Leah Garrett was born a child of slavery. In an interview given in the late 1930s, she recalls several instances of abuse and murder dealt out by her masters. She also recounts the escape and hiding of a slave couple who fled to a cave to escape the punishment of their owners.
What follows is her story in her own words.
I know so many things about slavery time – I never will be able to tell them all. In them days, preachers was just as bad and mean as anybody else. There was a man who folks called a good preacher, but he was one of the meanest men I ever saw. When I was in slavery under him, he done so many bad things ’til God soon killed him.
When He Got Back Home, She Was Dead
His wife or children could get mad with you, and if they told him anything he always beat you. Mots times he beat his slaves when they hadn’t done nothing at all.
One Sunday morning, his wife told him their cook wouldn’t ever fix nothing she told her to fix. Time she said it, he jumped up from the table, went in the kitchen, and made the cook go under the porch where he always whipped his slaves.
She begged and prayed but he didn’t pay no attention to that. He put her up in what us called the swing, and beat her until she couldn’t holler. The poor thing already had heart trouble, that’s why he put her in the kitchen, but he left her swinging there and went to church, preached, and called himself a servant of God. When he got back home she was dead.
Whenever your marster had you swinging up, nobody wouldn’t take you down. Sometimes a man would help his wife, but most times he was beat afterwards.
The Hogshead and Stock
Another marster I had kept a hogshead to whip you on. This hogshead had two or three hoops around it. He buckled you face down on the hogshead and whipped you until you bled.
Everybody always stripped you in them days to whip you, because they didn’t care who saw you naked. Some folks’ children took sticks and jabbed you all while you was being beat. Sometimes these children would beat you all across your head, and their Mas and Pas [Mothers and Fathers] didn’t know what stop was.
Another way marster had to whip us was in a stock that he had in the stables. This was where he whipped you when he was real mad. He had logs fixed together with holes for your feet, hands, and head. He had a way to open these logs and fasten you in.
Then he had his coachman give you so many lashes, and he would let you stay in the stock for so many days and night. That’s why he had it in the stable, so it wouldn’t rain on you. Everyday you got that same number of lashes. You never come out able to sit down.
The Murder of a Child
I had a cousin with two children. The oldest one had to nurse one of marster’s grandchildren. The front steps was real high, and one day this poor child fell down these steps with the baby. His wife and daughter hollers and went on terrible, and when our marster come home they was still hollering just like the baby was dead or dying. When they told him about it, he picked up a board and hit this poor little child across the head and killed her right there.
Then he told his slaves to take her and throw her in the river. Her ma begged and prayed, but he didn’t pay her not attention; he made them throw the child in.
Escaping to a Cave
One of the slaves married a young gal, and they put her in the Big House to work. One day, Mistress jumped on her about something and the gal hit her back. Mistress said she was going to have Marster put her in the stock and beat her when he came home.
When the gal went to the field and told her husband about it, he told her where to go and to stay there till he got there. That night he took his supper to her. He carried her to a cave and hauled pine straw and put it in there for her to sleep on. He fixed that cave up just like a house for her, put a stove in there and run the pipe out through the ground into a swamp.
Everybody always wondered how he fixed that pipe, of course, they didn’t cook on it till night when nobody could see the smoke. He sealed the house with pine logs, made beds and tables out of pine poles, and they lived in this cave seven years.
During this time, they had three children. Nobody was with her when these children was born but her husband. He waited on her with each child. The children didn’t wear no clothes except a piece tied around their waists. When they come out of that cave they would run every time they saw a person.
The seven years she lived in the cave, different folks helped keep them in food. Her husband would take it to a certain place and she would go and get it. People had passed over this cave ever so many times, but nobody knowed these folks was living there. Our Marster didn’t know where she was, and it was freedom before she come out of that cave for good.
Us lived in a long house that had a flat top and little rooms made like mule stall, just big enough for you to get in and sleep. There weren’t no floors in these rooms and neither no beds. Us made beds out of dry grass, but us had covers because the real old people, who couldn’t do nothing else, made plenty of it.
Nobody weren’t allowed to have fires [to keep war], and if they was caught with any that meant a beating. Some would burn charcoal and take the coals to their rooms to help warm them. Every person had a tin pan, tin cup, and a spoon. Everybody couldn’t eat at one time, us had about four different sets. Nobody had a stove to cook on, everybody cooked on fire places and used skillets and pots. To boil, us hung pots on racks over the fire and baked bread and meats in the skillets.
Marster had a big room right beside his house where his victuals was cooked. Then the cook had to carry them upstairs in a tray to be served. When the something to eat was carried to the dining room, it was put on a table and served from this table. The food weren’t put on the eating table.
Preaching to Slaves
The slaves wen to church with their marsters. The preachers always preached to the white folk first, then they would preach to the slaves. They never said nothing but you must be good, don’t steal, don’t talk back at your marsters, don’t run away, don’t do this, and don’t do that.
They let the colored preachers preach, but they give them almanacs to preach out of. They didn’t allow us to sing such songs as “We Shall Be Free” and “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” They always had somebody follow the slaves to church when the colored preacher was preaching to hear what was said and done. They was afraid us would try to say something against them.
To read the original manuscript, please visit this link.
For more information on my own process for handling slave narratives, see this.