The life of a slave was horrible, and nowhere is this more evident as in the first person slave narratives that tell the story of what it felt like to be a slave. Stories of beatings, torture, and oppression abound. John W. Fields and Sarah Grudger were two such slaves who told their stories to interviewers.
The first interview was with a former slave from Kentucky, John W. Fields. Mr. Fields, despite his birth into slavery, overcame his oppressors to eventually become a homeowner of not just one, but three homes (Miller). The introduction to this interview uses antiquated verbiage when referring to Fields as a “fine colored gentleman” and “…lowly birth” (Miller). As Fields recounts his life as a slave, it is important to remember that slaves were treated as chattel and dealt with accordingly. Fields was with his entire family (which included eleven brothers and sisters) until the age of six when their master died and the estate had to be settled (Miller). His life after that was filled with heartbreak as he was not permitted to see his mother for more than one night each year (Miller). He was subjected to hard labor as he worked with adults in the fields from sun up to sun down, and he did not have a bed, so he “bunked” on the floor (Miller). Most slaves wanted to learn to read and write, but it was illegal for a white man to teach his slaves how to read (Miller). The fine for doing so was $50 (Miller). The slaves were never allowed to go to town, and it was only after Fields ran away that he found out why (Miller). He said that their ignorance was “the greatest hold the South had on us,” and that ignorance was perpetuated by limiting interaction with others (Miller). Fields was forced to watch many harsh incidents including the one where his mistress married a Northern man who, although initially pleasant, developed a mean streak and forced Fields to hold a light while he beat one of the women and then poured salt water on her wounds (Miller). When the Emancipation Proclamation passed, Fields did not even realize that he was free. Ignorance had, indeed, become an oppressive thing.
Sarah Gudger, a slave from Asheville, NC, was born almost fifty years before the start of the Civil War. This interview was extremely difficult to read as it was written in dialect. Gudger said that her life has been hard: “Jes wok, an’ wok, an’ wok” Jones). Her master, Marse Jones, beat his slaves for small infractions (Jones). She said that sometimes her body would be sore for a week after a beating (Jones). She slept on an old pile of rags in the corner and never had a real bed until after she was freed (Jones). Even though her master never sold his slaves, she knew of others who did and it was extremely sad when the “specalater” came around and led slaves to the cotton plantations (Jones). There were no schools, but her first mistress was the only one who read to the slave children (Jones). A slave brought in from another plantation warned them that one day they would be free but would not know how to do anything as a freed people (Jones).
These narratives share some similarities in that they both recount the horrible living and working conditions of slaves. There is a stark contrast between the two narratives with regards to dialect. It seems that Fields had some schooling somewhere along the line whereas Gudger did not. There is also the contrast between their growing up conditions. Fields was separated from his family at an early age and his entire family was split up. Gudger remained on the same plantation her entire life and got to live with her parents.
- Jones, Marjorie. “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.” Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. The Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.
- Cecil C. “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.” Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. The Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.