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Susan Merritt – A Childhood of Abuse

Susan Merritt was 87 years old at the time of her interview (1936-1938). She was born in Rusk County, Texas, but moved to Harrison County after she and her parents were freed.

A bit of a warning – this narrative is, in parts, surprisingly brutal. That is to say that Mrs. Merritt does not shy away from telling the interviewer about the various abuses she received at the hands of her enslavers.

I couldn’t tell how old I is, but do you think I’d ever forget them slave days? I believe I am about 87 or more, because I was a good size gal spinning all the thread for the white folks when they lets us loose after surrender.

I was born right down in Rusk County, not a long way from Henderson, and Massa Andrew Watt was my owner. My pappy, Hob Rollins, he came from North Carolina and belonged to Dave Blakely and mammy came from Mississippi. Mammy have eleven of us children but four died when they were babies, but Albert, Hob, John, Emma, Anna, Lulu and me lived to be growed and married.

Massa Watt lived in a big log house which sat on a hill so you could see it around for miles, and us lived over in the field in little log huts, all huddled along together. They have homemade beds nailed to the wall and baling sack mattresses, and us called them bunks. Us never had no money but plenty clothes and grub and wear the same clothes all the year round. Massa Watt made our shoes for winter himself and he made furniture and saddles and harness and run a grist mill and a whiskey still there on the place. That mad had everything.

The hands were woke with the big bell and when massa pulls that bell rope the niggers fall out of th bunks like rain falling. They was in that field before day and stay till dusk dark. They work slap up till Saturday night and then washes their clothes, and sometimes they get through and have time for the party and plays ring plays. I remember part the words to one play and that ‘Rolling river, roll on, the old cow die in cold water .. now we’s got to drink bad water ’cause old cow die in cold water,’ but I can’t remember more than that. It’s too long ago.

When the hands come in from the field at dusk dark, they had to tote water from the spring and cook and eat and be in bed when that old bell rings at nine o’clock. About dusk they calls the children and gives them a piece of corn pone about the size of my hand and a tin cup of milk and put them to bed, but the growed folks ate fat pork and greens and beans and such like and have plenty of milk. Every Sunday massas give them some flour and butter and a chicken. Lots of niggers caught a good cowhiding for slipping around and stealing a chicken before Sunday.

Massa Watt didn’t have no overseer, but he had a nigger driver what am just as bad. He carried a long whip around his neck and I saw him tie niggers to a tree and cowhide them till the blood run down onto the ground. Sometimes the women get slothful and not able to do their part, but they makes them do it anyway. They dig a hole, about body-deep, and makes them women lie face down in it and beats them nearly to death. That nigger driver beat the children for not keeping their cotton row up with the lead man. Sometimes he made niggers drag long chains while they work in the field and some of them run off, but they ought not to have done it, because they chase them with hounds and nearly killed them.

Lots of times Massa Watt gave us a pass to go over to George Petro’s place or Dick Gregg’s place. Massa Pethro ran a slave market and he have big, high scaffold with steps where he sells slaves. They were stripped off to the waist to show their strength.

Our white folks have a church and a place for us in the back. Sometimes at night us gather round the fireplace and pray and sing and cry, but we daren’t allow our white folks to know it. Thank the Lord us can worship where us wants nowadays. I remember one song we always sing:

I heard the voice of Jesus callin’
Come unto me and live
Lie, lie down, weepin’ one
Rest thy head on my breast.

I come to Jesus as I was
Weary and lone and tired and sad,
I find in him a restin’ place,
And he has made me glad.

Us have two white doctors called Dr. Dan and Dr. Gill Shaw, what wait on us when we real sick. Us wore seafoedite bags around the neck and it kept off sickness. 1This is possibly a bag of asafetida, which was used as a folk remedy, as described here.

I stay most of the time in the big house and massa good but missy am the devil. I couldn’t tell you how I was treated. Lots of times, she tied me to a stump in the yard and cowhide me till she give out, then she go and rest and come back and beat me some more. You see, I was massa’s nigger and she have her own niggers what come on her side and she never did like me. She stomp and beat me nearly to death and they have to grease my back where she cowhide me and I was sick with fever for a week. If I have a dollar for every cowhiding I got, I’d never have to work no more.

Young missy Betty like me and try to learn me reading and writing, and she slip to my room and have me doing right good. I learned the alphabet. But one day Missy Jane caught her schooling me and she said, “Niggers don’t need to know anything,” and then slams me over the head the butt of a cowhide whip. That white woman so rough, one day us making soup and some little chickens get in the fire around the pot and she say I let them do it and made me walk barefoot through that bed of coals several times.

I heard about freedom in September and they were picking cotton and a white man rides up to massa’s house on a big, white horse, and the houseboy tells massa that a man wants to see him, and he hollers, “Light, stranger!” It a government man and he have the big book and a bunch of papers and say why ain’t massa turn the niggers loose. Massa say he trying to get the crop out and he tell massa to get the slaves in. Uncle Steven blows the cow horn what they use to call to eat and all the niggers come running because that horn means “Come to the big house, quick.” That man reads the paper telling us we’re free, but massa make us work several months after that. He say we’ll get twenty acres of land and a mule, but we didn’t get it.

Lots of niggers was killed after freedom because the slaves in Harrison County turned loose right at freedom and them in Rusk County wasn’t. But they hears about it and runs away to freedom in Harrison County and their owners have them bushwacked and shot down. You could see lots of niggers hanging to trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom, because they caught them swimming across the Sabine River and shot them. They sure am going to be lots of souls crying against them in Judgment!

Susan Merritt
Susan Merritt

The full transcript of her interview can be found here.
More information about the interview process and project can be found here.

References   [ + ]

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.