Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States
Work Projects Administration
Part 3 out of 3
During the period of slavery in the Purchase Region, buying and selling
slaves was carried on at irregular intervals. The trading usually took
place at the home of the slave owner. The prices paid for slaves was
dependent upon certain conditions. In case of a full grown, robust negro
boy the price was sometimes as much as one thousand dollars. The prices
paid was varied according to the age, the general health and other
conditions of the individual.
At times pathetic scenes prevailed in the selling of slaves; namely, the
separation of mother and child. Often, a boy or girl would be sold and
taken away from his or her mother. In many cases the parting would be
permanent and the child and its mother would never see each other again.
The slave owner maintained separate housing quarters for his slaves. In
some cases the living quarters of slaves was comfortable and agreeable;
in other cases, living conditions of slaves was anything but agreeable;
Some masters were reasonably gentle to their slaves, while others were
One of the saddest, darkest and most pathetic conditions that existed
during the period of slavery was the intimate mingling of slave owners,
in fact many white men, with negro women. It has become known that very
often a slave was sold who was the direct offspring of his or her owner.
This practice prevailed to some extent in the Purchase Region, but was
not universal. When the emancipation proclamation became effective and
the slaves were given freedom, some of them prefered to remain with
their masters, while others started out into the world for themselves.
Very often, some of the slaves, who had anticipated that liberty meant
more to them than anything else, and who went out into the cold world of
indifference, soon returned to their old masters. They found that their
former home was a much better place to abode than anything outside of
Recreations of slaves:
The following is an old fashion ballad that was sung during the period
of slavery and which was very common throughout the Purchase Region:
"Jeff Davis rode a big white horse, but Lincoln rode a mule--Jeff Davis
was a fine, smart man, and Lincoln was a fool. Jeff Davis had a fine
white; Lincoln only had a mule--Jeff Davis was a wonderful man and
Lincoln was a fool".
Ring dancing was largely practiced during the slavery period. Especially
was this participated in throughout the Purchase Region. This was a
rather primative kind of dancing and was performed mostly by negro
children. The general procedure was to draw a ring on the ground,
ranging from 15 to 30 feet in diameter. The size of the ring to be used
was determined by the number of persons who were engaged in the dancing
ring. The youngsters would congregate within the ring and dance to the
rhythmic hand clapping and rhythm of the tambourine, which was performed
by the white people in the community.
Sometimes large congregations witnessed these primitive affairs, and
they became a great Saturday evening entertainment for the community at
large. During the periods of intermission, the youngsters, who had
engaged in the dancing would be given a kind of feast on barbecued meat
and cider drinking. At the conclusion of this brief festivity, they
would continue in their dancing, and very often this hilarity would be
carried on well into the evening.
Another kind of entertainment, which was practiced during the period of
slavery, was the singing of negro folk songs and spirituals. The darkies
would hold gatherings of this kind at the homes of individuals or
members, and engage in singing their favorite songs. These singings were
generally held during the evenings, especially on Saturdays and Sundays,
and not only afforded a favorite pass time for the darkies; but also for
white people. Most always, the singings were attended by a large
audience of white people, men, women and children. Those gatherings grew
with increasing popularity, until they became one of the most favorite
classes of amusement.
Also, the darkies were very fond of sports, such as were common to the
period, and many of them were very dexterous in the leading sports of
the day. One of the most common of those was hurdle racing. Here, the
contestants would leap over hurdles that were placed at regular
intervals apart. At time, numerous participants would engage in these
races, and the sport would extend over the entire day. There was a kind
of jumping too, which was called hurtling. In the sport, the contestants
made use of a hurtling pole, which was a small rigid-pole about 12 feet
in length. The jumper would take a long running start, which would
enable him to take on additional momentum; and with the assistance of
the hurtling pole, would leap over a hurdle that was placed a
considerable elevation above the ground. The chief object in this kind
of jumping was leaping over a high hurdle. The contestant, who made the
highest leap, was awarded the highest honors of the contest. A second,
third and fourth honors were awarded too.
Another kind of contest was called "A free for all". Here a ring was
drawn on the ground which ranged from about 15 ft. to 30 ft. in diameter
depending on the number of contestants who engaged in the combat. Each
participant was given a kind of bag that was stuffed with cotton and
rags into a very compact mass. When so stuffed, the bags would weigh on
an average of 10 pounds, and was used by the contestants in striking
their antagonist. Each combatant picked whichever opponent he desired
and attempted to subdue him by pounding him over the head with the bag,
which he used as his weapon of defense. And which was used as an
offending weapon. The contest was continued in this manner till every
combatant was counted out, and a hero of the contest proclaimed. Some
times two contestants were adjudged heroes, and it was necessary to run
a contest between the two combatants before a final hero could be
proclaimed. Then the two antagonist would stage a battle royal and would
continue in the conflict till one was proclaimed victorious.
Sometimes these Free-For-All battles were carried on with a kind of
improvised boxing gloves, and the contests were carried on in the same
manner as previously described. Very often, as many as 30 darkies of the
most husky type were engaged in these battles, and the contests were
generally attended by large audiences. Being staged during the period of
favorable weather, and mostly on Saturday afternoon; these physical
exhibitions were the scenes of much controversial conflict, gambling,
excessive inebriation and hilarity.
Banjo and guitar playing were practiced by the many darkies of the
slavery period also. These were on the order of concerts; and many
darkies although they had no scientific training, became rather
accomplished musicians in this respect. Melodious music might be heard
at these old fashion contests, as most darkies, who acquired knowledge
in the playing of these instruments were familiar with nearly all the
melodies and folks songs that were common to the period.
(The foregoing is copied verbatim from conversation with Tinie Force,
and Elvira Lewis, LaCenter, Ky. These 2 negro women are very familiar
with the slavery period, as they were both slaves, and many of the facts
common to that time were witnessed by them.)
(Edna Lane Carter)
Extract from the Civil War diary kept by Elphas P. Hylton, a Lawrence
Co. volunteer in the Union Army. "On 17th of July (1864) I was detailed
for picket duty and saw three thousand negro soldiers on a grand review,
a black cloud to see. On the 18th I was relieved of duty. Here I became
dissatisfied as a soldier on account of the negro, negro, negro. On the
23rd we began to get ready to leave this negro hole and on the 24th, to
our great joy and gladness, we were sent into camp near Danville."
McIntosh was a very progressive farmer and had a large supply of food,
being a Rebel of the Rebel Army camped at the mouth of this creek near
his home where they could secure food. He had a slave called "Henry
McIntosh" who was drafted into the Union Army. He did not want to go but
his master told him, "Well Henry you will have to go, do not steal, nor
lie and be good and when you get out come on back." He did come back and
stayed here until he died, he later married and was the father of "Ben
McIntosh (colored) who later lived in Hyden for years. McIntosh did not
have any help on his farm after this slave was taken away from him. So
he let the youth of 16 years Mr. Wooton, come to his home and help him
get wood and work about the place. McIntosh had another slave but gave
him to his son-in-law John Hyden, who then lived one mile up Cutushin
from the Mouth of McIntosh. He had a small store which was the first
store in that community.
Myth: Notions about nature when the stars fell in 1833.
At the Old Thomas Kennedy farm (Uncle Tom's Cabin), young Tom and some
more boys were playing cards in one of the negro cabins. One of the
slaves went to the cabin door and called loudly, "Mas'r Tom! Come quick,
the whole heavens is falling." He continued to call. After much
persuasion and repeated calls from the old negro, young Tom said, "I'll
go and see what the D---- old negro wants". Young Tom went to the door
and saw the stars raining down. He ran to the big house and jumped on a
feather bed, and prayed loudly for help.
[Mrs. Jennie Slavin:]
When she was a child, Mrs. Slavin was our nearest neighbor. She said her
father used to tell her these tales. William Kavanaugh was her father.
Slaves were brought and sold in Clay at one time. A large, stout negro
woman in good health sold for $300 to $500. A large stout negro man sold
for $1,000. Children were sold for $150 to $200. Mr. Tom Johnson, who is
living now, states his father was a slave trader and was the chief
sheriff of Webster Co. The runaway slaves were usually caught in this
part of the country. The reward was usually $100.00.
(Mary E. O'Malley)
The following story was given by a colored woman, Esther Hudespeth, who
was once sold as a slave. It was told to her by her slave mother in
"A long time ago there lived a rabbit and a coon. They lived so close
together. One morning Mr. Coon came by after Mr. Rabbit, and wanted him
to go over to see some girls with him. So Mr. Rabbit agreed and went
with Mr. Coon. Mr. Coon and the girls had some fun making fun of Mr.
Rabbit's short tail. Mr. Rabbit was very glad when the time came for him
to go home, because he was tired of being talked about. Mr. Coon had to
go get a drink of water, and Mr. Rabbit told the girls that Mr. Coon was
his riding horse and he would ride him when he came back. By the time he
got thru telling the girls, Mr. Coon called to Mr. Rabbit that he was
ready to go. Mr. Coon had enjoyed himself so much, while Mr. Rabbit had
The next day Mr. Coon came by for Mr. Rabbit to go with him to see the
girls. Mr. Rabbit played sick. I am too sick to walk over there, he
said. Mr. Coon said, I will carry you on my back if you want to ride.
No, said Mr. Rabbit, I cant ride on your back. I will fall off.
Mr. Rabbit said, If you will let me put this saddle and bridle on you, I
will go. So Mr. Coon agreed to let Mr. Rabbit put the saddle and bridle
on Mr. Coon. So they went along thru the woods. When they got in sight
of the House, Mr. Coon told Mr. Rabbit to get off--that he did not want
the girls to see him on his back. Mr. Rabbit pulled out a whip and began
to whip Mr. Coon, hollowing so the girls would see him, and made Mr.
Coon go up to the hitching rack. There Mr. Rabbit hitched Mr. Coon and
went in the house and enjoyed himself with the girls, while Mr. Coon
pawed the ground. Mr. Rabbit bade the girls goodbye, and never did Mr.
Coon come after Mr. Rabbit to go to see the girls with him.
Many of the following stories were related by Mr. W.B. Morgan who at one
time owned and operated a livery barn. He hired several negroes to look
after the horses and hacks, and remembers many funny tales about them
"Kie Coleman, one of my employees, was standing without the livery
stable smoking a two-fer cigar that some one had given him. Another
negro walked up to chat with him, and he reared back and said "Get away
nigger, nothing but the rich can endure life."
"I was hauling grain for the distillery. One morning I came down to the
barn, and Kie was too drunk to take his team out. I gave him a good
going over about wasting his money that way instead of saving it for a
decent funeral. This is one of the best ways to appeal to a darkey
because if there is any thing they like it is a big funeral.
"He just kinda staggered up to me and said "Boss, I don't worry a bit
about dat. White folks don't like to smell a live nigger and I'se knows
good and well da hain't gwine to lebe no dead nigger laying on top of de
"I furnished the horses for the hearse, and one night I tole the boys to
leave it in the stable because we were going to have another funeral the
"Each night one of the boys had to sleep in the office, and this
particular night it was Bill's turn. Bill was an old, one-legged negro
and very superstitious. He said:
"Boss, this is my night to stay here, and you know, boss, I sho likes to
work for you, but I jest tells you now there jest hain't room in this
here house fer me and that black wagon at night." I moved the hearse."
Some slaves were owned in Knox Co., most of them being in Barbourville
where they served as house-servants. The negro men worked around the
house and garden, while the women were cooks and maids. The slaves
usually lived in small one-room houses at the rear of their masters
home, and were generally well fed and clothed.
There was some trading of slaves among the Barbourville and Knox County
owners, and few were sold at Public Auction. These public sales were
held on Courthouse Square, and some few slaves were bought and sold by
"Negro Traders" who made a business of the traffic in blacks.
Occasionally a negro man would be sold away from his family and sent
away, never to see his people again.
Most Kentucky superstitions are common to all classes of people because
the negroes originally obtained most of their superstitions from the
white and because the superstitions of most part of Kentucky are in
almost all cases not recent invention but old survivals from a time when
they were generally accepted by all germanic peoples and by all
The only class of original contributions made by the negroes to our
stock of superstitions is that of the hoodoo or voodoo signs which are
brought from Africa by the ancestors of the present colored people of
America. On the arrival of the negro in America, his child like mind was
readily receptive to the white man's superstitions.
The Black slave and servants in Kentucky and elsewhere in the South have
frequently been the agents through which the minds of white children
have been sown with these supernatural beliefs, some of which have
remained permanently with them. Nearly all classes of superstitions find
acceptance among the negroes. The most widely prevalent are beliefs
concerning haunted houses, weather signs, bad luck and good luck signs,
charm curse and cures and hoodoo signs. Their beliefs that the date of
the planting of vegetables should be determined by the phases of the
moon is unshaken.
While slavery existed in Casey Co., as in other counties of the State,
before the Civil War, there are no negroes living the the county today
who were born into slavery; and very few white people who can remember
customs, incidents, or stories of the old slavery days. It is known that
the first slaves in the county were those brought here from Virginia by
the early white settlers of the county; and that until they were given
their freedom, the slaves were well cared for and kindly treated. They
lived in comfortable cabins on the lands of their owners, well fed and
clothed, given the rudiments of spiritual and educational training,
necessary medical attention in sickness; and it was not unusual for some
slave owners to give a slave his or her freedom as a reward for
faithful or unusual services. If there was any of the so-called
"Underground Railway" method used to get slaves out of the state, as was
the case in many counties, there are no current stories or legends
relative to such to be heard in the county today. It is thought that the
slaves of Casey County were so well cared for and so faithful and loyal
to their masters that very few of them cared to leave and go to
non-slavery states in the North. So there was little, if any, call for
any secret methods to provide for their escape. Even after they were
given their freedom, many slaves refused to leave their masters and
spent the remainder of their lives in the service and as charges of
their former owners. The present generation of course knows nothing of
slavery, and even the older people know only what was told them by the
forebears, and no especially interesting stories or legends are current
in the county today relative to slaves, or the customs of the old
slavery days before the War between the States.
A snake head an' er lizard tail, Hoo-doo;
Not close den a mile o' jail, Hoo-doo;
De snake mus' be er rattlin' one,
Mus' be killed at set uv sun,
But never while he's on de run, Hoo-doo.
Before you get de lizard cot, Hoo-doo;
You mus' kill it on de spot, Hoo-doo;
Take de tail an' hang it up,
Ketch de blood in a copper cup,
An' be sure it's uv a pup, Hoo-doo.
Wait until sum stormy weather, Hoo-doo;
Put de head an' feet together, Hoo-doo;
In a dry ol' terrapin shell,
Let 'em stay fer a good long spell,
But don't you ever try to sell, Hoo-doo.
De rattlers mus' be jus' seben, Hoo-doo;
But mus' not be ober leben, Hoo-doo;
He mus' be curl'd up fix'd to fight,
But see dat you don' let him bite,
Den you hit w'en de time is right, Hoo-doo.
Ef you do, it's power is dead, Hoo-doo;
'Cause it is all right in de head, Hoo-doo;
Save de head and de buttons, too,
Fer de work you'll have ter do,
You will need 'em till you're thru, Hoo-doo.
Ketch a live scorpen wid you han', Hoo-doo;
Drown in mare's milk in a pan, Hoo-doo;
Den dry it on a pure lime rock,
Ninety-nine minutes by de clock, Hoo-doo.
Den git a hand which is a bag, Hoo-doo;
Made uv any sort uv rag, Hoo-doo;
An' let de top be color'd blue,
Den git de hair frum out de shoe, Hoo-doo.
Now we'n you find de folks ain't well, Hoo-doo;
An' dey wants you to move de spell, Hoo-doo;
Git your gredients together,
Ster dem up wid a goose feather,
In sum dark an' cloudy weather, Hoo-doo.
Den put 'em in de hoo-doo bag, Hoo-doo;
In dat little blue top rag, Hoo-doo;
Den slip 'em in between de ticks,
Ef you want de conjure fixed,
Is de way you do de tricks, Hoo-doo.
Ef dey wants you to git 'em well, Hoo-doo;
Dat is de han' dat moves de spell, Hoo-doo;
Take it out before der eyes,
An' you mus' be awful s'prised,
And dey will think dat you is wise, Hoo-doo.
Den lay right down on your back, Hoo-doo;
Ef you hear de timbers crack, Hoo-doo;
Den yer kno's yer trick has won,
Den you'll ast er-bout de mon,
For you kno's yer work is done, Hoo-doo.
Now ef you wants de conjure fixt, Hoo-doo;
All you do is to turn de tricks, Hoo-doo;
Jes git dat bottle what you had,
An' to make your patient glad,
Is but to make de conjurer mad, Hoo-doo.
(M. Hanberry) [TR: also spelled Hanbery.]
In this county practically no one owned more than one or two slaves as
this was never a county of large plantations and large homes. These
slaves were well housed, in cabins, well clothed and well fed, not
overworked and seldom sold, were in closer touch with the "white folks"
and therefore more intelligent than farther south where slaves lived in
quarters and seldom came in contact with their masters or the masters'
families. When a gentleman wished a slave he usually went to
Hopkinsville and bought slaves there. Occasionally one slave owner would
buy one from another. "If there was ever a slave market in Madisonville
or Hopkins County I do not remember it or ever heard of it," says J.M.
Adams, book-keeper of Harlen Coal Company, age 84, Madisonville, Ky.
In the year 1864, during the conflict between the North and South, a new
citizen was added to the town of Warfield. His name was Alfred
Richardson, a colored man. Heretofore the people would not permit
negroes to live in Warfield.
Richardson was in a skirmish at Warfield and was listed among the
northern people as missing. His leg was injured and he was in a serious
condition. The good people living at Warfield had their sympathies
stirred up by his condition and took him in and gave him food and
medical attention until he was able to work.
At first the people thought they had done a Samaritan Act, but as soon
as Alf had a chance to prove himself, he was considered a blessing and
not a curse. He became the paper hanger for the town. Then someone
wanted to have his hair cut and Alf proved to be an excellent barber.
He rented a shop and went into the barber business and made a success.
He owned considerable land, and other property when he died. He lived
and died at Warfield, Ky., and was considered one of its most up to date
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