Dem Days Was Hell: Recorded Testimonies of Former Slaves in the United States

Dem Days Was Hell: Recorded Testimonies of Former Slaves in the United States February 4, 2018

Race based slavery built the United States. Northern states made money on the slave trade. Delaware kept slavery until the end of the Civil War. Southern states embraced slavery and built a culture around racism and the superiority of the white race.

Is this heritage dead?

Not when Christian leaders mock “Black” diction used by employees or strip diversity statements from hiring practices.

Not when a Christian university uses the soundtrack of Gone with the Wind and the opening of the novel to describe the antebellum period.

Yet my first response must be to listen and learn more. Why?

Because even well meaning “help” can harm, check out the mixed results of many Great Society programs. White governments workers “here to help” the African-American neighborhood often weren’t there to help. Don’t look too hard at the state politics in places like New York where a childhood friend received a lobotomy as a child for the “crime” of being an African-American in state care.

When I urge you to read the collection of slave testimonies recorded by the government you will get my point. Evidently (mostly white) writers being unemployed was a problem the government needed to solve, so the paternalistic state sent these sincere folk out to record the stories of former slaves.

There is a very good side to this as the stories are kept and not lost.

Read the stories and any sympathy you might have for the peculiar institution, peculiar because it is odious in the Christian world, will vanish. Read, if you can, the descriptions of the slaves written by the interviewers and notice the questions asked.

They reveal the problem that is not being addressed. The government has payments for the writers, but the former slaves are (often) allowed to continue in poverty. FDR made sure Southern anti-poverty programs did not roil white rule in Southern states. The slaves are asked questions about Confederate (Jeff Davis!) or Union white celebrities, poking for answers of interest to the presumed white audience.

Former slaves knew how to give up what these odd people wanted. Still strong people learn how to negotiate rotten systems and so real opinions make it through the filter of the interviews. Decades later those who had been enslaved have gone on, learned a good bit from the Lord Jesus (usually), and have some fair wisdom for that present generation.

I started reading the interviews less for knowledge about slavery (however important), than for wisdom from people who first survived the end of days that were hell only to end up in the purgatory of Jim Crow. The state came very soon after Empancipation and did all it could to reinstitute slavery by other names.

The better questioner, the one we did not get, would have just let the wise, the fool, the hurting, the brave, the coward, the humans who survived talk. That’s not what we have, but the wisdom is still there.

Faced by nostalgia, Charity Anderson said*: “But whut’s de use dreamin’ ’bout de ole times? Dey’s gone, and de world is gettin’ wicked’er and wicked’er, sin grows bolder and bolder, and ‘ligion colder and colder.” This is a beautiful reversal. Slavery was bad, but not the only bad. Mrs. Anderson points out that the 1930’s, the decade of Stalin, Hitler, and Unites States Senator Theodore Bilbo. 

Think you are persecuted? Here is a Christian, Oliver Bell, who went to church in fear that the “master” would hear the singing. Here is his first memory: tell you de fust thing I ‘members, an’ I don’t know whut started it. One day my mammy done sumpin’ an’ ol’ marster made her pull her dress down ‘roun’ her waist an’ made her lay down ‘crost de door. Den he taken a leather strop an’ whooped her. I ‘members dat I started cryin’ an’ Mistus Beckie said, ‘Go git dat boy a biskit.’

After Emancipation, the terrorists of the KKK gave Mr. Bell some new memories: When dey lef’ town, dey pass de Ku Kluxes raght on de slough bridge. Mister Renfroe ax Enoch to give him a piece of string to fix his saddle wid; den shot him. Frank run to de river, but de Ku Kluxes cotched him an’ shot him, too.

Recall this story is after the Civil War. The terror had not ended and would go on and on and on. Waco, Texas had her mayor attend a lynching in 1916.

Mr. Ank Bishop condemns (0h so subtly!) those who think segregated FDR America was “better:” “Us didn’t get to go to church none, an’ us wa’n’t larnt nothin’. I’m nigh ’bout ninety an’ I can’t read a line. I got some chillun kin read; one can’t whut is sixty-five, but Henry he fifteen an’ he kin. De ma, she go by de name of Pearlie Beasley, she can’t read neither, but she’s a good fiel’ han’ an’ she patched dese breeches I’m wearin’ an’ dis ole shirt. Miss, I ain’t got a coat to my name. Can’t go to church, so I doan’ know dat dis any better’n slav’y time. Hit’s hard, anyway you got to travel, got yo’ nose on de groun’ rock all de time. When pay day come, ain’t nothin’ pay wid. Come git de rent, den you out do’s ag’in. Bred an’ bawn in Sumter County, wore out in Sumter County, ‘specks to die in Sumter County, an’ whut is I got? Ain’t got nothin’, ain’t got nothin’, ain’t got nothin’.

Those who think this interview from the 1930’s (grandchildren are still alive) does not matter, ain’t got nothin’.


*I have quoted from the text as we have it. The interviewers transcribed the language of those being interviewed in this manner.


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