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Slavery at Christmas

Slavery At Christmas

I’ve been thinking about Slavery ever since I watched “12 Years a Slave” a couple of years ago and I had wondered how slaves celebrated Christmas. Then I came across “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938” which contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.

These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA).  At the conclusion of the Slave Narrative project, a set of edited transcripts was assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. In 2000-2001, with major support from the Citigroup Foundation, the Library digitized the narratives from the microfilm edition and scanned from the originals 500 photographs, including more than 200 that had never been microfilmed or made publicly available.  This online collection is a joint presentation of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs divisions of the Library of Congress.

The Volumes

The published volumes containing edited slave narratives are arranged alphabetically by the state in which the interviews took place and thereunder by the surname of the informant.  Administrative files for the project are bound at the beginning of Volume 1.  These files detail the instructions and other information supplied to field workers as well as subjects of concern to state directors of the Federal Writers’ Project.

American slaves experienced the Christmas holidays in many different ways. Joy, hope, and celebration were naturally a part of the season for many. For other slaves, these holidays conjured up visions of freedom and even the opportunity to bring about that freedom. Still others saw it as yet another burden to be endured…

The prosperity and relaxed discipline associated with Christmas often enabled slaves to interact in ways that they could not during the rest of the year. They customarily received material goods from their masters: perhaps the slave’s yearly allotment of clothing, an edible delicacy, or a present above and beyond what he or she needed to survive and work on the plantation.

For this reason, among others, slaves frequently married during the Christmas season. When Dice, a female slave in Nina Hill Robinson’s Aunt Dice, came to her master “one Christmas eve, and asked his consent to her marriage with Caesar,” her master allowed the ceremony, and a “great feast was spread.” Dice and Caesar were married in “the mistress’s own parlor . . . before the white minister.” More than any other time of year, Christmas provided slaves with the latitude and prosperity that made a formal wedding possible.

On the plantation, the transfer of Christmas gifts from master to slave was often accompanied by a curious ritual. On Christmas day, “it was always customary in those days to catch peoples Christmas gifts and they would give you something.” Slaves and children would lie in wait for those with the means to provide presents and capture them, crying ‘Christmas gift’ and refusing to release their prisoners until they received a gift in return.  This ironic annual inversion of power occasionally allowed slaves to acquire real power. Henry, a slave whose tragic life and death is recounted in Martha Griffith Browne’s Autobiography of a Female Slave, saved “Christmas gifts in money” to buy his freedom.

Some slaves saw Christmas as an opportunity to escape. They took advantage of relaxed work schedules and the holiday travels of slaveholders, who were too far away to stop them. While some slaveholders presumably treated the holiday as any other workday, numerous authors record a variety of holiday traditions, including the suspension of work for celebration and family visits. Because many slaves had spouses, children, and family who were owned by different masters and who lived on other properties, slaves often requested passes to travel and visit family during this time.

Some slaves used the passes to explain their presence on the road and delay the discovery of their escape through their masters’ expectation that they would soon return from their “family visit.” Jermain Loguen plotted a Christmas escape, stockpiling supplies and waiting for travel passes, knowing the cover of the holidays was essential for success: “Lord speed the day!–freedom begins with the holidays!”  These plans turned out to be wise, as Loguen and his companions are almost caught crossing a river into Ohio, but were left alone because the white men thought they were free men “who have been to Kentucky to spend the Holidays with their friends.”

Henry Bibb escapes slavery on Christmas 1837

Escaping Slavery on Christmas in 1837

The Documenting the American South project at the University of North Carolina tells us that Henry Bibb (1815-1854) was born in Shelby County, Kentucky. His father was state senator James Bibb, and his mother was a slave named Mildred Jackson who worked for Willard Gatewood. Henry Bibb was married twice, once before his escape to a slave named Malinda, and again after his escape to a woman named Mary Miles. In 1842, Bibb began lecturing on slavery and became a well known African American activist. In 1849 he published his autobiography,

Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave.
Henry Bibb

Henry Bibb

Bibb helped create Canada’s first black newspaper, Voice of the Fugitive a publication that worked to convince African slaves to settle in Canada. He was also the founding director of a Canadian black colonization project, the Refugee Home Society. He died in 1854.
Here are some of the stories and photographs taken as part of my own individual study
Mary Reynolds was born in slavery to the Kilpatrick family in Black River, Louisiana:
Mary Reynolds, Age 105, ex-slave

Mary Reynolds, Age 105, ex-slave

“They give all the niggers fresh meat on Christmas and a plug tobacco all round. The highes’ cotton picker gits a suit of clothes and all the women what had twins that year gits a outfittin’ of clothes for the twins and a double, warm blanket.”

A Slave’s Christmas Memories – Molly Ammond

Molly Ammond (Ammonds) ex-slave

Molly Ammond (Ammonds) ex-slave


“Us was treated fine. Our folks was quality. We had plenty somp’n t’eat, but dem slaves hadda work powerful hard though. Atter dey come home fum de fields dey was so tired dat dey go right to sleep, except when de massa had barbecues. Christmas was de big time; dere was several days to res’ an’ make merryin’…”

Charlotte Beverly was born a slave. She served Captain Pankey’s wife, in Montgomery County, Texas. She has lived most of her life within a radius of 60 miles from Houston:
Charlotte Beverly, Age about 90, ex-slave

Charlotte Beverly, Age about 90, ex-slave

“Every year they have big Christmas dinner and ham and turkey and allus feed us good. Us have Christmas party and sing songs. That was sweet music.”
Ellen Butler was born a slave to Richmond Butler, near Whiska Chitte, in the northern part of Calacasieu Parish (now a part of Beau Regard Parish), in Louisiana:
Ellen Butler, Age about 78, ex-slave

Ellen Butler, Age about 78, ex-slave

“On Christmas time they give us a meal. I ‘member that. I don’t ‘member no other holidays.”
Martha Bradley was a slave to Dr. Lucas of Mt. Meigs, Alabama, long before the War between the States:
Martha Bradley, Age 100, ex-slave

Martha Bradley, Age 100, ex-slave

“But Marster Lucas gin us big times on Christmas and July. Us’d have big dinners and all the lemonade us could drink. The dinner’d be spread out on de ground an’ all the niggers would stand roun’ and eat all dey wanted. What was lef’ us’d take it to our cabins. Nancy Lucas was de cook fer ever’body…In de winter time us’d quilt; jes’ go from one house to anudder in de quarter. Us’d weave all our ever’day clothes, but Marster Lucas’d go to Mobile ever’ July and Christmas and git our Sunday clothes, git us dresses and shoes and we’d sho be proud of ’em.”
Emma Taylor was born a slave of the Greer family, in Mississippi. She and her mother later were sold to a Texan:
Emma Taylor, Age 89, ex-slave

Emma Taylor, Age 89, ex-slave

“Sometimes de niggers danced and played de fiddle and us chillen played in de yard. We could stay up all night dem times, but had to work next day, and hardly ever stayed up all night. Dat durin’ harvest or at Christmas time.”
Hannah Crasson was born a slave on John William Walton’s plantation 4 miles from Garner and 13 miles from Raleigh, in Wake County, North Carolina:
Hannah Crasson, Age 84, ex-slave

Hannah Crasson, Age 84, ex-slave

“Dey gave us Christmas and other holidays. Den dey, de men, would go to see dere wives. Some of the men’s wives belong to other masters on other plantations. We had corn shuckin’s at night, and candy pullin’s. Sometimes we had quiltings and dances.”
Lou Williams was born in southern Maryland in 1829. She and her family were slaves of Abram and Kitty Williams, and Lou served as nursemaid to her master’s children from the age of eight until after the Civil War. She then went to Louisiana where she worked as a cook for several years before moving to San Angelo, Texas:
Lou Williams, Age 108, ex-slave

Lou Williams, Age 108, ex-slave

“We allus gits Saturday evenin’ off to wash our clothes and sometime we has dances Saturday night…We has corn shuckin’s and big suppers and on Christmas day massa buys us de present, most times shoes, ’cause we didn’t have any shoes.”
The truth is that Africans in America have a horrendous past. Slavery was, and is, one of the world’s greatest injustices. Nothing can ever recover the lives needlessly lost or return a people to their pride or their homeland; nothing will ever fully make up for slavery.
“nothing can be done by any government on this earth to restore the health, heart, mind and souls of Blacks that were damaged and destroyed as the direct result of slavery. The best that can be sought from external powers is justice, under the law, and a measure of equity.” Cedric Muhammed [1]
As a photographer I look through the old photographs and every single photograph is in portrait mode, and the slaves are all dressed in their sunday best or in domestic wear. I read the narratives and their is a sense of proudness, even the language is colourful.
Nothing can be done to repair the consequences of slavery. Therefore, demands for slavery reparations seem to disguise a much greater need– the need of African-Americans to be recognized as being equal and worthy.
Photos & quotes from The Slave Narratives, a collection of over 20,000 pages of typewritten interviews with more than 3,500 former slaves, collected between 1929-39. Those interviewed ranged in age from 1 to 50 at the time of emancipation in 1865; more than 2/3 were over 80 when they were interviewed.
The obvious problem is the language as reported by the interviewers. The Library of Congress explains on their website, “The narratives usually involve some attempt by the interviewers to reproduce in writing the spoken language of those interviewed.”Photos & quotes from The Slave Narratives, a collection of over 20,000 pages of typewritten interviews with more than 3,500 former slaves, collected between 1929-39.
Those interviewed ranged in age from 1 to 50 at the time of emancipation in 1865; more than 2/3 were over 80 when they were interviewed. The obvious problem is the language as reported by the interviewers. The Library of Congress explains on their website, “The narratives usually involve some attempt by the interviewers to reproduce in writing the spoken language of those interviewed.”
[1] Stanton, Lucia.  Slavery at Monticello. Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1996.
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