William Moore was born a slave in Selma, Alabama, owned by Tom Waller. During the Civil War, the Wallers moved from Selma to Mexica, Texas, in the hopes of avoiding the United States soldiers. In this interview from the 1930s, Tom details the conditions of living as “Massa Tom’s” property. His story, in his own words, follows.
Moving to Texas
Massa Tom heard they were going to emancipate the slaves in Selma, so he got his things and niggers together and come to Texas. My mammy [mother] said they come in covered wagons, but I wasn’t old enough to remember nothing about it. The first reflections I got is down in Limestone County [Texas].
Massa Tom had a fine, big house painted white and a big prairie field in front of his house and two, three farms and orchards. He had five hundred head of sheep, and I spent most of my time being a shepherd boy. I started out when I’m little and learned right fast to keep good count of the sheep.
Mammy’s name was Jane and Pa’s was Hay, and I had a brother, Ed, and four sisters, Rachel and Mandy and Harriet and Ellen. We had a pretty hard time to make our and was hungry lots of times. Massa Tom didn’t feel called on to feed his hands any too much. I remember I had a craving for victuals all the time. My mammy used to say, ‘My belly craves something and it craves meat.’ I’d take lunches to the field hands and they’d say, ‘Lord God, it ain’t enough to stop the gripe in your belly.’ We made out on things from the fields and rabbits cooked in little fires.
We had little bitty cabins out of logs with puncheon beds and a bench and fireplace in it. We children made out to sleep on pallets on the floor.
Some Sundays we went to church some place. We always liked to go any place. A white preacher always told us to obey our massas and work hard and sing and when we die, we go to heaven. Massa Tom didn’t mind us singing in our cabins at night, but we better not let him catch us praying.
Seems like the negroes just got to pray. Half their life they’re praying. Some negro take turn about to watch and see if Massa Tom anywhere about, then they circle themselves on the floor in the cabin and pray. They got to moaning low and gentle, ‘Some day, some day, some day, this yoke going to be lifted off of our shoulders.’
Massa Tom been dead a long time now. I believe he’s in hell. Seem like that where he belongs. He was a terrible mean man and had an indifferent mean wife. Be he had the finest, sweetest children the Lord ever let live and breathe on this earth. They’s so kind and sorrowing over us slaves.
Some of the children used to read us little things out of papers and books. We’d look at the papers and books like they were something mighty curious, but we better not let Massa Tom or his wife know it!
Massa Tom was a filthy man for meanness. He just about had to beat somebody every day to satisfy his craving. He had a big bullwhip and he would stake a negro on the ground and make another negro hold his head down with his mouth in the dirt and whip the negro till the blood run out and red up the ground. We little negroes stood around and saw it done. Then he tells us, ‘Run to the kitchen and get some salt from Jane.’ That’s my mammy, she was the cook. He’d sprinkle salt in the cut, open places and the skin jerk and quiver and the man slobber and puke. Then his shirt stick to his back for a week or more.
My mammy had a terrible bad back once. I saw her trying to get the clothes off her back and a woman say, ‘What’s the matter with your back?’ It was raw and bloody and she say Massa Tom done beat her with a handsaw with the teeth on her back. She died with the marks on her, the teeth holes going crosswise her back. When I was grown, I asked her about it and she said Massa Tom got mad at the cooking and grabbed her by the hair and drug her out the house and grabbed the saw off the tool bench and whipped her.
My pa is the first picture I got in my mind. It was sitting on Ma’s lap and Pa come in and said Massa Tom loaned him out to work on a dam they were building in Houston and he had to go. One day word came that he was hauling a load of rocks through the swamps and a low-hanging grapevine caught him under the neck and jerked him off the seat and the wagon rolled over him and killed him dead. They buried him down there somewhere.
One day I was down in the hog pen and heard a loud agony screaming up to the house. When I got close up I see Massa Tom got my mammy tied to a tree with her clothes pulled down and he’s laying it on her with the bullwhip, and the blood is running down her eyes and off her back. I go crazy. I say, ‘Stop, Massa Tom,’ and he swings the whip and didn’t reach me good, but it cuts just the same.
I saw Miss Mary [Massa Tom’s daughter] standing in the cookhouse door. I ran around crazy like and saw a big rock, and I took it and threw it and it caught Massa Tom in the skull and he goes down like a poled ox. Miss Mary came out and lifted her Pa and helps him in the house and then came to help me undo Mammy. Mammy and me took to the woods for two, three months, I guess. My sisters met us and greased Mammy’s back and brought us victuals. Pretty soon they said that it was safe for us to come in the cabin to eat each night and they’d watch for Massa Tom.
One day Massa Tom’s wife was in the yard and she called me and said she had something for me. She kept her hand under her apron. She kept begging me to come up to her. She said, ‘Give me your hand.’ I reached out my hand and she grabbed it and slipped a slip knot rope over it. I saw then that’s what she had under her apron and the other end was tied to a little bush. I tried to get loose and ran around and I tripped her up and she fell and broke her arm. I got the rope off my arm and ran.
Mammy and me stayed hid in the brush then. We saw Sam and Billie and they told us they [the whites] were fighting over us negroes. Then they told us the negroes declared to Massa Tom that there isn’t going to be any more beatings and we could come up and stay in our cabin and they’d see that Massa Tom didn’t do nothing. And that’s what Mammy and me did. Sam and Billie were two of the biggest negroes on the place and they got the shotguns out of the house some way or another. One day Massa Tom was on a rocker on the porch and Same and Billie were standing by with the guns. We all saw five white men riding up. When they got near, Sam said to Massa Tom, ‘First white man who sets himself inside that rail fence gets it from the gun.’ Massa Tom waves the white men to go back but they galloped right up to the fence and swung off their horses.
Massa Tom said, ‘Stay outside, gentlemen, please do, I changed my mind.’ They said, ‘What’s the matter here? We come to whip your niggers like you done hire us to.’
Massa Tom said, ‘I done change my mind, but if you stay outside I’ll bring you the money.’
They argued to come in, but Massa Tom out talked them and they said they’ll go if he brings them three dollars a piece. He took them the money and they went away.
Massa Tom cussed and roared, but the negroes just stayed in the woods and fooled away their time. They said it ain’t no use to work for nothing all those days.
One day I’m in a persimmon tree in the middle of a little pond, eating persimmons, and my sister, Mandy, came running. She said, ‘Us negroes are free!’ I looked over to the house and saw the negroes piling their little bunch of clothes and things outside their cabins. Then Mammy came running with some other negroes and Mammy was head runner. I climbed down out of that tree and ran to meet her. She said Massa Tom told her that he was going to keep me and pay her for it. She was scared I’ll stay if I wanted to, and she begged me not to.
We got up to the house and all the negroes were standing there with their little bundles on their heads and they all say, ‘Where we going?’
Mammy said, ‘I don’t know where you all are going, but me, myself, am going to go to Miss Mary.’ So all the negroes got in the cart with Mammy and we went to Miss Mary. She met us by the back door and said, ‘Come in, Jane, and all you children and all the rest of you. You can see my door is open and my smokehouse door is open to you and I’ll bed you down until we figure a way for you.’
We all cried and sung and prayed and was so excited we didn’t eat any supper, though Mammy stirred up some victuals.
It wasn’t long before we found places to work. Miss Mary found us a place with a fine white man and we worked on sharance and drifted around to some other places and lived in Corsicana for awhile and I bought Mammy a little house and she died there.
I got married and had three children – cute, fetching little children, and they went to school. There wasn’t any trouble about school then, but was when emancipation came. My brother Ed was in school then and the Ku Klux came and drove the Yankee lady and gentleman out and closed the school.
My children grew up and my wife died and I spent most of my days working hard on farms. Now I’m old and thrown away. But I’m thankful to God and praiseful for the pension that lets me have a little something to eat and a place to stay.