WPA Slave Narratives – When Slaves Learned They Were Free, Part 1: “Root, Pig, or Die.”

The WPA Slave Narratives, the folk history accounts produced from interviews with surviving ex-slaves in the late 1930s, contain numerous accounts of former slaves telling about the moment they learned they were free.

The following account from this source is an extract from Siney Bonner, an ex-slave living in Birmingham, Alabama, produced around May 1937. Bonner had been a young woman living on a plantation near Pickensville, Alabama, on the Tombigbee River, which at its confluence with the Alabama River combined to become the Mobile River.

Bonner turned fifteen years old around the time the Civil War ended making her approximately eighty-seven years old at the time of the interview. Sometime around “the surrender,” Bonner says her owner, John Bonner, called his slaves together to give them the news of their freedom. She relates:

“Massa John call all de niggers on de plantation ’round him at de big house and he say to ‘em ‘Now, you all Jest free as I is. I ain’t your marster no mo’. I’se tried to be good to you and take keer of all of you. You is all welcome to stay and we’ll wuk togedder and make a livin somehow. Ef you don’ want to stay, dem dat go will have to root, pig, or die’. Some stayed some lef. My daddy stayed wid Marse John till he was called home to glory. Now dey all gone but Siney, and I’se jes’ here, waitin’ for ‘em to call me.”

WPA Slave Narratives, Vol. 1, Alabama Narratives, pp. 40-41

About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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3 Responses to WPA Slave Narratives – When Slaves Learned They Were Free, Part 1: “Root, Pig, or Die.”

  1. Robyn says:

    Enjoyed this–I sure would love to see you posting more on this blog, it was one I read religiously and learned from. I created a blog awhile ago I hope to myself pick back up, but take a look. In it, I tried to verify what I could genealogically about some of the slave narratives you write about in this post.


    I met you briefly years ago at Ira Berlin’s ceremony at Maryland, and you signed the book I have of yours;)

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