No Negro slave was allowed to go beyond the confines of his owner’s plantation without written permission.  This was described by ‘Uncle’ Henry Turner as a ‘pass’; and on this ‘pass’ was written the name of the Negro, the place he was permitted to visit, and the time beyond which he must not fail to return.”

Andy Anderson, age 94, Texas

“How come I’s took de name ob Anderson, ‘stead ob Haley?  It am dis away, my pappy was owned by Marster Anderson who sold him to Marster Haley, so he goes by de name ob Anderson.  Dey use to call me Haley but aftah Surrendah, I’se change de name to Anderson to have it de same as my pappy’s…Aftah Marster John am took away [by the soldiers] an’ de overseer am lef’ in whole charge, hell stahts to pop.   De fust thing he does am to cut de rations.  He weigh out de meat, three pounds to de person fo’ de week an’ he measures out a peck ob meal, ‘twarnt ‘nough.  He ha’f starve do n_s an’ demands mo’ wo’k an’ he stahts de whuppin’s.  I’s guess he ‘cides to edumacate dem.  I’s guess Delbridge went to hell w’en he died.  I’s don’ think he go dat far, though.  I’s don’ see how de devil could stand him.”

Charles Williams, age 94, Louisiana

“Honor and Shame from no Condishun Rise, Act well you Part, there All the Honor lies.  I knows one Beauty thing erbout myself.  I cin ackomplush anything I lays my mits apond… Either you serve Christ here on this weekit (wicked) World or serve him in Hell.  They ent but them two Places, except Heaven.  Christ will Save His Hearts Delight.  I been serveing him for 44 year & ant tired yet [5].”

Lost World

These slave narratives give us a glimpse into a lost world.  This is not the Old South as white supremacists would like us to believe it existed.  But then their very premise is faulty.  Intellect and talent are not linked to skin color.

This is the South as it was experienced by a majority of the population, the enslaved majority.  This is the South the Confederate flag actually symbolizes – an insular world built on the backs of slaves, human beings denied freedom and basic rights for the sake of economic gain.

And that was the motivation.  Make no mistake.  Whatever half-baked theory of racial superiority was formulated to accommodate it, whatever nostalgic nonsense has been used to sugarcoat the reality since, the motivation behind slavery was simple greed.


As tragic as slavery was for those held in bondage, one of its aftereffects has been to overshadow the accomplishments of people of color who were their contemporaries.

This is how writer, Marie Williams, puts it:

“I think it must also be said that during the time of slavery, not all black people were slaves.  There were many living in Europe who made great achievements in literature, music and politics, for example:  Alexander Pushkin, Alexander Dumas, Olaudah Equiano.  However, because of slavery, these achievements are somehow hidden, diluted and almost air-brushed from history.  The achievements of people with black skin are nearly always minimized or you never hear that they were, in fact, black.  You presume they are white and almost always discover their blackness by accident.”

Pushkin (whose mother was one quarter Cameroonian) was a Romantic poet, playwright, and novelist considered by many the founder of modern Russian literature.  Dumas, one of the most widely read French authors, was born into slavery because of his African mother’s status.  However, his father was a member of the nobility.  Dumas’ novels have been translated into over 90 languages, and made into over 150 films.  Equiano, a freed slave, was influential in passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which ended the British slave trade.

Where All the Honor Lies

“The soul that is within me no man can degrade.”

– Frederick Douglass

It should be clear that any shame associated with slavery was that of slave masters, not slaves.  But such shame lingers.  The topic of slavery remains emotionally charged for African Americans.

Because of the role Africans (and Arabs) played in enslaving their brethren, African nations have been ambivalent about examining that painful period of history too closely.  The situation is nothing if not complex.  Anti-Arab black nationalists have gone so far as to demand reparations for slavery from the Arab League [6].  There is no resolution in sight.

Charles Williams (above) was, however, right.  Honor and shame arise from no condition.  All honor lies in acting our part well.

[1]  Perhaps to protect her privacy, Mark Twain referred to Mary Ann Cord as “Aunt Rachel” in the story.

[2]  Mary Ann Cord is a picture for us of faithfulness.  Her station in life would have been difficult, even if Mary Ann had not been cruelly deprived of her family.  But the loss of her husband and children must have been unbearable.  Certainly, Mary Ann had reason to rage at God, and abandon her faith.  Yet she praised God for her son, Henry’s return.

[3]  Today’s African American Vernacular a/k/a Black English is thought to preserve the nonstandard British English used by early Southern settlers.  Black English may sound “ungrammatical” to those unfamiliar with it.  However, it shares vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar with a number of West African languages.

[4]  In recognition of modern sensibilities, references to the “N” word have been deleted though they exist in the original narratives.

[5]  Again and again, we see that slaves derived genuine consolation from their Christian faith.

[6]  Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), “Slavery, Genocide, and the Politics of Outrage” by Hisham Aidi, MER 234/Vol. 35/Spring 2005,

With special thanks to Marie Williams for her invaluable input

Slavery, Part 3 – Even Today will be posted next week


  1. Wonderful piece of writing! It grieves me that the ” N” word is being used by African Americans today.. I find it hard to understand why they refer to each other that way.. so many fought for it to be removed from the lips of man.. now it rings through the streets.. on message boards.. or blended into rap songs..

    • Thank you, Mary Ann. I wanted the voices of those who endured this inhumane treatment to be prominent.

      • I apologize Anna if my comment seemed off topic.. I was referring to Alice Alexander’s story and the name they were given by the racists slave owners, and many others.. Your use of their personal stories gave me a deeper insight into what they truly endured.

      • You didn’t seem off topic, Mary Ann. I’m gratified to have such a devoted reader. The present gets filtered through the past. We struggle to understand. But, even with the best of intentions, things get lost along the way. Amy Tan wrote about that subject, in another context, in “The Joy Luck Club”.

        With racism raising its ugly head again, I thought it important that we be reminded of that dark period of history. That was the intent behind the series.

    • Yes I have to agree that this is a wonderful piece of writing, Mary-Ann. How courageous of the author to tackle such a deeply emotive subject with the right balance of humility, clarity and outrage at this period in our history.

      • You give me too much credit, Marie. ❤ The facts are compelling all by themselves.

      • Anna, you have done a great job putting the facts out there. Compelling as the facts are, how many people go to the trouble of bringing this to the attention of others who perhaps are not as aware of how deeply disturbing this period in history was? Some of your readers expressed a view that they did not have all the “facts”. Credit where credit is due! xx

  2. tabitha59reachingout permalink

    Reblogged this on sistersreachout and commented:
    I must share “Part 2” with you on the evils of slavery, in particular of Black Americans in the USA many years ago. It is amazing that these innocent people have any faith in God. Obviously, they were able to see that it was man who was evil and not our Lord. Why can’t people see that today? It is equally amazing how God carried them through the horrors they lived through and they arrived with their faith intact. The scripture above [Mathew 20:16] is a good reminder of how God views us all. God bless you all, Debbie 🙂

    • Thank you for re-blogging this and sharing it with others who might not have come across this brilliantly written post by the author. And I have to agree with you that it does seem equally amazing that God carried [us] as I am a descendant of slavery through the horrors they lived through with their faith in tact. The irony of this is that these Africans were not Christians when they were transported across the Atlantic centuries ago. It was actually the slave masters who “taught” them Christianity and then later the missionaries. There are many scenes in films about slavery depicting the plantation owners with Bible in hand “explaining” why they had to punish their “property” so savagely. Make of that what you will.

      • tabitha59reachingout permalink

        It is my pleasure to re-blog this. It makes me sick to my stomach the things people did all in the name of Christianity. I know that us Canadians aren’t exempt from all guilt either. …. On behalf of all North Americans, I apologize to you and your family for the wicked things done to them. I pray that God bring His powerful healing into each one of your hearts. May trust between us all begin to grow and dignity restored to everyone involved. Thank you for being such splendid citizens of this potentially great land. Sending you a hug across the miles. May God who truly IS love fill you with His for you. 🙂 Debbie

      • Thank you Debbie. You are not to blame for what was done and in no way should you take responsibility. The fact that you demonstrate love and compassion is enough. So many people do not see that slavery was that big a deal and that is what upsets and hurts me the most. The people who did those wicked deeds are not here to apologise, but your heartfelt apology for something that you did not do shows what a good person you are at heart. Thank you. Needless to say your words have brought tears to my eyes and I return your hug. May God bless you. Marie

      • tabitha59reachingout permalink

        God bless you too, Marie. May our truly loving Father embrace you with everything good, but especially with His loving arms. Hugs back again. Bless you, dear one. 🙂

      • A-women to that Debbie! 🙂 Thank you for those lovely kind thoughts. Have a blessed day. xx

      • tabitha59reachingout permalink

        Thanks. You too, Marie.

  3. Anna thank you for this very important post. May we all be grieved by the past and work for a better future.

  4. Brilliantly researched and written. Once again thank you for allowing me to make a small contribution towards this post which also opened my eyes to aspects of the Slave Trade that I did not know about prior to reading this. We need to keep this “important post” alive in order for this never to be repeated and as Ancient Skies says to : ” …work for a better future”. Best wishes, Marie

  5. Monochrome nightmares permalink

    An excellent post Anna.
    The excerpts in particular were fascinating.
    Especially Alice Alexander’s story.
    The lady from Oklahoma.

  6. Thank you for sharing a wonderful piece of writing Anna! The excerpts you shared gave a greater insight to the inhuman and low attitude from that period. And the stories …..more and more they are shared all around the world, more and more people come to know about it and a deeper respect is paid to their endurance and courage.

    • Thank you for the compliment, Mithai. Sadly, racism has recently been on the upswing in the US. My hope was that a reminder of our past might help counter the lies on which a belief in the superiority of one race over another is based.

      • That is really sad! Being from a different continent I had thought that racism is decreasing day by day…..its so surprising that its quite the contrary now!! I hope something is done soon….with rapid globalization and increased interaction….. racism really makes no sense!! I hope things get better soon.

  7. Perhaps the darkest period in human history 😥
    Yet amazingly, in the midst of their unimaginable pain…
    God was there and they leaned on Him! 🙂 💜 Jackie@KWH

  8. Amazing work here. So much awakens the senses to compassion for those who suffered this inhumanity

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