Category: primary source

WPA Slave Narratives for Chicot County

Between 1936 and 1938 the Federal Writers’ Project collected over 2,000 oral histories with former slaves. While Arkansas collected more histories than any other state, no interviews were collected in Chicot County. However, six narratives taken in cities across Arkansas are by former Chicot County slaves (or their children):  Fanny JohnsonNannie MaddenJames MorganLucretia AlexanderNannie Jones, and Mattie Nelson. A seventh narrative by a former Chicot County resident, William Lattimore, describes his move from Mississippi to Arkansas.

Fanny Johnson was 76 years old in 1936 when she was interviewed at her daughter’s house in Hot Springs. She recalled she was a 5 years old slave on the Woodfork Place near Grand Lake when the Civil War started. Her parents were born in Maryland and were brought to Nashville, TN by Woodfork, who owned several plantations throughout the South. Fortunate for her family, Woodfork “didn’t believe in separating families.” The overseer on their plantation was good to them “most of the time.” She recalled “Just once did anybody on the Woodfork place get whipped” unlike at the plantation next door. There the overseer could be mean with the whip. She stated “Why you could hear the sound of the strap…the ‘niggah drivah’ would stand and hit them with a wide strap…Some they whipped so hard they had to carry them in.”

Fanny was too young to work in the fields during slavery, but she helped her grandmother take care of babies while the women work in the fields.

After the war, they were taken (presumably by Federal troops) to the The Bend, Jefferson Davis’ former plantation near Vicksburg. She later returned to Arkansas, living and working in Jefferson County and in Oklahoma. She also worked as a cook in tourist towns like Eureka Springs and Hot Springs.

First page of Fanny Johnson's WPA Interview

First page of Fanny Johnson’s WPA Interview

Nannie Madden, interviewed in West Memphis at age 69, was born in Lake Village in 1867, just after slavery. It’s not clear from her narrative, where her parents were enslaved. Her father served in the Union Army, and after the war rented a farm at Red Leaf Plantation, then managed by Isaac M. Worthington. Her mother died there in 1876 and her father died in West Memphis at another daughter’s house at age 88. She stated, “I farmed and worked all my life.” Nannie recommended Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Booker T. Washington’s Own Story of His Life and Work,and a biography, The Master Mind of a Child of Slavery–Booker T. Washington by Frederick E. Drinker.

James Morganinterviewed in Little Rock, was born in Chicot County in 1873. His father, Aaron Morgan, was brought to Chicot County as a slave by his master, Charles McDermott. Morgan believed his father and mother were brought here from Georgia and South Carolina, but the 1880 Census shows Aaron and Rosa Morgan were both born in Louisiana–where Charles McDermott was from. His mother’s first husband was sold during slavery and Aaron and Rosa met after freedom. Once free, Aaron stayed on the McDermott plantation and sharecropped. Later, according to James, Aaron bought 160 acres of government land for $1.60, and “built a house and cleared it up.”

Morgan worked 35 years on the Missouri Pacific Railroad; 22 years as a foreman. He retired in 1932 and received a pension from the government for his work on the railroad.

Lucretia Alexander, interviewed in Little Rock at age 89, was a 12 year old slave on the Rossmere Plantation in Chicot County when the Civil War began. She was born in Copiah County near Hazelhurst, Mississippi and arrived at Rossmere when she was “six or eight years old.” She remembered the plantation’s four overseers by name. The last overseer, Tom Phipps, was “mean…mean as he could be.” She recalled, “I’ve seen him take them down and whip them till the blood run out of them.” Once, he whipped her and “aimed to kill.” Protected by her mistress, Susan Chapman [Read], Phipps was run off the plantation.

Lucretia’s mother and father were both born in Virginia. Her mother, Agnes Toliver, “was treated well during slavery times”; but her father was sold five times, because he “would take nothin’.” Later, Lucretia’s mistress purchased him for $1500 without ever seeing him.

During the Civil War her mother stayed on the plantation because her children had been “refugeed…off to different places to keep them from the Yankees.” Lucretia’s brother returned in 1865, but she did not see her sister until 1869.

When freedom came they were told “You’re free as I am” by a Union soldier.  She recalled, “old colored folks…that was on sticks, throwed them sticks away and shouted.”

After the Civil War, Lucretia stayed on the Rossmere Plantation for about 4 years and was paid $12 per month, plus food and cloth. Next she worked in the fields, making more money. Around 1923, she moved to Little Rock. She stated, “I have been a widow for thirty years. I washed and ironed and plowed and hoed–everything. Now I am gittin’ so I ain’t able to do nothin’ and the Relief keeps me alive…I used to take a little boy and make ten bales of cotton. I can’t do it now. I used to be a woman in my day. I am my mother’s seventh child.”

Nannie Jones was 81 years old when interviewed at her home in Pine Bluff. Living at Dr. Gaines’ Plantation, she was only 4 years old when the Civil War started. She remembered being a cute little girl around the house…”a pet.” But when freedom came, she recalled people “jumped up and down and carried on.” Her mother was sold down river from Kentucky, but died when Jones was small. Her father likely fought for the Union Army for a short time. As an adult she worked “in the field and anywhere. I worked like man.”

Nannie Jones: “My father went to war on one side but he didn’t stay very long.”

Mattie Nelson was 72 years old when she was interviewed in Pine Bluff. She was born around 1865 during her family’s “emigration” from Texas. Her unnamed parents were enslaved by the Chapmans — Johnson and Elizabeth Chapman. The Chapmans, like many slaveholders in Arkansas trying to protect their property, took slaves to Texas in 1863. Mattie remembered “I member when I was a child mistress used to be so good to us. After surrender my parents stayed on there with the Chapmans…til they died.”

While her parents were illiterate, Mattie went to school. But still work called. Mattie began working at age six, rolling logs and cleaning up new ground.

Without her maiden name or her parents’ names, it was difficult to find more about her. However in the 1940 Census, she is still living in Pine Bluff.  The 75 year old is a widow and taking care of her grandson, Fred Burt, age 9.

William Lattimore, 78 years old when interviewed in Pine Bluff, likely only spent a few years in Chicot County. He was born in Canton, Mississippi in 1859. He remembered Yankees soldiers’ arrival in Canton during the siege of Jackson in 1863. His father joined Col Ziegler’s 52nd US Colored Infantry that year.

After the Civil War, the family moved to Vicksburg and shunned an opportunity to return to their old plantation. He remembered “Mr. Lattimore [old master] came and wanted my father to live with him…before the surrender old master whipped my father over the head with a walking stick…and I was afraid he would whip him again.”

William went to school after freedom and went until he married. It’s difficult to piece together a concise timeline. However, he moved to Arkansas, first Chicot County and then Jefferson County. He became a school director at 18 and was elected justice of the peace (probably in Jefferson County).

There were three men with the last name Lattimore in Company G of the 52nd USCI–Reuben, Hilliard, and William. In the 1930 Census, a 65 year old William Latimer [sic] of Pine Bluff lists his father’s birthplace as Virginia. According to service records, Hilliard Lattimore was born in Virginia. However, in the 1900 Census a William Latimore in Chicot County, born in Mississippi in 1852, lists his father as born in Tennessee. The William Lattimore that served was born in Davidson, Tennessee. Further research into the soliders’ pension files would lead to more information.

The full text of most of the WPA slave narratives are available on the Library of Congress’s Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.

Laura (Lollie) P. Starling (1854-1946)

Lollie Starling, ca. 1930. Photo Courtesy Margaret Hink Starling,
Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada.
Lollie Starling came to Chicot County from Kentucky after her father, William Starling, purchased the Sunnyside Plantation in 1868. In her “Memories,” Lollie describes details of the Lakeport home and the marriage of her brother, Charles, to Annie Taylor Johnson at Lakeport in October 1878. After the sale of Sunnyside to the Calhoun Land Company in 1881, the Starlings moved to Greenville, Miss. Her brother Charles and his family moved to Canada in 1908. Lollie later moved back to Kentucky writing many letters to family in Mississippi, Kentucky, and Canada.

Lakeport Selection from Memories of Laura P. Starling
The Johnson home at Lakeport, Arkansas, was really a beautiful home. Mr. & Mrs. Jonson had built it to suit themselves, soon after they were married. There was a long broad hall opening into a reception room at the back. In this room there was a lovely bay window that made it a beautiful room for entertaining. Several wedding ceremonies were performed here (Cave’s mother and father were married in this room).

[Lollie is referring to the marriage of her brother Charles Starling to Annie Taylor Johnson and their son Cave Johnson Starling (b. 1885 in Greenville)]

A very large parlor and family dining room were on the left side of the hall. Cave’s father made the punkah (swinging fly brush used over the dining room table). The parlor had beautiful brasses and a very handsome velvet carpet, Aubusson, I think–that Mrs. Johnson’s mother-in-law had used fifty years, then given it to Mrs. Johnson and she used it fifty years.

[Lollie discusses the South Parlor of the house, which is the most formal of the parlors. In this room portraits of Lydia and Lycurgus hung above the mantle (portraits were painted by William F. Cogswell in the mid-1850s). This is also one of the few references we have to floor covering in the house–possibly a French Aubusson carpet. Traditionally, floors were completely covered in antebellum and Victorian homes with carpets and floor cloths. We see evidence of carpet in many of the rooms (i.e. tack marks in the corner),as well as photographic evidence of the carpet that once went up the stairs. And, of course, we have the entire 15′ x 26′ floor cloth from the entry of the home.  

Update 12/11/12: Lollie may have remembered an Aubusson,  but  they are delicate carpets that would not be fitted to a room or tacked down.  Therefore, the tack marks in the South Parlor at Lakeport would have been for a fitted carpet such as a Wilton (cut pile) or Brussels (loop pile).  

Lollie also makes the only known reference to a “punkah” in Lakeport’s dining room. You can still see “the swinging fly brush” at many antebellum homes in Natchez. Lakeport’s punkah is gone, but evidence of its installation was found in the ceiling during restoration.]

Miss Nancy Sherrard: Lakeport Tutor

Image Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, U. Grant Miller Library, Washington and Jefferson College, Washington, PA

One of the few glimpses of life at Lakeport during the antebellum period comes from the “autobiography” of Nancy Sherrard, the private tutor for the Johnson’s children between the summer of 1860 and the spring of 1861. Sherrard, a native of the prosperous Ohio River town of Steubenville, Ohio, wrote a short autobiography around 1890 as she was nearing the end of her teaching career.1 In reference to Lakeport, she tells a few details about the Johnson family and slavery not recorded elsewhere. However, most importantly, it reveals the strain of a Northern woman living and working in the Deep South as the country descended into civil war.

Published in 1890 as part of The Sherrard Family of Steubenville, written by Nancy’s father, Robert Andrew Sherrard, and edited by her brother Thomas Johnson Sherrard. The book is long been known to historians, but can now be read more widely through Google Books and the Internet Archive.

Nancy Sherrard graduated from the Steubenville Female Seminary in 1851. In the summer of 1860, following a number of teaching engagements at schools in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, she was recommended to “Mr. Lycurgus Johnson, a wealthy planter of Lake Port, Arkansas, who wished a private instructor for his children.” Accompanying the 30 year old Miss Sherrard was Miss Martha Torrance of New Alexandria, Pennsylvania. Miss Torrance taught two children at the home of Verlinda Johnson, Lycurgus’ mother, who lived about a mile away, while Miss Sherrard taught three girls and one boy in the Lakeport home.2

At the Lakeport Plantation, Miss Sherrard reported, “there were one hundred and fifty slaves” raising “twelve hundred acres of cotton and three hundred acres of corn.” Inside the home, Sherrard noted: “in the family of Mr. Johnson there were seven or eight house-servants,” including “a well-trained dining-room servant” purchased the year before with his wife and child for $3,000.3

As the summer of 1860 turned to fall, the U.S. presidential election became the flashpoint for tension between the Republican North and the Democratic South. In November 1860, antislavery Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, was elected president infuriating the Democratic slave South. From December 1860 to February 1861, led by South Carolina, seven southern states left the Union to form the Confederate States of America. Arkansas, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee would remain in the Union for now.

Miss Sherrard’s political upbringing could not have been more different from the Johnsons. Her family was made up of die-hard Northern Republicans, while the Johnsons’ were Southern Democrats with deep political roots in Virginia, Kentucky, and now Arkansas.4 The country’s political differences and those between her and her employer led Miss Sherrard to think of leaving Lakeport. She wrote to her father on Saturday, February 16, 1861, stating, “I am meditating seriously on going home, for I do not feel satisfied to say here in the present state of the country. I do not know yet how soon, but indeed I begin to feel uncomfortable.” Miss Sherrard wrote, “People down here are strong disuionists, and blame everybody else differing from them even in slight matters.” She then described a dinner conversation in which Mr. Johnson said to her “Miss Sherrard, there are a great many good people in the South.” To which she curtly replied, “Yes…and it is a pity that they let the rascals lead them.” Later, she worried, “Now, I suppose the next thing they will think I am an Abolitionist…I suppose Mr. Johnson will think I went beyond my sphere, which is to teach his children, and not to talk politics with him, which is undoubtedly true. I wish I was at home, where I could talk without people getting angry about what I say.”5

Following Lincoln’s election, the country’s unfolding drama focused on Fort Sumter at the bay entrance to Charleston, South Carolina. Federal troops, holed up inside Fort Sumter since December 26, were attacked by Confederate forces on April 12 as the Federal troops awaited new supplies. The Civil War had begun and Confederate forces won their first battle on April 14, when the Federal troops at Fort Sumter surrendered.6

After the fall of Fort Sumter, Nancy Sherrard left Lakeport on a “Southern boat.” It stopped in Memphis after hearing Federal troops were at Cairo, Illinois. She continued her journey on the Queen of the West, a “Northern boat” bound for Cincinnati. At Randolph, Tennessee, the “Northern boat” was fired upon by “rebels.” Finally, at Cairo, Illinois, she saw the United States flag for the first time on the trip. On Tuesday, April 30, 1861, she arrived back in Steubenville, Ohio. Six days later, on May 6, Arkansas delegates to the special convention voted to secede from the Union.7

In 1874 Miss Nancy Sherrard, after a few years of teaching in Kentucky Indiana, and New York, was elected as Principal at Washington Female Seminary in Washington, Pennsylvania. She stayed in that position until in 1897. A notice of her retirement stated, Miss Sherrard “kept the school in the front rank of schools of its kind, as well as making it a financial success.”8 In 1890, Miss Sherrard reflected on her time at Lakeport and wrote, “I have always been glad that I saw the South in the days of slavery, and also had the opportunity of seeing the inside workings of Secession during that winter.”9 She died in April 1914.10

1. On Steubenville, see “Steubenville, Ohio”, Ohio History Central, July 1, 2005,

2. Nancy Sherrard quoted in Robert Andrew Sherrard, The Sherrard Family of Steubenville, Thomas Johnson Sherrard, ed. (James. B. Rodgers Printing Co: Philadelphia, 1890), 287. Martha likely taught 15 year old Robert Adams and 13 year old Linnie Adams; Robert and Linnie were the offspring of Nancy Johnson Adams, Lycurgus’ sister. Nancy likely taught Mary, Linnie, Theodore, and Annie, ages 11, 9, 7, and 5 respectively. See U.S. Census, Manuscript Returns. 1860. Schedule of Population, Louisiana Township, Chicot County, Arkansas; Crop creek Township, Jefferson County, Ohio.

4. Her father, Robert Sr., a native of Ireland, was described as a “lifelong Whig and a Republican from the day of the organization of that party.” He “voted for Abraham Lincoln and warmly endorsed his policy” and “[w]hen the War of the Rebellion broke out” he “remained a strong supporter of the Union.” Her brother, Robert Jr., served in the Ohio State Senate in 1861 as a Republican and in his 1895 obituary, he was described as a “staunch Republican, loyal to the party at every crisis.” See Thomas Johnson Sherrard in The Sherrard Family of Steubenville, 302. On Robert Sr.’s Irish nativity, see “’Death Loves a Shining Mark.’ Hon. Robert Sherrard, Jr., Passes Peacefully away this Morning,” Steubenville Daily Herald, November 15, 1895. The most prominent politician in the Johnson family was Lycurgus’ uncle, Richard Mentor Johnson, who served as Vice President from 1837-1841 under President Martin Van Buren. Three of Richard Johnson’s brothers served in the U.S. House of Representatives and another, Benjamin Johnson, became a territorial and then federal district judge in Arkansas. See DeBlack, “’A Model Man of Chicot County’: Lycurgus Johnson and Social Change,” in The Southern Elite and Social Change: Essays in Honor of Willard B. Gatewood Jr. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002), 16-17, 19.