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Voices of Slavery: Emma Taylor – Our Beds Were Made of Straw and Old Rags

Emma Taylor was born a slave in the late 1840s. Both her mother and father were owned by the Greer family, but she and her mother were sold to a Texan in the 1850s, separating the family. She lived a fairly normal life for an enslaved child, with memories of picking cotton, being whipped for playing with a white girl’s doll, and being forced to marry young. This is her story as she remembered it in the late 1930s.

My ma and pa lived in Mississippi, and belonged to Master Greer. That’s their man, to. All the slaves took their master’s name, because they hadn’t not use for a name, nowhow.

The first thing I remember is following my ma in the cotton patch. She always went ahead, picking cotton, and made a clean place with her sack dragging on the ground. But the first work I ever done was feed the chickens and geese and shell corn to feed them.

Us nigger children couldn’t play with the white children. The worst whipping I ever got was for playing with a doll that belonged to one of Master’s children. I remember it yet and I ain’t never seen a doll as pretty as that doll was to me. It was made out of a corncob with arms and legs that moved and a real [life-like] head, with eyes and hair and mouth painted on. It had a dress out of silk cloth, just like one Missus wore when she went to a meeting. That little girl done left the doll under the tree, but Missus found me playing with it and whipped me hard.

We lived in a cabin in the back field behind the big house, one room and a shed room, where ma done all the cooking for the whole family. I had three brothers and three sisters, all dead [now], I suppose. They were all older than I was. We cooked on a fireplace, and a big pot hanged on poles over the fire and the bread cooked on that fire in a skillet that was made of two pieces of iron, turned up all round. We put the dough in one and turned the other one over it, then buried it in the coals a few minutes till it browned on the top and bottom. It was good, just as good as nowadays, baked in an oven. Our beds were made out of straw and old rags, but we kept warm sleeping a whole lot in one bed in winter, bu we slept outside in summer.

I was sold one time. Master, he was getting old and decided he didn’t need to many slaves, so he had a sale and a man came and put us all up on a big platform. We pulled off nearly all our clothes, so as to show how big we was, and he begins holler about who’s going to buy, who’s going to buy. I was scared and thought I had to leave Ma, so I began hollering just as loud as he was. He turned around and said, “Shut up, you little coon, you. I can’t hear nothing.” I hid my face in Ma’s apron and didn’t know no more until we were all loaded in a wagon and started to the new home. We got there and were given new clothes and shoes, the first ones I ever had on and it took me a long time to learn to wear them things on my feet.

Us niggers had to get up at four in the morning, and work, work till we can’t see no more. They they work at night. The men chopped wood and hauled poles to build fences and make wood, and the women folks had to spin four cuts of thread every night and make all the clothes. Some had to card cotton to make quilts and some wove and knit stockings. Master give each one a chore to do at night and if it weren’t done when we went to be, we’d be whipped. One time I fell plumb asleep before I finished shelling some corn, but I didn’t get a bad whipping that time.

Sometimes the niggers danced and played the fiddle and we children played in the yard. We could stay up all night them times, but had to work the next day, and hardly ever stayed up all night. That was during harvest or at Christmas time.

Emma Taylor, 89 years old. Late 1930s, Tyler, Texas.
Emma Taylor, 89 years old. Late 1930s, Tyler, Texas.

All the victuals were issued out by the overseer and he gave enough for one week, then if we eat it all up to soon, we’d just go without. Lots of times, I went down to the potato patch a long time after everybody was in bed, and stole potatoes, so we wouldn’t be hungry the next day. I always covered the hole up good and never did get caught. The dogs got after me one time, but I put pepper in their eyes and they stopped. I always carried pepper with me.

I married when I was fifteen, not so long before I was free. Nigger men didn’t get no license to marry the girls then. They just picked her out and asked Master, and if he agreed, they were married. But if he didn’t want it, that man has to find himself another girl. The men that lived on another plantation couldn’t see their wives but once every two weeks. Master bought my husband, Rube Taylor, and he came to live with me.

One day, Master said we’re all free and we had a big celebration, eating and dancing. But we near all stayed on his place for a long time after that day. He paid us thirty-five cents per day and let us live in the same old houses.

After we left him, we just drifted around, working for white folks, till we managed to get a farm. Rube died a long time back, and I live with my baby [youngest] child.

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.