Interviewed by Ruth Thompson
"Ah never fit in de wah; no suh, ah couldn't. Mah belly's been broke! But ah sho' did want to, and ah went up to be examined, but they didn't receive me on account of mah broken stomach. But ah sho' tried, 'cause ah wanted to be free. Ah didn't like to be no slave. Dat wasn't good times."
Ricard Toler, 515 Poplar Street, century old former slave lifted a bony knee with one hnarled [sic] hand and crossed his legs, then smoothed his thick white beard. His rocking chair creaked, the flies droned, and through the open, unscreened door came the bawling of a calf from the building of a hide company across the street. A maltese kitten sauntered into the front room, which served as parlor and bedroom, and climbed complacently into his lap. In one corner a wooden bed was piled high with feather ticks, and bedecked with a crazy quilt and an number of small, brightly-colored pillows; a bureau opposite was laden to the edges with a collection of odds and ends - a one-legged alarm clock, a coal oil lamp, faded artificial flowers in a gaudy vase, a pile of newspapers. A trunk against the wall was littered with several large books (one of which was the family Bible), a stock of dusty lamp shades, a dingy sweater, and several bushel-basket lids. Several packing cases and crates, a lard can full of cracked ice, a small, round oil heating stove, and an assorted lot of chairs completed the furnishings. The one decorative spot in the room was on the wall over the bed, where hung a large framed picture of Christ in The Temple. The two rooms beyond exhibited various broken-down additions to the heterogeneous collection.
"Ah never had no good times till ah was free", the old man continued. "Ah was bo'n on Mastah Tolah's (Henry Toler) plantation down in ole V'ginia, near
[end p. 97]
"They nevah mistreated me, neithah. They's a whipping the slaves all the time, but ah run away all the time. And I jus' tell them - if they whipped me, ah'd kill 'em, and ah nevah did get a whippin'. If ah thought one was comin' to me, Ah'd hide in the woods; then they'd send aftah me and they say, 'Come, on back, - we won't whip you'. But they killed some of the niggahs, whipped 'em to death. Ah guess they killed three or fo' on Tolah's place while ah was there.
"Ah never went to school. Learned to read and write my name after ah was free in night school, but they nevah allowed us to have a book in ouah hand, and we couldn't have no money neither. If we had money we had to tu'n it ovah to ouah ownah. Chu'ch was not allowed in ouah pa't neithah. Ah go to the Meth'dist Chu'ch now, everybody ought to go. I think RELIGION MUST BE FINE, 'CAUSE GOD ALMIGHTY'S AT THE HEAD OF IT."
Toler took a small piece of ice from the lard can, popped it between his toothless gum, smacking enjoyment, swished at the swarming flies with a soiled rag handkerchief, and continued.
"Ah nevah could unnerstand about ghos'es. Nevah did see one. Lots of folks tell about seein' ghos'es, but ah nevah feared 'em. Ah was nevah raised up undah such supastitious believin's.
"We was nevah allowed no pa'ties, and when they had goin' ons at the big house, we had to clear out. Ah had to wo'k hard all the time every day in the week. Had to min' the cows and calves, and when ah got older ah had to hoe in the field. Mastah Tolah had about 500 acres, so they tell me, and he had a lot of cows and ho'ses and oxens, and he was a big fa'mer. Ah've done about evahthing in mah life, blacksmith and stone mason, ca'penter, evahthing but
[end p. 98]
"Ah stayed on the plantation during the wah, and jes' did what they tol' me. Ah was 21 then. And ah walked 50 mile to vote for Gen'l Grant at Vaughn's precinct. Ah voted fo' him in two sessions, he run twice. And ah was 21 the fust time, cause they come and got me, and say, 'Come on now. You can vote now, you is 21.' And theah now - mah age is right theah. 'Bout as close as you can git it.
"Ah was close to the battle front, and I seen all dem famous men. Seen Gen'l Lee, and Grant, and Abe Lincoln. Seen John Brown, and seen the seven men that was hung with him, but we wasn't allowed to talk to any of 'em, jes' looked on in the street. Jes' spoke, and say 'How d' do.
"But ah did talk to Lincoln, and ah tol' him ah wanted to be free, and he was a fine man, 'cause he made us all free. And ah got a ole history, it's the Sanford American History, and was published in 1784. But ah don't know where it is now, ah misplaced it. It is printed in the book, something ah said, now written by hand. And it says, 'Ah am a ole slave which has suvved fo' 21 yeahs, and ah would be quite pleased if you could help us to be free. We thank you very much. Ah trust that some day ah can do you the same privilege that you are doing for me. Ah have been a slave for many years. (Note discrepancy.)
"Aftah the wah, ah came to Cincinnati, and was married three times. Mah fust wife was Mannie. Then there was Mollie. They both died, and then ah was married Cora heah, and ah had six child'en, one girl and fo' boys. (Note discrepancy) They's two living yet; James is 70 and he is not married. And Bob's about thutty or fo'ty. Ah done lost all mah rememb'ance, too ole now. But Mollie died when he was bo'n, and he is crazy. He is out of Longview (Home for Mentally infirm) now fo' a while, and he jes' wanders around, and wo'ks a little. He ha'mless, he wouldn't hurt nobody. He ain't married
[end p. 99]
"After the wah, ah bought a fiddle, and ah was a good fiddlah. Used to be a fiddlah fo' the white girls to dance. Jes' picked it up. It was a natural gif'. Ah could still play if ah had a fiddle. Ah used to play at our hoe downs, too. Played all those ole time songs - Soldier's Joy, Jimmy Long Josey, Arkansas Traveler, and Black Eye Susie. Ah remembah the wo'ds to that one."
Smiling inwardly with pleasure as he again lived the past, the old Negro swayed and recited:
Black Eye Susie, you look so fine,
Black Eye Susie, ah think youah mine.
A wondahful time we're having now,
Oh, Black Eye Susie, ah believe that youah mine.
And away down we stomp aroun' the bush,
We'd think that we'd get back to wheah we could push
Black Eye Susie, ah think youah fine,
Black Eye Susie, Ah know youah mine.
Then, he resumed his conversational tone:
"Befo' the wah we never had no good times. They took good care of us, though. As pa'taculah with slave as with the stock - that was their money, you know. And if we claimed bein' sick, they'd give us a dose of castah oil and tu'pentine. That was the principal medicine cullud folks had to take, and sometimes salts. But nevah no whiskey - that was not allowed. And if we was real sick, they had the Doctah fo' us.
"We had very bad eatin'. Bread, meat, water. And they fed it to us in a trough, jes' like the hogs. And ah went in may [sic] shirt till I was 16, nevah had no clothes. And the flo' in ouah cabin was dirt, and at night we'd jes' take a blanket and lay down on the flo'. The dog was supe'ior to us; they would take him in the house.
"Some of the people I belonged to was in the Klu Klux Klan. Tolah had fo' girls and fo' boys. Some of those boys belonged. And I used to see them turn out. They went 'round whippin' niggahs. They get young girls and strip
[end p. 100]
"I sho' is glad I ain't no slave no moah. Ah thank God that ah lived to pas the yeahs until the day of 1937. Ah'm happy and satisfied now, and ah hopes ah see a million yeahs to come."
[end p. 101]
Source: The American Slave, Vol. 16: 97-101.
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Last revised: August 10, 1997