Fountain Hughes was born a slave in 1848 in Charlottesville, Virginia. In 1944 (or 1949) he was interviewed in Baltimore by Hermond Norwood, a representative of the Library of Congress’s Archive of Folk Song. The Federal Writer’s Project, a Depression-era program, had initiated the government’s effort to capture the memories of the, by then, very elderly former slaves. Hughes recalled not only life under slavery but also the difficulties many slaves faced in making the transition to freedom in an antagonistic white society that worked hard to impede their efforts. Conditions for the Hughes family under freedom were materially not much better than they had been under slavery. In this interview Hughes recalled how his widowed mother supported her family by binding, or contracting, her children out to work. Still, Hughes asserted, he far preferred freedom to slavery.
Norwood: Well, just tell me what your name is.
Hughes: My name is Fountain Hughes. I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. My grandfather belong to Thomas Jefferson. My grandfather was a hundred an‘ fifteen years ol’ when he died. An‘ now I am one hundred an’, an' one year old....
Norwood: You talk about how old you are Uncle Fountain. Do you, how far back do you remember?
Hughes: I remember. Well I’ll tell you, uh. Things come to me in spells, you know. I remember things, uh, more when I’m laying down than I do when I’m standing or when I’m walking around. Now in my boy days, why, uh, boys lived quite different from the way they live now. But boys wasn‘ as mean as they are now either. Boys lived to, they had a good time. The masters di, didn’ treat them bad. An‘ they was always satisfied. They never wore no shoes until they was twelve or thirteen years old. An’ now people put on shoes on babies you know, when they’re two year, when they month old. I be, I don‘ know how ol’ they are. Put shoes on babies. Jus‘ as soon as you see them out in the street they got shoes on. I tol’ a woman the other day, I said, “I never had no shoes till I was thirteen years old.” She say, “Well but you bruise your feet all up, an‘ stump your toes.” I say, “Yes, many time I’ve stump my toes, an’ blood run out them. That didn‘ make them buy me no shoes.” An’ I been, oh, oh you wore a dress like a woman till I was, I [believe] ten, twelve, thirteen years old.
Norwood: So you wore a dress.
Hughes: Yes. I didn‘ wear no pants, an’ of course didn‘ make. boys’ pants. Boys wore dresses. Now only womens wearing the dresses an‘ the boys is going with the, with the womens wearing the pants now an’ the boys wearing the dresses. Still, [laughs]
Norwood: Who did you work for Uncle Fountain when ... ?
Hughes: Who’d I work for?
Hughes: When I, you mean when I was slave?
Norwood: Yeah, when you were a slave. Who did you work for?
Hughes: Well, I belonged to, uh, B., when I was a slave. My mother belonged to B. But my, uh, but, uh, we, uh, was all slave children. An‘ after, soon after when we found out that we was free, why then we was, uh, bound out to different people. [names of people] an’all such people as that. An’ we would run away, an‘ wouldn’ stay with them. Why then we’d jus‘ go an’ stay anywhere we could. Lay out a night in underwear. We had no home, you know. We was jus‘ turned out like a lot of cattle. You know how they turn cattle out in a pasture? Well after freedom, you know, colored people didn’ have nothing. Colored people didn’have no beds when they was slaves. We always slep‘ on the floor, pallet here, and a pallet there. Jus’ like, uh, lot of, uh, wild people, we didn‘, we didn’ know nothing. Didn‘ allow you to look at no book. An’ there was some free-born colored people, why they had a little education, but there was very few of them, where we was. An‘ they all had uh, what you call, I might call it now, uh, jail centers, was jus’ the same as we was in jail. Now I couldn‘ go from here across the street, or I couldn’ go through nobody’s house out I have a note, or something from my master. An‘ if I had that pass, that was what we call a pass, if I had that pass, I could go wherever he sent me. An’ I’d have to be back, you know, when, uh. Whoever he sent me to, they, they’d give me another pass an‘ I’d bring that back so as to show how long I’d been gone. We couldn’ go out an‘ stay a hour or two hours or something like. They send you. Now, say for instance I’d go out here to S.’s place. I’d have to walk. An‘ I would have to be back maybe in a hour. Maybe they’d give me hour. I don’ know jus‘ how long they’d give me. But they’d give me a note so there wouldn’ nobody interfere with me, an‘ tell who I belong to. An’ when I come back, why I carry it to my master an‘ give that to him, that’d be all right. But I couldn’jus’ walk away like the people does now, you know. It was what they call, we were slaves. We belonged to people. They’d sell us like they sell horses an‘ cows an’ hogs an‘ all like that. Have a auction bench, an’ they’d put you on, up on the bench an‘ bid on you jus’ same as you bidding on cattle you know.
Norwood: Was that in Charlotte that you were a slave?
Norwood: Was that in Charlotte or Charlottesville?
Hughes: That was in Charlottesville.
Norwood: Charlottesville, Virginia.
Hughes: Selling women, selling men. All that. Then if they had any bad ones, they’d sell them to the nigger traders, what they call’d the nigger traders. An‘ they’d ship them down south, an’ sell them down south. But, uh, otherwise if you was a good, good person they wouldn‘ sell you. But if you was bad an’ mean an‘ they didn’ want to beat you an‘ knock you aroun’, they’d sell you what to the, what was call the nigger trader. They’d have a regular, have a sale every month, you know, at the court house. An‘ then they’d sell you, an’ get two hundred dollar, hundred dollar, five hundred dollar.
Norwood: Were you ever sold from one person to another?
Norwood: Were you ever sold?
Hughes: No, I never was sold.
Norwood: Always stayed with the same person. [Norwood and Hughes overlap]
Hughes: All, all. I was too young to sell.
Norwood: Oh I see.
Hughes: See I wasn‘ old enough during the war to sell, during the Army. And uh, my father got killed in the Army, you know. So it left us small children jus’ to live on whatever people choose to, uh, give us. I was, I was bound out for a dollar a month. An‘ my mother use’ to collect the money. Children wasn‘, couldn’ spen‘ money when I come along. In, in, in fact when I come along, young men, young men couldn’ spend no money until they was twenty-one years old. An‘ then you was twenty-one, why then you could spend your money. But if you wasn’t twenty-one, you couldn’ spen‘ no money. I couldn’ take, I couldn‘ spen’ ten cents if somebody give it to me. Cause they’d say, “Well, he might have stole it.” We all come along, you might say, we had to give an account of what you done. You couldn‘ just do things an’ walk off an‘ say I didn’ do it. You’d have to, uh, give an account of it. Now, uh, after we got freed an‘ they turned us out like cattle, we could, we didn’ have nowhere to go. An‘ we didn’ have nobody to boss us, and, uh, we didn‘ know nothing. There wasn’, wasn‘ no schools. An’ when they started a little school, why, the people that were slaves, there couldn‘ many of them go to school, cep’ they had a father an‘ a mother. An’ my father was dead, an‘ my mother was living, but she had three, four other little children, an’ she had to put them all to work for to help take care of the others. So we had, uh, we had what you call, worse than dogs has got it now. Dogs has got it now better than we had it when we come along. I know, I remember one night, I was out after I, I was free, an‘ I din’ have nowhere to go. I didn‘ have nowhere to sleep. I didn’t know what to do. My brother an’ I was together. So we knew a man that had a, a livery stable. An‘ we crep’ in that yard, an‘ got into one of the hacks of the automobile, an’ slep‘ in that hack all night long. So next morning, we could get out an’ go where we belonged. But we was afraid to go at night because we didn‘ know where to go, and didn’ know what time to go. But we had got away from there, an‘ we afraid to go back, so we crep’ in, slept in that thing all night until the next morning, an‘ we got back where we belong before the people got up. Soon as day commenced, come, break, we got out an’ commenced to go where we belong. But we never done that but the one time. After that we always, if there, if there was a way, we’d try to get back before night come. But then that was on a Sunday too, that we done that. Now, uh, when we were slaves, we couldn‘ do that, see. An’ after we got free we didn‘ know nothing to do. An’ my mother, she, then she hunted places, an‘ bound us out for a dollar a month, an’ we stay there maybe a couple of years. An‘, an’ she’d come over an‘ collect the money every month. An’ a dollar was worth more then than ten dollars is now. An‘ I, an’ the men use‘ to work for ten dollars a month, hundred an’ twenty dollars a year. Use‘ to hire that-a-way. An’, uh, now you can’t get a man for, fifty dollars a month. You paying a man now fifty dollars a month, he don' want to work for it.
Norwood: More like fifty dollars a week now-a-days.
Hughes: That’s just it exactly. He wants fifty dollars a week an‘ they ain’ got no more now than we had then. An‘ we, no more money, but course they bought more stuff an’ more property an‘ all like that. We didn’ have no property. We didn‘ have no home. We had nowhere or nothing. We didn’ have nothing only just, uh, like your cattle, we were jus‘ turned out. An’ uh, get along the best you could. Nobody to look after us. Well, we been slaves all our lives. My mother was a slave, my sisters was slaves, father was a slave.
Norwood: Who was you father a slave for Uncle Fountain?
Hughes: He was a slave for B. He belong, he belong to B.
Norwood: Didn’t he belong to Thomas Jefferson at one time?
Hughes: He didn' belong to Thomas Jefferson. My grandfather belong to Thomas Jefferson.
Norwood: Oh your grandfather did.
Hughes: Yeah. An‘, uh, my father belong to, uh, B. An’, uh, an‘ B. died during the war time because, uh, he was afraid he’d have to go to war. But, then now, you, an’ in them days you could hire a substitute to take your place. Well he couldn‘ get a substitute to take his place so he run away from home. An’ he took cold. An‘ when he come back, the war was over but he died. An’ then, uh, if he had lived, couldn‘ been no good. The Yankees just come along an’, jus‘ broke the mill open an’ hauled all the flour out in the river an‘ broke the, broke the store open an’ throwed all the meat out in the street an‘ throwed all the sugar out. An’ we, we boys would pick it up an‘ carry it an’ give it to our missus an‘ master, young masters, until we come to be, well I don’ know how ol‘. I don’ know, to tell you the truth when I think of it today, I don‘ know how I’m living. None, none of the rest of them that I know of is living. I’m the oldes’ one that I know tha’s living. But, still, I’m thankful to the Lord. Now, if, uh, if my master wanted sen‘ me, he never say, You couldn’ get a horse an‘ ride. You walk, you know, you walk. An’ you be barefooted an‘ col’. That didn‘ make no difference. You wasn’ no more than a dog to some of them in them days. You wasn‘ treated as good as they treat dogs now. But still I didn’ like to talk about it. Because it makes, makes people feel bad you know. I could say a whole lot I don‘ like to say. An’ I won’t say a whole lot more.
Norwood: Do you remember much about the Civil War?
Hughes: No, I don' remember much about it.
Norwood: You were a little young then I guess, huh.
Hughes: I, uh, I remember when the Yankees come along an‘ took all the good horses an’ took all the, throwed all the meat an‘ flour an’ sugar an‘ stuff out in the river an’ let it go down the river. An‘ they knowed the people wouldn’ have nothing to live on, but they done that. An‘ thats the reason why I don’ like to talk about it. Them people, an‘, an’ if you was cooking anything to eat in there for yourself, an‘ if they, they was hungry, they would go an’ eat it all up, an‘ we didn’ get nothing. They’d just come in an‘ drink up all your milk, milk. Jus’do as they please. Sometimes they be passing by all night long, walking, muddy, raining. Oh, they had a terrible time. Colored people tha’s free ought to be awful thankful. An’ some of them is sorry they are free now. Some of them now would rather be slaves
Norwood: Which had you rather be Uncle Fountain? [laughs]
Hughes: Me? Which I’d rather be? You know what I’d rather do? If I thought, had any idea, that I’d ever be a slave again, I’d take a gun an‘ jus’ end it all right away. Because you’re nothing but a dog. You’re not a thing but a dog. Night never comed out, you had nothing to do. Time to cut tobacco, if they want you to cut all night long out in the field, you cut. An‘ if they want you to hang all night long, you hang, hang tobacco. It didn’ matter bout you tired, being tired. You’re afraid to say you’re tired. They just, well [voice trails off]
Source: Guy Bailey, Natalie Maynor, Patricia Cukor-Avila, eds. The Emergence of Black English, Text and Commentary, (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Pub. Co., 1991), 29; 31–36.