During the Civil War, the Federal government created the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission. They were tasked with interviewing former slaves who had been set free by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Over the course of several months, the AFIC commissioners traveled through the South and into Canada conducting their interviews.
The commission produced two reports on the living conditions of slaves, as well as the needs and desires of those freed. It was these reports that led to the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The interviews, however, can led us to a better understanding of slavery. The interviewers asked the same basic questions of all former slaves, with various follow up questions where needed.
What follows is an 1863 interview with Harry McMillan, a forty year old ex-slave. Here, he tells his story in his own words:
Setting the Scene and Farming
Following the Battle of Port Royal, November 1861, Beaufort was occupied by United States forces. Many slaves liberated themselves and made their way to the area. Following the Emanicipation Proclamation, all of the slaves in the Beaufort region, the Sea Isles, were immediately free. Here, they established the Port Royal Experiment, allowing freed slaves to work the land themselves. In all, nearly 200 plantations were divided along the formerly enslaved.
Harry McMillan: I am about 40 years of age, and was born in Georgia but came to Beaufort [South Carolina] when a small boy. I was owned by General Eustis and lived upon his plantation. 1This was likely the Eustis Plantation on Lady Island in Beaufort County, SC.
Question by interviewer: Tell me about the tasks colored men had to do.
Answer by Mr. McMillan: In old secesh times [prior to the war] each man had to do two tasks, which are 42 rows or half an acre, in ‘breaking’ the land, and in ‘listing’ each person had to do a task and a half. 2“Breaking” the land is plowing. “Listing,” also known as middlebreaking, is “A tillage and land-forming operation using a tool that turns two furrows laterally in opposite directions, thereby producing beds or ridges.” In planting every hand had to do an acre a day; in hoeing your first hoeing where you hoe flat was two tasks, and your second hoeing, which is done across the beds, was also two tasks. After going through those two operations you had a third which was two and a half tasks, when you had to go over the cotton to thin out the plans leaving two in each hill.
Q: How many hours a day did you work?
A: Under the old secesh times [we worked] every morning till night – beginning at daylight and continuing till 5 or 6 at night.
Q: But did you stop for meals?
A: You had to get your victuals standing at your hoe; you cooked it over night yourself or else an old woman was assigned to cook for all the hands, and she or your children brought the food to the field. 3“Victuals” general refers to prepared food. It’s from the French.
Q: You never sat down and took your food together as families?
A: No, sir; never had time for it.
Women and Babies
Q: The women had the same day’s work as the men; but suppose a woman was in the family way [pregnant], was her task less?
A: No, sir; most of times she had to do the same work. Sometimes the wife of the planter learned the condition of the woman and said to her husband you must cut down her day’s work. Sometimes the women had their children in the field.
Q: Had the women any doctor?
A: No, sir. There is a nurse on the plantation sometimes – an old midwife who attended them. If a woman was taken in labor in the field some of her sisters would help her home and then come back to the field.
Q: Did they nurse their children?
A: Yes, sir. The best masters gave three months for that purpose.
Q: If a man did not do his task what happened?
A: He was stripped off, tied up and whipped.
Q: What other punishments were used?
A: The punishments were whipping, putting you in the stocks and making you wear irons and chain at work. Then they had a collar to put round your neck with two horns, like cows’ horns, so that you could not lie down on your back or belly. This also kept you from running away for the horns would catch in the bushes.
Sometimes they dug a hole like a well with a door on top. This is called a dungeon, keeping you in it two or three weeks or a month, and sometimes till you died in there. This hole was just big enough to receive the body; the hands down by the sides. I have seen this thing in Georgia, but never here [in South Carolina]. I know how they whip in the prisons. They stretch your arms and legs as far as they can to ring bolts in the flood and lash you till they open the skin and the blood trickles down.
Black on Black
Q: What is your idea respecting the treatment of your people by the government – are they not to be taken care of?
A: They are got to be taken care of in this way, to be protected, because they have not sense enough yet to take care of themselves. I do not want the government to take too much expense on itself for them; I want it to let the colored people feel the weight of supporting themselves.
Q: In speaking of each other, do you say ‘negro’? 4It’s possible that the transcription was changed from the word: ‘nigger’.
A: We call each other colored people, black people, but not negro [nigger?] because we used that word in secesh times.
Q: Do the colored people in the intercourse and dealings with each other tell the truth?
A: It is not always their habit; they learned to talk false to keep the lash off their backs, but now they are getting knowledge and doing better.
Q: If a colored man gives his promise will he keep it?
A: Yes, sir; they know they ought to keep it.
Q: Will they steal from each other?
A: Not so much; they have done it but they look upon this change [emancipation] as bringing about a different state of things.
Back to Women
Q: What induces a colored man to take a wife?
A: Well; since this affair [emancipation] there are more married than ever I knew before, because they have a little more chance to mind their families and make more money to support their families. In secesh times there was not much marrying for love. A man saw a young woman and if he liked her he would get a pass from his Master to go where she was. If his owner did not choose to give him the pass he [the owner] would pick out another woman and make him live with her, whether he loved her or not.
Q: Colored women have a good deal of sexual passion, have they not? They all go with men?
A: Yes, sir, there is a great deal of that. I do not think you will find five out of a hundred that do not; they begin at 15 and 16.
Q: Do they know better?
A: They regard it as a disgrace and the laws of the Church are against it.
Q: They sometimes have children before marriage?
A: Yes, sir; but they are thought less of among their companions, unless they get a husband before the child is born, and if they cannot the shame grows until they do get a husband. Some join a Church when they are 10 years old and some not until they are 20; the girls join mostly before the men, but they are more apt to fall than the men.
Whenever a person joins the Church, no matter how low he has been, he is always respected. When the girls join the Church after a while they sometimes become weary and tired and some temptation comes in and they fall. Sometimes the Masters, where the Mistress was a pious woman, punished the girls for having children before they were married. As a general thing the Masters did not care, they like the colored women to have children.
Q: Suppose the son of the Master wanted to have intercourse with the colored women, was he at liberty?
A: No, not at liberty, because it was considered a stain on the family, but the young men did it. There was a good deal of it. They often kept one girl steady and sometimes two on different places; men who had wives did it too sometimes, if they could get it on their own place it was easier, but they would go wherever they could get it.
Q: Do the colored people like to go to Church?
A: Yes, sir. They are fond of that; they sing psalms, put up prayers, and sing their religious songs.
Q: Did your Masters ever see you learning to read?
A: No, sir. You could not let your Masters see you read; but now the colored people are fond of sending their children to school.
Q: What is the reason of that?
A: Because the children in after years will be able to tell us ignorant ones how to do for ourselves.
Q: How many children have you known one woman to have?
A: I know one woman who had 20 children. I know too a woman named Jenny, the wife of Dagos, a slave of John Pope, who has had 23 children. In general the women have a great many children. They often have a child once a year.
Q: Are the children usually obedient?
A: There are some good and some bad, but in general the children love their parents and are obedient. They like their parents most but they stand up for all their relations.
Q: Suppose a boy is struck by another boy, what does he do?
A: If he is injured bad the relations come in and give the boy who injured him the same hurt. I would tell my boy to strike back and defend himself.
On Pain and Punishment
Q: How about bearing pain – do you teach your children to bear pain?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: When a colored man was whipped, did he cry out?
A: He would halloa out and beg, but not cry for pain, but for vexation.
Q: Did they try to conceal their whippings and think it a disgrace?
A: Yes, sir. They tried to conceal it. A great many are marked all over and have not a piece of skin they were born with.
Q: Have they any idea of the government of the United States?
A: Yes, sir. They know if the government was not kind to them they could not keep their liberty. When the war began a great many of us believed that the government could not conquer our Masters because our Masters fooled us. They told us we might fight the Yankees who intended to catch us and sell us to Cuba to pay the expenses of the war. I did not believe it, but a great many did. 5This practice was wide spread across the slave states. In this way, many enslavers convinced their slaves that their Freedom was not in their best interests.
Q: What would the colored people like the government to do for them here?
A: They would like to have land, 4 or 5 acres to a family.
Q: How many here could manage and take care of land?
A: A good many. I could take care of 15 acres and would not ask them to do any more for me.
Q: Suppose the government were to give you land, how long would you take to pay for it – five years?
A: I would not take five years; in two years I would pay every cent. The people here would rather have the land than work for wages. I think it would be better to sort out the men and give land to those who have the faculty of supporting their families. Every able bodied man can take care of himself if he has a mind to, but there are bad men who have no the heart or will to do it.
Q: Do you think the colored people would like better to have this land divided among themselves and live here alone, or must they have white people to govern them?
A: They are obligated to have white people to administer the law. The black people have a good deal of sense, but they do not know the law. If the government keep the Masters away altogether it would not do to leave the colored men here alone. Some white men must be here not as Masters, but we must take the law by their word and if we do not, we must be punished.
If you take all the white men away we are nothing. Probably with the children that are coming up white men will not be needed. They are learning to read and write. Some are learning lawyer, some are learning doctor, and some learn minister; and reading books and newspaper, they can understand the law. But the old generation cannot understand it.
It makes no difference how sensible they are, they are blind and it wants white men for the present to direct them. After five years they will take care of themselves; this generation cannot do it.
Q: Do you think the colored men are willing to fight for their liberty?
A: Yes, sir. If the government will protect them and give them a chance, but they must have white officers.
Q: Suppose the government protect the colored men against their masters and sell the land, half to the colored, and half to the white, what would be the effect – would not the colored man sell his land to the white man?
A: I think he might; some of them are lazy and they do not understand how to take care of themselves against the white man; it is necessary to have someone here to do justice to both parties.
Q: Would the colored man like to go back to Africa?
A: No, sir. There is no disposition to go back, they would rather stay where they are.
Q: Are there physicians enough to take care of the sick?
A: I do not think there are doctors enough, the islands are very large. If you send for the doctor, he will come probably; if you send for him one day you will see him a day or two afterwards. They do not get out of bed to go when called.
Harry McMillan would go on to run the Inlet plantation on St. Helena Island. By the end of 1863, he had produced $1,358 worth of ginned cotton. Most of the work was completed by Mr. McMillan, his wife and two daughters. The following years, he hired 21 workers and raised sixty-five acres of cotton.
In 1865, President Andrew Johnson decreed that all land seized from the former enslavers in the Sea Isles must be returned to them. The likelihood that Mr. McMillan was allowed to retain his successful farm is doubtful.
Note: Unlike the slave narratives conducted and transcribed in the 1930s, the American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission made no attempt to force “negro dialog” upon their subjects. The words were taken down as they were meant, not as they sounded to white ears. Because of this, the preceding was an exact copy of the original transcription – except that I altered some punctuation for modern clarity. Not a single word was changed or omitted.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇡||This was likely the Eustis Plantation on Lady Island in Beaufort County, SC.|
|2.||⇡||“Breaking” the land is plowing. “Listing,” also known as middlebreaking, is “A tillage and land-forming operation using a tool that turns two furrows laterally in opposite directions, thereby producing beds or ridges.”|
|3.||⇡||“Victuals” general refers to prepared food. It’s from the French.|
|4.||⇡||It’s possible that the transcription was changed from the word: ‘nigger’.|
|5.||⇡||This practice was wide spread across the slave states. In this way, many enslavers convinced their slaves that their Freedom was not in their best interests.|