Seen here in the photograph is William Colbert at the age of 93 in Alabama, United States. It was taken in circa. 1937. His photograph was being taken as part of a project by the Works Progress Administration to collect first-person accounts of slavery in the United States. This image now belongs in a collection called “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938” which was digitized by the Library of Congress. This project ended in 1941 with the release of a 17-volume publication called “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.“
As part of this publication, as well as a photograph, an interview was also conducted with William Colbert. His account is called “My Master Was A Mean Man.”
William Colbert’s Stories of Slavery
Colbert was born in 1844 in Fort Valley, Georgia on a plantation. The plantation was owned by a man called Jim Hodison and Colbert stated that at one time there were up to 165 slaves working there.
The interviewer asked William Colbert if his ‘master’ was good to him, and William replied that the slaves in the area “hated to be bought by him because he was so mean. When he was too tired to whip us, he had the overseer do it, and he was meaner than the master.” When talking about slave owners, he said “people are the same way as they are now. There were good ones and bad ones. I just happened to belong to a bad one.”
He tells the story of when his older brother, January, returned to the plantation and hour late, so was violently whipped while tied to a pine tree “till little streams of blood started flowing down January’s chest”. Jim Hodison was getting angry because January wasn’t screaming in pain so he continued to beat him. “His lips were quivering and his body was shaking, but his mouth never opened.” Some of the people that had gathered around couldn’t handle it any longer so they went to their cabins. January was continually beaten until he screamed out in pain. William said that during this, he was sitting on the steps of his parents’ cabin crying.
After telling this story, the interviewer, John Morgan Smith, stated that “the loose skin beneath [William’s] chin, and jaws seemed to shake with the impact of dread memories.”
The American Civil War and Leaving the Plantation
Colbert also recounts what happened at the plantation during the American Civil War. He stated that the soldiers only stayed for two or three days and never saw them again. Hodison, the slave owner, had three children go to war with all of them dying in action. William said that once plantation owner lost all of his money, the former slaves began leaving one by one, and “the last time I saw the home plantation, I was standing on a hill. I looked back for the last time through a patch of scrub pines, and it looked so lonely. There wasn’t but one person in sight, the master. He was sitting in a wicker chair in the yard, looking out over a small field of cotton and corn. There were four crosses in the graveyard in the side lawn where he was sitting. The fourth one was his wife.”
The final words in William Colbert’s interview leave you feeling sad for him. Colbert told John Morgan Smith that he also lost his wife 37 years ago (circa. 1900), and since then he’s “been carrying on like his master – all alone.” Colbert suffers from loneliness due to the death of his wife almost 40 years ago.
Conclusion and Further Reading
William Colbert was born in 1844 so would have been around 21 in December 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified and slavery was abolished. All of his childhood was spent as a slave. We only heard one story, but Colbert’s early life would likely have been full of similar stories. This one in particular may have stayed in his mind because it was happening to his brother.
If you found this interesting, I would recommend reading some of the publication. It can be found on the Library of Congress website. It contains interviews from former slaves across 17 states. There are also more photographs collected around the same time as this image of William Colbert.