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‘Children in Every Graveyard’ – Former Slave Laura Clark Talks About the Old Days

In this edition of our Voices of Slavery series, we hear from Laura Clark. Mrs. Clark was born enslaved in North Carolina. She never knew her father, who was sold when she was too young to remember him. Her mother, whom she can only recall in tears, was sold shortly after.

She witnessed slavery through the eyes of a motherless child. When she was interviewed by the WPA in the late 1930s, she was able to remember vivid details of slavery, but could not remember all the names of her children who had died. “I been drug about and put through the shackles so bad I done forgot some of their names,” she admits.

In many ways, her interview is similar to many. However, likely due to the person interviewing her, a WPA worker named Ruby Pickens Tartt, Mrs. Clark opens up more than most former slaves. This is often the case when a woman is conducting the interview. 1Tartt’s own life was pretty extraordinary, working with both John and Alan Lomax in gathering folk songs and tales around Alabama in the early half of the 1900s. In all, she collected over 5,000 different manuscripts. There are several books about her, but a fine little overview can be found on her Wikipedia page.

What follows is a transcription provided by Mrs. Tartt. Due to the orders of the WPA, Mrs. Clark’s own words were originally rendered in an imposed “negro dialect.” Often bizarre and nearly impossible to read, I’ve taken the liberty of “translating” this imposed dialect into easier-to-read words. I have not, however, changed a single actual word as intended by Mrs. Clark. You can read the original transcript here. For more information about my own process, see my explanation here.))

We begin with a short introduction by Mrs. Tartt:

Laura Clark, black and wrinkled with her eighty-six years, moved limpingly about the tiny porch of her cabin on the outskirts of Livingston. Battered cans and rickety boxes were filled with a profusion of flowers of the common variety. Laura offered me a split-bottomed chair and lowered herself slowly into a rocker that creaked even under her frail body. “Poorly, Miss, poorly,” she responded to my query about her health. “Ain’t like the old days. I’s crippled and most blind now after all the years what I got.

“I was born on Mr. Pleasant Powell’s place in North Carolina, and when I was about six or seven years old I reckon it was, Mr. Garret from right up yonder in the bend, about eight miles from Livingston going north on the Livingston and Epes road, bought ten of us children in North Carolina and sent two white men, and one was Mr. Skinner, to fetch us back in wagons. And he fetched old Julie Powell and Henry to look after us. Weren’t none of them ten children no kin to me, and he never bought my mammy, so I had to leave her behind.

Mrs. Clark’s home in Alabama.

“I recollect Mammy said to old Julie, ‘Take care of my baby child (that was me) an if I never sees her no more raise her for God.’ Then she fell off the wagon where us was all setting and roll over on the ground just a crying. But us was eating candy what they done give us for to keep us quiet, and I didn’t have sense enough for to know what ailed Mammy, but I knows now and I never seed her no more in this life.

“When I heard from her after the surrender she done dead and buried. Her name was Rachel Powell. My Pappy’s name I don’t know cause he done been sold to somewhere else when I was too little to recollect. But my mammy was the mother of twenty-two children and she had twins in her lap when us drive off. My gran’mammy said when I left, ‘Pray, Laura, and be a good gal, and mind both white and black. Everybody will like you and if you never see me no more pray to meet me in heaven.’ Then she cried. Her name was Rose Powell.

“Us all started then for Mr. Garrett’s plantation down yonder in the bend, ten children and two old ones, and two white men, and us was travelling solid a month. First thing Ole Marsa say was ‘Now be good to these motherless children.’ Then he went to war, and the overseers forgot all about their promise. When Ole Marsa come back he done got his arm shot off, but he let both them overseers go, cause they done whipped that old woman what come with us to death. She brought her two little boys, Colvin and Elias, but Joe, their pappy, didn’t come — he was sold before Elias was born. Joe never seed Elias.

“I sets cross the road here from that church over yonder and can’t go because I’m crippled and blind, but I hear them singing:

A motherless child sees a hard time
Oh, Lord, help her on the road.
Her sister will do the best she can
This is a hard world, Lord, for a motherless child.

“And I just busts out crying. That was the song I had in view to sing for you, it’s so mournful. I knowed it weren’t no reel, it weren’t nothing like no reel, because I been belonging to the church for fifty-five years, and I don’t fancy no reel.

“I’m glad I got it to my mind before you left. But my recollection is shallow. I ain’t never read no verse in no Bible in my life, cause I can’t read. Some my children can, though. My husband died and left me with nine children, none of them couldn’t pull the others out if the fire if they fell in. I had more than that, but some come here dead and some didn’t. I got children dead in Birmingham and Bessemer. There ain’t a graveyard in this here settlement around Prospect where I ain’t got children buried. Hettie Ann, right up there in Mr. Hawkins’ graveyard, and my boy what got killed setting on the side of the road eating his dinner, he’s buried in Captain Jones’ place in the bend yonder.

“Yes’m, I been drug about and put through the shackles so bad I done forgot some of their names, and I most blind now and can’t hear good neither. But my eyes is good enough for to see ghosts, but I don’t believe in them, because I’d see them children sometime if there was ghosts. I know I’d see my boy, cause they showed me his head what that Miller boy hit him in the head with a spade and split his head wide open, slip up behind him and all he said was ‘Squeek,’ just like a hog, and he was dead. And the murderer live right here but they moved and now I’m here. When it rains, us just gets under the bed because the house ain’t got no top on it.

Mrs. Clark

“I can’t say Marse Garrett wasn’t good to us motherless children but de overseer, Mr. Woodson Tucker, was mean as anybody. He’d whip you nigh about to death, and had a whipping log what he stripped them buck naked and lay them on the log. He whip them with a wide strap, wider than my hand, then he pop the blisters what he raise and ‘nint them with red pepper, salt, and vinegar. Then he put them in the house the called the pest house and have a woman stay there to keep the flys off of them until they get able to move.

“Then they had regelar men in the fields with spades, and if you didn’t do what you got told, the overseer would wrap that strap around his hand and hit you in the head with the wooden handle until he killed you. Then the mens would dig a hole with the spades and throw them in it right there in the field just like they was cows — didn’t have no funeral or nothing.

“Us had a heap of houses in the quarters right on both sides of the Big House. Us could step out of one house to the other. But, Miss, I didn’t work so hard or have no trouble either. I was in the house after Marsa come home and found me splitting rails and plowing. He allowed they done put me in too hard a ship [hardship], and I was too little, so he took me to the house to draw water and wash dishes, because I was a little motherless gal.

“Old Marsa done a good part by me, and I was married to my first husband, Cary Crockett, right there in the parlor. He told the overseer that us was human and had feelings same as him, so he rejected the patrollers and made them get off the place. I was treated good, because I remembered what my grandma said, and whatever they told me to put my hand to, I did, and I was obedient and wasn’t hardheaded like some of the rest. I had no trouble, and wasn’t rebuked none.

“But I’s had more trouble last ten years with my own children then I ever did in slavery time. They gives me such bitter words till I can’t swallow them and I just sets and cries. I can’t read no songs to comfort me, just catch them from the preacher on the stand and hold them, that’s the way I catch my learning.

“Last sermon I heard, he took his text an said, ‘Don’t nobody rob God.’ Then he say, ‘If you is going to intend to serve God, serve Him in the full, because God don’t never bat a eye, nor turn His head and he can see you. He frowns at every sin, but He’s a sin-forgiving man.’

“I use to know a heap about the Lord, but I’m so crippled an blind since the calf jumped on my foot I can’t go to church no more, so I done forgot.

“You asked about them flowers on the porch — I sure wish they was mine, you could have them because there ain’t room enough with them for me to sit where I desire. Us ain’t got no meal and here it’s just Tuesday — no more till Saturday. Sure is bad; us just depends on the neighbors and berries.”

Photo of Ruby Pickens Tartt, taken in 1963.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.