Back to Stories

Emancipation

Katie Rowe, Age 88,  Tulsa, Oklahoma.
I never forget the day we was set free!

That morning we all go to the cotton field early, and then a house [slave] come out from old Mistress on a horse and say she want the overseer to come into town, and he leave and go in. After while the old horn blow up at the overseer’s house, and we all stop and listen, ’cause it the wrong time of day for the horn.

We start chopping again, and there go the horn again.

The lead row [slave] holler “Hold up!” And we all stop again. “We better go on in. That our horn,” he holler at the head [slave], and the head [slave] think so too, but he say he afraid we catch the devil from the overseer if we quit without him there, and the lead row man say maybe he back from town and blowing the horn himself, so we line up and go in.

When we get to the quarters we see all the old ones and the children up in the overseer’s yard, so we go on up there. The overseer setting on the end of the gallery with a paper in his hand, and when we all come up he say come and stand close to the gallery. Den he call off everybody’s name and see we all there.

Setting on the gallery in a hide-bottom chair was a man we never see before. He had on a big broad black hat like the Yankees wore but it didn’t have no yellow string on it like most the Yankees had, and he was in store clothes that wasn’t homespun or jeans, and they was black. His hair was plumb gray and so was his beard, and it come way down here on his chest, but he didn’t look like he was very old, ’cause his face was kind of flashy and healthy looking. I think we all be sold off in a bunch, and I notice some kind of smiling, and I think they sure glad of it.

The man say, “You darkies know what day dis is?” He talk kind, and smile.

We all don’t know of course, and we just stand there and grin. Pretty soon he ask again and the head man say, No, we don’t know.

“Well this the fourth day of June, and this is 1865, and I want you all to ’member the date, ’cause you always going ’member the day. Today you is free, Just like I is, and Mr. Saunders and your Mistress and all us white people,” the man say.

“I come to tell you,” he say, “and I wants to be sure you all understand, ’cause you don’t have to get up and go by the horn no more. You is your own bosses now, and you don’t have to have no passes to go and come.”

We never did have no passes, no how, but we knowed lots of other [slaves] on other plantations got them.

“I want to bless you and hope you always is happy, and tell you got all the right and life that any white people got,” the man say, and den he get on his horse and ride off.
We all just watch him go on down the road, and den we go up to Mr. Saunders and ask him what he want us to do. He just grunt and say do like we dam please, he reckon, but get off that place to do it, unless any of us wants to stay and make the crop for half of what we make.

None of us know where to go, so we all stay, and he split up the fields and show us which part we got to work in, and we go on like we was, and make the crop and get it in, but there ain’t no more horn after that day. Some the [slaves] lazy and don’t get in the field early, and they get it took away from ’em, but they plead around and get it back and work better the rest of that year.

But we all gets fooled on that first go-out! When the crop all in we don’t get half! Old Mistress sick in town, and the overseer was still on the place and he charge us half the crop for the quarters and the mules and tools and grub!
Katie Rowe
Katie Rowe
Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington