In the late 1930s interviewers of the Federal Writers’ Project interviewed ex-slaves, among them Philles and William Thomas of Fort Worth, who had married in Galveston about 1879 when William was, in Philles’s words, a “dock walloper” (dock worker).
When interviewed about 1937, Philles and William were living on Hays Street in a low-income neighborhood sandwiched between two sets of Rock Island railroad tracks south of East Weatherford Street in Fort Worth’s early African-American community. (Map detail from Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)
Hays Street even in 1952 was still unpaved and lined with shotgun houses.
Federal Writers’ Project abstract.
(Photo from Library of Congress.)
Philles Thomas in her own words:
I don’t ’member much ’bout de war, ’cause I’s jus’ a young’un when it start and too small to have much mem’randum when it stop. I’s still on de place where I’s born when surrender come, de Lowoods Place, own by Massa Dave Miles, ’twixt Brazoria and Columbia. Massa Dave sho’ have de big plantation but I don’ know how many slaves.
When I’s a young’un, us kids didn’t run round late. We’uns am put to bed. When sundown come, my mammy see dat my feets am wash and de gown put on, and in de bunk I goes.
I can’t ’member my daddy, but mammy told me him am sent to de ’Federate Army and am kilt in Galveston. She say dey puttin’ up breastworks and de Yanks am shootin’ from de ships. Well, daddy am watchin’ de balls comin’ from dem guns, fallin’ round dere, and a car come down de track loaded with rocks and hit him. Dat car kilt him.
Mammy marries Bill Bailey after freedom and moves to de Barnum Place, what Massa John Miles own. I stays with mammy till I’s seventeen and holp dem share crop. Den I leaves. Dat de way with chillen, dey gives you lots of trouble raisin’ dem and den off dey goes. When my chillen am young’uns dey’s on my lap, and when dey’s growed up, dey’s on my heart.
[According to the Texas State Historical Association and the 1860 census, “Massa Dave Miles” was David Graham Mills, who with brother Robert owned or operated five plantations in Brazoria County, including Low Wood Place and Bynum Place (as mentioned by Philles Thomas). With eight hundred slaves the brothers were the largest slaveowners in Texas. Low Wood Place is now part of Clemens State Prison Farm. The brothers’ company (R. & D.G. Mills), a major producer of cotton and sugar, issued its own scrip. (Photo from DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University.)]
Philles Thomas continues her story:
Us have de hard time share croppin’. Times was hard den and de niggers didn’t know much ’bout takin’ care demselves. Course, dey better off free, but dey have to larn. Us work hard and make ’nough to live on de first year us free. Us raise cotton and veg’tables and when I’s not helpin’ mammy I goes out and gits a li’l work here and yonder.
I marries in Galveston, to dat old cuss, settin’ right dere, William Thomas am he name and I’s stood for him ever since. Him am dock wallopin’ when I’s marry to him. Sho’, him am a dock walloper. If you wants to talk big, you calls it stev’dore on de wharf.
Dat cullud gen’man of mine allus brung in de bacon. We’uns am never rich, but allus eats till de last few years. Us goes on de farm and it hand and mouth livin’, but us eats someway. After while, us come to Fort Worth and he works as mortar man and cement mixer. We’uns live good till de few years back, when him break down in de back and can’t work no more.
It am ten chillun us raise but only five livin’ now. One live at Stop 6, right here in Fort Worth, and de others am all over de world. Us don’t know where dey am. Since Bill can’t work no more, us git de pension from de State and dat $26.00 de month for de two of us.
Does I ever vote? Christ for ’mighty! No. Why yous talk dat foolishment? Why for dis igno’mous old woman want to vote? No, sar, and no tother womens ought to vote. Dat am for de mens to do. My Bill votes couple times, when us in Galveston, and I tells you ’bout dat.
Dey gives de eddication with a couple cups whiskey and de cheroot. When de whiskey and de cheroot works on Bill’s brain, dere am den de smart nigger, and he votes ’telligent. I asks him what he votes for and him say, “I’s vote for what am on de ticket.” “What am on de ticket?” I says. “How does I know? I can’t read.” Den I says, “Better yous not vote, ’cause maybe yous vote to put youself in de jailhouse.” So I guess him think ’bout dat and him see what foolishment and troublement him maybe git into, and him quit votin’. We’uns am lucky with de trouble. Guess it ’cause we’uns knows how to ’have. When I’s young my mammy larn me how to ’have and where I ’long, so de patterrollers [slave patrols] and de Ku Klux never bother we’uns. Now, we’uns so old us can’t git round, so us double safe now.
Gosh for ’mighty! What yous want next? Now it [is time] for me to sing. Well, yous can’t put de bluff on dis old nigger, so here it am:“Put on my long white robe, Put on de golden crown, Put on de golden slipper, And forever be Jesus’ lamb.”
But I likes ’nother song better, like dis:“Herodias go down to de river one day, Want to know what John Baptist have to say, John spoke de words at risk of he life, Not lawful to marry yous brudder’s wife.”
Now dat am ’nough. If I’s here much longer, yous have dis old woman dancin’.
Federal Writers’ Project abstract. A pension of $13 in 1937 would be $216 today.
(Photo from Library of Congress.)
William Thomas in his own words:
I knows ’zactly how old I is. Massa done give my mammy de statement. He do dat for all he niggers when dey freed. I’s borned May 17th, in 1850, and dat make me eighty-eight next May. Dat’s on Massa Doctor Frank Thomas’s plantation, over near Meridian, in Mississippi. Dere forty-four slave families on he place and he own ’bout seven hunerd acres land, so him have plenty pasture, wood and field land. De money crop was cotton, of course.
My mammy and sis was in de place and my step-pa. My pappy am sold and took to Texas when I’s so li’l I don’t ’member him. After dat, mammy done took another man.
All de slaves live in quarters ’cept de house servants, and dey live in servants’ quarters, and dere’s where I’s de lucky nigger. My mammy am cook for massa and I’s round de kitchen what ’twas plenty of good eats. And I plays with massa’s two boys, ’twas Frank and Lawrence.
I’s so li’l ’fore surrender I never really works, ’cept to be de errand boy. I fetches eggs and sich. Massa have lots of chickens and us fetch in high as a thousand eggs in one day sometimes. Us have eggs to eat, too. Massa Thomas am awful good and dere am never de holler ’bout feedin’. I bet none dem niggers done live so good after dey free.
Us have all de meat us want, mostest pork and beef and mutton. Dey kills five hunderd hawgs when killin’ time came, and make hams and bacon and sausages. If yous ever ate sich ham and bacon what am made by massa’s butcher right dere on de place, you say dere never am sich. Dat sausage, it make de mouf water to think ’bout it. ’Sides de meat, us have cornbread and ’lasses and de rations ain’t measure out, ’cept de white flour on Sunday mornin’. All week de meals am cook in dat kitchen and serve in de big shed, but each family cook for deyself on Sunday.
Us go to church if us want, ’bout four miles off. Massa give anybody de pass to go dere. Dere am no parties and sich, but old Jack saw on de fiddle and us sing.
Massa didn’t whip, only once. Dat ’cause a nigger steal he fav’rite pumpkin. He am savin’ dat for to git de seed and it am big as de ten gallon jug. De corn field am full of pumpkins, but dat nigger done took massa’s choice one. Dat pumpkin am so big, he have to tussle with it ’fore he git it to he cabin. It like stealin’ a elephant, you can’t hide it in de watch pocket. Course, lots of niggers seed dat cullud gen’man with dat pumpkin, and ’fore long massa knew it.
Well, sar, it am de funny sight to see him punish dat nigger. First, massa set him down on de ground front de quarters, where us all see him. Den he make dat nigger set down and give him de big bowl pumpkin sauce and make him eat it. Him eat and eat and git so full him can’t hardly swallow and massa say, “Eat some more, it am awful good.” Dat nigger try, but him can’t eat no more. Massa give him de light breshin’ and it am funny to see, dat cullud gen’man with pumpkin smear on he face and tears runnin’ down he face. After dat, us chillen call him Massa Pumpkin and massa never have no more trouble with stealin’ he seed pumpkins.
When war starts I’s ’bout fifteen year old. ’Bout half mile from de plantation am de crossroads and one go to New Orleans and one go to Vicksburg. Dere am a ’Federate camp dere at de start, but after ’while dey goes and de Yanks comes. Dere a battle near, and us hear de shootin’ but us have to stay on de place.
I done slip off and see de camp, though. De Yanks puts up two big tents and use dem for de hospital and de wounded am fetch dere. What I sees and hears dere, I never forgits, and it done turn dis nigger ’gainst war. Why can’t dey settle dey ’sputes without killin’? Dey’s moanin’ and cryin’ and screamin’ in dem tents.
One day de Yanks come clean de crib of all de corn and de meat house of all de meat. Massa am smart and fix it so dey don’t find all de rations. Him dig a big ditch in de woods and hide lots of rations.
Us didn’t know when freedom came. It a long time after dat de Yanks come tell us, and it de same way on all de plantations round dere. De Yanks come and make massa pay us all fifty cents de day. After dat massa puts dem what wants to go on pieces of land and dey ain’t charge for it till seven year after. Den dey has to pay rent and part de crop, and for de mules and tools all de time.
I stays with my folks till I’s twenty-four year old and den I’s on my way to Galveston and gits work as de stevedore. Dat am on de wharf and I works dere twelve year. I votes dere two times. Some white folks done come to us, and de boss, too, and gives us de ticket. It am all mark up. Boss say us don’t have to work de next day, and us to report at a place. When us comes dere, ’twas a table with meat and bread and stuff for to eat, and whiskey and cigars. Dey give us something to eat and a cup or two of dat whiskey and puts de cigar in de mouth. Us am ’portant niggers, ready to vote. With dat cup of whiskey in de stomack and dat cigar in de mouth and de hat cock on side de head, us march to de votin’ place and does our duty. Fix up de way us was, us would vote to put us back in slavery. And de nigger what didn’t vote, after all dat, him am in for de fixin’. I means he gits fixed. Dey pounds he head till him won’t forgit to do it right next time.
But I gits to thinkin’ how massa say when us leave him, “Don’t let no white folks use you for to make trouble.” I figgers dat what am happenin’ with dat votin’ business, and I quits votin’ and goes to farmin’. I ’lieve de cullud folks should vote, but not de igno’mous niggers like us was den.
I farms till 1910 and den comes to Fort Worth, and dey am buildin’ de Purina Mills Elevators [built in 1917, shown in 1952 aerial photo] on East 4th Street and I works dere at mortar work. Den I works at cement on lots de big buildin’s in dis city, till ’bout ten year ago, when it git too hard for me. I has de back misery.
I gits married to Phillis Wilson when I’s twenty-nine, in Galveston, and us don’t allus have lots, but us gits by and raises de family. Now us have to live on de pension from de State, what am $13.00, and sometimes us am awful short, tryin’ to pay de rent and buy de rations and what clothes us needs, but us am glad to git it. Ten chillen am what us raises and five am dead and four am scattered and us don’t know where, and one live here.
Ain’t it diff’rent how peoples lives? Us used to travel with de ox and now dey flies in de sky. Folks sings in New York and us sets right here and hears dem. Shucks! De way things am gwine, I’s all fussed up and can’t understand whether I’s gwine or comin’.
In the 1930 census William and Philles Thomas were living on East 1st Street, walking distance from the Ralston Purina mill. Rent of $10 a month in 1930 would be $140 today. During slavery young William may have been given the surname of his owner, Dr. Frank Thomas. In the census form column “Whether able to read and write,” William and Philles responded “no.”
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 FWP 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.
Still, the ex-slave interviews, like all the FWP interviews, are valuable first-person accounts of a generation who, as William Thomas said, “used to travel with de ox and now . . . flies in de sky.”
More memories of ex-slaves who lived in Fort Worth:
Verbatim: “I’se Bo’n in Slavetime” (Part 1)
Verbatim: “We’s Free and It Give Us All de Jitters”
Verbatim: “Us Am de Cons’lation to Each Other”
Verbatim: “I Hears Marster Say Dem Was de Quantrell Mens”