Sarah Gudger was born into slavery on September 15, 1816. One hundred twenty-one years later, from her home in Asheville, she shared memories of life before and after the Civil War. The interview was conducted in 1937 as part of the Federal Writers Project. In addition to preparing state guidebooks and historical pamphlets, FWP authors gathered more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 photos of former slaves.
It seems almost incredible that Sarah Gudger was actually 121 years old at the time of her interview. However, the details of her life were corroborated by other witnesses and the historical record.
Marjorie Jones spoke with Sarah Gudger on May 5, 1937. "Aunt Sarah" as she was known, lived with distant cousins in a comfortable two-story frame house at 8 Dalton Street, north of Kenilworth in Asheville. One relative, aged 72 years, said he had known Aunt Sarah all his life and that she was old woman when he was a small boy.
Jones reported that "Aunt Sarah seemed eager to talk, and needed but little prompting."
Describing Gudger’s appearance and manner, Jones wrote the following:
Small in stature, about five feet tall, Aunt Sarah is rather rounded in face and body. Her milk-chocolate face in surmounted by short, sparse hair, almost milk white. She is somewhat deaf but understands questions asked her, responding with animation. She walks with one crutch, being lame in the right leg. On events on the long ago her mind is quite clear. Recalling the Confederate "sojers, marchin’, marchin’" to the drums, she beat a tempo on the floor with her crutch. As she described how the hands of slaves were tied before they were whipped for infractions she crossed her wrists.
Aunt Sarah spoke about her life as a slave in western North Carolina:
I wah bo’n ‘ bout two mile from Old Fo’t on de Ole Mo’ganton Road. I sho’ has had a ha’d life. Jes wok, an’ wok, an’ wok. I nebbah know nothin’ but wok….
I jes wok all de time f’om mawnin’ till late at night. I had t’ do ebbathin’ dey wah t’ do on de outside. Wok in de field, chop wood, hoe cawn, till sometime I feels lak mah back sholy break. I done ebbathin’ ‘cept split rails….
Old Marse strop us good effen we did anythin’ he didn’t lak. Sometime he get hes dandah up an’ den we dassent look roun’ at him. Else he tie yo’ hands afoah yo’ body and’ whup yo’, jes lak yo’ a mule. Lawdy, honey, I’s tuk a thousand lashins in mah day. Sometimes mah poah ole body be soah foah a week.
Old Boss he send us niggahs out in any kine ob weathah, rain o’ snow, it nebbah mattah. We had t’ go t’ de mountings, cut wood an’ drag it down t’ de house. Many de time we come in wif ouh cloes stuck t’ ouh poah ole cold bodies, but ‘twarn’t no use t’ try t’ git ‘em dry. Ef de Old Boss o’ de Ole Missie see us dey yell: "Git on out ob heah yo’ black thin’, an’ git yo’ wok outen de way!" An’ Lawdy, honey, we knowed t’ git, else we git de lash. Dey did’n cah how ole o’ how young yo’ wah, yo’ nebbah too big t’ git de lash.
De rich white folks nebbah did no wok; dey had da’kies t’ do it foah dem. In de summah we had t’ wok outdoo’s, in de wintah in de house. I had t’ ceard an’ spin till ten o’clock. Nebbah git much rest, had t’ git up at foah de nex’ mawnin’ an’ sta’t agin. Didn’ get much t’ eat, nuthah, jes a lil’ cawn bread an’ ‘lasses. Lawdy honey, yo’ caint know whut a time I had. All cold n’ hungry. No’m, I aint telling no lies. It de gospel truf. It sho is….
I nebbah sleep on a bedstead till aftah freedom, no’m till aftah freedom. Jes’ an old pile o’ rags in de conah. Hadly ‘nuf t’ keep us from freezin’. Law, chile, nobuddy knows how mean da’kies wah treated. Wy, dey wah bettah t’ de animals den t’ us’ns.
[to be continued]
Other posts on Sarah Gudger:
“Helpless Critters Going Away to Get Killed”
Sarah Gudger – The Rest of the Story
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