Ex-Slave George Johnson | "Confederate President Jefferson Davis was my master."

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Just a little background to the slave narratives. The recordings were made circa 1930-40. The individuals interviewed were in their 70-80’s. At that time, elderly black people were very likely going to tell white people what they wanted to hear.

Dr Charles Wolfe, an award winning folklorist, told me that the interviews given to white & black interviewers varied considerably. In any case, the subjects were, in almost all cases, minor children in 1865. On any case, talking about how wonderful ole massa was couldn’t do any harm.

The texts of the WPA slave narrative interviews are available online. I encourage everyone to read them. I have the TN slave narratives from several sources on file.

As far as Jeff Davis’ slaves are concerned, they voted with their feet. As soon as they could, the whole bunch of them ran off & left his plantation.
 

Andersonh1

Brigadier General
Moderator
Joined
Jan 12, 2016
Location
South Carolina
Just a little background to the slave narratives. The recordings were made circa 1930-40. The individuals interviewed were in their 70-80’s. At that time, elderly black people were very likely going to tell white people what they wanted to hear.

Dr Charles Wolfe, an award winning folklorist, told me that the interviews given to white & black interviewers varied considerably. In any case, the subjects were, in almost all cases, minor children in 1865. On any case, talking about how wonderful ole massa was couldn’t do any harm.

The texts of the WPA slave narrative interviews are available online. I encourage everyone to read them. I have the TN slave narratives from several sources on file.

There are over 3,500 WPA slave narratives, I believe. I've read only a small fraction of them so far. For how many of them can it be demonstrated that white and black interviewers were given different stories?
 

Andersonh1

Brigadier General
Moderator
Joined
Jan 12, 2016
Location
South Carolina
I have no idea, that is something academics know.

I think that's an important detail. If 50% of the slave narratives can be shown to say one thing when there was a white interviewer and another when there was a black interviewer, they can be said to be unreliable in general. If it's 5% where that's the case, then that changes things considerably.
 

DanSBHawk

Captain
Joined
May 8, 2015
Location
Wisconsin
If 50% of the slave narratives can be shown to say one thing when there was a white interviewer and another when there was a black interviewer, they can be said to be unreliable in general.

That is just dismissive of a group of people accustomed to oppression. An academic would take all factors into account and verify details if possible. They wouldn't just dismiss the narratives as being unreliable.
 

Andersonh1

Brigadier General
Moderator
Joined
Jan 12, 2016
Location
South Carolina
That is just dismissive of a group of people accustomed to oppression. An academic would take all factors into account and verify details if possible. They wouldn't just dismiss the narratives as being unreliable.

Rhea Cole said the following above

"Just a little background to the slave narratives. The recordings were made circa 1930-40. The individuals interviewed were in their 70-80's. At that time, elderly black people were very likely going to tell white people what they wanted to hear.​
Dr Charles Wolfe, an award winning folklorist, told me that the interviews given to white & black interviewers varied considerably. In any case, the subjects were, in almost all cases, minor children in 1865. On any case, talking about how wonderful ole massa was couldn't do any harm."​

I'd like to know just how many people actually did what was claimed, and "told white people what they wanted to hear" or told black and white interviewers different things. If the claim is going to be made, then we need details to determine how accurate it is. In discussing this subject before I've seen one example (out of 3,500) given, which is not enough to make the claim that the narratives are broadly unreliable. But that seems to be the implication here.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Rhea Cole said the following above

"Just a little background to the slave narratives. The recordings were made circa 1930-40. The individuals interviewed were in their 70-80's. At that time, elderly black people were very likely going to tell white people what they wanted to hear.​
Dr Charles Wolfe, an award winning folklorist, told me that the interviews given to white & black interviewers varied considerably. In any case, the subjects were, in almost all cases, minor children in 1865. On any case, talking about how wonderful ole massa was couldn't do any harm."​

I'd like to know just how many people actually did what was claimed, and "told white people what they wanted to hear" or told black and white interviewers different things. If the claim is going to be made, then we need details to determine how accurate it is. In discussing this subject before I've seen one example (out of 3,500) given, which is not enough to make the claim that the narratives are broadly unreliable. But that seems to be the implication here.
It would not take much effort to read a few academic studies on the slave narratives. I have a whole collection that was gathered by folklorists here in TN. After all we are discussing something that has been examined for almost 100 years.

One of Andrew Jackson’s slaves was a sort of tour guide st the Hermitage until after liberation. He is buried in the garden alongside the family. He was well known for telling stories about the former president. What kind of stories do you think he was telling the white folks?

I grew up with Miss Rosa Freeman coming to my grandmothers house, supposedly to clean on Saturday. The house was immaculate when she arrived. What really went on was a long talk & a long lunch. Her parents had been slaves. When she was born in Holly Springs MS, Grant was President. She always called me Master Rhea, in the old way of addressing a male child. She was about 110 when she died.

I don’t have to read an academic paper to decode some of what is in the slave narratives. I witnessed the end of the Jim Crow South & segregation. What Dr Wolfe & others said about elderly black folk telling the young white college students exactly what they wanted to hear rings true as a bell to me.

That is why we go to multiple sources & don’t try to make a single out of context quote mean something profound. I would say the the book on the Washington’s of Wessington Plantation is the best source on a slave community & the white family you are ever likely to find. It is documented in every way imaginable & the family’s stories are ongoing, alive today.
 

lurid

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 3, 2019
I think that's an important detail. If 50% of the slave narratives can be shown to say one thing when there was a white interviewer and another when there was a black interviewer, they can be said to be unreliable in general. If it's 5% where that's the case, then that changes things considerably.

In the 1920's, black scholars like W.E.B. Du Boise, Charles Johnson, and Carter Woodson, started a project to collect oral evidence from former slaves who were still living. Even these interviews could not be viewed as 100% accurate. One example, is a geographic bias. The people that were interviewed were only a very small portion of the millions of freed slaves. Counting the number of slaves interviewed from each state, it was discovered that there were only 155 interviews from black people living in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky, which is about 6% of the total number of published interviews. Twenty-three percent of the southern slave population lived in those states. In these statistics, the upper-south was unrepresented. It was pretty thin.

I don't know the percentage of living slaves FDR had interviewed during the WPA narratives, but I think it was not that high of percentage either. Even the little amount interviews they did do was suspect. They couldn't get any accuracy for a few reasons that I can remember: 1), slaves were illiterate and their master's wrote in their diaries, so they were biased. 2). Ex-slaves learned the art of telling people what they wanted to hear. 3). when they did the interviews in the 1930's the ex-slaves were in their 80s, so they were little kids when they were slaves.

I "think" when they did those interviews the had mixed interpretations. The slaves would give contradictory information concerning the same issue. In the worst cases, one person would give different stories on the same issue. Apparently, the slaves had learnt the skill of telling people what they wanted to hear; for instance, Susan Hamlin's interview on her experiences as a slave. On one side, she told Butler, a white interviewer, that slavery was a very pleasant human encounter, and her master was one of the greatest persons that she ever met. She confessed that slaves were treated fairly well without any form of mistreatment. On the other side, when interviewed by Ladson, a black interviewer, she detailed the brutalities of slavery and branded it an inhuman act. This duplicity of ideas poses challenges to historians as they document information, and thus they cannot tell the truth from lies.

I forgot what they concluded because it has been a long time for me, but I don't think it was much. But the book is an academic one that is used in Historical Craft for history majors:

Here is the chapter if you want to peruse it and come up with your own analysis

The View from the Bottom Rail - Evan Friss


:
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
In the 1920's, black scholars like W.E.B. Du Boise, Charles Johnson, and Carter Woodson, started a project to collect oral evidence from former slaves who were still living. Even these interviews could not be viewed as 100% accurate. One example, is a geographic bias. The people that were interviewed were only a very small portion of the millions of freed slaves. Counting the number of slaves interviewed from each state, it was discovered that there were only 155 interviews from black people living in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri, and Kentucky, which is about 6% of the total number of published interviews. Twenty-three percent of the southern slave population lived in those states. In these statistics, the upper-south was unrepresented. It was pretty thin.

I don't know the percentage of living slaves FDR had interviewed during the WPA narratives, but I think it was not that high of percentage either. Even the little amount interviews they did do was suspect. They couldn't get any accuracy for a few reasons that I can remember: 1), slaves were illiterate and their master's wrote in their diaries, so they were biased. 2). Ex-slaves learned the art of telling people what they wanted to hear. 3). when they did the interviews in the 1930's the ex-slaves were in their 80s, so they were little kids when they were slaves.

I "think" when they did those interviews the had mixed interpretations. The slaves would give contradictory information concerning the same issue. In the worst cases, one person would give different stories on the same issue. Apparently, the slaves had learnt the skill of telling people what they wanted to hear; for instance, Susan Hamlin's interview on her experiences as a slave. On one side, she told Butler, a white interviewer, that slavery was a very pleasant human encounter, and her master was one of the greatest persons that she ever met. She confessed that slaves were treated fairly well without any form of mistreatment. On the other side, when interviewed by Ladson, a black interviewer, she detailed the brutalities of slavery and branded it an inhuman act. This duplicity of ideas poses challenges to historians as they document information, and thus they cannot tell the truth from lies.

I forgot what they concluded because it has been a long time for me, but I don't think it was much. But the book is an academic one that is used in Historical Craft for history majors:

Here is the chapter if you want to peruse it and come up with your own analysis

The View from the Bottom Rail - Evan Friss

:
The way scholar tell truth from lies is by using multiple sources. A very simple example would be the Susan Hamlin’s testimony. I am not familiar with it, but similar cases provide examples of how scholars do their work.

If the plantation records of Susan Hamlin’s owners exist start there. I have on file the diary of an elite plantation lady who habitually beat her maids unmercifully for the most trivial reasons. The punishment logs would, very quickly establish whether her narrative is accurate. Lawsuits seeking damages to leased slaves are common & make for very grim reading. These are civil slaveholder vs slaveholder cases, so there is no question of the veracity of the slave’s narrative. The Alabama Supreme Court website includes criminal & civil cases brought by slaves & masters. (Yep. A slave did have access to the court system.) Candidly, I have yet to encounter an instance where the reality was actually better than the routine brutality as described in a slave narrative.

There are many excellent books about slavery & the plantation society. I am away from my studio, but one of my granddaughters who had discovered the tape measure told me that my books on slavery were 26 1/2” wide.

The point is that nobody analyses a single interview in isolation. Additionally, calling an elderly former slave a liar because she told white peoples what they wanted to hear is a bit much.
 

lurid

First Sergeant
Joined
Jan 3, 2019
The way scholar tell truth from lies is by using multiple sources. A very simple example would be the Susan Hamlin’s testimony. I am not familiar with it, but similar cases provide examples of how scholars do their work.

If the plantation records of Susan Hamlin’s owners exist start there. I have on file the diary of an elite plantation lady who habitually beat her maids unmercifully for the most trivial reasons. The punishment logs would, very quickly establish whether her narrative is accurate. Lawsuits seeking damages to leased slaves are common & make for very grim reading. These are civil slaveholder vs slaveholder cases, so there is no question of the veracity of the slave’s narrative. The Alabama Supreme Court website includes criminal & civil cases brought by slaves & masters. (Yep. A slave did have access to the court system.) Candidly, I have yet to encounter an instance where the reality was actually better than the routine brutality as described in a slave narrative.

There are many excellent books about slavery & the plantation society. I am away from my studio, but one of my granddaughters who had discovered the tape measure told me that my books on slavery were 26 1/2” wide.

The point is that nobody analyses a single interview in isolation. Additionally, calling an elderly former slave a liar because she told white peoples what they wanted to hear is a bit much.

I was not calling anyone a liar. I was simply giving a quick synopsis of the academic book used for historical craft: After the Fact: the Art of Historical Detection. They presented evidence from every angle and still only could surmise the truth. I wasn't trying to sway opinion at all. I was just giving an overview of that book, and not as a comprehensive tool. Now, if you have evidence to back your argument more power to you. I really don't care either way. I couldn't careless if people think or try to prove if slave's were mistreated or not. I was just providing a academic book to get this thread going because it seemed to be stuck at an impasse with rhetoric and opinions and nothing tangible to go on. I'm not trying to prove anything. Here's my take on slavery: some slaves were treated well and some were treated terribly. But owning another human being is wrong: it prevents people from having the freedom to choose and be masters of their own destiny. The way slaves were treated is irrelevant to me because they should have never been enslaved in the first place.
 

Cycom

Sergeant
Joined
Feb 19, 2021
Location
Los Angeles, California
I was not calling anyone a liar. I was simply giving a quick synopsis of the academic book used for historical craft: After the Fact: the Art of Historical Detection. They presented evidence from every angle and still only could surmise the truth. I wasn't trying to sway opinion at all. I was just giving an overview of that book, and not as a comprehensive tool. Now, if you have evidence to back your argument more power to you. I really don't care either way. I couldn't careless if people think or try to prove if slave's were mistreated or not. I was just providing a academic book to get this thread going because it seemed to be stuck at an impasse with rhetoric and opinions and nothing tangible to go on. I'm not trying to prove anything. Here's my take on slavery: some slaves were treated well and some were treated terribly. But owning another human being is wrong: it prevents people from having the freedom to choose and be masters of their own destiny. The way slaves were treated is irrelevant to me because they should have never been enslaved in the first place.
I think it very relevant. I see the distinction as important in telling their history in the grander scheme of the times.

For example, wouldn’t it be of important to distinguish how a soldier kills an enemy? There’s a big difference between killing an enemy in the heat of battle versus killing him in cold blood after he surrendered. Still dead, but the manner of death tells a richer story of what actually happened.

Of course I agree that they should never have been enslaved in the first place, but to not differentiate their treatment by different “masters” takes away from the slave’s personal history/story.
 
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