Betty Bormer was born into slavery in 1857. In 1937, when she was eighty years old, she was interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project. What makes her story different than that of ex-slaves Scott Hooper and Louise Mathews, Giles Smith, Philles and William Thomas, and Hattie Cole is that we are familiar with the who and the where of Betty Bormer’s servitude: Middleton Tate Johnson, south Arlington.
Federal Writers’ Project interview abstract.
The address sign behind Betty Bormer reads “1612 Etter St.” but is probably Etta Street, which is in the (interurban) Stop 6 neighborhood on the East Side south of Rosedale Street. Her house would have been where Fort Worth Housing Authority’s Caville Place is today. (Photo from Library of Congress.)
In Betty Bormer’s own words:
“I’se bo’n April 4th, in 1857, at Johnson Station. It was named after my marster. He had a big farm, I’se don’ know how many acres. He had seven chillen; three boys, Ben, Tom and Mart, and four girls, Elizabeth, Sally, Roddy and Veanna.”
Middleton Tate Johnson was listed in the 1850 census. Note that Betty Bormer recalled the names of Johnson children. Daughter Vienna was born in 1852. Son “Mart” may have been son “M. H.” in the census. Neither name appears on later lists of the Johnson children.
“Marster Johnson was good to us cullud folks and he feeds us good. He kep’ lots of hawgs, dat makes de meat. In de smokehouse am hung up meat enough for to feed de army, it looks like. We’uns have all de clothes we need and dey was made on de place. My mammy am de sewing woman and my pappy am de shoemaker. My work, for to nuss de small chillen of de marster.
“On Sat’day we’s let off work and lots de time some of us come to Fort Worth wid de marster and he gives us a nickel or a dime for to buy candy.”
The 1850 census included a listing of the slaves of Middleton Tate Johnson by number. Betty Bormer was not born until 1857, but her parents and some older siblings might be among these nameless entries.
“Dey whips de niggers sometimes, but ’twarn’t hard. You know, de nigger gits de devilment in de head, like folks do, sometimes, and de marster have to larn ’em better. He done dat hisself and he have no overseer. No nigger tried run away, ’cause each family have a cabin wid bunks for to sleep on and we’uns all live in de quarters. Sich nigger as wants to larn read and write, de marster’s girls and boys larns ’em. De girls larned my auntie how to play de piano.
“Dere am lots of music on dat place; fiddle, banjo and de piano. Singin’, we had lots of dat, songs like Ole Black Joe and ’ligious songs and sich. Often de marster have we’uns come in his house and clears de dinin’ room for de dance. Dat am big time, on special occasion. Dey not calls it ‘dance’ dem days, dey calls it de ‘ball.’
“Sho’, we’uns goes to church and de preacher’s name, it was Jack Ditto.”
Jack Ditto, an African-American preacher, lived in Arlington in 1900. Note that nearby lived Tom Brinson, an African-American laborer. Matthew Jackson “Jack” Brinson (1826-1901) was the white son-in-law of Middleton Tate Johnson and lived near Johnson Station. Because slaves sometimes took the surname of their owner, Tom Brinson may have been a slave of Matthew Jackson Brinson.
“Durin’ de war, I notices de vittles am ’bout de same. De soldiers come dere and dey driv’ off over de hill some of de cattle for to kill for to eat. Once dey took some hosses and I hears marster say dem was de Quantrell mens [Quantrill’s Raiders spent the winter of 1863-1864 in north Texas]. Dey comes several times and de marster don’ like it, but he cain’t help it.
“When freedom come marster tells all us to come to front of de house. He am standin’ on de porch. Him ’splains ’bout freedom and says, ‘You is now free and can go whar you pleases.’ Den he tells us he have larned us not to steal and to be good and we’uns should ’member dat and if we’uns gets in trouble to come to him and he will help us. He sho’ do dat, too, ’cause de niggers goes to him lots of times and he always helps.
“Marster says dat he needs help on de place and sich dat stays, he’d pay ’em for de work. Lots of dem stayed, but some left. To dem dat leaves, marster gives a mule, or cow and sich for de start. To my folks, marster gives some land. He doesn’t give us de deed, but de right to stay till he dies.
“Sho’, I seen de [Ku] Klux [Klan] after de war but I has no ’sperience wid ’em. My uncle, he gits whipped by ’em, what for I don’ know ’zactly, but I think it was ’bout a hoss. Marster sho’ rave ’bout dat, ’cause my uncle weren’t to blame.
“When de Klux come de no ’count nigger sho make de scatterment. Some climb up de chimney or jump out de winder and hide in de dugout and sich.”
Johnson Station was then south of Arlington. (1895 map detail from Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)
“De marster dies  ’bout seven years after freedom and everybody sorry den. I never seen such a fun’ral and lots of big men from Austin comes. He was de blessed man!
“I’se divorseted from him after five years and den after 12 more years I marries Rubbin Felps. My las’ husban’s named Joe Bormer, but I’se never married to the father of my only chile. His name am George Pace.”
In 1888 Reuben Phelps lived in Fort Worth’s African-American community east of downtown.
“I allus gits long fair, ’cause after freedom I keeps on workin’ doin’ de nussin’. Now I’se gittin’ ’leven dollars [$137 today] from de state for pension, and gits it every month so now I’se sho’ of somethin’ to eat and dat makes me happy.”
Some caveats: (1) Many of the ex-slaves interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project in the late 1930s had been children during slavery and may have received less-harsh treatment (and thus have retained less-harsh memories) than did adult slaves who were no longer alive to be interviewed in the late 1930s. (2) Lacking mechanical recording equipment, the interviewers sometimes took notes during interviews and transcribed the notes afterward, relying on memory, not “taking dictation” as the ex-slaves spoke. (3) The ex-slaves may have told interviewers, who were usually white, what the ex-slaves thought the interviewers wanted to hear (e.g., that white overseers had been kind). (4) The interviews were conducted during the Great Depression, when ex-slaves may have been afraid to endanger their often-precarious financial situation by offending the white establishment of their community.
More memories of Fort Worth residents who were born into slavery:
Verbatim: “I’se Bo’n in Slavetime” (Part 1)
Verbatim: Philles and William (“Jesus’ Lamb” and “Dat Old Cuss”)
Verbatim: “We’s Free and It Give Us All de Jitters”
Verbatim: “Us Am de Cons’lation to Each Other”
More “Verbatim” memories