Asheville resident Sarah Gudger was 121 years old when interviewed in 1937 about her time as a slave in McDowell and Buncombe Counties. She spoke of slaves being torn away from their families by speculators. She described [presumably] the Leonid Meteor Showers of November 12-13, 1833. And she told of soldiers marching past her home during the Civil War.
We've always heard the saying, "it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop." But Aunt Sarah has a saying I've never heard before. Describing the night sky illuminated by the Leonids, she said it was so bright, "you could pick a pin up." Thank goodness someone had the vision to create the WPA Writers Project. More excerpts from her interview:
Wahn’t none o’ de slaves offen ouh plantation ebbah sold, but de ones on de othah plantation ob Marse William wah. Oh, dat was a tebble time! All de slaves be in de field, plowin’, hoein’, singin’ in de boilin’ sun. Ole Marse he cum t’ru de field wif a man call de specalater. Day walk round jes’ lookin, jes’ lookin’.
All de da’kies know whut dis mean. Day didn’ dare look up, jes’ wok right on. Den de specalater he see who he want, He talk to Old Marse, den dey slaps de han’cuffs on him an’ tak him away to de cotton country.
Oh, dem wah awful times! When de specalater wah rady to go wif de slaves, effen dey wha enny whu didn’ wanta go, he thrash em, den tie em ‘hind de waggin an’ mek em run till dey fall on de ground’, den he thrash em till dey say dey go ‘thout no trubble.
Sometime some of dem run ‘way an cum back t’ de plantation, den it wah hardah on dem den befoah. When de da’kies wen’ t’ Dinah de ole niggah mammy she say whar am sich an’ sich. None ob de othahs wanna tell huh. But when she see dem look down to de groun’ she jes’ say: "De specalater, de specalater." Den de teahs roll down huh cheeks, cause mebbe it huh son o’ husband’ an’ she nebbah see ‘em agin. Mebbe dey leaves babies t’ home, mebbe jes’ pappy an’ mammy. Oh, mah Lawdy, mah ole Boss wah mean, but he nebbah sen’ us to de cotton country….
I ‘membahs de time when mah mammy was alive, I wah a small chile, afoah dey tuk huh t’ Rims Crick. All us chillouns wah playin’ in de ya’d one night. Jes’ arunnin’ an’ aplayin’ lak chillun will. All a sudden mammy um to de do’all a’sited. "Cum in heah dis minnit," she day. "Jes look up at what is ahappenin’", and bless yo’ life, honey, de sta’s wah fallin’ jes’ lak rain. Mammy wah tebble skeered, but we chillun wa’nt afeard, no, we wa’nt a feard.
But mammy she say evah time a sta’ fall, somebuddy gonna die. Look lak lotta folks gonna die f’om de looks ob dem sta’s. Ebbathin’ wah jes’ as bright as day. Yo’ cudda pick a pin up. Yo’ know de sta’s don’ shine as bright as dey did back den. I wondah wy dey don’. Dey jes’ don’ shine as bright. Wa’nt long afoah dey took mah mammy away, and I wah lef’ alone....
Many de time we git word de Yankees comin’. We take ouh food an’ stock an’ hide it till we aho’ day’s gone. We wan’t bothered much. One day, I nebbah fo’git, we look out an’ see sojers ma’chin’; look lak de whole valley full ob dem. I thought: "Poah helpless crittahs, jes’ goin’ away t’ git kilt. – De drums wah beatin’ an’ de fifes aplayin’. Dey wah de foot comp’ny. Oh, glory, it wah a sight. Sometime dey cum home on furlough. Sometime dey git kilt afoah dey gits th’ough.
[Note: If she was born in 1816, Sarah Gudger would have been 17 years old at the time she observed the Leonid meteor showers. From space.com: … what occurred when the Leonids returned in 1833 was far beyond what anyone had ever seen or even imagined possible. For several hours over the United States there was a continual blaze of thousands and thousands of meteors at a time. One estimate was that over 240,000 meteors fell during that period, so many meteors in the sky at a time that many people were woken from their beds and stared at the sky in panic, believing the sky to be on fire. Many feared that it was the end of the world and dreaded what they would see at daybreak.]
In my research on Sarah Gudger, I have not discovered when (or if!) she died. Maybe I should ride over to 8 Dalton Street, Asheville, and knock on the door. Who knows? Aunt Sarah might still be there, with more stories and memories to share.
[The following map shows the slave population as a percentage of the total population, by county, prior to the war.]