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Unruly Slaves (Fighters for Freedom)

Unruly Slaves (Fighters for Freedom)

by Ophelia Settle Egypt

Introduction: Ophelia Settle Egypt (1903-1984) was a sociologist, social worker, educator, and writer. In the 1930s, she helped Dr. Charles S. Johnson to interview 100 former slaves in West Tennessee. The research was the basis of the 1968 publication Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Accounts of Negro Ex-Slaves, as well as several articles. The following excerpt is also based on the research and is from an unpublished manuscript in the Ophelia Settle Egypt Papers at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.

In addition to the newspapers, biographies and autobiographies among which is the story of Harriet Tubman, the famous conductor of the Underground Railroad, there is an untapped source of unwritten history – the story of slavery as told by those who lived through it to experience the freedom about which many of them had dreamed. Most of these ex-slaves have now passed irrevocably into history, but they left behind a vivid picture of life in bondage as they remembered it. Granted that there is a high degree of subjectivity in the remembered material, there is historical value in seeing slavery through the eyes of the slave.


     During 1929-30, as a member of the Staff of the Social Science Institute at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, I interviewed more than 100 ex-slaves living for the most part in Tennessee and Kentucky. The oldest of these men and women had been exposed to slavery for 46 years while the youngest was only eight years old when the Civil War ended. Their intimate personal stories reveal attitudes and patterns of behavior about all aspects of plantation life. However, the area selected for emphasis here is that dealing with the slaves who refused to fit themselves into the role required of them.

This group of ex-slaves knew personally fifty slaves who “wouldn’t take a whippin.” Thirty-five of these ran away in protest, often after a fight with an overseer; nine fought back and succeeded in thrashing the overseer or master; three others killed the overseer and one slave pulled his pursuer into the river to drown with him. Another committed suicide by jumping into a vat of melting iron because he was about to be caught and whipped.

A woman who was about to be sold away from her two children because she “wouldn’t be whipped” killed her children and herself on the eve of the pending separation.  Another woman threatened to commit suicide because she had been whipped severely; after climbing down into a well, she refused to let herself be drawn up until the master promised not to whip her again. One master warned his overseer not to attempt to whip a slave called Henry Halfacre. When he tried, Henry knocked him unconscious. He was sold but “they sneaked him back again when the overseer was changed.” In one case an overseer was killed in an unpremeditated group project, according to a Franklin, Tennessee ex-slave who at that time was old enough to be a regular field hand:

I remember during slavery a bunch of slaves were piling leaves up and burning them, and the old overseer was standing with his back to the big fire with a big whip in his hand. Don’t you know they knocked him over in that fire and burned that old white man to death! Nobody never did know what happened to him; they just burnt him up.

An old man who realized that resistance of any kind failed to fit into the usual picture of slavery, added a statement which throws some light on how the runaway slaves managed to exist.

It is a remarkable thing to tell you, some
people can’t see it, but I am going to tell 
you, you can believe it or not but it’s the
truth; some colored people at that [time]
wouldn’t be whipped by masters. They would run away and hide in the woods, come home at nights and get something to eat and out he would go again. Them times they called them “runaway niggers”. Some of them stayed away until after the war was over.

These people who preferred danger, death or severe punishment to conditions on the plantation are mentioned much too seldom by writers dealing with the slave regime. It would seem that they comprised a larger element in the slave population than is usually supposed.

Sometimes the slave’s running away was in protest against too much work, brutal whippings or injustice on the part of a master or a person to whom he had been hired. If the runaway was a good worker, he often had the sympathies of his master if he was mistreated as a hired hand. Some masters would go so far as to hide such a slave when he came to them because according to Tennessee law, the master could still collect the wages of the slave for the period of time named in the contract. Again, the master might send word to a slave, who had left him because of a particular grievance, that he had nothing to fear and might return to him without punishment. There were also the slaves who returned of their own accord; sometimes because they were tired of the woods, sometimes because they were literally starving but most frequently because of fear of being caught. However, due largely to the activities of the underground railway, slaves often succeeded in effecting a permanent escape to the free states. In the collected documents, one finds examples of all these types of escape from the slave situation. Sometimes they were temporary, sometimes permanent, but always real and usually fraught with grave dangers.

 How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Egypt, O.S. (2000). Unruly slaves (fighters for freedom). The Electronic Journal, Howard University Archives Net. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=10964.







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