In this article, you will get to read a short autobiography from ex-slave James Singleton, written in 1937. Singleton was born into slavery and spent the first 9 years of his life enslaved. This autobiography of James Singleton was taken from Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. These were accounts and photographs of former slaves collected by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration during the 1930s across the United States. If, after reading this account from James Singleton, you would like to read more accounts from ex-slaves, check out the collection on the Library of Congress.
A few things to note before reading: The original version was written using eye dialect and this has been adjusted for this article below for easier reading. The term “Marse” is an alternative form of master and is used by James throughout the text. Some individual words in the text below have been changed but if you prefer to read the original eye dialect and wording, you can do so on Image 129 to 131 on the Library of Congress website.
Autobiography of James Singleton
My name’s James Singleton. I’m a Baptist preacher. I was born in 1856, but I don’t know exactly what date. My mammy was Harriet Thompson. Her master was Marse Daniel Thompson over in Simpson County on Strong River at a place called Westville. My pappy was from Charleston, South Carolina, and was given to the old folk’s daughter. His name was John Black and he was owned by Mr. Frank Smith over in Simpson. He was brought down from South Carolina in a wagon along with lots more.
Me, I was sold to Marse Harrison Hogg over in Simpson when I was about six years old, and Marse Hogg, he turned right round and sold me and sister Harriet and brother John the next day for four thousand; two thousand for John, because he’s older and bigger, and a thousand for Harriet and me. Miss Annie and Elbert Bell bought us.
Elbert Bell’s Plantation
Marse Elbert had three more besides us, making six. We slept on pallets on the floor, and all lived in one long room made out of logs and had a dirt floor, and dirt chimney. There was a big old iron pot hanging over the hearth (fireplace) and we had possum, greens, potatoes, and raccoon sometimes too.
Marse Elbert lived in just a plain wood house made California style, with a front room and a shed room where the boys slept. They had two boys: Jettie and William.
I reckon there was about a hundred and sixty acres planted in potatoes and corn, and they made whiskey too. They had a distillery hid down in the woods where they made it.
My mammy and pappy were field hands, and I was mighty little to do so much. I just minded the cow pen, made fires in the big house, and swept the house. If there wasn’t any coals left, we had to use a flint rock to get it started.
There was a bell ringing every morning to get up and go to the fields. They worked until sundown. They were fed in the white folks’ kitchen, and the cook cooked for us just like she had for the whites. The kitchen was built off a piece from the house.
Marse never did whup any of us little children. Miss Annie once tried to whup me because I chucked rocks at her chickens, but mighty little whupping she did. There wasn’t an overseer. At Christmas time we had to or three days to play, and had extra food.
I saw ‘pattyrollers’ (slave patrols – organized groups of armed men who monitored and enforced discipline upon slaves in the antebellum U.S. southern states.) riding about to keep the slaves from running around without passes. I never saw them whup anyone but they told us we’d get twenty-nine licks if we got caught by them. I saw people get whuppings on other plantations – whupped them half a day sometimes; generally when they tried to run away.
We didn’t have any dancing that I remember, but we had plenty of log rollings. We had fiddling and everyone would join in singing songs like “Run n***** run, pattyrollers catch you, run n***** run, it’s breaking days”. I still fiddle that tune. They rolled up all the old dead logs and trees in a big pile and burned it at night.
American Civil War
I saw the Yankee (Union Army) soldiers when they passed our house but they didn’t bother us. None even stopped in. They were wearing blue jackets and had gold buttons on their caps and jackets. But when the Confederate soldiers came along, they stopped and killed a fat cow or two, and would take a fat horse and leave a lean one. They would take everything else they saw and wanted. None of the slaves ran off with them that I knew of, and the Yankees didn’t try to bother us.
After the American Civil War
After the war, Marse Elbert told us that we were free now, and pappy came and got us and took us to live with the cook on Mr. Elisha Bishop’s place, and he paid Mr. Barren Bishop to teach us. He taught us out of Webster’s Blue Back Spelling Book. My pappy, he had a stolen education. That was because his mistress back in South Carolina helped him learn to read and write before he left. You see, in them days, it was against the law for slaves to read.
I was glad to be free because I don’t believe selling and whupping people is right. I certainly think religion is a good thing, see I am a Baptist preacher right now, and I live about six miles from Crystal Springs and I farm too.
Map of Crystal Springs, Mississippi today.
If you enjoyed reading an account from James Singleton, you may be interested in reading an interview with William Colbert, who was enslaved in Georgia.