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Betty Powers – ‘If the Lash Cut the Skin’

Betty Powers was born in Harrison County, Texas, one of several hundred slaves on a labor camp. By the time of the surrender and emancipation, she was around ten years old. At the time of the interview, in the early 1930s, she lived in Fort Worth. This is her story in her own words:

What you want this old nigger’s story about the old slavery days? Ain’t worth anything. I just a hard working person all my life and raised a family and done right by them as best I knew. To tell the truth about my age, I don’t know exactly. I remember the war time and the surrender time. I was old enough to fan flies off the white folks at the tables when surrender come. If you came about five years ago, I could tell you lots more, but I had the head misery.

I was born in Harrison County, about twenty-five miles from Marshall. Massa’s name was Dr. Howard Perry and next to his house was a little building for his office. The plantation was an awful big one, and miles long, and had more than two hundred slaves there. Each cabin had one family and there was three rows of cabins about half a mile long.

Born into slavery, Betty Powers, Age 80.
Former slave, Betty Powers, Age 80.

Mammy and pappy [her mother and father] and us twelve children lived in one cabin, so mammy has to cook for fourteen people, besides her field work. She was up way before daylight fixing breakfast and supper after dark, with the pine knot torch to make the light. She cooked on the fireplace in winter and in the yard in summer. All the rations were measured out Sunday morning and it would have to do for the week. It was not enough for heavy eaters and we had to be real careful or we went hungry. We had meat and cornmeal and molasses and potatoes and peas and beans and milk. The short rations caused plenty of trouble, because the niggers had to steal food and it was the whipping if they got caught. They were in a fix if they can’t work for being hungry, because it was the whipping then, sure. So they had to steal, and most of them did and took a whipping. They had a full stomach, anyway.

The babies had plenty of food, so they grew up into strong, portly men and women. They stayed in the nursery while their mammies worked in the fields, and had plenty of milk with cornbread crumbled up in it, and potlicker, too, and honey and molassas on bread.

The master and his wife were fine, but they overseer was tough, and his wife, too. That woman had no mercy. You see these long ears I have? That’s from the pulling they got from her. The field hands work early and late and often all night. Pappy made the shoes and mammy wove, and you could hear the bump, bump of that loom at night, when she done work in the field all day.

Missy [the master’s wife] knew everything that went on, because she had spies amongst the slaves. She was pretty good, though. Sometimes the overseer tied a nigger to a log and lashed him with the whip. If the lash cut the skin, they put salt on it. We weren’t allowed to go to church and had about two parties a year, so there ain’t much fun. Lord, lord, most of the slaves were too tired to have fun anyway. When all that work was finished, they were glad to get in the bed and sleep.

[Mrs. Powers was asked by the interviewer if the slaves had weddings.]
Did we have weddings? White man, you know better than that. Those times, colored folks were just put together. The master say, ‘Jim and Nancy, you go live together,’ and when that order was given, it better be done. They thought nothing on the plantation about he feelings of the women and there ain’t no respect for them. The overseer and white men took advantage of the women like they want to. The women better not make a fuss about such. If she did, it was the whipping for her. I sure thank the Lord surrender came before I was old enough to have to stand for such. Yes, sir, surrender saved this nigger from such.

When the war was over, thousands of soldiers passed our place. Some camps nearby, and massa doctored them. When massa call us to say we’re free, there was a yard full of niggers. He have every nigger the same statement and said they could work on halves or for wages. He advised them to stay until they got a foothold and learned how to do it. Lots stayed and lots went. My folks stayed about four years and worked on shares. Then pappy bought a piece of land about five miles from there.

The land wasn’t clear, so we all pitched in and cleared it and built a cabin. Were we proud? There it was, our place to do as we pleased, after being slaves. That sure was a good feeling. We worked like beavers putting the crop in, and my folks stayed there until they died. I left to get married the next year and I was only thirteen years old, and married Boss Powers.

We lived on rented land nearby for six years and had three children and then he died. After two years, I married Henry Ruffins and had three more children, and he died in 1911. I’m living with two of them now. I never took the name of Ruffins, because I dearly love Powers and can’t stand to give up the name. Powers made a will and wrote on the paper, ‘To my beloved wife, I gives all I has.’ Wasn’t that sweet of him?

I came to Fort Worth after Ruffin died and did housework until I was too old. Now I get $12.00 pension every month and that helps me get by.

The original interview can be found here.

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.