“When Freedom Come” – Appalachian Slave Narratives

How many of us in Appalachia have heard:

“Appalachia didn’t have any slaves.”

“Slavery wasn’t popular here in the mountains.”

“They couldn’t have any slaves here because the land wasn’t conducive for farming.”

“If we had slaves, there weren’t very many.”

But Appalachia did indeed have slaves. Jacqueline Clark’s article “Slavery in Appalachia: The Hidden History” says by 1860, every county in Appalachia had slaves. She cites a data-heavy investigation made by historian John Inscoe and sociologist Wilma Dunaway, who found that an estimated “18% of Appalachian households owned slaves.” Of course, these statistics largely depend on particular areas in the region and/or labor type. Larger plantation-types existed in the mountain valleys of Appalachia (See, for example, the post about John Kincaid.). Slaves certainly labored there and on small farms. They also toiled in factories and coal mines. Just prior to the Civil War, an estimated 153,133 African Americans lived in Appalachia.1)Murphy, James B. 1982. “Slavery and Freedom in Appalachia: Kentucky as a Demographic Case Study.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 151-169.

Julius Rubens-Ames moral map -1847- Cornell Univ Library – 1st published in 1837 before TX annexation – b&w=slave states, shading=threatened spread

To honor the recent commemoration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, I have carefully compiled former slaves’ individual responses regarding freedom through a series of slave narratives – accounts taken in the 1930s by the Federal Writers Project to document experiences before it was too late. Findings will be presented alphabetical by state in two posts. The rules I adhered to were: (1) Use the Appalachian Regional Commission’s list of official Appalachian counties, (2) the interviewed person had to have been either born or enslaved in Appalachia, (3) keep the dialect written by the Works project intact, and (4) blank out offensive words. Here are my sources:



Jenny Greer, age 84
Born in Florence, AL, Lauderdale County

“We didn’t git a thing w’en we wuz freed. W’en dey said we wuz free, mah people had ter look out fer demselves. Don’ member now ‘bout KKK ‘er ‘struction days . . . I’se hired out wuk’n in white folks house since freedum.”


George Brooks, age 112
Enslaved in Dadeville, Alabama [Tallapoosa County] “with whom he subsequently spent five months in the Confederate service.”

He tells about

“his being sold after freedom . . . he was sold along with two bales of cotton in the fall of 1865 . . . And very soon after this transaction occurred, the seller was clapped in jail! Then ‘somebody’ (he doesn’t remember who) gave him some money, put him on a stage-coach at night and ‘shipped’ him to Columbus [Georgia], where he learned that he was a free man and has since remained.”


Anna Baker, age 80
“born an’ bred ‘bout seven miles from Tuscaloosa, Alabama”

“My pa went to de war wid Marster Morgan an’ he never come back. I don’t ‘member much ‘bout ‘em goin’, but after dey lef I ‘member de Blue Coats a-comin’. Dey tore de smokehouse down an’ made a big fire an’ cooked all de meat dey could hol’. All us N——s had a good time, ‘cause, dey give us all us wanted. One of ‘em put me up on his knee an’ asked me if I’d ever seen Marster wid any little bright ‘roun’ shiny things. (He held his hand up wid his fingers in de shape of a dollar.) I, lak a crazy little N—— said, ‘Sho’, Marster draps ‘em ‘hind de mantelpiece. ‘Den, if dey didn’t tear dat mantel down an’ git his money, I’s a son-of-a-gun!”
“I know ‘bout dem Kloo Kluxes. I had to go to court one time to testify ‘bout ‘em. One night after us had moved to Tuscaloosa dey come after my step-daddy. Whist my ma an’ de res’ went an’ hid I went to de door. I warnt scared. I says, ‘Marster Will, aint dat you?’ He say, ‘Sho’, it’s me. Whar’s yo’ daddy?’ I tol’ ‘im dat he’d gone to town. Den dey head out for ‘im. In de meantime my ma she had started out, too. She warned him to hide, so dey didn’t git him.”
“Twixt de Lawd an’ de good white folks I know I’s gwine always have somethin’ t’eat. President Roosevelt done ‘tended to de roof over my head.”


John Finnely, age 86
Born in Jackson County, AL

Finnely managed to escape one night, carefully avoiding the patterollers (slave patrol who caught and beat escaped slaves nearly to death).

White and Black soldiers in 1861. Wikimedia
“I’se water toter dere [Nashville, TN] for de [Union] army and dere am no fightin’ at first but before long dey starts de battle. Dat battle am a experience for me. De noise am awful, just one steady roar of guns and de cannons. De window glass in Nashville am all shook out from de shakement of de cannons. Dere dead mens all over de ground and lots of wounded and some cussin’ and some prayin’. Some am moanin’ and dis and dat one cry for de water and, God-a-mighty I don’t want any such again. Dere am men carryin’ de dead off de field, but dey can’t keep up with de cannons. I helps bury de dead and den I gets sent to Murfreesboro and dere it am just the same.”
“You knows when Abe Lincoln am shot? Well, I’s in Nashville den and it am near de end of de War and I am standin’ on Broadway Street talkin’ with de sergeant when a man walks up and shakes hands with me and says, ‘I’se proud to meet a brave, young fellow like you.’ Dat man am Andrew Johnson and him come to be President after Abe’s dead.”
“I stays in Nashville when de War am over and I marries . . .”


Louis Thomas, age 93
Born in Pickens County, AL

Thomas heard “General Forest” give a speech saying the Union army wasn’t even “five hundred miles” from them.

“The following Tuesday night, de very next day, I mean, dem Yankees come in our towns and cross dat very bridge. The same night Old Marse made us hitch up all his horses and get up all de flour, meat, and everything we done raised, and carry it up Tom Bilby River, which was a swamp, to hide it from de Yankees. But dat didn’t do a bit of good. Dem Yankees got all our stuff and us, too, and destroyed everything he had. Us slaves was so mad at Old Marse, we helped ‘em get rid of everything. Den we went on back home, ‘cause we had nowhere else to go and de War wasn’t over and we hadn’t nary a penny of money.”
“I made my last crop in 1867 on dat very plantation where I lived all my days. Of course we was free den or supposed to be free. Dey promised to pay us, but we never got nothin’, least not yet, Marse ain’t paid me, and he’s dead now.”
“In March, 1868, dey sent to de field for all us hands to come up to de house to sign a contract. We all went. We was so used to minding Old Marse when he sent for us we just mind right on like it was still slavery. So I had always been mighty handy about most things so he wanted me above de others, so he took my hand, put it on his pen and held it right dere and signed my name hisself. I got mad as a wet hen about dat agreement he read to me. So he tried to make me feel good saying he was goin’ to give me half. I knowed better.”
“I felt dere was going to be some trouble up to de house, so I had a pistol in my pocket, that had been dropped by the Yankees on purpose to help us slaves shoot our way out. So I just told my old boss I ain’t goin’ to do it, and when he raised up at me I just whipped out dat pistol and everything in sight got out of my way. I was mad a-plenty . . . So while I had everybody scared and excited I left and never did go back.”


Emancipation Day in Virginia, 1905 – VCU Library – Wikipedia


Anderson Furr, age 87
Born in Hall County, GA

“When de War was done over, old Marster told us ‘bout how things was. He said us was free and would have to do de best us could for ourselfs. Dem was happy days for de N—–s. Dey sho’ didn’t take no more foolishment off of white folks atter dat, and dey don’t pay ‘em no mind now. N—–s got so bad atter dey got deir freedom dat de Ku Kluxers come ‘round an made ‘em behave deirselfs. One of dem Kluxers come to our house and set down and talked to us ‘bout how us ought to act, and how us was goin’ to have to do, if us ‘spected to live and do well. Us allus thought it was our own old Marster, all dressed up in dem white robes wid his face kivvered up, and a-talkin’ in a strange, put-on lak, voice. None of Marster’s N—–s never left him for ‘bout two or three years. Dere warn’t no way for N—–s to buy no land ‘til atter dey could make and save up some money.”
“I thinks it was a good thing Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Davis did set us free, and I sho hopes de giverment won’t never fetch slavery back no more.”


Elisha Doc Garey, age unknown
Born in Hart County, GA

“Dem Yankees stole evvything in sight when dey come along atter de surrender. Dey was bad ‘bout takin’ good hosses and corn, what was $16 a bushel den. Dey even stole our beehives and tuk ‘em off wropt up in quilts.”
“My freedom was brought ‘bout by a fight dat was fit ‘twixt two men, and I didn’t fight nary a lick myself. Mr. Jefferson Davis thought he was gwine beat, but Mr. Lincoln, he done de winnin’. When Mr. Abraham Lincoln come to dis passage in de Bible: ‘My son, therefore shall ye be free indeed,’ he went to wuk to sot us free. He was a great man – Mr. Lincoln was. Booker Washin’ton come ‘long later. He was a great man too.”


Jefferson Franklin Henry, age 78
Born in Paulding County

“When freedom come I was down in the lower end of Clarke County on Marse George Veal’s plantation . . . My white folks was fleein’ from the Yankees. Marse Robert couldn’t come ‘long ‘cause he had done been wounded in battle and when they sont him
Ex-slave in her house near Greensboro, Alabama, May 1941 – Photographer, Delano, Jack – Wikimedia
home from the war he couldn’t walk. I don’t know what he said to the slaves that was left thar to ‘tend him, but I heared tell that he didn’t tell ‘em nothin’ ‘bout freedom, leastwise not for sometime. Pretty soon the Yankees come through and had the slaves come together in town whar they had a speakin’ and told them. . . they was free, and that they didn’t belong to nobody no more. Them Yankees said orders for the pernouncement had come from the President of the United States, Mr. Abraham Lincoln, and they said that Mr. Lincoln was to be a father to the slaves atter he had done freed ‘em.”
“I heard ‘bout night-riders, but I never seed none of ‘em. It was said they tuk Negroes out of their cabins and beat ‘em up jus’ cause they belonged to the Negro race. Negroes was free but they warn’t ‘lowed to act lak free people.”
“Now that its all been over more than 70 years and us is had time to study it over good, I thinks it was by God’s own plan that President Abraham Lincoln sot us free, and I can’t sing his praises enough. Miss Martha named me for Jeff Davis, so I can’t down him when I’se got his name . . . Oh! Sho, I’d ruther be free and I believes the Negroes is got as much right to freedom as any other race, ‘deed I does believe that.”

**Featured image of Emancipation Day celebration – June 19, 1900 – Wikimedia


1 Murphy, James B. 1982. “Slavery and Freedom in Appalachia: Kentucky as a Demographic Case Study.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 151-169.

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