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Voices of Slavery: ‘They Were Saving Me For a Breeding Woman’

During 1929 and 1930, an Africa-American scholar named Ophelia Settle Egypt, conducted nearly 100 interviews with former slaves. Working then at Fisk University, she was the first person to ever conduct such a large scale endeavor. Accompanied by Charles Johnson, a black sociologist, she was able to get the former slaves to open up about the waning days of the institution. In 1945, she finally published her Unwritten History of Slavery, which collected thirty-eight transcripts of the interviews. Each account, published anonymously, painted a fuller picture of black slavery in Tennessee and Kentucky, where most of the interviewees had resided.

This first account, entitled “One of Dr. Gale’s ‘Free Niggers’,” is surprisingly candid about the rape of slave women by their owners, as well as other aspects of such relationships.

Virginian Luxuries, artist unknown. c1825.
Virginian Luxuries, artist unknown. c1825.

Just the other day we were talking about white people when they had slaves. You know when a man would marry, his father would give him a woman for a cook and she would have children right in the house by him, and his wife would have children, too. Sometimes the cook’s children favored him so much that the wife would be mean to them and make him sell them. If they had nice long hair she would cut it off and wouldn’t let them wear it long like the white children.

They would buy a fine girl and then a fine man and just put them together like cattle; they would not stop to marry them. If she was a good breeder, they was proud of her. I was stout and they were saving me for a breeding woman but by the time I was big enough I was free. I had an aunt in Mississippi and she had about twenty children by her marster. On Sunday they would get us ready to go to church. They would dress us up after we ask them if we could go and they would have me walk off from them and they would look at me, and I’d hear them saying, “She’s got a fine shape; she’ll make a good breeder,” but I didn’t know what they were talking about.

Then there was old Sam Watkins, – he would ship their husbands (slaves) out of bed and get in with their wives. One man (a slave) said he stood it as long as he could and one morning he just stood out side, and when he (the master) got with his wife (the slave), he just choked him to death. He knew it was death, but it was death anyhow; so he just killed him. They hanged him. There has always been a law in Tennessee that if a Negro kill a white man it means death.

Now, mind you, all of the colored women didn’t have to have white men, some did it because they wanted to and some were forced. They had a horror of going to Mississippi and they would do anything to keep from it. A white woman would have a maid sometimes who was nice looking, and she would keep her and her son would have children by her. Of course the mixed blood, you couldn’t expect much from them.

My mother was born in Mississippi and brought here. My father was born in Maryland. He was an old man when he come here, but they just bought them and put them together. My mother was young – just fifteen or sixteen years old. She had fourteen children and you know that meant a lot of wealth.

When I was quite a girl I went to a colored person’s wedding. She was a black as that thing there (card table top) but she was her young marster’s woman and he let her marry because he could get her anyhow if he wanted her.

No, they didn’t tell you a thing. I was a great big girl twelve or thirteen years old, I reckon, and a girl two or three years older than that and we’d be going ’round to the parsley bed looking for babies; and looking in hollow logs. It’s a wonder a snake hadn’t bitten us. The woman that would wait on my mother [midwife] would come back and tell us here’s her baby; and that was all we knew. We thought she brought it because it was hers. I was twenty years old when my first baby came, and I didn’t know nothing then. I didn’t know how long I had to carry my baby. We never saw nothing when we were children.

There was an old man who belonged to Dr. Shelby, and he said if he ever got free he wasn’t ever going to get up any more, and after he got free he really stayed there ’til he starved to death and died. He was an old man, too. He was just so happy to know that he could lay in bed and nobody could make him get up, he just wouldn’t even get up to eat. You sure couldn’t do that (lie in bed) on old man Shelby’s place. He’d whip niggers to death and then sell them before they died. The white folks go down on him for it and he was always in a lawsuit with somebody about selling a slave he had beat so bad that he died soon after the other man got him.

Oh, they tried to scare us; said they had horns (Yankees) but when we saw them with their blue clothes, brass spurs on their feet and their guns just shining, they just looked pretty to us.

Ophelia Settle Egypt would go on to be instrumental in exposing the abuses of the Tuskegee study of syphilis, which exposed black sharecroppers to the disease without their consent, refusing to properly treat them, even though the cure was known and available. The rest of her life was devoted to the study and research of medicine and sociology. She became a research assistant, children’s author, and was the director of Washington D.C.’s first Planned Parenthood clinic until she died in 1981.

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.

20 thoughts on “Voices of Slavery: ‘They Were Saving Me For a Breeding Woman’

  1. “…white people when they had slaves” Really? Sort of lumping every white person in there as slave owners.

    My ancestors arrived here in 1887 and did not own any slaves. My great-great grandfather was 8 years old and didn’t even speak English when he got to Galveston, he grew up as a dirt farmer and did the best he could.

    1. I’m not sure you’re getting what’s being said here on two levels.

      First, I didn’t write this. A former slave was interviewed and said: “Just the other day we were talking about white people when they had slaves.” I didn’t write this. This former slave said it.

      Second, she wasn’t lumping every white person in there as slave owners. She was using “when they had slaves” as a modifier for “white people.” In her world, back during the times of slavery, white people owned slaves.

      So your ancestors wouldn’t have been counted in this.

      I’m sorry if the post wasn’t clear enough in explaining that these were the words of a former slave based upon an interview done by an Africa-American scholar named Ophelia Settle Egypt in 1929 or 1930. I’ll try to be clearer next time.

    2. You sound real dense in your statement. You know very well with whom that article was referring to but oh no, you just had to make it about your feelings. Please stay off the Internet and go read a book. Ugh

    3. You are missing the point, but that’s ok, it’s common for white people say what you say. What you fail to acknowledge, you get to benefit from white supremacy in America.

    4. John, you’re a bloviating exemplar both of the dumbed-down (defensive white) American; and of the mulish custodian of the racial status quo who would rather block his eyes and ears and overwhelm the conversation with his self-serving jabber than risk feeling empathy and learning a thing or two.

    5. Here in lies the problem. Stop getting defensive. If this article has nothing to do with you and your family history then it has nothing to do with you and your family history. Stop trying to disprove how you are so removed from what whites did then and actually absorb this material and learn from it it. Instead of making yourself out to be the victim and waving your white guilt flag. Nobody cares what your family did or di not do. And if you were only going to use this extremely informative article to try and clear your name you could have saved yourself the trouble and not even written anything. Instead of trying to reverse the roles and play the victim. That’s a pathetic, cowardly move that certain white people Need to stop doing. All you do is piss people off more. If you had nothing of value to contribute you could have kept it moving

    6. And yet your ancestor benefited in so many other ways by just being white in a system stacked against people of color.

  2. Raping is sickening and all that went with slavery. I have believed that since I was about five years old and watched Roots but reading this made me nauseous.

  3. There’s something I’m glad about in our times, that everyone has access to find out about the atrocities of times past and their lingering effects (e.g., slavery leading to today’s institutionalized racism). For example, my dad was taught in school that his ancestor was one of the most prominent leaders of his time who stood by and fought for his beliefs. My dad was proud of that. Nearly four decades later, my teacher started a pre-Civil War lesson by talking about a strong slavery advocate who worked to keep slavery as part of the establishment through his vice presidency and time in Congress. Same ancestor. As we are better able to learn from mistakes (huge, disgusting mistakes at times) of the past, we can work to make a better future

  4. I’m not certain what my ancestors did back then. I don’t really think my family knows either. There is no going back that era and changing what was done, but to continue forward. There’s been a lot things changed, and yet a lot of things have stayed the same. I’ll ask everyone to study the history of slavery, which party fought to keep it and which party fought to end it. You might be surprised to find that slavery, in another form still exists today.

    1. I think you are insinuating that the Republicans fought to end slavery and the Democrats at the time fought to keep it, so you can smear the current Democratic party in the US. If you go read some history of slavery in the US or political parties, you will wuickly learn that the parties basically reversed since then.

      1. The political parties actually switched philosophies starting about 1900 with Theodore Roosevelt and ended with Lyndon Johnson. Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” solidified the south for the Republicans.

  5. For centuries Africans and descendants of Africa have survived every genocidal plan and regardless of the atrocities “we” continue to multiply. We made it out of the worse form of slavery and now we should use that knowledge to teach our children of the strength, courage, beauty and intellect they’ve inherited. They are the best of the best. Ophelia Settle Egypt risked her life then to LEARN, and to use her knowledge to help change, strengthen, give hope to and help her “own” something many of “us” take for granted》》LEARNING. I believe it was Morgan Freeman during Electric Company days, who said “Reading is fundamental.”

  6. ..and then I know someone who said just the other day, “Can’t blame whites all the time, blacks were doing horrid things to each other in Africa before we arrived. What were they called, Hutus? Who just a few years ago behaved apaullingly towards their own” – I would like to rip my hair out when I hear this kind of ignorance..yep! Defo the same as systematic, organised genocide

  7. Thank you for sharing. I will definitely read more of Ophelia Settle Egypt’s works. Such a shame that her work is not more widely known. I had to write a paper on causes of civil war, I wrote slavery was main issue and professor commented that the war was not about slavery! Ignorance and denial still resides, even in academia. And unfortunately, we still live in a male white privileged society.

    1. Thanks! Her interviews with the formerly-enslaved are easily the best. I wish she had conducted more of them – the WPA’s from a bit later are definitely more expansive (2,300 of them), but in many cases, the interviewers just didn’t know how to draw out the answers from the subjects.

      Your prof seems horrible. There’s really nothing more that can be said. He has no business teaching history. Did he insist upon the “it was tariffs” angle? Or did he somehow convince himself that “states rights” didn’t involve slavery?

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