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“The Half Has Never Been Told” – Former-Slave, Lorenzo Ivy Gives Two Interviews Over Sixty Years Apart

Like many former slaves, Lorenzo Ivy was interviewed by the WPA in 1937. At that time, he was 87 years old. But long before that, way back in 1874, he was interviewed while a student at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, the alma mater of Booker T. Washington – both Ivy and Washington were in the same class.

It’s rare to find two separate interviews with the same former slave, especially when they’re separated by over six decades of time. To be sure, both are strikingly different from each other – but this only makes sense. The words of a 25 year old college student are vastly unlike anything an 87 year old man would say.

Mr. Ivy’s most famous quote – “the half has never been told” came from the second interview. It was most recently used as a title of a book by Edward E. Baptist outlining “Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism”. 1Here.

Times have changed so fast in the last ten years, that I often ask myself who am I, and why am I not on my master’s plantation, working under and overseer, instead of being here in this institution, under the instruction of a school-teacher.

Family and Separation

I was born in 1849. My master was very good to his slaves, and they thought a great deal of him. But all of our happy days were over when he went South and caught the cotton fever. He was never satisfied till he moved out there.

View of Danville, Virginia – showing the various tobacco warehouses turned prisons.

He sold the house before any of the black people knew anything about it, and that was the beginning of our sorrow.

My father belonged to another man, and we knew not how soon we would be carried off from him. Two of my aunts were married, and one of them had ten children, and both of their husbands belonged to another man.

Father and my uncles went to their masters and asked them to buy their families. They tried to, but our master wouldn’t sell, and told him how many hundred dollars’ worth of cotton he could make off us every year, and that we little chaps were just the right size to climb cotton-stalks and pick cotton.

But our master and father’s master had once agreed that if either one of them ever moved away, he would sell out to the other. So father’s master sent for the other gentlemen who heard the conversation, and they said it was true.

After a day or two’s consideration, he agreed to let him have mother and the seven children for $12,000. The released us from sorrow. But it was not so with my aunts; they had lost all hope of being with their husbands any longer; the time was set for them to start; it was three weeks from the time we were sold.

Those three weeks did not seem as long as three days to us who had to shake hands for the last time with those bound together with the bands of love.

Soft Corn and Choking Husk

Father said he could never do enough for his master for buying us. They treated us very well for the first three or four years – as the saying was with the black people, they fed us on soft corn at first and then choked us with the husk.

When I was large enough to use a hoe, I was put under the overseer to make tobacco-hills. I worked under six overseers, and they all gave me a good name to my master.

I only got about three whipping from each of them. The first one was the best; we did not know how good he was till he went away to the war. Then times commenced getting worse with us.

I worked many a day without any thing to eat but a tin cup of buttermilk and a little piece of corn-bread, and then walk two miles every night or so to carry the overseer his dogs; if we failed to bring them, he would give us a nice flogging.

Uncle Sam’s Clothes, but Uncle Jeff’s Heart

When the war closed, our master told all the people, if they would stay and get in the crop, he would give them part of it. Most of them left; they said they knew him too well. Father made us all stay, so we all worked on the remainder of the year, just as if Lee hadn’t surrendered.

Tobacco package label, 1867.

I never worked harder in my life, for I though the more we made, the more we would get.

We worked from April till one month to Christmas. We raised a large crop of corn and wheat and tobacco, shucked all the corn and put it in the barn, stripped all the tobacco, and finished noe month before Christmas.

Then we went to our master for our part he had promised us, but he said he wasn’t going to give us any thing, and he stopped giving us any thing to eat, and said we couldn’t live any longer on his land.

Father went to the Freedmen’s Bureau, but the officer was like Isaac said to Esau: ‘The voice is like Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Easu.’ So that was the way with the officer – he had on Uncle Sam’s clothes, but he had Uncle Jeff’s heart.

He said our master said we wasn’t worth any thing, and he couldn’t get any thing for us, so father said no more about it.

The Sweet Cup of Freedom

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, 1890.

We made out to live that winter – I don’t know how. In April, 1866, father moved to town where he could work at his trade. He hired all of us boys that were large enough to work in a brick-yard for from three to six dollars a month. That was the first time I had tasted the sweet cup of freedom.

I worked hard all day, and went to night-school two terms and a half, and three months to day-school. When I entered, I could read and spell a little, but did not know one figure from another, or any writing. These schools were kept by the Philadelphia Friends’ Relief Association, and had very good teachers.

Father moved next to East Tennessee, and I went to school there three months last winter, and was sent with my sister and two other brothers by some kind friends who had been my teachers, to this Hampton Normal and Agricultural School. 2This interview comes from Hampton and Its Students, By Two of Its Teachers, Mrs. M. F. Armstrong and Helen Ludlow, With Fifty Cabin and Plantation Songs, Arranged by Thomas P. Fenner. Published in 1874. It can be found here.

Sixty-three years later, Mr. Ivy gave another interview. While he certainly covered a bit of the same ground, he also delved into other matters. There were six decades of untrod ground to cover, after all.

The differences, however, are interesting to note. While in the early interview, he knew exactly how old he was, by the ripe age of 87, he had apparently forgotten.

Four young men mixing fertilizers, Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va. 1890s.

Though Mr. Ivy doesn’t appear to remember the first interview, his second fills in all of the gaps left out in the first. It’s a remarkable thing – almost as if he had a story to tell and was finally able to tell it.

I came to Danville in April 1866, a few weeks after Lee’s surrender. I was born in Chatham county seat of Pittsylvania county. I don’t know just exactly how old I am but I was about fifteen years old when I came to Danville; so you see I was a slave for quite a while.

The white folks was supposed to keep the ages of the slaves in order to know when they was supposed to start paying taxes on them. Guess you can see now why they weren’t so anxious about keeping close tract of the ages of niggers.

Sold Down South

My mother’s marster’s name was William Tunstall. He was a mean man. There was only one good thing he ever did and I don’t reckon he intended to do that. He sold our family to my father’s marster George H. Gilman.

Old Tunstall caught the “cotton fever.” There was a fever going around or leastways it was like a fever. Everybody was dying to get down south and raise cotton to sell. So old Tunstall separated families right and left. He took two of my aunts and left their husbands up hear and he separated all together seven husbands and wives. One woman had twelve children. Yes sir! Separated them all and took them south with him to Georgia and Alabama.

Learning a Trade

Father’s marster never sold any slaves. You see father was a lucky boy around the big house. He learned the shoe making trade. One day when he was loafing around the house, he took a table fork and made a little lass out it. And then he took the lass and made a little shoe.

Farmers’ trailers with tobacco sticks outside of warehouse during auction sale. Danville, Virginia. 1940.

Old Judge Gilman saw him make it and was very pleased. He put him at shoe making. Sent him all the way to Lynchburg to learn under a man named Fretwell. He studied hard and became one of the best shoemakers in the state.

After he learned, he took him and hired him out to different shoe shops. Finally he let him hire himself out. Yes sir! Let him make his own brogans.

After the surrender, father had his own shop. Took him some time to get started. There was a lack of shoe material after the war and people had no money to buy shoes with. The soldiers told him of good work in Charleston, West Virginia. He and my oldest brother went up there and worked for the whole summer after Lee surrendered. Then they came back to Danville the following Spring.

The Danville Prison

Father’s marster died while I was at Hampton. He was a good man. I was sorry I was at Hampton when he died. I graduated from Hampton in 1875. I was in Booker T. Washington’s class. You can find my name in the class of ’75. There is a list with my name on it in Armstrong’s “Twenty-Two Years at Hampton.” You look and see.

The Danville prison was where the colored drug store and the colored bank sets now. Tobacco factories set there den, right across the street. These factories was the Confederate prison. They imprison them in the cellars of these buildings. It was very unhealthy and plenty of them soldiers died.

The rebels fixed them an isolated cemetery one mile west of here. When they died, the rebels just lug them on out there and dump them in. After the war they went down a burying corp from up north. That corp took up all them soldiers bodies and brung them in here and reburied them in the National Cemetery.

Transporting tobacco from warehouse after auction sale to the cigarette factories and storage warehouse. Danville, Virginia. 1940.

Once during the war the prisoners excavated. They cut a hole underneath the ground one hundred feet across the street. It was just large enough for a man to go through. The hole led to a branch ravine. Prisoners escaped to everywhere from this hole. They discovered the hole one day when they paved the streets years later.

The reason they had the prison here anyhow was because of Hunter. Old Yankee Hunter made a raid down through here and tore up all the railroads that run around here. For they had been carrying them off from Lynchburg to that terrible prison in Andersonville. Ever heard of it? Well, anyway at the time of Hunter’s raid they brought about 2,700 in here from Lynchburg. Brought them on foot to Danville. Yes sir! Marched them hundreds of miles.

Slaves Did All The Work

Tobacco was the main thing for the war. They had a lot of factories here. During the war they used these factories for hospitals. Slaves did all the work in the factory. Their marsters hire them out to work in the factories.

In the cities the slaves live in little huts back of houses and in the country in log cabins back of big houses. If they work in the factory they live right on the factory grounds.

When the slaves get married, the leading colored men that had learned to read and write would marry them. My father could marry folks and he often did – Father’s mistress learned him to read. Oh, yes! Sometimes a white preacher would marry them.

Runaways and Grandmother

Runaways! Lord, yes, they had plenty of runaways. There was two kinds of runaways, them what hid in the woods and them what ran away to free land. Most slaves just runaway and hide in the woods for a week or two and then come on back.

My grandmother lived in the woods. They say her people treated her like a dog. In fact they treat her so bad she often come down to our place. After a while they tell some one to tell her to come on home. They weren’t going beat her any more. She go on back for awhile.

Never Been Told

They sold slaves here and everywhere. I’ve seen droves of Negroes brought in here on foot going South to be sold. Each one have an old tow sack on his back with everything he’s got in it.

Over the hills they come in lines reaching as far as you can see. They walk in double lines chained together in twos. They walk them here to the railroad and ship them South like cattle.

Truly, son, the half has never been told.

I know a lot more. I can tell you some other time. I’ll tell you; I’ll write it out. Jest send me an envelope like you said and I’ll write in all down and send it to you. Be good. 3This later interview can be found here.

If Mr. Ivy ever sent the interviewer a letter telling “a lot more,” it doesn’t seem to have surfaced. 4For more information on this series, please see our page here.

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.

One thought on ““The Half Has Never Been Told” – Former-Slave, Lorenzo Ivy Gives Two Interviews Over Sixty Years Apart

  1. I identify as Union, but I am beginning to suspect that is a choice, not the reality of my background. I am always surprised by the number of familiar phrases used in the interviews of these former slaves–they resonate from my childhood so much! I am white–at least according to my DNA test–but I highly suspect I grew up in a nest of Confederates. “The half has never been told,” was what was said as someone was about to repeat some salacious story about someone we knew. We “toted,” we didn’t carry. “Lordie, Lordie!” was a common exclamation. Hearts were blessed, we were all called “Honey,” upon occasion, and my maternal grandmother was nearsited and “couldn’t see a stiber,” whatever that was. There are many others, but I don’t remember them until someone says them or they show up here. “Lordie! I must have been raised by Confederates!”

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