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Susan Hamilton – ‘People Were Always Dying From a Broken Heart’

Susan Hamilton claimed to be 101 years old when she was interviewed in the 1930s. When freedom came, she was seventeen. While she tells little of her personal experiences with how she was treated during the days of slavery, Ms. Hamilton paints for us several portraits and vignettes of characters she recalls. Her story, in her own words, follows:

The Story of Her Father’s Freedom

I’m a hundred and one years old now, son. The only one living in my crowd from the days I was a slave. Mr. Fuller, my master, who was president of the First National Bank, was the owner of the family of us except my father. There were eight men and women with five girls and six boys working for him. Most of them was hired out. The house in which we stayed is still there with the cisterns and slave quarters. I always go to see the old home which is on St. Phillip Street.

My Pa belonged to a man on Edisto Island. From what he said, his master was very mean. Pa’s real name was Adam Collins, but he took his master’s name; he was just the coachman. Pa did something one day and his master whipped him. The next day, which was Monday, Pa carried him about four miles from home in the woods and gave him the same amount of licking he was given on Sunday. He tied him to a tree and unhitched the horse so it couldn’t get all tied-up and kill itself.

Pa then gone to the landing and catch a boat that was coming to Charleston. He had been permitted by his master to go to town on errands, which helped him to go on the boat without being questioned. When he got here, he gone on the water-front and asked for a job on a ship so he could get to the North. He got the job and sailed on a wooden ship. They searched the island up and down for him with hound dogs, and when it was thought he was drowned, because they tracked him to the river, did they give up.

One of his master’s friend gone to New York and went in a store where Pa was employed as a clerk. He recognized Pa. He gone back home and told Pa’s master, who knew then that Pa wasn’t coming back and before he died he signed papers that Pa was free. Pa’s mother was dead and he come down to bury her by the permission of his master’s son, who had promised no harm would come to him, but they was fixing plans to keep him, so he sent to the Work House and asked to be sold, because any slave could sell himself if he could get to the Work House. But it was on record down there so they couldn’t sell him, and told him his master’s people couldn’t hold him as a slave.

Marriage and Glory the Washer

People them use to do some things they do now. Some marry and some live together just like now. One thing, no minister ever say in reading the matrimony – “let no man put asunder” – because a couple would be married tonight and tomorrow one would be taken away and sold.

All slaves were married in their master’s house, in the living room where slaves and their misses and massa was to witness the ceremony. Brides used to wear some of the finest dresses and if they could afford it, have the best kind of furniture. If your master nor your misses objected to good things.

I’ll always remember Glory, the washer. She was very high-tempered. She was a mulatto with beautiful hair she could sit on. Glory didn’t take foolishness from anybody. One day our missus gone in the laundry and found fault with the clothes. Glory didn’t do a thing but pick her up bodily and throw her out the door. They had to send for a doctor because she was pregnant and in less than two hours the baby was born. After that she begged to be sold for she didn’t want to kill missus, but our master ain’t never want to sell his slaves.

But that didn’t keep Glory form getting a brutal whipping. They whipped her until there wasn’t a white spot on her body. That was the worst I ever saw a human being got such a beating. I thought she was going to die, but she got well and didn’t get any better, but meaner and meaner until our master decided it was best to rent her out. She willingly agreed since she wouldn’t be around missus. She hated and detested both of them and all the family.

When any slave was whipped all the other slaves were made to watch. I see women hung from the ceiling of buildings and whipped with only something tied around her lower part of the body, until when they was taken down, there wasn’t breath in the body. I had some terribly bad experiences.

‘I’d Rather Die’

All time, night and day, you could hear men and women screaming at the top of their voices as either their ma, pa, sister or brother was taken without any warning and sold. Sometimes a mother, who had only one child, was separated for life. People were always dying from a broken heart.

One night a couple married and the next morning the boss sells the wife. One night a couple married and the next morning the boss sells the wife. The grandma got in the street and cursed the white woman for all she could find. She said: ‘That damn white, pale-face bastard sell my daughter who just married last night,’ and other things. The white woman threatened to call the police if she didn’t stop, but the colored woman said: “hit me or call the police. I’d rather die than to stand this any longer.” The police took her to the Work House by the white woman’s orders and what became of her, I never hear.

In the days of slavery, women were just given time enough to deliver their babies. They delivered the baby about eight in the morning, and twelve had to be back to work.


The War and Shaking Hands

Yankees used to come through the streets, especially the Big Market, hunting those who wanted to go to the “free country” as they called it. Men and women were always missing and nobody could give account of their disappearance. The men was trained up North for soldiers.

When the war began, we were taken to Aiken, South Carolina, where we stayed until the Yankees come through. We could see balls sailing through the air when Sherman was coming. Bombs hit trees in our yard. When the freedom gun was fired, I was on my knees scrubbing. They tell me I was free, but I didn’t believe it.

Since Lincoln shook hands with his assassin who at the same time shoot him, from that day, I stopped shaking hands, even in the church. And you know how long that was. I don’t believe in kissing, neither, for all carry their meannesses. The Master was betrayed by one of his bosom friends with a kiss.


The original transcript of the interview is here.
There is another interview with her, conducted a month or so later. Much of the information is the same, however. You can view that here.
See this for an analysis of both of the interviews, side-by-side.

To understand a bit more about the process I use to “translate” the interviews, see this.

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.

4 thoughts on “Susan Hamilton – ‘People Were Always Dying From a Broken Heart’

  1. Perhaps she means, “so the HORSE wouldn’t get tangled up and kill itself struggling to get free”?
    At least, that’s the way I would understand the statement in the footnote.

  2. “He tied him to a tree an’ unhitched de horse so it couldn’t git tie-up an’ kill e self.” It seems to me this sentence would be better transliterated as “he tied him to a tree and unhitched the horse so it couldn’t get all tied-up and kill itself.” since both Pa and the Master are alive later in the story.

    1. Thank you. I think you’re absolutely right about this. I’ll make the changes. Thanks!

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