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Voices of Slavery: Louisa Adams – “You Better Not Be Caught With a Book”

Louisa Adams was born a slave in North Carolina around 1857. Her memories of slavery were that of a child and probably word of mouth from her parents. This is her story as she recalled it in 1937.

My name is Louisa Adams. I was born in Rockingham, Richmond County, North Carolina. I was eight years old when the Yankees come through. I belonged to Master Tom A. Covington, Sir. My mother was named Easter, and my father was named Jacob. We were all Covingtons. No sir, I don’t know where my mother and father come from.

I picked feed for the white folks. They sent many of the children to work at the salt mines, where we went to get salt. My brother Solomon was sent to the salt mines. Luke looked after the sheep. He knocked down china berries for them. Dad and mammmy had their own gardens and hogs. We were compelled to walk about at night to live. We were so hungry we were bound to steal or perish. This trait seems to be handed down from slavery days. Sometimes I think this might be so.

Our food was bad. Master worked us hard and gave us nothing. We had to use what we made in the garden to eat. We also ate our hogs. Our clothes were bad, and beds were sorry. We went barefooted in a way. What I mean by that is, that we had shoes part of the time. We got one pair of shoes a year. When they wore out we went barefooted. Sometimes we tied them up with strings, and they were so ragged the tracks looked like bird tracks, where we walked on the road.

We lived in log houses daubed with mud. They called them slave houses. My old daddy partly raised his children on game. He caught rabbits, coons, and possums. He would work all day and hunt at night. We had no holidays. They did not give us any fun as I know. I could eat anything I could get. I tell you the truth, slave time was slave time with us. My brother wore his shoes out, and had none all through winter. his feet cracked open and bled so bad you could track him by the blood. When the Yankees come through, he got shoes.

I was married in Rockingham. I don’t remember when. Mr. Jimmie Covington, a preacher, a white man, married us. I married James Adams who lived on a plantation near Rockingham. I had a nice blue wedding dress. My husband was dressed in kind of light clothes, best I recollect. It’s been a long time since then though.

I sure do remember my Master Tom Covington and his wife too, Emma. The old man was the very Nick. He would take what we made and allowance us, that is allowance it out to my daddy after he had made it. My father went to Steven Covington, Master Tom’s brother, and told him about it, and his brother Stephen made him give father his meat back to us. 1I’m not fully sure what Mrs. Adams is talking about here.

My missus was kind to me, but Mars. Tom was the buger. It was a mighty big plantation. I don’t know how many slaves was on it, there were a lot of them though. There were overseers, two of them. One was named Bob Covington and the other Charles Covington. They were colored men. I rode with them in the carriage sometimes. They waked us when the chicken crowed, and we went to work just as soon as we could see how to make a lick with a hoe.

Lord, you better not be caught with a book in your hand. If he did, you were sold. They didn’t allow that. I can read a little, but I can’t write. I went to school after slavery and learned to read. We didn’t go to school but three or four weeks a year, and learned to read.

There was no church on the plantation, and we were not allowed to have prayer meetings. No parties, no candy pullings, nor dances, no sir, not a bit. I remember going one time to the white folks’ church, no baptizing that I remember. Lord have mercy, ha! ha! No. The patroller were on the place at night. You couldn’t travel without a pass.

I have greased my daddy’s back after he had been whipped until his back was cut to pieces. He had to work just the same. When we went to our houses at night, we cooked our supper at night, ate, and then went to bed. If fire was out or any work needed doing around the house we had to work on Sundays. They did not give us Christmas or any other holidays.

We had corn shuckings. I heard them talking of cutting the corn pile right square in two. One would get on one side, another on the other side and see which out beat. They had brandy at the corn shucking and I heard Sam talking about getting drunk.

I remember one woman dying. Her name was Caroline Covington. I didn’t go to the grave. But you know they had a little cart used with horses to carry her to the grave, just a one horse wagon, just slipped her in there.

Yes, I remember a field song. It was ‘O! come let us go where pleasure never dies. Great found one over.’ That one of them. We had a good doctor when we got sick. He’d come to see us. The slaves took herbs they found in the woods. That’s what I do now, sir. I got some herbs right in my kitchen now.

When the Yankees come through I did not know anything about them till they got there. Just like they were popping up out of the ground. One of the slaves was at this master’s house, you know, and he said, “The Yankees are in Cheraw, South Carolina.” And, “The Yankees are in town.” It didn’t disturb me at all. I was not afraid of the Yankees. I remember they went to Miss Emma’s house, and went in the smoke house and empties every barrel of molasses right on the floor. I was there and got some of them. They just killed the chickens, hogs too, and old Jeff the dog, they shot him through the throat. I remember how his mouth flew open when they shot him. One of them went into the potato bank, and we children wanted to go out there. Mother wouldn’t let us. She was afraid of them.

Abraham Lincoln freed us by the help of the Lord, by his help. Slavery was owing to who you were with. If you were with someone who was good and had some feelings for you it did tolerable well, yes, tolerable well.

We left the plantation soon as the surrender. We left right off. We went to going towards Fayetteville, North Carolina. We climbed over fences and were just broke down children, feet sore. We had a little meat, corn meal, a tray, and mammy had a tin pan. One night we came to an old house; someone had put wheat straw in it. We stayed there, next morning, we come back home. Not to Master’s, but to a white woman named Peggy McClinton, on her plantation. We stayed there a long time. The Yankees took everything they could, but they didn’t give us anything to eat. They give some of the women shoes.

Louisa Adams photographed in 1937. The photographers used for these interviews were notoriously horrible.
Louisa Adams photographed in 1937. The photographers used for these interviews were notoriously horrible.

I did what I could to edit and “translate” her narrative from the transcription written in imposed dialect. The interviewer’s questions were not included, making Mrs. Adams seem to jump from subject to subject at random, doing a great disservice to her. I edited out some of the repetition and family lineage for brevity and clarity. If you would like to see the original transcripts, they are available here.

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

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Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote 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, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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