WPA Slave Narratives – When Slaves Learned They Were Free, Part 2: Bottom Rail on Top

This is Part 2 of the blog posts (click for Part 1) exploring interesting accounts of ex-slaves relating the story of how they learned they were free found in the WPA Slave Narratives.

The following excerpt is from Mary Ella Grandberry, a former slave living in Sheffield, Alabama. She and her family had been slaves of a bachelor slaveholder in nearby Barton, Alabama, who owned over a hundred slaves. Her account is notable for her claim that Union troops that occupied the plantation for a time, which was near the Tennessee River, forced the whites that remained during the occupation to make meals for the slaves and also to serve them. The soldiers seem to have taken this step to humble local whites. Truly, an example of the bottom rail on top.

‘De war come when I was a big gal. I ‘member dat uncle an’cousin jined in wid de Yankees to hope fight for de freedom De Yankees come to our place an’ runned Massa Jim away an’ tuk de house for a horsepittil. Dey tuk all of Massa Jim’s clothes an’ gived dem to some of dere frien’s. Dey burned up all de cotton, hay, peas an’ ever’thing dat was in de barns. Dey made de white folks cook for de colored an’ den serve ‘em while dey et. De Yankees made ’em do for us lak we done for dem. Dey showed de white folks what it was to work for somebody else. Dey stayed on our place for de longes’. When dey did leave, dere warn’t a mouthful to eat in de house. When de war was over, Massa Jim told usdat we had to find som’ers else to live. Co’se some of my folks had already gone when he come home. Us lef’ Massa Jim’s an’ moved to anudder farm. We got pay for de wuk what we did on dis yuther place. Raght atter de war de Ku Klux got atter de colored folks.

WPA Slave Narratives, Vol. 1, Alabama Narratives, pp. 162-63.


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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