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Slave Testimony: 1837-1862

As we look at the kind of people running the government of the United States today, we have to wonder at where they have come from. Where could this propensity for and acceptance of torture as a legitimate means to an end, where could it come from? But this behavior is not new to the United States. It is the everyday behavior of a slaveholder. The Justice Department memo justifying torture is a slaveholder’s missive. Masters have no empathy with slaves, and human life, other than for the people they know personally, is of no concern to them. What we are seeing with the pictures of torture from Abu Ghraib and the rationalizations behind them, is a softened insight into life as a captured African being traumatized, “seasoning” they called it, into and maintained as a slave. It was from this trauma, ongoing for 200 years, that slave life fashioned itself and from which Post- Traumatic Slave Syndrome is derived. (Readers may remember the summer series in 1999 on Post- Traumatic Slavery Syndrome as described by Dr. Joy Leary and Dr. Amos Wilson.)

Excerpt from the Narrative
of James Curry
…When my master’s family were all gone away on the Sabbath, I used to go into the house and get down the great Bible and lie down in the piazza and read, taking care, however, to put it back before they returned. There I learned that it was contrary to the revealed will of God, that one man should hold another as a slave. I had always heard it talked among the slaves, that we ought not to be held as slaves; that our forefathers and mothers were stolen from Africa, where they were free men and free women. But in the Bible I learned that ‘God hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the Earth.’
While I worked in the house and waited upon my mistress, she always treated me kindly, but to other slaves, who were as faithful as I was, she was very cruel. At one time, there was a comb found broken in a cupboard, which was worth about twenty-five or thirty-seven and a half cents. She suspected a little girl, 9 or 10 years old, who served in the house, of having broken it. She took her in the morning, before sunrise, into a room, and calling me to wait upon her, had all the doors shut. She tied her hands, and then took her frock up over her head and gathered it up in her left hand, and with her right commenced beating her naked body with bunches of willow twigs. She would beat her until her arm was tired, and then thrash her on the floor and stamp on her with her foot, and kick her and choke her to stop her screams. Oh! it was awful! And I was obliged to stand there and see it, and to go and bring her the sticks. She continued this torture until ten o’clock, the family waiting for breakfast meanwhile. She then left whipping her; and that night she herself was so lame that one of her daughters was obliged to undress her. The poor child never recovered. A white swelling came from the bruises on one of her legs, of which she died in two or three years. And my mistress was soon after called by her great Master to give her account.
Before her death, my mistress used to clothe her people with coarse, common clothing. She had been dead eleven years when I came away. She died in October, and in the following spring, my master bought about one hundred yards of coarse tow and cotton, which he distributed among the slaves. After this, he provided no clothing for any of his slaves, except that I have known him in a few instances to give a pair of thoroughly worn-out pantaloons to one.
They worked in the night upon their little patches of ground, raising tobacco and food for hogs, which they were allowed to keep, and thus obtained clothes for themselves. These patches of ground were little spots they were allowed to clear in the woods or cultivate upon the barrens and after they got them nicely cleared and under good cultivation, the master took them away, and the next year they must take other uncultivated spots for themselves.
There were on this plantation nine men and eight out of this nine were always as decently clad as any slaves in that part of the country; and each had a better suit for Sunday. The ninth was a young fellow who had not been taught by his mother to take care of himself, but he was fast improving when I came away. It was to him that my master gave the worn-out pantaloons. My step-father felled trees in the woods and built for his family a commodious log-house. With my mother’s assistance, it was furnished with two comfortable beds, chairs and some other articles of furniture. His children were always comfortably and decently clothed. I knew him, at one time, to purchase for my mother a cloak, and a gown, a frock for each of my two sisters, two coats for two brothers younger than myself, and each of them a hat, all new and good, and all with money earned in the time allowed him for sleep.
My mother was cook in the house for about twenty-two years. She cooked for from twenty-five to thirty-five, taking the family and the slaves together. The slaves ate in the kitchen. After my mistress’s death, my mother was the only woman kept in the house. She took care of my master’s children, some of whom were then quite small, and brought them up. One of the most trying scenes I ever passed through, when I would have laid down my life to protect her if I had dared, was this: after she had raised my master’s children, one of his daughters, a young girl, came into the kitchen one day, and for some trifle about the dinner, she struck my mother, who pushed her away, and she fell on the floor. Her father was not at home. When he came, which was while the slaves were eating in the kitchen, she told him about it. He came down, called my mother out, and, with a hickory rod, he beat her fifteen or twenty strokes, and then called his daughter and told her to take her satisfaction of her, and she did beat her until she was satisfied. Oh! it was dreadful, to see the girl whom my poor mother had taken care of from her childhood, thus beating her, and I must stand there, and did not dare to crook my finger in her defense. My mother’s labor was very hard. She would go to the house in the morning, take her pail upon her head and go away to the cow-pen, and milk fourteen cows. She then put on the bread for the family breakfast, and got the cream ready for churning, and set a little child to churn it, she having the care of from ten to fifteen children, whose mothers worked in the field. After clearing away the family breakfast, she got breakfast for the slaves, which consisted of warm corn bread and buttermilk, and was taken at twelve o’clock. In the meantime, she had beds to make, rooms to sweep. Then she cooked the family dinner, which was simply plain meat, vegetables, and bread. Then the slaves’ dinner was to be ready at from eight to nine o’clock in the evening. It consisted of corn bread, or potatoes, and the meat which remained of the master’s dinner, or one herring apiece. At night, she had the cows to milk again. There was little ceremony about the master’s supper, unless there was company. This was her work day by day. Then in the course of the week she had the washing and ironing to do for her master’s family (who, however, were clothed very simply), and for her husband, seven children and herself.
She would not get through to go to her log cabin until nine or ten o’clock at night. She would then be so tired that she could scarcely stand, but she would find one boy with his knee out, and another with his elbow out, a patch wanting here, and a stitch there, and she would sit down by her lightwood fire, and sew and sleep alternately, often till the light began to streak in the east; and then lying down, she would catch a nap and hasten to the toil of the day. Among the slave children were three little orphans, whose mothers, at their death, committed them to the care of my mother. One of them was a babe. She took them and treated them as her own. The master took no care about them. She always took a share of the cloth she had provided for her own children, to cover these little friendless ones. She would sometimes ask the master to procure them some clothes, but he would curse them and refuse to do it. We would sometimes tell her, that we would let the master clothe them, for she had enough to do for her own children. She replied, ‘Their master will not clothe them and I cannot see them go naked; I have children and I do not know where their lot may be cast; I may die and leave them, and I desire to do by these little orphans as I should  wish mine to be done……..
The above excerpt is Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews and Autobiographies. Edited by John  W. Blassingame, Published by Louisiana State University Press.  Available locally at Brownstone Bookstore.

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