Unruly Slaves (Fighters for Freedom)
by Ophelia Settle Egypt

     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 The following excerpt is also based on the research and is from an unpublished manuscript in the Ophelia Settle Egypt Papers at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.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 l929-30, as a member of the Staff of the Social Science Institute at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, I interviewed more than l00 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.


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August 2000