“Henrietta King”; an excerpt from Weevils in the Wheat (1976)


In this excerpt from Weevils in the Wheat (1976), a former slave, Henrietta King of West Point, Virginia (b. 1843), tells an interviewer about the disfigurement she suffered at the hands of her former mistress. Weevils in the Wheat, edited by Charles L. Perdue Jr., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, collects all the interviews of former Virginia slaves conducted during the Great Depression by the Virginia Writers’ Project. Many of the interviews, including King’s, were published in The Negro in Virginia (1940). This interview, along with other Virginia Writers Project interviews, offer a composite portrait of interviewees’ self-styled personal stories. Interviewers’ interests, lived experiences, and editing choices, as well as their social relations and expectations shaped their relationship and conversation with the interviewees. Although the interviews aren’t unmediated autobiographies, they are no less authentic and are just as fruitful a source for reconstructing historical experience.



An’ dey was jes’ as bad here ’bouts. Dere was uh young woman named Lucy lived on de nex’ plantation dat was in chile birth an’ in de moanin’s was so sick she couldn’t go tuh de field. Well, dey thought dat huh time was way off an’ dat she was jes’ stallin’ so as tuh git outa wukkin’. Fin’lly de overseer come tuh huh cabin one moanin’ when she don’ line up wid de other field niggers an’ he dragged huh out. He laid huh ‘cross uh big tebaccy barrel an’ he tuk his rawhide an’ whupt huh somepin terrible. Well suh, dat woman dragged huhse’f back tuh de cabin an’ de nex day she give birth tuh uh baby girl. An’ dis ain’t no lie, ’cause ah seed et, dat chile’s back was streaked wid raid marks all criss-cross lak. De nex’ day Lucy died.

Mary was what de slaves called a “clabber-colored” gal wid long black hair. Neither Josephine nor Missus Octavia liked her ’cause she was better lookin’ dan either of dem. One day when Miss Josephine was in her room a-primpin’ an’ tryin’ to make herself look purty, her feller come, so she sent Mary down to light a candle in de front room. Mary took de taper in to light de candle an’ dis young spark of Miss Josephine’s thought it was some white gal.

“Won’t you set down,” he said to Mary, gettin’ to his feet. Mary ain’t said nothin’, only light de candle an’ hurry back upstairs. But Miss Josephine had heard it, an’ she got so furious she wouldn’t come down stairs at all. De nex’ day she made Marsa take Mary to Richmond, an’ dey say he hired her out or sol’ her.

See dis face? See dis mouf all twist over here so’s I can’t shet it? See dat eye? All raid, ain’t it? Been dat way fo’ eighty-some years now. Guess it gonna stay dat way tell I die. Well, ole Missus made dis face dis way.

Wanta know ’bout slave days, do you? Well, set on dat chair. I’ll tell you what slave days was like. Marsa was a well-meanin’ man, but ole Missus was a common dog. Was twenty-some o’ us slaves, an’ dat was one house where de men workin’ in de fiel’ git mo’ to eat den de house servants. In de house ole Missus was so stingy-mean dat she didn’t put enough on de table to feed a swaller.

— page 191 —

Well, here’s how it happened. She put a piece of candy on her washstan’ one day. I was ’bout eight or nine years ole, an’ it was my task to empty de slop ev’y mornin’. I seed dat candy layin’ dere, an’ I was hungry. Ain’t had a father workin’ in de fiel’ like some of de chillun to bring me eats—had jes’ little pieces of scrap-back each mornin’ throwed at me from de kitchen. I seed dat peppermint stick layin’ dere, an’ I ain’t dared go near it ’cause I knew ole Missus jus’ waitin’ for me to take it. Den one mornin’ I so hungry dat I cain’t resist. I went straight in dere an’ grab dat stick of candy an’ stuffed it in my mouf an’ chew it down so quick so ole Missus never fin’ me wid it.

Nex’ mornin’ ole Missus say:

“Henrietta, you take dat piece o’ candy out my room?” “No mam, ain’t seed no candy.” “Chile, you lyin’ to me. You took dat candy.” “Deed, Missus, I tel de truf. Ain’t seed no candy.” “You lyin’ an I’m gonna whup you. Come here.” “Please, Missus, please don’t whup me. I ain’t seed no candy. I ain’t took it.” Well, she got her rawhide down from de nail by de fire place, an’ she grabbed me by de arm an’ she try to turn me ‘cross her knees whilst she set in de rocker so’s she could hol’ me. I twisted an’ turned till finally she called her daughter. De gal come an’ took dat strap like her mother tole her an’ commence to lay it on real hard whilst Missus holt me. I twisted ‘way so dere warn’t no chance o’ her gittin’ in no solid lick. Den ole Missus lif’ me up by de legs, an’ she stuck my haid under de bottom of her rocker, an’ she rock forward so’s to hol’ my haid an’ whup me some mo’. I guess dey must of whupped me near a hour wid dat rocker leg a-pressin’ down on my haid.

Nex’ thing I knew de ole Doctor was dere, an’ I was lyin’ on my pallet in de hall, an’ he was a-pushin’ an’ diggin’ at my face, but he couldn’t do nothin’ at all wid it. Seem like dat rocker pressin’ on my young bones had crushed ’em all into soft pulp. De nex’ day I couldn’ open my mouf an’ I feel it an’ dey warn’t no bone in de lef’ side at all. An’ my mouf kep’ a-slippin’ over to de right side an’ I couldn’t chaw nothing’—only drink milk. Well, ole Missus musta got kinda sorry ’cause she gits de doctor to come regular an’ pry at my mouf. He git it arterwhile so’s it open an’ I could move my lips, but it kep’ movin’ over to de right, an’ he couldn’t stop dat. Arter a while it was over jes’ whar it is now. An’ I ain’t never growed no mo’ teef on dat side. Ain’t never been able to chaw nothin’ good since. Don’t even ‘member what it is to chaw. Been eatin’ liquid, stews, an’ soup ever since dat day, an’ dat was eighty-six years ago.

Here, put yo han’ on my face—right here on dis lef’ cheek—dat’s what slave days was like. It made me so I been goin’ roun’ lookin’ like a false face

— page 192 —

all my life. What chilluns laugh at an’ babies gits to cryin’ at when dey see me. ‘Course, I don’t min’ it no mo’. I been like dis so long now dat I don’ never think on it, ‘ceptin’ when I see someone starin’ hard an’ wonderin’ what debbil got in an’ made me born dis way. An’ it was a debbil dat done it—a she-debbil what’s burnin’ an’ twistin’ in hell. She never would bother me much arter dat. Maybe it was ’cause Marsa raised such a rumpus ’cause of what she done. Never did beat me again. Used to see her sometime lookin’ at me whilst I was dustin’ or sweepin’. Never did say nothin’, jus’ set there lookin’ widdout knowin’ I knew it. Guess she got tired of havin’ me round. When I got ’bout thirteen years ole she an’ Marsa give me to Marsa’s cousin. Dey was good; all I had to do was mind de chillun. Was wid dem when freedom come an’ dey let me stay on dere same as befo’, ‘ceptin’ dey give me money each month. Stayed wid dem ’till I got married. Soon arter I got married, I heard dat ole Missus had died. Didn’t make me drap no tears.

She [ole Missus] got relatives livin’ here in West Point now. Dey all know me an’ know how come I look dis way. Met one of dem—Missus’ granddaughter, I reckon—not long ago. She crossed de street to de other side an’ made b’lieve she didn’t see me. But it don’ bother me none. She’ll be wid ole Missus one o’ dese days.

Around this time, ex-slave Henrietta King tells of the horrific disfigurement she suffered at the hands of her former mistress.
APA Citation:
King, Henrietta. “Henrietta King”; an excerpt from Weevils in the Wheat (1976). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
King, Henrietta. "“Henrietta King”; an excerpt from Weevils in the Wheat (1976)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, August 18
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