Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Real Slaves: Their Stories

By Michelle Shocklee

If you've read my blog posts and/or any of my historical novels, you know slavery is a topic that has captured my heart. Growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I didn't have many African American friends. Over the years, at college and in the workplace, I've had the opportunity to meet and enjoy friendships with a number of black people. Still, the plight of the slave didn't really take hold in me until I read Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I was in my forties, living in Texas, raising my family, when my perspective shifted.

It was during my research of slavery in Texas that I discovered the "slave narratives." These are word-for-word interviews done in the 1930s with former slaves. Over 2000 narratives are archived in Washington DC, along with several hundred photographs, as well as a handful of actual recordings of former slaves. Their stories are real, raw, and eyeopening.

I thought today would be a good day to "introduce" you to some of the real slaves I've come to know through my research.

  • Sarah Ashley was a small, white-haired woman. At 93, she recalled her years in a "slave speculator's gang." Sold to the speculator when she was a child, she was separated from her family. After many years in this gang (that was apparently leased to different plantation owners), she was put on the auction block in New Orleans and sold. She worked in the cotton fields where she was forced to pick three hundred pounds of cotton a day. When Freedom came, her former owner offered a share in the crop if she would stay, but she left despite having "no place to go and no corn and cotton." She felt blessed to have a comfortable home, fields, and chickens in her old age. Photo: Sarah Ashley, ex-slave. Texas United States, 1937. Photograph.

  • Anderson and Minerva Edwards, ages 93 and 87, were both slaves on adjoining plantations. Anderson's master owned three families of slaves. He worked in the fields from dawn until dusk. He recalled that when the slaves prayed during slavery time, they dare not let the white folks know about it, or "they beat them to death." The slaves often prayed for freedom, and "the Lord heard our prayer." After the war ended, Anderson and Minerva married and had sixteen children. He started a church and was the pastor there for many years. Photo: Anderson and Minerva Edwards, Age 93 and 87. Texas United States, 1936. Between 1936 and 1938. Photograph.

Betty Farrow, age 90, was born a slave to Mr. Alex Clark, a plantation owner in Virginia. She recalled her early years there with fondness. When she was three or four years old, however, her master sold his plantation and moved to Texas. Betty's family went with him on what she recalls as a harrowing journey in covered wagons. Despite being forced into slavery, Betty and her family chose to stay with her former owners after the war. She was twenty-seven when she married and finally left the "white folks' place." She and her husband had ten children and became farmers. Photo: Betty Farrow, Age 90. Texas United States, 1936. Between 1936 and 1938. Photograph.

  • Sam Jones Washington, 88 years old, was born a slave of Sam Young, a rancher in Texas. Sam lived a different life than most slaves. He was trained as a cowhand and worked for his master until 1868, receiving wages after he was freed. He recalls his mother and siblings lived on the ranch as well, but he never knew his father. He enjoyed riding horses and roping cattle. One night when he was twelve, he and another slave decided they wanted some sugarcane from a neighboring plantation. The "patterollers" or white men who patrolled the area, heard the snapping of cane stalks and chased the boys. He says he ran so fast that he "stayed 'head of my shadow." After freedom, he married three times but never had children.  Photo: Sam Jones Washington, Age 88. Texas United States, 1936. Between 1936 and 1938. Photograph.

These are just a few of the millions and millions of people who survived slavery. Their stories are heartbreaking, encouraging, and thought-provoking all at the same time. The narratives go into much more detail than I can share here on the blog. Stories of brutality, abuse, and other hardships are spoken of plainly. I did my best to portray their lives as authentically as I could in my novels.

Your turn: Have you read Uncle Tom's Cabin? What did you think about it?

Michelle Shocklee is the award-winning author of The Planter's Daughter and The Widow of Rose Hill. Her historical novella set in the New Mexico Territory is included in The Mail-Order Brides Collection. Michelle and her husband of thirty-two years make their home in Tennessee. Connect with her at


Adella Rose Ellis knows her father has plans for her future, but she longs for the freedom to forge her own destiny. When the son of Luther Ellis's longtime friend arrives on the plantation to work as the new overseer, Adella can't help but fall for his charm and captivating hazel eyes. But a surprise betrothal to an older man, followed by a devastating revelation, forces Adella to choose the path that will either save her family's future or endanger the lives of the people most dear to her heart.

Seth Brantley never wanted to be an overseer. After a runaway slave shot him, ending his career as a Texas Ranger and leaving him with a painful limp, a job on the plantation owned by his father's friend is just what he needs to bide his time before heading to Oregon where a man can start over. What he hadn't bargained on was falling in love with the planter's daughter or finding that everything he once believed about Negroes wasn't true. Amid secrets unraveling and the hatching of a dangerous plan, Seth must become the very thing he'd spent the past four years chasing down: an outlaw.


  1. I honestly can't remember if I read Uncle Tom's Cabin or not. The stories of the slaves are both heartbreaking and uplifting. I think I admire their courage and perseverance the most.

  2. I agree, Connie. Thanks for your comments!

  3. I have read Uncle Tom's Cabin and some of the WPA accounts as well. Such incredibly heroic people. Another earlier source for slave narratives is William Still's
    The Underground Rail Road: A Record Of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c., Narrating The Hardships, Hair-breadth Escapes, And Death Struggles Of The Slaves In Their Efforts for Freedom.
    Still was the chairman and corresponding secretary of the Philadelphia branch of the Underground Railroad from 1851-1861. He collected stories of those who had successfully fled bondage. The book was first published in 1872.

  4. Thanks, Stephanie! I'll have to check it out! :D