James Martin was interviewed in 1937 at the age of 90 when he was living in San Antonio, Texas. His story is somewhat odd, and it’s not even fully clear that he was ever a slave. Still, he had an exciting life and ends the interview with some of the best advice one can be given. What follows is his narrative.
I was born in Virginia in 1847. My mother was a slave and my grandfather was one of the early settlers in Virginia. He was born in Jamaica and his master took him to England. When the English came to Virginia, they brought us along as servants, but when they got here, everybody had slaves, so we was slaves, too. My mother [grandmother?] was born in the West Indies.
A man named Martin brought my grandfather here and we took his name. And when master was ready to die, he made a will and it said the youngest child in the slaves must be made free, so that was my father and he was made free when he was 16. That left me and my brothers and sisters all free, but all the rest of the family was slaves.
My mother was born a slave near Alexandria. The master’s daughter, Miss Liza, read to my mother, so she got some learning. When my mother’s owner died he left her to Miss Liza, and then my father met my mother and told her they should get married. My mother said to miss Liza: “I’d like fine to marry Preston Martin.” Miss Liza says, “You can’t do that, ’cause he’s a free nigger and your children would be free. You gotta marry one of the slaves.”
Then Miss Liza lines up ten or fifteen of the slave men for my mother to pick from, but my mother says she don’t like any of them, and she wants to marry Preston Martin. Miss Liza argues but my mother is just stubborn, so Miss Liza says, “I’ll talk to the master.”
He says, “I can’t lose property like that, and if you can raise $1,200 you can buy yourself free.” So my mother and my father saves money and it takes a long time, but one day they goes to the master and lays down the money, and they get married. Master don’t like it, but he’s promised and he can’t back out.
So me and my brothers and sisters is free. And we sees others sold on the auction block. They’re put in stalls like pens for cattle and there’s a curtain, sometimes just a sheet in front of them, so the bidders can’t see the stock too soon. The overseers standing just outside with a big black snake whip and a pepper box pistol in his hand. Then they pulls the curtain up and the bidders crowd around. The overseer tells the age of the slaves and what they can do. One bidder takes a pair of white gloves they have and rubs his fingers over a man’s teeth, and he says, “You say this buck’s 20 years old, but there’s cups worn to his teeth. He’s 40 years if he’s a day. So they knock that buck down for $1,000, because they calls the men “bucks” and the women “wenches.” Then the overseer makes them walk across the platform, he makes them hop, he makes them trot, he makes them jump.
When I’m old enough, I’m taught to be a saddler and when I’m seventeen or eighteen I enlist in the Confederate Army.
Did they whip the slaves? Well they just about half killed them. When it was too rough, they slipped into Canada.
A marriage was a event. The bride and groom had to jump over a broom handle. The boss man had a white preacher, sometimes, and there was plenty of good beef cornbread. but if the boss didn’t care much, he just lined them up and said, “Mandy, that’s your husband and, Rufus, that’s your wife.”
After the war we were sent to Texas, the 9th U.S. Cavalry, under Capt. Francis F. Dodge. I was at Fort Sill, Fort Davis, Fort Stockton and Fort Clark. I was in two battles with Indians in the Guadalupe Mountains. I served under Col. Shafter in 1871 and I got my discharge under Gen. Merritt in 1872. Then I come to San Antonio.
I helped bring the first railroad here. The S.P. [Southern Pacific] in them days only ran near Seguin and I was a spiker and worked the whole distance. Then I helped build the old railroad from Indianola to Cuero and then from Cuero to Corpus, and Schleister, I think, and Cunningham were the contractors. That was in 1873 and 1874.
I drove cattle for big outfits, and drove 2,000 or 3,000 head from South Texas sometimes clean up to Dakota. I drove for John Lytle, Brockhaus, Kieran and Bill Sutton. There wasn’t no trails or fences. The Indians would come ask for meat and we knew if we didn’t give it to them they’d stampede the cattle.
If I wasn’t so old, I’d travel around again. I don’t believe any man can be educated who ain’t traveled some.
It’s not too surprising that such an account leaves us with a ton of questions. Most obviously, perhaps, is Martin’s statement that he was seventeen or eighteen he enlisted in the Confederate Army. He was of that age in 1864-65, so it’s possible that he was one of the very few freed black people who joined in Richmond. But there’s nothing more said of the matter, so it’s impossible to tell. His reference to someone (the Confederates?) whipping the slaves, however, leads me to think that he might have been something more than just another slave working on entrenchments. But then, the way that Martin talks is full of pride. He “helped bring the railroad” to Texas, he drove cattle for “big outfits.” These claims are all of the same understandably proud voice.
James Martin may have been in freedom (and that is debatable), but, as his interview shows, he was almost a medium between the slave world and the free.
More information about the interview process and project can be found here.