Mr. Reed was born into slavery. His father was born in Virginia, but sold south to Mississippi. Though freedom came for Reed at a young age, in this interview conducted by Ophelia Settle Egypt in 1929, he is able to recall much about slavery. Most of his talk, however, is about the time following – about his first Sunday school, his first education, his first pay day, and the first lynching he witnessed.
Below is his story in his own words:
Sons of Thunder
Now they had what they used to call “nigger traders,” and they would call a man a “nigger buck” and a woman a “nigger wench.” They were buy them and carry them down to Mississippi and put them on cotton farms. The overseer would ride up and down the field with a gun over his shoulder to see that they kept working. When they would carry them to Mississippi they didn’t go by train, neither by automobile – there wasn’t any then. They would go by foot. Someone would drive the wagon behind them and if any of them would give out they would put them in the wagon. Many children have been taken away, suckling babies sometimes away from their mothers, and carried away to Mississippi.
Now let’s treasure these things up and look at them in another way. Every nationality ever before has had a better time than the Negro. Sometimes when I am on my wagon I look at the children coming from school, and I say, “If I had had that opportunity when I was coming up I would be ‘sons of thunder’.” Then, a Negro wasn’t allowed a book in his hand. What little they got they would steal it. The white children would come out and teach them sometimes when the old folks wasn’t looking.
The Negro Had No Soul
The first Sunday school I went to was after the War. The house was an old oak tree. We used to carry our dinner and stay there from eight o’clock until four. In slavery they used to teach the Negro that they had no soul. They said all they needed to do was to obey their mistress. One old sister was shouting in the back of the church and her mistress was up in the front and she looked back and said, “Shout on old ‘nig’ there is a kitchen in heaven for you to shout in, too.”
The people used to say “dis,” “dat,” and “tother,” now they say “this,” “that,” and “the other.” In all the books that you have studied you never have studied Negro history, have you? You studied about the Indians and white folks, what did they tell you about the Negro? If you want Negro history you will have to get it from somebody who wore the shoe, and by and by from one to the other you will get a book.
A Negro Has Got No Name
I am going to tell you another thing. A Negro has got no name. My father was a Ransom and he had a uncle named Hankin. If you belong to Mr. Jones and he sell you to Mr. Johnson, consequently you go by the name of your owner. Now, where you got a name? We are wearing the name of our master. I was first a Hale then my father was sold and I was named Reed. He was brought from old Virginia some place. I have sen my grandma and grandfather, too. My grandfather was a preacher and didn’t know A from B. He could preach. I had a uncle and he was a preacher and didn’t know
A from B.
I had a cousin who was a preacher. I am no mathematician, no biologist, neither grammarian, but when it comes to handling the Bible I knocks down verbs, break up prepositions and jumps over adjectives. Now I tell you something – I am a God sent man. But sometimes Jim calls and John answers. The children of Israel was four hundred years under bondage and God looked down and seen the suffering of the striving Israelites and brought them out of bondage.
Slavery in War and Freedom
Now I want to tell you something about the Civil War. I believe the breaking up of slavery was started some by the churches. There was some churches that wouldn’t suffer for a member to be a slave owner. The North and South rebelled on account of slavery. The great War went on four long years. There was a vast number of Negroes in that way. Many of them joined the Yankees and fought for freedom.
After we was set free my father took charge of me. He told me I was free but as long as I was under the roof of his house he was boss. That was when I went out to find me a job. I went two miles from home and got a job and worked all day for fifty cents. I was paid off that night and thought I was putting it in my pocket, but when I got home I found that I had lost the money that I had worked all day for. It was a paper fifty cents. I worried all night about losing it, but the next morning I got up early and went back and there on the ground lay the money covered with dew, just where I had dropped it. I been losing and finding money ever since.
Sex Slaves and Lynching
I know plenty of slaves (women) who went with the old master. They had to do it or get killing. They couldn’t help it. Some of them would raise large families by their owner. I know an old banker in Lebanon who have one of his children a home after they come free.
I remember the time when Eph Grizzard was hung over the bridge. That time they had what they called a “dummy” running from here to East Nashville. Run right down by the jail. Eph was in the jail. They had a black mother-hubbard on him to tell him from the rest of the prisoners. They took him out of jail and went running of First Avenue to the bridge, and tied the rope around his neck and threw him over. It was about three o’clock. He hung there from three until about six o’clock. They would take a-hold of that rope every once in a while and give it a yank. The sheriff of Goodletsville got up on the bridge and made a speech and said, “If anybody, rich or poor, black or white, grizzly or gray, get up and say anything in this nigger’s behalf we will take them and do them the same way.” Five or six men was killed trying to get to the jail to get Eph out. I was working down on the wharf at Broad this side of the Tennessee Central station. My heart ached within me. I looked to see that bridge fall in there was so many people on it that day. They killed him and burned him up.
The lynching of Eph Grizzard made national news. An article from the Chicago Tribune can be read here.