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William Colbert: ‘My Massa Was a Mean Man’

The following narrative was written by John Morgan Smith, who interviewed many former slaves in Alabama during the 1930s. This short interview with William Colbert was conducted when Mr. Colbert was over ninety years old. He talks of slavery, the war, and leaving the plantation come abolition.

The text in quotes is Mr. Colbert’s own, the commentary is that of the interviewer’s, John Morgan Smith.

“Sure, I remember the slavery days. How could I forget?”

“Slowly Uncle Will spoke these words as he made his way up a few rickety steps with the aid of an old broomstick to his cabin door. “We can just sit in the swing if you want to hear a little about them old days, because I can sure tell it.”

Interviewer: “Well, first off, Uncle Will, what’s your full name and where are you from?”

“My name am William Colbert and I’s from Georgia. I was born in 1844 on my massa’s plantation in Fort Valley. My massa’s name was Jim Hodison. At one time he had 165 of us niggers.”

Uncle Will, a gaunt, black figure with two weeks growth of gray hair upon his face, spoke in a soft, quaking voice scarcely audible ten feet away. His eyes had a faroff, sad expression of one who had known suffering. They were set deep back in bony caverns.

Interviewer: “Well, Uncle Will, tell me something about the slave days. Was your master good to you?”

“No sir, he wasn’t good to none of us niggers. All the niggers around hated to be bought by him because he was so mean. When he was too tired to whip up, he had the overseer do it; and the over seer was meaner than the massa.


“But, mister, the peoples are the same as they is now. There was good ones and bad ones. I just happened to belong to a bad one. One day I remember my brother, January, was caught over seeing a gal in the next plantation. He had a pass, but the time on it done gone out. Well sir, when the massa found out that he was an hour late, he got as mad as a hive of bees. So when brother January, he comes home, the massa took down his long mule skinner and tied him with a rope to a pine tree. He strip his shirt off and said:

“‘Now nigger, I’m going to teach you some sense.’

“With that, he started laying on the lashes. January was a big, fine looking nigger – the finest I ever seen. He was just four years older than me, and when the massa began a beating him, January never said a word. The massa got madder because he couldn’t make January holler.”

“‘What’s the matter with you, nigger?’ he said. ‘Don’t it hurt?’

“January, he never said nothing, and the massa keep a beating till little streams of blood started flowing down January’s chest, but he never hollered. His lips was a quivering and his body was a shaking, but his mouth it never open; and all the white I sat on my mammy’s and pappy’s steps a crying. The niggers was all gathered about and some of them couldn’t stand it; they had to go inside their cabins. After while, January, he couldn’t stand it no longer himself, and he say in a hoarse, loud whisper:

“‘Massa! Massa! have mercy on this poor nigger.'”

Will’s eyes narrowed down to fine creases as his thick lips came together in smacking noises, and the loose skin beneath his chin, and jaws seems to shake with the impact of dread memories.

“Then,” he continued, after a pause in which time there was no sound except the constant drop of a bead of water in a lard bucket, “the war came.”

“The Yankees come in and they pulled the fruit off the trees and ate it. They et the hams and corn, but they never burned the houses. Seem to me like they just staying around long enough to get plenty something to eat, because they left in two or three days, and we never seen them since.

“The massa had three boys to go to war, but there wasn’t one to come home. All the children he had was killed. Massa, he lost all his money and the house soon begin dropping away to nothing. Us niggers one by one left the old place and the last time I seen the home plantation, I was standing on a hill. I looked back on it for the last time through a patch of scrub pines and it looked so lonely. There weren’t but one person in sight, the massa. He was a sitting in a wicker chair in the yard, looking out over a small field of cotton and corn. There was four crosses in the graveyard in the side lawn where he was a sitting. The fourth one was his wife. I lost my ole woman too, 37 years ago, and all this time, I’s been a carrying on like the massa – all alone.”

The original transcript of the interview is here.

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.