During 1929 and 1930, an Africa-American scholar named Ophelia Settle Egypt, conducted nearly 100 interviews with former slaves. Working then at Fisk University, she was the first person to ever conduct such a large scale endeavor. Accompanied by Charles Johnson, a black sociologist, she was able to get the former slaves to open up about the waning days of the institution. In 1945, she finally published her Unwritten History of Slavery, which collected thirty-eight transcripts of the interviews. Each account, published anonymously, painted a fuller picture of black slavery in Tennessee and Kentucky, where most of the interviewees had resided.
This first account, entitled “One of Dr. Gale’s ‘Free Niggers’,” is surprisingly candid about the rape of slave women by their owners, as well as other aspects of such relationships.
Just the other day we were talking about white people when they had slaves. You know when a man would marry, his father would give him a woman for a cook and she would have children right in the house by him, and his wife would have children, too. Sometimes the cook’s children favored him so much that the wife would be mean to them and make him sell them. If they had nice long hair she would cut it off and wouldn’t let them wear it long like the white children.
They would buy a fine girl and then a fine man and just put them together like cattle; they would not stop to marry them. If she was a good breeder, they was proud of her. I was stout and they were saving me for a breeding woman but by the time I was big enough I was free. I had an aunt in Mississippi and she had about twenty children by her marster. On Sunday they would get us ready to go to church. They would dress us up after we ask them if we could go and they would have me walk off from them and they would look at me, and I’d hear them saying, “She’s got a fine shape; she’ll make a good breeder,” but I didn’t know what they were talking about.
Then there was old Sam Watkins, – he would ship their husbands (slaves) out of bed and get in with their wives. One man (a slave) said he stood it as long as he could and one morning he just stood out side, and when he (the master) got with his wife (the slave), he just choked him to death. He knew it was death, but it was death anyhow; so he just killed him. They hanged him. There has always been a law in Tennessee that if a Negro kill a white man it means death.
Now, mind you, all of the colored women didn’t have to have white men, some did it because they wanted to and some were forced. They had a horror of going to Mississippi and they would do anything to keep from it. A white woman would have a maid sometimes who was nice looking, and she would keep her and her son would have children by her. Of course the mixed blood, you couldn’t expect much from them.
My mother was born in Mississippi and brought here. My father was born in Maryland. He was an old man when he come here, but they just bought them and put them together. My mother was young – just fifteen or sixteen years old. She had fourteen children and you know that meant a lot of wealth.
When I was quite a girl I went to a colored person’s wedding. She was a black as that thing there (card table top) but she was her young marster’s woman and he let her marry because he could get her anyhow if he wanted her.
No, they didn’t tell you a thing. I was a great big girl twelve or thirteen years old, I reckon, and a girl two or three years older than that and we’d be going ’round to the parsley bed looking for babies; and looking in hollow logs. It’s a wonder a snake hadn’t bitten us. The woman that would wait on my mother [midwife] would come back and tell us here’s her baby; and that was all we knew. We thought she brought it because it was hers. I was twenty years old when my first baby came, and I didn’t know nothing then. I didn’t know how long I had to carry my baby. We never saw nothing when we were children.
There was an old man who belonged to Dr. Shelby, and he said if he ever got free he wasn’t ever going to get up any more, and after he got free he really stayed there ’til he starved to death and died. He was an old man, too. He was just so happy to know that he could lay in bed and nobody could make him get up, he just wouldn’t even get up to eat. You sure couldn’t do that (lie in bed) on old man Shelby’s place. He’d whip niggers to death and then sell them before they died. The white folks go down on him for it and he was always in a lawsuit with somebody about selling a slave he had beat so bad that he died soon after the other man got him.
Oh, they tried to scare us; said they had horns (Yankees) but when we saw them with their blue clothes, brass spurs on their feet and their guns just shining, they just looked pretty to us.
Ophelia Settle Egypt would go on to be instrumental in exposing the abuses of the Tuskegee study of syphilis, which exposed black sharecroppers to the disease without their consent, refusing to properly treat them, even though the cure was known and available. The rest of her life was devoted to the study and research of medicine and sociology. She became a research assistant, children’s author, and was the director of Washington D.C.’s first Planned Parenthood clinic until she died in 1981.