Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Ten More Voices: A Supplement to Bearing Witness

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Ten More Voices: A Supplement to Bearing Witness

Article excerpt

IN 2003, THE UNIVERSITY OF ARKANSAS PRESS published Bearing Witness, a volume of interviews that employees of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) conducted in the 1930s with people who had been slaves in Arkansas.1 The problem the book attempted to solve was that the 176 narratives had been difficult to locate and use, being scattered through forty volumes of interviews collected by George Rawick in The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, That awkwardness was the result of the organization of the WPA collection-by the state in which an interview was conducted rather than by the state in which a narrator had lived as a slave.2 The goal in compiling and publishing Bearing Witness was simple: to identify and bring together all the WPA interviews that might shed light on Arkansas slavery.3

That turned out to be a more difficult task than originally envisioned. Where narrators had spent their years as slaves is not always clearly indicated. Moreover, sometimes a slave's experience occurred in several locations, and the narratives as finally written down by the interviewer are often ambiguous with regards to dates and places. In those cases, the narrative must be read carefully, and sometimes detective work is necessary. Given the factor of editorial fatigue, with more than two thousand ex-slave narratives to be examined, it was almost inevitable that some accounts of Arkansas slavery would be missed.

The first indication that this had occurred came with the discovery of an excellent recent study of the WPA material by University of Arkansas at Little Rock historian Carl Moneyhon.4 In the course of his analysis, Moneyhon mentioned several texts from Rawick that were narratives of Arkansas slaves but that had been omitted from Bearing Witness. Other recent works on Arkansas slavery were scrutinized for evidence of narratives that might have been missed.5 Then the Rawick volumes themselves were re-examined in the hope of identifying any further omissions, with closer reading given to the Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas collections.

The results were sobering. Ten more accounts of former Arkansas slaves were located, as well as others that mention experiences in post-emancipation Arkansas. Those ten additional narratives are offered here as an addition to the Arkansas slavery volume, in the hope that they bring the project to completion. These additional interviews will be included in subsequent editions of Bearing Witness to be published by the University of Arkansas Press.

Ashley County

Fortenberry, Judia6

Age: 75

712 Arch Street

Little Rock, Arkansas

Interviewer: Samuel S. Taylor

"I was born three miles west of Hamburg in Ashley County, Arkansas, in the year 1859, in the month of October. I don't know just what day of the month it was.

"My mother was named Indiana Simms and my father was named Burrell Simms. My father's mother was named Ony Simms, and my mother's mother was named Maria Young. I don't know what the names of their parents was.

"My mother's master was named Robert Tucker. My father's master was named Hartwell Simms. Their plantations were pretty close together, but don't know how my father and my mother got together. I guess they just happened to meet up with each other. The slaves from the two plantations were allowed to visit one another. After their marriage, the two continued to belong to different masters. Every Sunday, they would visit one another. My father used to come to visit his wife every Sunday and through the week at night.

"My mother had ten children.


"I was born in a log house with one room. It was built with a stick and dirt chimney. It had plank floors. They didn't have nothin' much in the way of furniture-homemade beds, stools, tables. We had common pans and tin plates and tin cans to use for dishes. The cabin had one window and one door.


"I have heard my mother and father tell many a story of the pateroles. …

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