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Gus Johnson – Narrative of Slave Life in Texas

Gus Johnson was born a slave in Alabama, though most of his recorded memories are from Texas before and during the war. When interviewed between 1936-1938, he lived in a broken down lean-to in Beaumont, Texas, and had only a bed, trunk and stove for furniture. What follows is his story told in his own words.

They brung thirty-six of us here in a box car from Alabama. Yes, sir, that’s where I come from — Marengo County, not so far from Demopolis. Us belong to old missy Betty Glover and my daddy name August Glover and my mammy, Lucinda. Old missy, she sure treat us good and I never get whipped for anything except lying. Old missy, she do the whipping.

Old missy she sure a good women and all her white folks, they used to go to church at White Chapel and eleven in the morning. Us colored folks goes in the evening. Us never do no work on Sunday, and on Saturday after twelve o’clock us can go fishing or hunting.

They give the rations on Saturday and that’s about five pound salt bacon and a peck of meal and some sorghum syrup. They make that syrup on the plantation. There’s ten or twelve big clay kettles in a row in the furnace.

We have lots to eat, and if the rations run short we goes hunting or fishing. Some of the old men kills rattlesnake and cook them like fish and say they’re fish. I eat that many a time and never knowed it. It was good, too.

They used to have a big house where they kept the children, because the wolves and panthers were bad. Some of the mammies what suckle the children takes care of all the children during the daytime and a night their own mammies come in from the field and take them. sometime old missy she help nurse and all the little niggers well cared for. When they get sick they makes the medicine of herbs and well them that way.

When us left Alabama us come through Meridian to Houston and then to Hockley and then to Sunnyside, about eighteen mile west of Houston. That a country with lots of woods and us got in to clear up the ground and clean up 150 acres to farm on. There about forty-seven hands and more accumulates. They go back to Meridian for more and brung them in an ox cart.

My brother, Bonzane Johnson, was one day brung on that trip. I had another brother, Keen, what die when he was 102 years old. Us was all long-life people, because I have a grand uncle what die when he was 136 years old. He and my grandma and grandpa come from South Carolina and they was all Africa people. I heard them tell how they brung from Africa in the ship. My daddy, he died at 99, and another brother at 104.

Us see lots of soldiers when us come through from Meridian and they were the cavalry. They come riding up with high hats like beavers on they’re head and us afraid of them, because they told us they were going to take us to Cuba and sell us there.

When us first get to Texas it was cold – not sort of cold, but I mean cold. I shovel the snow many a day. They have the big, common house and the white folks live upstairs and the niggers sleep on the first floor. That to protect the white folks at night, but us have our own houses for to live in the daytime, built out of logs and daubed with mud and nail-drive out boards over that mud. They make the chimney out of sticks and mud, too but us have no windows, and in the summer us kind of live out in the fresh arbor, what was cool.

Us have all kind of crops and more than 100 acres in fruit, because they brung all kind of trees and seeds from Alabama. There was underground springs and the water was sure good to drink, because in Mobile the water wasn’t fit to drink. It taste like it have a lump of salt melted in it. Us keep the butter and milk in the spring house in them days, because us ain’t have no ice in them times.

Old massa, his name Aden and his brother was named John, and they was way up yonder tall people Old mass die soon and us have missy to say what we do. All her overseers have to be good. She punished the slaves if they were bad, but not whip them. She had a jail built underground like the stormcave and it have a drop door with a weight on it, so they couldn’t get up from the bottom. It sure was dark in that place.


In slavery time us better be in by eight o’clock, better be in that house, better stick to that rule. I remember after freedom, missy have a big celebration on Juneteenth every year.

When war come to Texas every plantation was conscripted for the war and my daddy was picked to select the able bodied men, offering us a place for to be soldiers. My brother Keen was one of them. He came back all right, though.

When freedom come, missy give all the men niggers $500 each, but that Confederate money and have pictures of horses on it. That was the only money missy have then. Old missy Betty, she died in Sunnyside, Texas, when she was 115 years old.

When I was 18 years old I married a gal by the name of Lucy Johnson. She dead now long ago. I got five living children somewhere, but I done lost track of them. One of the boys served in the last war.

I used to hear something about rabbit foot. The old folks used to say that if the rabbit have time to stock and lick his foot, the dog can’t track him no more and I always wear a rabbit foot for good luck. I don’t know if it brung me that luck, though.

I been here 36 years and I work most of the time as a house mover, what I work at 26 years. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how old I is, 1Mr. Johnson was over 90 years old, though his exact age was unknown but it must be plenty, because I remember lots about the war. I didn’t see no fighting, but I knowed what was going on then.

I belong to the U.B.F. Lodge, 2United Brothers of Friendship was an African-American fraternal organization. what I pays into in case I get stick. But I never can get sick and I have have no ailment, except my feet just swell up, and I get get nothing for that.

Gus Johnson
Gus Johnson

The actual transcript of his interview is available here.

More information about the interview process and project can be found here.

This post was originally published on September 12, 2015.

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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.