Saturday, March 4, 2017

I Was Born In Slavery - A Slave's Oral History

This month my good friend Michelle Shocklee, who loves to write historical fiction and has her debut full-length novel releasing this month, is my guest blogger. I will be back next month with more tales of the historical Midwest and other Midwestern spots.

By Michelle Shocklee

As I set out to write The Planter’s Daughter, an antebellum novel set on a Texas cotton plantation in 1859, I took great care in researching the setting, the time period, and the events that unfold throughout the story. Even though I’ve lived in Texas for more than thirty years, there was much I didn’t know about the Lone Star State’s history after the Alamo and prior to the Civil War. For instance, I was surprised to learn how many plantations existed during that time period, with some like Liendo Plantation (, still standing today. Although cotton wasn’t king in Texas just yet, it was a money-making crop for many planters. And as we all know, slave labor was key.
With that in mind, I was especially concerned with accuracy when it came to telling the slaves’ accounts. Their stories, I felt, needed special attention in order for readers to truly see slavery on a Texas plantation. I didn’t want to simply use generalities about slavery in the south. That’s when I discovered a book titled I Was Born in Slavery: Personal Accounts of Slavery in Texas.
In 1936, with the Great Depression raging, the government established the Federal Writers’ Project, with one notable project being the Slave Narrative Collection. Out-of-work writers were dispatched across the South to interview former slaves, all of whom were by then in their 80s, 90s, and 100s. Over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs were documented and are now archived in the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Some of the stories have found their way into print, like those in I Was Born in Slavery.
The writers/interviewers took great care to preserve the former slaves’ idiom, feeling it was as important to preserve the subject’s manner of speech as it was to preserve what they said. I used that dialect when writing dialog. I also used many of the former slaves’ names as a sort of tribute to the real people who lived and died as Texas slaves. Many of the scenes in The Planter’s Daughter involving slaves are based on true events recorded in the narratives. One in particular is told by Millie Williams, an eighty-six year old woman who was born in Tennessee but was sold when she was seven-years old and was eventually brought to Texas. Millie’s description of being in the cotton fields when a patrol rides by—or patterrollers, as the slaves called the men on horseback charged with catching runaway slaves—is included in my book. The murmuring of “patter the pat, patter the pat” served as a warning to all the slaves and was passed from field to field.
One of the interviewees, Andy J. Anderson, states he was born on a plantation in Williamson County, Texas. This was an important piece of information for me to discover, because Williamson County is the setting for The Planter’s Daughter. Mr. Anderson’s own testimony gave my story’s location the authenticity it needed. James Boyd was 107 years old when he was interviewed. Can you imagine all he witnessed in those many years? He and another former slave, Lu Lee, gave descriptions of plantation life so vivid that I could almost see
Anderson and Minerva Edwards
the fields and the quarter in my imagination. Anderson and Minerva Edwards (pictured) were slaves on adjoining plantations in Rusk County. Their stories inspired me to create a married couple, Moses and Harriet, who must deal with the separation of living on different plantations. Anderson, I’m happy to say, became a Baptist preacher after emancipation and they raised sixteen children.
I Was Born in Slavery changed my book. It changed me as a writer and as a person. Long after The Planter’s Daughter is gathering dust on the shelves, a little orange book with a smiling old gentleman on the cover will, I am certain, continue to draw me to it, almost as though I can hear one of the former slaves say, “I was born in slavery. Let me tell you about it.”

Have you ever had a research book or some other resource impact you so deeply, you knew you would never be the same?

I Was Born in Slavery: Personal Accounts of Slavery in Texas, Edited by Andrew Waters,     John F. Blair, Publisher, 2003

Born and raised in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Michelle Shocklee is a Rocky Mountain girl at heart. But after living in Texas the past thirty years with her tall Texan husband, she has grown to truly appreciate the Lone Star State's rugged beauty. Her family lived in Williamson County, the setting for her debut novel. The Planter's Daughter, for more than twenty years. She and her husband currently live and work on a 400-acre ranch in the Texas Hill Country where they can often be found spoiling llamas, sheep, and chickens. She is a contributing author in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazine articles, and authors her personal blog, Life Along the Way. 


  1. Michelle, journals, diaries, and autobiographies are valuable assets when it comes to writing. I'm glad you found this resource to help you with your story. Congratulations on your release.

    1. Thank you, Anita! You are so right about all those wonderful old documents! Blessings to you!