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Former Slaves Remember Resistance

While the harsh punishments meted out under slavery meant instances of open resistance were rare, many slaves nonetheless defied their masters in day-to-day life. The following excerpts are from interviews with former slaves, conducted as part of the Federal Writer's Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) from 1936 to 1938. The more than 2000 WPA interviews, an invaluable resource for understanding the experiences of the enslaved, were assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. They are also available online at the Library of Congress's American Memory project. While the original interviews were transcribed in dialect form, the language has been standardized in these excerpts to facilitate reading at various levels of English literacy.

Josie Jordan Recalls an Outbreak of "Malitis"

. . . I remember Mammy told me about one master who almost starved his slaves. Mighty stingy, I reckon he was. Some of the slaves were so poorly thin their ribs would kind of rustle against each other like corn stalks drying in the hot winds. But they got even one hog-killing time, and it was funny, too, Mammy said.

There were seven hogs, fat and ready for fall hog-killing time. Just the day before Old Master told off they were to be killed, something happened to all them porkers. One of the field boys found them and came to tell the master: "The hogs have all died, now there won't be any meat for the winter." When the master got to where at the hogs were laying, there were a lot of Negroes standing around looking sorrow-eyed at the wasted meat. The master asked: "What's the illness with them?"

"Malitis," they told him, and they acted like they didn't want to touch the hogs. Master said to dress them anyway for there wasn't any more meat on the place. He said to keep all the meat for the slave families, but that's because he was afraid to eat it himself because of the hogs' having malitis.

"Don't you all know what malitis is?" Mammy would ask the children when she was telling of the seven fat hogs and 70 lean slaves. And she would laugh, remembering how they fooled Old Master so to get all of that good meat.

"One of the strongest Negroes got up early in the morning," Mammy would explain, "long before the rising horn called the slaves from their cabins. He ran to the hog pen with a heavy mallet in his hand. When he tapped Mister Hog between the eyes with that mallet, malitis set in mighty quick, but it was an uncommon disease, even with hungry Negroes around all the time."

Joe Sutherland Puts His Newly-Acquired Writing Skills to Use

We had one smart slave on our plantation, Joe Sutherland, who was master’s coachman. Joe always hung around the courthouse with master. He went on business trips with him, and through this way, Joe learned to read and write unbeknown to master. In fact, Joe got so good that he learned how to write passes for the slaves. Master’s son Carter Johnson, was clerk of the county court, and by going around the court everyday Joe forged the county seal on these passes and several slaves used them to escape to free states. I remember three slaves who escaped that way; they were App Seldom, who carried his wife, Moses Bollock and Daniel Prosser. Joe was doing a big business—the slaves always paid him for the passes—but he was finally caught and sold way down south, somewhere.

"Sukie" Resists a Master's Advances

Sukie . . . used to cook for Miss Sarah Ann, but old Master was always trying to make Sukie his gal. One day Sukie was in the kitchen making soap. Had three great big pots of lye just coming to a boil in the fireplace when old Master came into get after her about something. He lay into her, but she didn’t answer him a word. Then he told Sukie to take off her dress. She told him no. Then he grabbed her and pulled it down off of her shoulders. When he had done that, he forgot about whipping her, I guess, because he grabbed hold of her and tried to pull her down on the floor. Then that woman got mad. She punched old Master and made him break loose and then she gave him a shove and pushed him down into the hot pot of soap. The soap was nearly boiling, and it burnt him nearly to death. He got up holding his behind and ran from the kitchen, not daring to yell, because he didn’t want Miss Sarah Ann to know about it. A few days later he took Sukie off and sold her to the slave trader.

Source | Mrs. Josie Jordan, "Malitis," 1945, in Lauter, Paul, ed., Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume Two, Third Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006) 259; Ira Berlin et al., eds., Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation (New York: The New Press, 1998) 52-53, 57.
Creator | Works Progress Administration
Interviewee | Various
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | Works Progress Administration, “Former Slaves Remember Resistance,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1001.

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