Slavery Days in Old Kentucky.
ISAAC JOHNSON THE AUTHOR, A FORMER SLAVE.
A True Story of a Father Who Sold His Wife and Four Children. By One of the Children
The present generation knows but little of actual slavery. Attempts are sometimes made to color the Institution to make it appear as though the old days of American slavery were patriarchal days to be desired, to surround the Institution with a glamour as though it possessed great intrinsic merits of value to both races. But we believe that any system of human slavery is always degrading both to the master and the slave. The hardships of my slave life were nothing in comparison with many, and the following pages of my actual experience as a slave are given, not for the purpose of casting reflections upon those who favored the Institution, but to give to the world a knowledge of the subject that no eloquence may ever make the same thing again possible.
Dated September, 1901.
So many people have inquired as to the particulars of my slave life and seemingly listened to the same with interest, that I have concluded to give the story in this form.
I was born in the State of Kentucky in 1844. When I first came to a knowledge of myself I was a child living with my parents on a farm located on the banks of Green river in my native State. The family at that time consisted of my father, Richard Yeager, my mother, Jane, an older brother, Louis, a younger brother, Ambrose, and later on another brother, Eddie. I was next to Louis in age. Here we lived a happy and contented family, and prosperous beyond most of the farmers in that section of the State. For reasons that will appear before the end is reached my sur-name is the maiden name of my mother. As I look back to my boyhood days I can see that my mother was an intelligent woman, considering her station in life, and it is from her, and my paternal uncles in after years, I learned as to my ancestry.
My grandfather was an Irishman, named Griffin Yeager, and his brothers were engaged in the villainous vocation of the Slave Trade. Their business was to steal negroes from Africa or wherever they could get them and sell them as slaves in the United States. My mother was stolen by these people from the island of Madagascar in the year 1840. She was brought to America and given to my grandfather who concluded she would make a good servant. He gave her the name of Jane and kept her till he died, which was soon after. [Blog writer’s note: Notice how this former slave explains that Africans were STOLEN from Africa by whites, not sold by other Africans, which is an exaggerated lie white historians like to tell to whitewash the horrors and greed of the Euro-American-Judean slave trade]
By the terms of grandfather’s will, Jane was bequeathed to his eldest son Richard, commonly known as Dick Yeager. Dick also received by the will other personal property, and, equipped with cows, sheep, horses and some farming utensils, he took Jane and moved onto the farm referred to on Green river. He used Jane in all respects as a wife and she, in her innocence, supposed she was such…Other people soon came as neighbors, none of whom owned slaves. The new comers disapproved of and freely talked about Yeager and his manner of living with a slave and raising children by her. This talk resulted in social ostracism of the Yeager family notwithstanding he was more prosperous than any of them. Yeager felt the social cut keenly and concluded to sell out and leave that part of the country. He accordingly advertised his farm and stock for sale. At this time his children were aged as follows: Louis was nine years of age, Isaac (myself) was seven, Ambrose five and Eddie was two. The sale took place. He retained the horses which were taken to the New Orleans market, leaving the family during his absence. Here we remained waiting patiently his return, till about two months thereafter, when the sheriff came and took us all to Bardstown in Nelson county, about two days journey eastward, and here we were placed in the negro pen for the night.
THE AUCTION SALE.
The next morning, to our astonishment, a crowd gathered and took turns examining us. What it all meant we could not imagine till Louis was led out about ten o’clock, placed on the auction block and the auctioneer cried out: “How much do I hear for this nigger?” Allow me to say here, it was only the vulgar and low whites who used the term “nigger,” the better classes always spoke of us as negroes or colored folks. The auctioneer continued his cry for bids and Louis was at last sold for eight hundred dollars. By this time we had taken in the situation, and it seemed as though my mother’s heart would break. Such despair I hope I may never again witness. We children knew something terrible was being done, but were not old enough to fully understand.
Then the auctioneer called for Isaac and I was led out, the auctioneer saying, “Time is precious, gentlemen, I must sell them all before night; how much do I hear for this nigger?” We were instructed before hand that we must answer all questions put to us by “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir.” I was asked if I had ever been whipped, or sick, or had had the toothache, and similar questions to all of which I answered. He then cried for bids. The first bid was four hundred dollars. This was gradually raised until I was struck off for seven hundred dollars, and sold to William Madinglay, who came forward and said: “Come along with me, boy, you belong to me.” I said to him: “Let me go and see my mother.” He answered me crossly: “Come along with me, I will train you without your mother’s help.” I was taken one side and chained to a post as though I had been a horse. I remained hitched to this post till late in the afternoon.
The next one sold was Ambrose. I could not see him, but I could hear the auctioneer crying for bids and my little four year old brother was sold for five hundred dollars to William Murphy.
The next to be set up was my mother and our little baby boy Eddie. To the cry for bids no one responded for some time and it looked for awhile that they were to escape being sold. But some one called out: “Put them up separately.” Then the cry was: “How much do I hear for the woman without the baby?” The first bid was eight hundred dollars, and this was gradually raised till she was sold for eleven hundred dollars.
The next sale was of Eddie, my little brother whom we all loved so much, he was sold for two hundred dollars, to one John Hunter. Thus, in a very short time, our happy family was scattered, without even the privilege of saying “Good by” to each other, and never again to be seen, at least so far as I was concerned.
MY NEW HOME.
Late in the afternoon my new master put me into a wagon and took me over very rough and hilly roads to his home about five miles distant, on a farm located on the bank of Beech Fork river. We reached this home of William Madinglay about ten o’clock at night. His wife, one child, and Peter, a slave, constituted his family, and I made one more.
On reaching the place, Madinglay called loudly: “Peter!” This individual soon appeared, saying: “Yes, sir, Master!” He was then asked:
“Have you put in feed for the horses?”
“Yes, sir, Master!”
Turning to me he said: “Come along with me.”
We went to the kitchen and there we met his wife at the door when she asked: “What have you there, William?”
His answer was: “Oh, I have a little boy here for you.”
“Indeed, you have a bright little fellow,” she replied.
He then said: “This is one of the Yeager niggers we saw advertised for sale at auction.”
“I declare he is not a very dark colored one.”
“No, wife, he isn’t, you see he is one of those pumpkin seed niggers from the mountains.”
“Oh Bill! what makes you talk that way? I think he will make a good servant.”
His reply was: “I reckon he will when he gets that black snake around him a couple of times.” (He referred to the raw hide whip.)
“William, I hope he will not need that at all, I don’t think he is as stupid as Peter.”
“Oh well, Margaret, I don’t mind if he is stupid, I can train him, there is nothing like the black snake for stupidness.”
I had never heard such talk before, and I hung my head and began to cry when she said: Oh Bill, don’t scare the boy to death, I think he will be a good boy.
Master then commanded: “Stand up there and straighten up, let your Mistress see what kind of a boy you are, she hasn’t half seen you yet.”
She brought a lamp from the shelf and carefully looked me over, after which she said: “Oh what a nice little lad, and what a nice suit he has on!”
“Oh yes, wife, up on the mountains they don’t know how to work the niggers, but I will teach him how to work. The idea of a nigger with a suit on him like that! Wait till I get a suit on him, I’ll show him how to work.”
She then asked: “What is your name?”
“Isaac,” I answered.
“That’s a nice little name. Take off your hat, put it on the chair and sit down in the corner.”
I took off my hat and coat and looked for a place to hang them, as I had been accustomed to do in our old home, but found none. I laid them on the little bundle I had with me and walked over to the corner of the fireplace and sat on the floor. Peter came in and Master asked: “Have you got your chores all done?”
“Yes, sir, Master.”
“Did you go to the mill to-day?”
“Yes, sir, Master.”
“Did you bring a load of meal home!”
“Yes, sir, Master.”
“Is there plenty of wood at the still?”
“Yes, sir, Master.”
“Do you know if they are going to grind tomorrow?”
“Yes, sir, Master, dey’s going to grind tomorrow.”
After Master and his wife had eaten their supper, which consisted of mush and milk, she brought us a pan of the same for our supper, after which Master said: “Peter, this is a little nigger who is to help you in your work, he is green, but you must teach him.” Mistress then brought an old quilt saying: “This is a quilt for your bed tonight, you and Peter can sleep together, he will show you.”
Peter also had an old quilt, we laid one down and took the other for a cover, our bed being the floor.
Oh, what a change! The sight of Peter set me nearly crazy. All he wore was a long tow shirt, a cloth cap and no shoes. It did not take him long to turn in as he had nothing to take off. I took off my shoes, socks, pants and coat, and then looked around to see what he had for a pillow and found he had none, but was curled up like a snake. I sat there for hours thinking of my mother, brothers and father until I was nearly wild with the change that had come, changed from a happy home to be used like a dog, and a pretty mean one at that. I wondered if I should ever see my people again. I little dreamed then what I afterwards learned, that my own father had brought all this change to us, that we were sold by his orders and the three thousand three hundred dollars we were sold for went into his pockets less the expenses of the sale. He had sold his own flesh and blood. That is what American slavery made possible. That is the “Divine institution” we have heard so much about, the cornerstone of the proposed Confederacy. Is it any wonder the Southerners were defeated with such an incubus around their necks, dragging them down to a condition lower than their slaves, making them human demons! Do you wonder that when freedom came to me I preferred the maiden name of my sainted mother to the name of my father? In my ignorance of the true situation I mourned for him in common with my mother and brothers, and sat through that night bewildered, until tired nature forced me to lie down. I took my little bundle for a pillow, wrapped the quilt about me, not to sleep but rather to dream and wonder what terrible thing had happened to my dear father, as I then thought of him, to bring all this misfortune upon us. I tried to console myself with the thought that there must be some hereafter when we could all meet again sometime.
…on the first of January, 1854, I was sent to my Master’s brother, his name was James Madinglay. I remained with him two months. He was the meanest kind of a slave holder. He had two slaves, a girl and a boy. He drank very hard and seldom left his room on account of his being too drunk to do so. He would order the slaves to his room and whip them unmercifully without any cause or provocation. His son was equally as mean as he, he would watch the slaves, and if he saw one idle, only for a moment, he would inform his father and that meant, every time, a severe whipping. We were to husk corn one morning during the husking season, but it rained so very hard that we did not start at once for the crib. For this delay, Master called us all in to be punished. I stood by and saw him whip the other boy severely. I knew my turn would come next, and I started on the run for home as hard as I could run, not stopping till I reached there. Mistress saw me and wished to know my reasons for my appearance. I told her what had taken place and she said it was “all right, stay here till your Master comes home.”
…After harvesting, the surplus negroes were sent to the Southern markets at Grand Gulf, Jackson and Vicksburg, at each of which places he had slave pens.
The time of the removal was kept secret from the slaves, and about ten o’clock the night before, twelve men were sent into the cabins and these hand-cuffed the males. In the morning these were brought out by twos and fastened to a chain about forty or fifty feet long. The women and children not able to walk were packed into wagons and the line of march commenced, the chained men first, the women able to walk next, and the wagons brought up the rear. A beautiful sight for a country that boasts of its freedom! How the boasted Southern chivalry must have delighted in such sights, delighted in them so greatly they were ready to go to war to preserve the “sacred institution” of human slavery! I have tasted its sacredness and felt that its Divinity is devilish. The line of march was to Nashville where they were placed aboard of boats and taken to the different slave pens.
…New slaves were brought in every few days and these were set to work during the summer, clearing land when there was no other work, their hours of labor being from 16 to 18 each day.
The slaves were divided into gangs, and over each gang was a Boss, who was also one of the slaves. At four o’clock each morning, the bell was rung and each Boss had to see that his gang was up and ready to commence the day’s work. They marched by gangs to the tables set up under some trees in the yard, where breakfast was served for which one half hour was allowed, after which each Boss marched his gang to the fields or to the kind of work laid out for them. The overseer rode on horse back from one gang to another seeing that all were kept busy. If he saw two or three idle, or talking to each other, if no satisfactory reason could be given, a whipping was sure to follow. At no time were three allowed to talk together unless the overseer was present. At twelve o’clock the gangs were marched to the tables for dinner, and one hour was allowed for dinner and rest, and then they were marched again to their work, where they remained as long as there was daylight to work by, and then they were marched once more to the tables for supper, after which they went to their cabins, each cabin being occupied by from ten to twelve persons, men and women were in separate cabins, except where they were married, and such had cabins by themselves. At ten o’clock the bell was rung when all must go to bed, or at half past ten, when the overseer made his rounds, if any were found up they were taken to the punishment room, and in the morning Master administered such punishment as he thought best. The punishment was a certain number of lashes from the whip for the first offence and more if the offence was repeated, with the addition of an iron weight tied to their backs for a number of days or weeks according to the Master’s pleasure, these weights to be carried during the day while they were at work.
On this trip Rosa [an octoroon slave] accompanied the Master, and his wife was left on the farm to attend to matters there. His wife was a devout Catholic, and while Master was gone she used to gather the slaves remaining, each morning in her dining room and teach them prayers and some of the younger ones she taught to read. When the Master returned in the spring and learned what she had been doing he was very angry. He had always told his slaves that he was their Lord and Master, and now informed them his wife should not have told them of any other Lord. From Rosa we learned that he lectured his wife for her conduct about as follows: “If you teach them to pray and read they may think they are human beings and we will not be able to keep them as slaves; the more ignorant we keep them about such things the better slaves they are. The worst slaves we have are those who know the most, they are the ones we have to punish to keep them down. We have here from twenty to two hundred slaves each year, and if they should know as much as we do, where would we be? They would murder us in spite of the law. After this, my dear wife, you must never teach a negro the Lord’s prayer, or any other prayer.”
After the above there was no more gathering for prayers, and the little prayer book she had distributed among us and the little primers she had given were taken from us by Rosa, she saying: “The Master says you do not need them.” Thus we soon lost what little we had learned, except, for some reason, the Lord’s prayer, so simple and yet so full of meaning and comfort, was quite generally remembered. It has always seemed to me that there was some Divine help in this. That little prayer increased my wonder why we should be the slaves of the whites, and especially did I wonder in my own case when I thought of the fact that my mother was from the island of Madagascar and her people were never slaves. Why then should I be one?
After Master’s lecture to his wife she had no more to do with us and the care of the slaves was turned over to Rosa who was a slave herself, and the Sunday following, Master had us all seated on the ground in the yard and lectured us as follows:
“You must not think hard of me for telling you the truth about yourselves and the Whites. The great God above has made you for the benefit of the Whiteman, who is your law maker and law giver. Whenever you disobey his commands you must expect punishment. Your duty is in all cases to never raise your hand against a Whiteman and whenever you meet a Whiteman, no matter who or what he is, you must stop, take off your hat and stand to one side and say, ‘Good day, Master,’ or ‘Good evening,’ as the case may be. By doing this you do what is right on your side. You must understand you are just the same as the ox, horse, or mule, made for the use of the Whiteman and for no other purpose. You must do as the Whiteman tells you, if you do not, he will punish you just the same as he would the mule when he breaks him. If you can’t break the mule I tell you to kill him and that is the same with you. If you don’t do what is right by me, why, my duty is to kill you just as I tell you to kill the mule if he doesn’t do what is right. There is no more harm in me killing you than there is in you killing the mule, and I now say to you, if the mule doesn’t do what is right–kill him! That is the law that you must go by.”
[After a failed escape] I was taken to the nearest depot and thence to my Master, who paid fifty dollars for my recovery. I was taken to the garret in his home, handcuffed for the night, and, to make sure I would not escape again, Peter was handcuffed to me. The next morning Peter was released, skackles were placed on my legs, and I remained in this shape till about 10 o’clock, when Master and his brother William, who was his slave agent, came to the garret, took off the skackles, handcuffed my hands behind my back and took me to the punishment room or shanty where I saw Bob lying on a few boards, his throat cut and he was slowly dying in great misery. From him I afterwards learned that about half an hour after I left the field, Master and three slave drivers came to the still house, sent for Bob to come there, which he did, not mistrusting what was before him. As soon as he arrived the four men all pounced upon him like four ravenous wolves upon a lamb. He fought all of them till he was overpowered. They then drove four stakes in the ground and he was tied to these with his back up and the four men took turns lashing him with a raw hide whip, the black snake I have referred to, until his back appeared like a piece of beefsteak pounded. They then took hot coals from the furnace and poured them over his back, after which they took him to the punishment cabin, shackled his feet, chained him to the punishment block and in the night two of them went into the cabin and cut his throat, taking care not to cut the jugular, but cutting just enough so he would die gradually in torture.
Bob’s condition was a lesson to the rest of us, and no means were allowed to escape making it an impressive one. He lived in this condition for five days and then his poor soul took its flight to the region where it Bob’s condition was a lesson to the rest of us, and no means were allowed to escape making it an impressive one. He lived in this condition for five days and then his poor soul took its flight to the region where it.
Read the rest here Univ of North Carolina’s site: http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/johnson/johnson.html