In the book Hampton and Its Students , published in 1874, the authors interviewed former slaves who were now students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institution, an integrated school on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. Started by the American Missionary Association in 1868 to give the newly-liberated slave an education, the Institute trained freedmen and women as teachers, so that they themselves could teach others. Soon it was attracting students from all over the South. The book contains interviews with a number of the school’s former students, all of whom had been born into slavery.
From time to time, we’ll share an interview or two. These are much different than the interviews conducted in the late 1920s and early 1930s. For one, the interviewer had no access to any type of recording devise. Note were taken, of course, but the actual phrasing had to come from the memory of the person conducting the interview. The spirit of the conversation remains, however, even if the exact wording might not. Secondly, this spirit is almost certainly contains more accurate information on the slave experience since the interviews were conducted nearly fifty years prior to the ones in the 1930s. This is a trade off, which, in the end, only adds to our knowledge of slavery.
The first such interview is with Lizzie Gibson. Women made up about 40% of the school’s population. The author laments that the ratio is not closer to even. “I think it is that slavery has done more for the degradation of women than of man, and freedom less, thus far, to elevate her.” Lizzie had attended the school and became a teacher herself upon completion. “In the list of colored teachers who have gone out from Hampton,” writes the author, “there are none more promising and useful than some of its young women graduates.”
Lizzie Gibson’s Story – Born into Slavery
I was born a slave in the year 1852. I spent my happiest days of slavery in my childish days, and thought it was always to be just that way; but at the age of seven years that thought was changed, and a sorrowful change it was. I was then taken from my mother, as all the rest of the children was. Neither of us went to the same place, and only one staid at the old home.
My master, as I called him, died, and being greatly in debt, we were first hired out to get money to pay the debts. This was not so grievous at first. We would get together and talk to each other about it, and how we were going to eat good things when we got to our new homes; but just a few days before the hiring took place, I was struck to my heart with a scene I can never forget, and it was this.
There was a very public place where I then lived, and all that wanted to hire, sell, or buy, would come here, generally in court week, or the first day of the year. Then the streets would be crowded, to get them a nigger, as they generally called us, and in the crowded street, sitting on the ground, was a colored woman with her children; her husband was standing a little way off from her, crying.
There walked up to him a white man, and said, “Have you any clothes? If you have, get them. You belong to me now. I want you to go home with me. Be quick about it, for I want to be off.”
Then with a loud cry, the colored man said, “I have nothing but my wife and children. Have you bought them too? Are they going with you?”
“No,” said the white man, “I have bought none but you.”
Then he begged to stay and see what was going to be done with his wife and children, but the man screamed out at him to get into the wagon to go, but would not tell him where he was going.
Just at that time stepped up a very nice-looking man, and said, “I have bought your wife and the baby, but the little boy I can’t get. I will give her enough to eat and wear, and she shall be my cook.”
Then walked up a great ugly-looking man and said, “Tell your mammy good-bye then.”
I stood and looked some time without stirring, and when I found myself the briny tears were trickling down my cheeks. This was my first dread of slavery.
Then the day came for me to stand on the block. It did not go so hard with me, but my sisters and brothers was scattered so that I never saw them again until we were called to this place again, not for the same light occasion, but it was for the fearful one of being sold.
I was bought by the same one that I was hired to. I became quite a favorite with this family. They were very good to me, and taught me some of the precious truths of the Bible, which I have found of much use to me. God grant that I may continue to learn of them and become wise in Christ.
The war came and went without my feeling it in the least. Then came the Emancipation, which was welcomed by every colored person, for it was the first time that they were able to say, “Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, good-will to men,” without being afraid. I could hear first one and then the other saying, “I am free!”
Then I went to live with my cousin, and had a chance to go to school. I went six months, and learned to read very well, and then went out to service again, as I thought it my duty to help my father, who was not very strong, and had six children of us. In 1870, I got a very pleasant school. This I taught one year, and then returned home for the first time in my life.
In October, 1872, I came to Hampton, and will still look to God for the future.
The Hampton Institute later became Hampton University.