Maryland 190003 Pages 40-43
PHILLIP JOHNSON – AN EX-SLAVE
Ref: Phillip Johnson, R.F.D. Poolesville, Md.
The subject of this sketch is a pure blooded Negro, whose kinky hair is now white, likewise his scraggy beard. He is of medium size and somewhat stooped with age, but still active enough to plant and tend a patch of corn and the chores about his little place at Sugarland. His home is a small cabin with one or two rooms upstairs and three down, including the kitchen which is a leanto. The cabin is in great disrepair.
Phillip Johnson is above the average in intelligence, has some education and is quite well versed in the Holy Scriptures, having been for many years a Methodist preacher among his people. He uses fairly good English and freely talks in answer to questions. Without giving the questions put to him by this writer, his remarks given in the first person and as near his own idiom are as follows:
“I’ll be ninety years old next December. I dunno the day. My Missis had the colored folks ages written in a book but it was destroyed when the Confederate soldiers came through. But she had a son born two or three months younger than me and she remember that I was born in December, 1847, but she forgot the day of the month.
“I was born on the river bottom about four miles below Edward’s Ferry, on the Eight Mile Level, between Edwards’ Ferry and Seneca. I belonged to ole Doctah White. He owned a lot o’ lan down on de bottom. I dunno his first name. Everybody called him Doctah White. Yes, he was related to Doctah Elijah White. All the Whites in Montgomery County is related. Yes sah, Doctah White was good to his slaves. Yes sah, he had many slaves. I dunno how many. My Missis took me away from de bottom when I was a little boy, ‘cause de overseer he was so cruel to me. Yes sah he was mean. I promised him a killin if ever I got big enough.
“We all liked the Missis. Everybody in dem days used to ride horseback. She would come ridin her horse down to de bottom with a great big basket of biscuits. We thought they were fine. We all glad to see de Missis a comin. We always had plenty to eat, such as it was. We had coarse food but there was plenty of it.
“The white folks made our clothes for us. They made linsey for the woman and woolen cloth for de men. They gave clothes sufficient to keep em warm. The men had wool clothes with brass buttons that had shanks on em. They looked good when they were new. They had better clothes then than most of us have now.
“They raised mostly corn an oats an wheat down on de river bottom in those days. They didn’t raise tobacco. But I’ve heard say that they used to raise it long before I was born. They cut grain with cradles in dem days. They had a lot ‘o men and would slay a lot ‘o wheat in a day. It was pretty work to see four or five cradlers in a field and others following them in bundles. The first reapers that came were called Dorsey reapers. They cut the grain and bunched it. It was then bound by hand.
“When my Missis took me away from the river bottom I lived in Poolesville where the Kohlhoss home and garage is. I worked around the house and garden. I remember when the Yankee and Confederate soldiers both came to Poolesville. Capn Sam White (son of the doctor) he join the Confederate in Virginia. He come home and say he goin to take me along back with him for to serve him. But the Yankee came and he left very sudden and leave me behind. I was glad I didn’t have to go with him. I saw all that fightin around Poolesville. I used to like to watch em fightin. I saw a Yankee soldier shoot a Confederate and kill him. He raised his gun twice to shoot but he kept dodging around the house an he didn’ want to shoot when he might hit someone else. When he ran from the house he shot him.
“Yes sah, them Confederates done more things around here than the Yankees did. I remember once during the war they came to town. It was Sunday morning an I was sittin in the gallery of the ole brick Methodist church. One of them came to de door and he pointed his pistol right at that preacher’s head. The gallery had an outside stairs then. I ran to de door to go down de stairs but there was another un there point his gun and they say don’t nobody leave dis building. The others they was a cleanin up all the horses and wagons round the church. The one who was guarding de stairs, he kept a lookin to see if dey was done cleaning up de horses, and when he wasn’t watching I slip half way down de stairs, an when he turn his back I jump down and run. When he looks he jus laugh.
“My father he lived to be eighty nine. He died right here in this house and he’s buried over by the church. His name was Sam. They called my mother Willie Ann. She died when I was small. I had three brothers and one sister. My father married again and had seven or eight other children.
“I’ve had eleven children; five livin, six dead. I’ve been preaching for forty years and I have seen many souls saved. I don’t preach regular anymore but once in a while I do. I have preached in all these little churches around here. I preached six years at Sugar Loaf Mountain. The presidin elder he wants me to go there. The man that had left there jus tore that church up. I went up there one Sunday and I didn’t see anything that I could do. I think I’m not able for this. I said they needs a more experienced preacher than me. But the presidin elder keeps after me to go there and I says, well, I go for one year. Next thing it was the same thing. I stays on another year and so on for six years. When I left there that church was in pretty good shape.
“I think preaching the gospel is the greatest work in the world. But folks don’t seem to take the interest in church that they used to.”
“On Christmas morning all the slaves would go up to the porch, get the $2.50, shoes and clothes, go back to the cabins and do what they wanted.
“On New Year’s Day everybody was scared as that was the day that slaves were taken away or brought to the farm.
“You have asked about stories, I will tell you one I know. It is true.
“During the war one day some Union soldiers came to the farm looking for Rebels. There was a number of them in the woods near the landing, they had come across the river in boats. At night while the Union soldiers were at the landing, they were fired on by the Rebels. The Union soldiers went after them, killed ten, caught I think six and some were drowned in the river. Among the six was the overseer, from that night people have heard shooting and seen soldiers. One night many years after the Civil War, while visiting a friend who now lives within 500 feet from the landing where the fighting took place, there appeared some soldiers carrying a man out of the woods whom I recognized as being the overseer. He had been seen hundreds of times by other people. White people will tell you the same thing. I will tell you for sure this is true.
“You must excuse me I wanted to see some friends this evening”.
This excerpt was taken from the Born in Slavery / Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project on file with the Library of Congress. If you would like to read more slave narratives, or conduct your own independent research, feel free to use the link to the Library of Congress Born in Slavery Narratives listed below.
BORN IN SLAVERY