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Isaac Green: ‘If a Slave was Scarred He Wouldn’t Bring as Much’

Isaac Green had been born a slave in 1856 at Greensboro, Georgia. He, his siblings and his mother were owned by Colonel Dick Willis. Col. Willis owned 150 slaves and ran a 3,000 acre plantation. who with his wife “Miss Sally” managed a plantation of 3,000 acres of land and 150 slaves.

Following is the account of slavery as told by Mr. Isaac Green, who spent a part of his childhood as a slave. 1The original manuscript can be read here.

When I Was Big Enough

I was born in Greene County, Georgia, eight-one years ago. My marster was named Colonel Willis. He was a rich man and he had a whole lots of slaves – about seventy-five or more. Besides my mother and me I had nine sisters. I was the youngest child. I didn’t know about my father till after the surrender, because ol’ marster sold him away from my mother when I was two years old.

When I was big enough I had to go to the field with the rest of the children and drop [plant] corn and peas. We’d take our heels and dent a place in the ground and in every dent we had to drop two peas. Sometimes we’d make a mistake and drop three seeds instead of two and if we did this too often it meant the strap from the overseer. On our plantation we had a colored and a white overseer.

‘That’s My Nigger – I Sold His Father’

My ol’ marster never did whip me, and he didn’t allow none of the overseers to whip me either. He always say: ‘That’s my nigger – I sold his father when I could have saved him – he was the best man I had on the plantation.’ The rest of the slaves used to get whipping sometimes for not working like they should.

The road from Atlanta to Greensboro, 1939 - around the time of the interview. By photojournalist Marion Post Wolcott.
The road from Atlanta to Greensboro, 1939 – around the time of the interview. By photojournalist Marion Post Wolcott.

When they didn’t work or some other little thing like that, they would get twenty-five or fifty lashes. But the marster would tell the overseer: ‘Don’t you cut my nigger’s hide or scar him.’ You see, if a slave was scarred he wouldn’t bring as much as one with a smooth hide in case the marster wanted to sell him. Because the buyers would see the scars and say that he was a bad nigger.

Sometimes the women used to get whipping for fighting. Ol’ marster used to tell my mother all the time that he was going to give her one-hundred lashes if she didn’t stop fighting, but he never did do it though. My grandmother never did get whipped. Colonel Black, her first marster, was her father and when he went broke he had to sell her.

When he went broke he put her on the block – in them days they put slaves on the block to sell them just like they do horses and mules now. He say to the gentlemen gathered round: ‘This is my nigger and my child; she is a midwife and an extraordinary weaver and whoever buys her has got to promise to treat her like a white child.’ My marster bought her and he treated her like she was white, too. He never did try to hit her and he wouldn’t let nobody else hit her.

The White Folks Would Learn You How to Steal

We always had plenty to eat, and if we didn’t, we’d go out in somebody’s pasture and kill a hog or sheep and clean him by a branch and then hide the meat in the woods or in the loft of the house. Some of the white folks would learn you how to steal from other folks.

Tennant quarters on the road to Greensboro, 1939. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott.
Tennant quarters on the road to Greensboro, 1939. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott.

Sometimes ol’ marster would say to one of us: ‘Blast you – you better go out and hunt me a hog tonight and put it in my smokehouse – they can search you niggers’ houses, but they can’t search mine.’

Once a week, the marster give us three pounds of pork, half gallon o’syrup, and a peck of meal. You had to have a garden connected with your house for your vegetables. The marster would let you go out in the woods and cut you as large a space as you wanted.

If you failed to plan, it was just your bad luck. If you wanted to you could sell the corn or the tobacco or anything else that you raised to the marster and he would pay you. Of course, he wasn’t going to pay you too much for it.

A Frolic

All the slaves had to work. My mother was a plow hand. All the aged men and women had to tend to teh hogs and the cows and do the weaving and the sewing. Sometimes ol’ marster would let us have a frolic and we could dance all night if we wanted to as long as we was ready to go to the field when the overseer blowed the bugle before day next morning.

The field hands had to get up early enough to fix their breakfast before they went to the field. We children took dinner to them at twelve o’clock. We used baskets to take the dinner in, and large pails to take the milk in. They had to fix supper for the slaves when they left the field at dark.

Clothes, Houses and Freedom

All the clothes we worse was made on the plantation. The women had to card, spin and weave the tread and then when the cloth was made, it was dyed with berries. My step-father was the shoemaker on the plantation and we always had good shoes. He beat ol’ marster out of about fifteen years work. When he didn’t feel like working, he would play like he was sick and ol’ marster would get the doctor for him. When anybody got sick they always had the doctor to tend to him.

We lived in log houses that had wood floors. There was one window and a large fireplace where the cooking was done in the ashes. The chinks in the walls was daubed with mud to keep the weather out. The beds was made by hand and the mattresses was big tickings stuffed with straw.

Your actual treatment depended on the kind of marster you had. A heap of folks done a heap better in slavery than they do now. Everybody on our plantation was glad when the Yankees soldiers told us we was free.

Small black community outside Greensboro, Georgia. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott. The rest of her photos of Greensboro can be seen here.
Small black community outside Greensboro, Georgia. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott. The rest of her photos of Greensboro can be seen here.


Interviewed Once More

Mr. Green did another interview around the same time. 2Available here. The interviewer, Minnie B. Ross, did not record his words verbatim, but took what he said and put it into her own words. Though much of the same ground is covered, it’s interesting to note the differences. In the Ross interview, we learn that Mr. Green is one-quarter Native American. He also details the insides of the log cabins in which they lived. He explains more about slave women being breeders – the good ones fetching twice the amount of money on the auction block.

Col. Willis, Mr. Green’s former master, was described in kinder words in the Ross interview. There, he “was a very kind man, who would not tolerate cruel treatment to any of his slaves by overseers.” The text goes so far as to say that overseers were fired “if a slave reported that he had been whipped for no reason and showed scars on his body as proof.” Col. Willis would not allow patrollers, slave catchers, to interfere with his slaves. He wouldn’t even issue passes – there was no needs as the patrollers were too afraid of the colonel to whip the slaves.

In the Ross interview, Mr. Green talks much more about the war and even a bit about Reconstruction and the KKK. He also told of how the slaves on his plantation learned of their freedom:

“The Yankees came to the Willis plantation to notify the Negroes of their freedom. One thing they said stands out in Green’s memory. “If your mistress calls you ‘John,’ call her ‘Sally.’ You are as free as she is and she can’t whip you any more. If you remain, sign a paper so that you will receive pay for your work.” Mrs. Willis looked on with tears in her eyes and shook her head sadly. The next day the master notified each slave family that they could remain on his plantation if they desired and he would give each $75.00 at Christmas. Looking at Isaiah’s step-father, he told him that since he was afflicted he would pay him only $50.00, but this amount was refused. Wishing to keep the man, Col. Willis finally offered him as much as he promised the ablebodied men.”

Both interviews are well worth the read.

For more information on my own process for handling slave narratives, see this.

1939 Greensboro, Georgia. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott.
1939 Greensboro, Georgia. Photo by Marion Post Wolcott.

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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.