If I had a time machine, I’d go back to the 1930s and work for the Federal Writers’ Project. For those who’ve never heard of it, the Federal Writers’ Project was part of the Works Progress Administration, which was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The WPA provided jobs for millions of people during the Great Depression. While most of these jobs involved things like infrastructure — building roads and bridges, for example — the WPA also hired more creative types, including musicians, artists, actors and writers.
The Federal Writers’ Project employed more than 6,000 people — not only writers and editors but also historians, researchers, map-makers, geologists and archaeologists. These people worked on all sorts of projects, among them travel guides, children’s books and local histories.
What they might be best known for, however, are the slave narratives.
From 1936 to 1938, Federal Writers’ Project employees interviewed more than 2,000 former slaves. They also took photographs. The collection that resulted is titled, “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States.”
You can read the narratives online. They’ve also been used in other projects, including a book I read a year or so ago, “The Slaves’ War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves,” by Andrew Ward. It was an interesting and enlightening book and I recommend it.
One of the individuals interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project (and included in “The Slaves War’ ” as well) was Charley Mitchell. Mitchell was born in Lynchburg, Va., in 1852. Because he moved to Panola County, Texas, in 1887, his interview is included with the Texas narratives.
Mitchell was owned by Nathaniel B. Terry, who is described in the narrative as an “itinerant Baptist preacher.” After the war, Mitchell worked in a tobacco factory and as a waiter. At the time of the interview, however, he was farming.
Mitchell, then in his 80s, spoke with the interviewer about a variety of things, everything from slave sales and attitudes about educating slaves to ghosts.
First, an important note: You’ll see that Mitchell uses the “N-word” throughout the interview. I’ve decided to leave the narrative as it was recorded by the interviewer. Also, there’s been some debate over the years about the use of dialect in the narratives, but again, I’m leaving it as is.
Charley Mitchell’s Story
“I’s born in Virginia, over in Lynchburg, and it was in 1852, and I ’longed to Parson Terry and Missy Julia. I don’t ’member my pappy, ’cause he’s sold when I’s a baby, but my mammy was willed to the Terrys and allus lived with them till freedom. She worked for them and they hired her out there in town for cook and house servant.
“They hired me out most times as nuss for white folks chillen, and I nussed Tom Thurman’s chillen. He run the bakery there in Lynchburg and come from the north, and when war broke they made him and ’nother northener take a iron clad oath they wouldn’t help the north. Durin’ the war I worked in Massa Thurman’s bakery, helping make hard tack and doughnuts for the ’federate sojers. He give me plenty to eat and wear and treated me as well as I could hope for.
“Course, I didn’t git no schoolin’. The white folks allus said niggers don’t need no larnin’. Some niggers larnt to write their initials on the barn door with charcoal, then they try to find out who done that, the white folks, I mean, and say they cut his fingers off iffen they jus’ find out who done it.
“Lynchburg was good sized when war come on and Woodruff’s nigger tradin’ yard was ’bout the bigges’ thing there. It was all fenced in and had a big stand in middle of where they sold the slaves. They got a big price for ’em and handcuffed and chained ’em together and led ’em off like convicts. That yard was full of Louisiana and Texas slave buyers mos’ all the time. None of the niggers wanted to be sold to Louisiana, ’cause that’s where they beat ’em till the hide was raw, and salted ’em and beat ’em some more.
“Course us slaves of white folks what lived in town wasn’t treated like they was on most plantations. Massa Nat and Missy Julia was good to us and most the folks we was hired out to was good to us. Lynchburg was full of pattyrollers, jus’ like the country, though, and they had a fenced in whippin’ post there in town and the pattyrollers sho’ put it on a nigger iffen they cotch him without a pass.
“After war broke, Lee, you know General Lee himself, come to Lynchburg and had a campground there and it look like ’nother town. The ’federates had a scrimmage with the Yankees ’bout two miles out from Lynchburg, and after surrender General Wilcox and a big company of Yankees come there. De camp was clost to a big college there in Lynchburg and they throwed up a big breastworks out the other side the college. I never seed it till after surrender, ’cause us wasn’t ’lowed to go out there. Gen. Shumaker was commander of the ’Federate artillery and kilt the first Yankee that come to Lynchburg. They drilled the college boys, too, there in town. I didn’t know till after surrender what they drilled them for, ’cause the white folks didn’t talk the war ’mongst us.
“Bout a year after the Yankees come to Lynchburg they moved the cullud free school out to Lee’s Camp and met in one of the barracks and had four white teachers from the north, and that school run sev’ral years after surrender.
“Lots of ’Federate sojers passed through Lynchburg goin’ to Petersburg. Once some Yankee sojers come through clost by and there was a scrimmage ’tween the two armies, but it didn’t last long. Gen. Wilcox had a standin’ army in Lynchburg after the war, when the Yankees took things over, but everything was peaceful and quiet then.
“After surrender a man calls a meetin’ of all the slaves in the fairgrounds and tells us we’s free. We wasn’t promised anything. We jus’ had to do the best we could. But I heared lots of slaves what lived on farms say they’s promised forty acres and a mule but they never did git it. We had to go to work for whatever they’d pay us, and we didn’t have nothing and no place to go when we was turned loose, but down the street and road. When I left the Terry’s I worked in a tobacco factory for a dollar a week and that was big money to me. Mammy worked too and we managed somehow to live.
“After I married I started farmin’, but since I got too old I live round with my chillen. I has two sons and a boy what I raised. One boy lives clost to Jacksonville and the other in the Sabine bottom and the boy what I raised lives at Henderson. I been gittin’ $10.00 pension since January this year. (1937)
“I never fool round with politics much. I’s voted a few times, but most the time I don’t. I leaves that for folks what knows politics. I says this, the young niggers ain’t bein’ raised like we was. Most of them don’t have no manners or no moral self-respect.
“I don’t ’lieve much in hants but I’s heared my wife call my name. She’s been dead four years. If you crave to see your dead folks, you’ll never see them, but if you don’t think ’bout them they’ll come back sometime.
“Two nigger women died in this house and both of them allus smoked a pipe. My boy and me used to smell the pipes at night, since they died, and one mornin’ I seed one of them. I jus’ happened to look out the window and saw one of them goin’ to the cow-pen. I knowed her by her bonnet.
“They’s a nigger church and cemetery up the road away from my house where the dead folks come out by twos at night and go in the church and hold service. Me and the preacher what preaches there done seed and heared them.
“They’s a way of keepin’ off hants. That’s done by tackin’ an old shoe by the side the door, or a horseshoe over the door, or pullin’ off part of the planks of your house and puttin’ on some new boards.”
A few more things:
Woodruff’s slave trading lot, mentioned by Mitchell, also is mentioned in Asbury Christian’s book, “Lynchburg and its People,” published in 1900. Christian writes that “Woodruff’s jail, on Lynch Street [now Commerce], between Ninth and Tenth” was “where the traders kept their slaves.”
Christian adds that the jail was “well patronized.”
According to an article written by John Marks in the 2007 issue of Agora, a journal published by Lynchburg College, the jail was built by Seth Woodruff in 1852 “to serve as a boarding house for slaves before their owners sent them to other parts of the country.”
That’s in keeping with Mitchell’s recollections about slaves being sold to buyers from Louisiana and Texas.
The college Mitchell mentions isn’t the current Lynchburg College, but one that operated in Lynchburg before the Civil War. The College Hill neighborhood, in Lynchburg’s downtown historic district, is named for this college. I couldn’t find much information about the college online, so that’s all I know at this point.
You can read more about Gen. Orlando Wilcox here in a book about his experiences.
I found the baker Tom Thurman in the 1860 census. His occupation is nearly illegible, but looks like “confectioner.” In the previous, 1850 census, Thurman works as a salesman for a confectioner named Samuel Thurman, perhaps his brother.
As for “Parson Terry,” I found a couple of censuses where he appears. Neither time is he described as a minister. In 1850, he’s a grocer and in 1870, he “works in tobacco factory.” Mitchell describes him as “itinerant.” Perhaps he means part-time preacher.
Hard to tell at this point without a time machine.
2 thoughts on “In his own words: the story of Lynchburg freedman Charley Mitchell”
I love this blog. The WPA stories take me to a time and place in history before my beginning. I can only imagine what life must of been like. Do you know where General Lee’s camp was located in Lynchburg?
Thanks for coming by today.
Thank you so much! No, I don’t know where Lee’s camp was, but I will try to find out! I had a wonderful tour at Anne Spencer House today and it was great to talk with you!