“Bullwhip Days”: a book based on actual interviews of American slaves who share their experiences.


It’s pretty well impossible  to know what it was like to be a Black slave in America but one of the most reliable sources is probably a book: “Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remembered.” This book is a compilation of many interviews of former slaves. These interviews were carried out in the mid-1930s as part of The Federal Writers Project. The stories are upsetting but they ring true and make compelling reading. The war that many of these slaves refer to is, of course, the American Civil War in the early 1860s.

 I discovered this book only by the merest of accidents. In 1994 my late wife and I were visiting an old friend of hers in the Napa Valley, a Black lady medical doctor who had been involved in the Civil Right movement (including the Watts events in Los Angeles). While these two ladies were catching up on their news I rummaged around the well-stocked book cases and stumbled across a book that really caught my attention. On the cover there was a photo of an American slave whose back was a nightmare of criss-crossed scar tissue. The title was “Bullwhip Days.” I read a few pages and was determined to read it but it wasn’t until March, 2021 that I managed to get around to doing that.  I got the book through my local library (I suggested they order it and they did.)

“Bullwhip Days” is a compelling, disturbing book. At times it turns the stomach. How could people have treated their fellow human beings the way they did? There are many photographs of actual slaves in this book. A few look stoical but most of them look filled with despair. These faces and the stories they tell are unforgettable. If there is one book to read on slavery in America I would say that this is it.  I think it’s important to know the story and that is why I decided to assemble several pages from the book and circulate them as a blog and via Facebook. 



1   Marse Tom [Waller] was a fitty man for meanness. He just ‘bout had to beat somebody every day to satisfy his craving. He had a big whip called a bullwhip. He get mad at a nigger and stake him on the groun’ and make ‘nuther nigger hold his head down with his mouf in the dirt, and he would whip the nigger till the blood would run out and red up the groun’. We little niggers would stan’ roun’ and see it done. Then he would say to one of us, “Run to the kitchen and get some salt from Jane”—Mammy was the cook. Then he would sprinkle the salt in the cut open places, and the skin would jerk and quiver and the man would slobber and puke. Then their shirts stick to their backs for a week or more.

   My mammy had a back that was terrible bad once. I seen her trying to get her clothes off her back and I heared a woman say, “Why, Mama, what is the matter with your back? It is raw and bloody.” And she says Marse Tom done beat her with a handsaw with the teeth to her back. She died with the marks on her, with the teeth holes going crosswise her back. I axed her ‘bout it, and she said she would tell me ‘bout it sometime, but to hesh up then. When I was growed up, I axed her ‘bout it. She said she forgot just  ‘zactly how it come to be,but that Marse Tomgot mad ‘bout the cookin’ and grabbed her by the hair and drug her out the house and grabbed the saw off the tool bench and whupped her.

   One day, I am down in the hog pen riling the hogs and teasing them like any yearling boy will do, when I hear a loud agony screaming up to the house. I can’t make out who ‘tis. I’m curious and I start up to the house and I hear, “Pray, Marse Tom. Pray, Marse Tom.” But I still can’t tell who ‘tis. When I get up close I see Marse Tom got my mammy tied to a tree with her clothes pulled down and he is laying it on her with a bullwhip and the blood is running down her eyes and off her back. (p. 331-332, William Moore)

2   I don’ ‘member much ‘bout de sojers an’ de fightin’ in de War den, ‘kaze I wuzn’ much more den six years ole at de Surrender, but I do ‘member how Marse Jordan Moss shot Leonard Allen, one of his slaves. I ain’t never forgot dat.

   My mammy an’ pappy, Silo an’ Fanny Moss, belonged to Marse Jordan and Mrs. Sally Moss. Dey had ‘bout three hundred niggahs an’ mos’ of dem worked in de cotton fields.

   Marse Jordan was hard on his niggahs. He worked dem overtime an’ didn’ give dem enough to eat. Dey didn’ have good clothes either, an’ dey shoes wuz made out of wood. He had ‘bout a dozen niggahs dat didn’ do nothin’ else but make wooden shoes for de slaves. De chillun didn’ have no shoes a-tall; dey went barefooted in de snow an’ ice, same as twuz summertime. I never had no shoes on my feets ‘twell I wuz pas’ ten years ole, an’ dat wuz after dem Yankees done sets us free.

   I wuz skeered of Marse Jordan, an’ all of de grown niggahs wuz too, ‘cept Leonard an’ Burrus Allen. Dem niggahs wuzn’ skeered of nothin’. If de Debil hese’f had come an’ shook er stick at ‘em, dey’d hit him back. Leonard wuz er big black buck niggah—he wuz de bigges’ niggah I ever seed—an Brutus was near ‘bout as big, an’ dey ‘spized Marse Jordan like pizen.

   I wuz sort of skeered of Mis’ Sally, too. When Marse Jordan wuzn’ roun’ she wuz sweet an’ kind, but when he wuz roun’  she wuz er “yes, suh, yes, suh, woman. Everythin’ he told her to do she done. He made her slap Mammy one time, ‘kaze when she passes his coffee she spilled some in de saucer. Mis’ Sally hit Mammy easy, but Marse Jordan say, “Hit her, Sally. Hit de black bitch like she ‘zerve to be hit.” Den Miss Sally draw back her hand an’ hit Mammy in de face, pow. Den she wen’ back to her place at the table an’ play like she eatin’ her breakfas’. Den, when Marse Jordan leave, she come in de kitchen an’ put her arms roun’ Mammy an’ cry, and Mammy pat her on de back an’ she cry too. I loved Mis’ Sally when Marse Jordan wuzn’ roun’.

   Marse Jordan’s two sons went to de War. Dey went all dressed up in dey fightin’ clothes. Young Marse Jordan wuz jus’ like Mis’ Sally, but Marse Gregory wuz like Marse Jordan, even to de bully way he walk. Young Marse Jordan never come back from de War, but ‘twould take more den er bullet to kill Marse Gregory. He too mean to die anyhow, ‘kaze de Debil didn’ want him an’ de Lawd wouldn’t have him.

   One day Marse Gregory come home on er furlow. He think he look pretty wid his sword clankin’ an’ his boots shinin’. He wuz er colonel, lootenent, er somethin’. He wuz struttin’ ‘roun de yard showin’ off, when Leonard Allen say under his breath, “Look at dat goddamn sojer. He fightin’ to keep us niggahs from bein’ free.”

   ‘Bout dat time Marse Jordan come up. He look at Leonard an’ say, “What yo’ mumblin’ ‘bout?”

   Dat big Leonard wuzn’ skeered. He say, “I say, ‘Look at dat goddam sojer. He fightin’ to keep us niggahs from bein’ free!’”

   Marse Jordan’s face begun to swell. It turned so red dat de blood near ‘bout bust out. He turned to Pappy an’ tole him to go an’ bring him his shotgun. When Pappy come back Mis’ Sally come wid’ him. De tears wuz streamin’ down her face. She run up to Marse Jordan an’ caught his arm. Ole Marse flung her off an’ took de gun from Pappy. He leveled it on Leonard an’ tole him to pull his shirt open. Leonard opened his shirt an’ stood dere big as er black giant, sneerin’ at Ole Marse.

   Den Mis’ Sally run up again an’ stood ‘tween dat gun an’ Leonard.

Ole Marse yell to Pappy an’ tole him to take dat woman out of de way, but nobody ain’t moved to touch Mis’ Sally an’ she didn’t move neither; she jus’ stood dere facin’ Ole Marse. Den Ole Marse let down de gun. He reached over an’ slapped Mis’ Sally down, den picked up de gun an’ shot er hole in Leonard’s ches’  big as yo’ fis’. Den he took up Mis’ Sally an’ toted her in de house. (p. 78-80, Fanny Cannady)

3   My marster was mean an’ cruel. His name was Jim Rankin an’ he lived out on a plantation over in Marion County. (…) Oh, Lordy! The way us niggers was treated was awful. Marster would beat, knock, kick, kill. He done ever’thing he could ‘cept eat us. We was worked to death. We worked all Sunday, all day, all night. He whipped us till some jus’ lay down to die. It was a poor life. I knows it ain’t right to have hate in the heart, but—God Almighty—it’s hard to be forgivin’ when I think of old man Rankin.

   If one o’ his niggers done something to displease him, which was mos’ ever’ day, he’d whip him till he’d mos’ die, an’ then he’d kick him roun’ in the dust. He’s even take his gun an’, before the nigger had time to open his mouf, he’d jus’ stan’ there an’ shoot him down.

  We’d git up at dawn to go to the fiel’s. We’d take our pails o’ grub with us an’ hang ‘em up in a row by the fence. We had meat an’ pork an’ beef an’ greens to eat. Many a time when noontime come an’ we’d go to eat our vittles, the marster would come a-walkin’ through the fiel’ with ten or twelve o’ his houn’ dogs. If he looked in the pails an’ was displeased with what he seen in ‘em, he took ‘em an’ dumped ’em’ out before our very eyes an’ let the dogs grab it up. We didn’t git nothin’ to eat then till we come home late in the evenin’. After he left [just after lunch] we’d pick up pieces of the grub that the dogs left an’ eat ‘em. Hongry—hongry—we was so hungry!

   We had our separate cabins, an’ at sunset all of us would go in an’ shut the door an’ pray to the Lord that Marster Jim wouldn’ call us out.

   We never had much clothes, ‘ceptin’ what was give us by the marster or the mistis. Wintertime, we never had ‘nuf to wear nor ‘nuf to eat. We wore homespun all the time. The marster didn’ think we needed anything, but jus’ a little.

   We didn’t go to church, but Sundays we’d gather roun’ an’ listen to the mistis read a little out o’ the Bible. The marster said we didn’t need no religion an’ he finally stopped her from readin’ to us.

   When the War come, Marster was a captain of a regiment. He went away an’ stayed a year. When he come back he was even meaner than before. 

   When he come home from the War he stayed for two weeks. The night ‘fore he was a-fixin’ to leave to go back, he came out on his front porch to smoke his pipe. He was a-standin’ leanin’ up agin’ a railin’ when somebody sneaked up in the darkness an’ shot him three times. Oh, my Lotd! He died the nex’ mornin’. We never knowed who done it. I was glad they shot him down. (pp. 178-181, Charlie Moses)

4    When we wuz freed, de slaves dat wuz married all had to git license an’ be married over again. My pa quit my ma when he found dis out, an’ wouldn’t marry her over again. A heap ob ‘em quit dat way. I reckon dey felt free sho’ ‘nuf, as dey was freed from slavery an’ from marriage. I wonders, sometime’, what would happen in dis day an’ time, if everybody wuz tole dey wuz free from their marriages. Dere would be some stirrin’ ‘bout. A few ob ‘em would do jest lak my pa done. (p. 352, Primous Magee)

5. I wuz put in de fields when I wuz big ‘nuf to hoe. I’s hoed wid de field plumb full ob slaves. Hit wuz wuk, but us got some enjaiment outen hit, too. De slaves would tell tales an’ ghos’ stories an’ all ‘bout conjurin’ an’ hoodooin’. Den, dey would git to singin’, prayin’, an’ a-shoutin’. When de overseer hear ‘em, he alwa’s go make ‘em be quiet lak. You see, de white folks don’t git in de spirit. Dey don’t shout, pray, hum, an’ sing all through de services, lak us do. Dey don’t believe in a heap o’ things us niggers knows ‘bout. Dey tells us dey ain’t no ghos’, but us knows better’n dat. I’s seed ghos’ an’ haints  [haunts] all my life. I’s seed ‘em right here on dis gallery where I’s a-settin’. (p. 85, Minerva Grubbs)


The movie “Mandingo” gives a good idea of what extreme cruelty to slaves looks like.

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