Albert, Octavia V. Rogers
The House of Bondage
UNCLE STEPHEN JORDON.
Uncle Stephen sold with a calf--A sheriff's sale in slave-days--He is made to leave his wife and children, and is given another by his master--He does not want the new one.
ONE of the most interesting persons I ever conversed with about his history as a slave was Uncle Stephen Jordon. I had heard so much of his remarkable career as a slave that I made up my mind that the very next time I met him I would get him to give me a sort of a sketch of his life as a slave. So one day, as I sat on my front gallery, when he was about to pass my house, I called him in. Said I:
"Uncle Stephen, I've heard so much of your remarkable experience as a slave that I thought the very next chance I got I would ask you to relate to me the history of your slave-life. Will you not favor me by so doing? I've heard Aunt Charlotte's, Aunt Lorendo's, Uncle
102John's and many others; but I've been told so much about your history that I have long craved to have you recite it yourself."
"Well, madam," said he, "I assure you that my history has been a wonderful one. I tell you, my dear child, nobody but God knows the trouble we poor black folks had to undergo in slave-time. My first old master was a mighty good man, and my mistress used to love me like her own children. In fact, my old master was my own father; but, of course, the thing was kept a sort of a secret, although every body knew it. My mother was one of the house servants, and I was raised about the white folks' house. Indeed, after I was old enough to be weaned old mistress had me to sleep in a couch with her own children in her own room, until I got to be a great big boy. The children and I used to play together, and after they began to go to school I used to go with them to carry their books and lunch, and they taught me every lesson they learned, so that when I was about fourteen or fifteen years old I could read and write as well as any of them. But I tell you, child, this thing did not last forever. Somehow or other old master
103got broke, and his big plantation and all his slaves were seized and sold for debts. This was in the parish of--, in the State of Louisiana. I can never forget the day of that sale. I had never seen an auction sale before, although I had often heard of it. The sale had been widely advertised; and on that day rich planters from all along the coast and some merchants and others from New Orleans, who wanted house servants or other help for their stores, were there in large numbers. As soon as every thing was ready, exactly at twelve o'clock--I remember it as well as if it was yesterday--the drum began to tap and everybody followed it to the old sugar-house shed, where the sale was to take place. When every body had gathered, the slaves, numbering about two hundred and fifty head, counting men, women, and children, were all put together on one side; and all the wagons, teams, horses, cows, calves, and other cattle on another; and the buyers were all in front of the auction-block. So soon as everything was ready the sheriff got on the old sugar-house cane-carrier and began the sale. He first read from a newspaper the decree of the court under which the sale was to
104take place; and then he described the property to be sold, including the plantation, wagons, mules, cattle, and all the slaves. After he had sold the plantation, wagons, mules, horses, and cattle he began to sell the slaves. Some were bought by neighboring planters, some by the merchants and others that had come from New Orleans, and others were bought by negro traders to be placed in the market and sold again. My mother was bought by one of the New Orleans merchants; but I was bought by a negro trader. My old mistress was sorry to part with me and a little pet calf she had raised around the high house. So she had us kept until the last to see if she could not keep us; but old master's debts could not be met after every thing else had been sold, so the calf and I had to be sold. The negro trader bought me and the calf together for five hundred and thirty dollars. Next day all of us who had been sold to buyers living in and along the coast toward New Orleans were shipped on a steam-boat going that way. My mother was on that boat. That night we reached New Orleans. Mother was taken to her new owner's house to be a
105house servant, and I was taken to the arcade, or negro traders' yard. From that day until peace was declared after the war I never laid my eyes on my dear mother; that was nearly twenty years. I tell you, people were miserable in that old slave-pen. Every day buyers came and examined such slaves as they desired to buy. They used to make them open their mouths so that they could examine their teeth; and they used to strip them naked, from head to foot, to see whether they were perfectly sound. And this they did to women as well as men. I tell you, my dear child, it used to seem to me so brutal to see poor women treated in that way by brutal and heartless men. I declare, child, I can't understand it, although I've been right in it. When they would put them naked that way they used to switch them on the legs to make them jump around so that buyers could see how supple they were."
"I declare, Uncle Stephen, your story makes me shudder."
"It was so, just as I tell you; but I did not stay long in the negro traders' yard. I was sold soon after that to a man that lived only a
106few miles from the old place where I was raised and sold from when mother and I was separated. My new master was a mighty mean man, and would not allow any of his slaves to go anywhere. He notified all the 'poor 'Cadien patrollers' to whip his slaves whenever they caught any of them off the place."
"Who were these 'Cadien patrollers, Uncle Stephen?"
"Why, child, they were the meanest things in creation; they were poor, low down white folks, that descended from a French and Spanish mixture. They had no slaves themselves, and so they just took pleasure in patrolling the public roads so as to get to whip somebody else's slaves that happened to be out without a pass."
"I had often heard that before; but I just asked you to see whether what I had heard of them was true."
"It is just so, child. They were a poor, ignorant set that was just as mean as they were poor and ignorant. The only advantage they had over the negroes was that they were white, that's all. Well, as I was going to tell you, master would not allow his slaves to go
107off the place. In order to keep them on the place he used to give them wives right on the place. He would not allow his slaves to take wives that did not belong to his plantation. Whenever he thought one of his women needed a wife or one of his women needed a husband he would choose them and put them together. If he did not own them he would go and buy a wife or a husband for those that he thought were old enough and needed them. He would never allow the men to be single after they were eighteen, nor the women after they were fifteen. I remember one day, when he had returned from town with about twenty-five heads of slaves, he called out all those who had no wives or husbands on the place. Said he, 'Well, boys, I've gotten a fine set of girls for you, and I am going to put you all together; likewise you, girls, I've got these fine boys, and I am going to put you all together, so that there will be no reason for any of you to have wives and husbands off the place. That old practice has got to stop;' so then he gave each one his wife or husband; he chose them out himself."
"Did he give you one, too, Uncle Stephen?"
"Why, yes, child, he gave me mine, too."
"What did you say?"
"Well, what could I say, but take her and go along? But I tell you, child, there was great sorrow on the place that day. Many of us had wives or husbands on neighboring plantations; I myself had my wife on another plantation. The woman my master gave me had a husband on another plantation. Every thing was mixed up. My other wife had two children for me, but the woman master gave me had no children. We were put in the same cabin, but both of us cried, me for my old wife and she for her old husband. As I could read and write I used to write out passes for myself, so I could go and see my old wife; and I wrote passes for the other men on the place, so they could go and see their wives that lived off the place."