“Interview of Mrs. Fannie Berry” (February 26, 1937)


Fannie Berry, a woman who was born into slavery, tells an interviewer from the Virginia Writers Project about her life on February 26, 1937. Some of her major memories include the rebellions of Nat Turner and John Brown, the Civil War, and life with her enslaver Mrs. Sarah Ann. The editors of Weevils in the Wheat noted that Berry was “a prolific tale teller,” and that in the source material used for compiling the collection there were sometimes discrepancies between two different versions of a similar anecdote attributed to Berry. The editors of Weevils in the Wheat inserted comments in this transcription. Their bracketed comments have been included below. 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.



I don’t know when I was born honey, but I can recollect when de first comet come an’ dat was a long, long time before I was set free. My white folks done a whole lot of talkin’ ’bout dat comet. Dey call it hell’s comet an’ I think, yes, dey said, “Dis thing shoots ‘cross God’s sky.” You smoke broken pieces of glass, de chillun did, to see it good. I ‘member I was scared when missus called me to look at it.

Yes, den I was a girl ’bout ten or twelve years old ‘an den, at dat time, dey started hiring me out.

I blongst to a man by the name of George Abbott up in Appomattox County, mongst de mountains. He had a great big farm an’, man sir, we did work it. Oh Lordy, Lordy, dem days was days!

When we went to church, Bob and Tom would hitch marse’s steers to wagons and put planks f’om side to side fer seats, ha, ha. You know how slow steer travels Miss Sue. Member all de white folks were up in de wagon an’ we

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niggers all walked behind dis wagon, but some of slaves got ‘mission to go through de woods.

Sometimes a storm would come up an’ we ran under trees fer shelter. Often de ole creeks would rise so we couldn’t git back home ’til in de night when de rain stopped. An’ do you know sometimes it was so dark you couldn’t see nothing—not even yo’ han’ b’fo you? Den allus had a piece of lightwood an’ would light it an’ go through de woods. Always, no matter how late we slaves come in, mistress was on look out an’ would let us in.

Gwine tell you dis little tale Miss Sue. Missus, you know, was very good to us. Ha, ha, ha, an’ dis happen.

One day a storm was comin’ up and marster sen’ me five miles to get him a drink of whiskey from missus’ father’s house—’member, missus’ daddy ‘stilled whiskey. When I got dar it was pouring rain. Well, ol’ marse poured dis tickler full fer my young marster and sed, “Run along gal.” Child, it poured, I mean, an’ I didn’t have on but one piece. I didn’t know what to do so I took off dat and hung it ‘cross my shoulders an’ kep’ goin’. Water came up to my waist in ditches and places in de road.

Mother had tol’ me not to go under trees when ’twas lightning but to stay in de middle of de road. When I got to de bottom of hanted woods I saw dar wuz a gra’ big white thing. De closer I got to it de mo’ scared I was an’ child, my hair stood on my head. Guess, Miss Sue, what was dat? Ha, ha, ha. An’ lo an’ behold it wuz mother, coming to meet me, bringing something to put ’round me. Honey, I never will fo’git dat day.

When I got home ol’ missus had me rubbed down wid warm grease. Sallie an’ Jane, ol’ gals, rubbed me ’til I felt warm. Den my mistress took an’ gimme a good drink of whiskey and threw me over in bed behin’ her. I heard missus call mother, “Pliny, how is the little nigger? I hope she doesn’t get sick.” Do you know, I slept all night an’ didn’t catch cold? Oh I wuz some kinda tough!

I came to Petersburg, the first year of the Civil War. Den de comet had done bin here an’ I wuz up in my teens. As ol’ folks use to tell us, “You ain’t got no business knowing yo’ age.” “Go away from here,” my mother use to tell us when we asked ’bout our age. “Lemme be. All I know,” she would say, “you are ol’ enough to smell yourself.” Ha, ha. Baby! Is you writing dat down?

We had two dresses a year dat the white folks give us. Would wear dem all day. You know, dey got dirty an’ at night, setch another washing an’ hanging in front of the big fire-place. In dem days you had big fire places an’ you would pile logs on an’ fire blaze and burn so hot ’til us slaves had to set bac’ in de middle of room.

Now, you want to know how slaves were sold. Um, um, um, sad, sad, times.

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Slaves were sold off of blacks, rasselled [raffled?] off. Some would bring as much as a thousand dollars. A’nt Ella wuz sold for one-thousand dollars and missus bought her. She, you know, was mother’s sister.

I know’d an’ ol’ white man who had one hundred head of slaves an’ he sold ’em. Dis is the way he did his slaves.

There was young gals an’ dey were marched down to the train—baby, baby! I can recollect it—a terrible time too, it wuz. Dar was a great crying and carrying on mongst the slaves who had been sold. Two or three of dem gals had young babies taking with ’em. Poor little things. As soon as dey got on de train dis ol’ new master had train stopped an’ made dem poor gal mothers take babies off and laid dem precious things on de groun’ and left dem behind to live or die.

When babies were left dat way dey didn’t b’longst to nobody an’ some po’ white man would take dem an’ raise dem up as his slaves and make ’em work on his plantation an’ if he wanted to, would sell ’em. On de other han’ master who bought de mothers didn’t want gals to be bothered wid dese chillun ’cause he had his cottonfields fer new slaves to work. Child, it makes me shudder when I hear talk of dat cotton country. I ain’t never seen dar an’ I don’t wanta!

Out of dis passel of one hundred slaves one slave stayed behind ’cause a little white gal cried and bellowed so after Minnie—Minnie had been her nurse.

Have mercy, Jesus, I pray! Do you know, God done whipped some of dem mean devils an’ given ’em some of dey own medecine?

Now I’m gwine tell you dis an’ stop. Ain’t you tired of hearing dis stuff? Ha, ha, ha! An I can tell you I’m telling you true tales. Is de tale got any har on it, honey?

There was a slaved named Daphne. Her mother died an’ her mother’s mistress kept and raised her ’til she wuz a good size girl. Daphne’s father remarried an’ he went to git dis chil’ from de white folks. You see Daphne knew no other parents but dese two white folks. Peter Plunkett, her real father, wanted his child. He went to the house and got it. The gal didn’t know him. She undertook to run away from him an’ he whipped her. And what do you rekon? Ol’ marster and mistess pitched in on him and frailed him. De colored people took sides wid de white folks an’ de case wuz carried to court. At de trial I wuz right dar in de front row of de balcony. Dey had de white mother and father standing on one side of de room and dis child’s own father and step-mother on t’other side. Ol’ judge told Daphne to go to her mother and father and bless my soul if she didn’t run right up to dem ole white folks.

Ha, ha, ha! One time, Miss Sue, dis was right funny.

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There wuz an’ ol’ lady patching a quilt an’ de paddyrollers wuz looking fo’ a slave name John. John wuz dar funnin’ an’ carrying on. All at once we heerd a rap on de door. John took an’ runned between Mamy Lou’s legs. She hid him by spreading quilt across her lap and kept on sewin’ an’, do you kno’, dem pattyrollers never found him?

Poor A’nt Nellie! De pattyrollers whipped her one day. She took an went up in the barn—hid in de hay. When night come she crawled out an’ went out in the woods an’ climbed top of a hill an’ rolled down. We missed her but didn’t think de gal wuz gwine kill herself like she had tol’ me day befo’: “Fannie, I don’ had my las’ whippin’. I’m gwine to God.” The bread whar her old mistress had don’ give her wasn’t never been touched an’ was found beside her. The buzzards had carried poor Nellie’s head down de woods an’ picked her eyes out.

You asked something ’bout runaway slaves. Well, dar wuz a gal in our flock named Rachel an’ I loved dat gal. You know de white ‘oman dat I wuz hired out to had Rachel an’ me to sell pies. While we were selling at de train a little white boy came along and asked, “Wasn’t dat mammy’s Rachel?” but the other boy who was with him said, “No, because Rachel was dead a long time ago.” I called Rachel an’ told her some one wanted to see her and when she saw him she recognized him at once an’ said, “Howdy do, mars Tommy.” Marse Tom slipped ‘roun and told me to bring her down and put her on de train. Oh how he did beg me to get de gal fo’ him. He said he had promised to bring my mother a present and Rachel would be jus’ de present she would want. You kno’, I was afraid to bring her. I sent her to get some potatoes on t’other said of train an’, after train gone, a slave told me her master grabbed her and pulled her in de train window. All of us looked and looked and called every which way and no Rachel to be found.

Rachel was bought from Negro traders by Ol’ Bill Duffey—Ol’ dog! I hate his name! Bill Duffey said when he got her again she would never run away no more. See? He didn’t know she was stolen away by her young master. These two boys carried her to de mistess that she belonged to before she was bought. Bill Duffey said if he got her back he would beat her so she’d never leave again but he didn’t, ’cause she wuz taken back to her mistess.

There was a settlement called Umbler in Appomattox. This, honey, wuz a Negro settlement. Dem people wasn’t never slaves. They would hire dem selves to work for white folks but dey always went to dere own homes at nighttime. But ol’ sis’ Polly Monroe had a husband who was a free man. She always kept him locked up in her basement during de day time. If de white

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folks had caught him dey was going to kill him, an’ her too for keeping him dar.

Nat Turner

Back ‘fore the sixties I can remember my mistress, Miss Sara Ann, coming to de window an’ hollering, “De niggers is arisin’, De niggers is arisin’, De niggers is killin’ all de white folks—killin’ all de babies in de cradle!” It must been Nat Turner’s Insurrection which wuz some time ‘fo’ de breakin’ of de Civil War. I wuz waitin’ on table in dinin’ room an’ dis day dey had finished eatin’ early an’ I wuz cleaning off table. Don’t you know? Must have been a good size gal. [If this tale refers to the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831, then Fannie Berry would have been born about 1823!]

John Brown

Yes, I ‘member something ’bout him too. I know my master came home and said, “On his way to de gallows Ole John stopped an’ kissed a little nigger child.” How com’ I don’t ‘member? Don’t tell me I don’t ’cause I do! I don’t care if it’s done bin a thousand years. I know what marster said and it is as fresh as it wuz dat dey in my mind. Dis is de song I he’rd my master sing:

Old John Brown came to Harpers Ferry Town,

Purpose to raise an insurrection,

Old Governor Wise put the specks upon his eyes,

And showed him the happy land of Canaan.



My master tole us dat de niggers started the railroad and that a nigger looking at a boiling coffee pot on a stove one day got the idea dat he could cause it to run by putting wheels on it. Dis nigger, being a blacksmith, put his thoughts into action by making wheels and put coffee pot on it and, by some kinder means, he made it run an’ the idea was stole from him and dey built de steam engine.

[The portion of the page containing the following paragraph is missing from the copy in the Lewis Papers. It is added here from the copy in the Rare Book Room, Lib. of Congress.—Ed.]

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I wuz one slave dat de poor white man had his match. See Miss Sue? Dese here ol’ white man said, “What I can’t do fair means I’ll do by foul.” One tried to throw me, but he couldn’t We tusseled an’ knocked over chairs an’ when I got a grip I scratched his face all to pieces; an dar wuz no more bothering Fannie from him; but oh, honey, some slaves would be beat up to, when dey resisted, an’ sometimes if you’ll ‘belled [rebelled] de overseer would kill yo’. Us colored women had to go through a plenty, I tell you.

[Return to pencil copy.—Ed.]


Edler Williams married me in Miss Delia Mann’s (white) parlor on de Crater Road. The house still stands. The house wuz full of colored people. Miss Sue Jones and Miss Molley Clark (white) waited on me. Dey took de lamps and we walked up to de preacher. One waiter joined my han’ an’ one my husband’s han’.

After marriage de white folks give me a ‘ception an’ honey, talkin’ ’bout a table—hit was stretched clean ‘cross de dining room. We had everything to eat you could call for. No, didn’t have no common eats, ha, ha, ha. We could sing in dar an’ dance old square dance all us choosed, ha, ha, ha. Lord, Lord, I can see dem gals now on dat flo’, jes skippin’ an’ a trottin’. An’ honey, dar wuz no white folks to set down an’ eat ‘fo’ yo’.


[The heading “War” is inappropriate for most of the material below but is given here as it is in the pencil copy. Too, the beginning of the first paragraph seems to indicate some sort of hiatus between this material and the foregoing.—Ed.]

Now Miss Sue, take up. I jes like to talk to you, honey, ’bout dem days ob slavery ’cause you look like you wan’ ta hear all ’bout ’em—all ’bout de ol’ Rebels—an’ dem niggers who left wid de Yankees and were sot free but, poor things, dey had no place to go after dey got freed. Baby, all us wuz helpless an’ ain’t had nothing.

I wuz free a long tim fo’ I knew it. My mistess still hired me out ’till one day, in talkin’ to de woman she hired me to, she—God bless her soul—she told me, “Fannie, yo’ ar’ free an’ I don’t have to pay your master for you

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now. You stay with me.” She didn’t give me no money but let me stay there an’ work for vitals an’ clothes ’cause I ain’t had no where to go. Jesus! Jesus! God help us! Um, um, um! You chillun don’t know! I didn’t say nothing when she wuz telling me but done ‘cided to leave her and go back to the white folks dat furst own me.

I plan’ to ‘tend a big dance. Let me see—I think it was on a Thursday night. Somehow it tooken got out, you kno’ how gals will talk, an’ it got to ol’ Bill Duffey’s ears—Ol’ dog!—an baby, do you kno’, mind you, ‘twon’t slavery time, but de ‘oman got so mad ’cause I runned away from her dat she set a whole passel of ’em out looking for me. Dar wuz a boy who heard ’em talkin’ and sayin’ dey wuz going to kill me if I were found.

I will never forget dis. Dis boy com’ up to me while I wuz dancing wid another man an’ sed, “Nobody knows where you ar’, Miss Moore. Dey is looking fer you an’ is gwine kill you, so yo’ come on wid me.” Have mercy, have mercy, my Lord, honey, you kin jes’ ‘magin my feelin’! Fer a minute I couldn’t move. You know, de gals an boys all got ’round me an’ told me to go wid Squeeball—dat he would show me de way to my old mistess house. Out we took an’ we ran one straight mile up de raod, den through de woods, den we had to go through a strawfield. Dat field seem like three miles! After den, we met another skit of woods.

Miss Sue, baby, me eye—ha, ha, ha—wuz bucked an, too, it is sech a thing as being scared [that] yo’ hair stand on yo’ head, ’cause I know mine did. An’ dat wasn’t all! Dat boy and me puffed and sweated like bulls. Was feared to stop ’cause we might have been tracked.

At last we neared de house an’ I started throwing rocks on de porch. Child, I took an’ heard dat white ‘oman when she hit dat floor bouncing out dat bed. She mus’ felt dat I wuz coming back to her. She called all de men an’ had ’em throw a rope to me and dey drawed me up a piece to de window. Den I held my arms up and dey snatched me in.

Honey, Squeeball fled to de woods. I ain’t never heard nothing ’bout him. And do you know, I didn’t leave dat ‘oman’s house no more for fifteen years?

Lord, Lord, honey! Squeeball an’ I use to sing dis song:

‘Twas 1861, the Yankees made the Rebels run,

We’ll all go stone blin’,

When de Johnny’s come a-marching home.


Child, an’ her’s another one we use to sing. Remember de War don’ bin when we would sing dese songs. Listen now:

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Ain’t no mor’ blowin’ of dat four-day [before day] horn,

I will sing, brethern, I will sing,

A col’ frosty mornin’,

De nigger’s mighty good,

Take your ax upon your shoulder,

Nigger talk to de woods.


Ain’t no mor’ blowing of dat four-day horn,

I will sing, brethren, I will sing.



Kimo, kimo, dar you ar,

Heh, how rump te pume diddle,

Set back pinkey wink,

Come Tom nippe cat,

Sing song kitty cat, can’t you carry me o’er?

Up de darkies head so bold,

Sing song, kitty, can’t you carry me o’er?


Milk in de dairy nine days old,

Sing song, kitty, can’t yo’ carry me home?


I was at Pamplin and de Yankees and Rebels were fighting and dey were waving the bloody flag an’ a Confederate soldier was up on a post and they were shooting terribly. Guns were firing everywhere. All of a sudden dey struck up Yankee Doodle song. A soldier came along, called me and said softly, close to me, “How far is it to the Rebels?” An’ I honey, wuz feared to tell him. So I said, I didn’t know. He called me again. Scared to death, I recollect, gitting behind the house and pointed in the direction. You see, ef de Rebels knew dat I told the soldier, they would have killed me. These were the Union men going after Lee‘s army which had don’ bin ‘fore dem to Appomattox.

The colored regiment came up behind and when they saw the colored regiment they put up the white flag—Yo’ ‘member fo’ dis red or bloody flag was up—Now, do you know why dey raised dat white flag? (No, tell me why.) Well, honey, dat white flag wuz a token dat Lee had surrendered.

Glory, glory! Yes, child, the Negroes are free, an’ when they knew dat dey were free dey—oh baby!—began to sing:

Mammy don’t yo’ cook no mo’,

Yo ar’ free, yo’ ar’ free.


Rooster don’t yo’ crow no mo’,

Yo’ ar’ free, yo’ ar’ free.


Ol’ hen don’t yo’ lay no mo’ eggs,

Yo’ free, yo’ free.

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Sech rejoicing and shoutin’ you enver he’rd in your life.

Yes, I can recollect de blowing up of the crater. We had fled but I do know ’bout the shelling of Petersburg. We left Petersburg when de shelling commenced and went to Pamplin in box cars—getting out of de way. Dem were scared times too ’cause you looked to be kilt any minute by stray bullets.

Just before the shelling of Petersburg dey were selling niggers for little nothin’ hardly. Junius Broadie, a white man, bought some niggers but dey didn’t stay slave long ’cause de Yankees came and set ’em free.

I recollec’ how Miss Sarah Ann hired out a bunch of niggers to de railroad dat dey was buildin’ thew de woods. Dey come down an’ hired all de niggers dat was ‘roun’. Dat’s how dey do de work. Dey hire niggers in one place an’ use dem to cut down de timber an’ saw it up in de ties, den dey move on an’ hire niggers hundreds of ’em in de next place.

Well, when de railroad come to Appomattox dey hire de niggers and Miss Sarah Ann hired her’n to ’em too. An’ chile, you order [ought to] hear dem niggers singin’ when dey go to wuk in de mornin’. Dey all start acomin’ from all d’rections wid dey ax on dey shoulder, an’ de mist an’ fog be hangin’ over de pines, an’ de sun jes’ breakin’ cross de fields. Den de niggers start to sing:

A col’ frosty mo’nin’,

De niggers mighty good,

Take yo’ ax upon yo’ shoulder,

Nigger, TALK to de wood.


An’ de woods jes’ ringin’ wid dis song. Hundreds of dem jes’ asingin’ to beat de ban’. Dey be lined up to a tree, an’ dey sing dis song to mark de blows. Fust de one chop, den his pardner, an’ when dey sing TALK dey all chop together; an’ perty soon dey git de tree ready to fall an’ dey yell “Hi” an’ de niggers all scramble out de way quick ’cause you can’t never tell what way a pine tree gonna fall. An’ sometime dey sing it like dis:

Dis time tomorrow night,

Where will I be?

I’ll be gone, gone, gone,

Down to Tennessee.


De niggers sing dis sorrowful, ’cause some niggers have been beat, or whupped, or sole away. Cose Miss Sarah Anne ain’t never sole none of her niggers but ole man Derby what had hundreds ‘ud sell some of his’n any time ole slave-trader come ’round.

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Miss Sarah Ann only had twenty, or thirty slaves. Sometime some ‘ud die, but den dere was al’ways some bein’ born, an’ if a slave wanted to git married he had to come to Miss Sarah Ann an’ git her to say it was all right. If you wanted to marry one on ‘nother plantation, Miss Sarah Ann would fust fin’ out what kinda nigger it was you wanted to git hitched to, an’ if de nigger was a good nigger an’ Miss Sarah Ann would try to buy him so husband an’ wife could be together.

Miss Sarah Ann had a nephew what use to come down from de city an’ visit wid her sometime. He was high folks, too, jes’ like Miss Sarah Ann. An’ de niggers all lak to see him come visit cause dey was al’ways goin’s on when he git dere. He was a sport; he was sid all kinds of city ways. Set ‘roun’ de house all day watchin’ little nigger chillum sing an’ dance. Never git up fo’ noon, an’ soon’s he come out on de po’ch in de shade all de little niggers come runnin’, cause he always throw ’em a handfull of pennies.

Soon de sun go down, den he dress hisse’f up in his white suit an’ his shiny shoes an’ start out. Lawd, chile, I ain’t never knowed where dat man go, but always come back stiff an’ loose-laiged wid brandy. An’ den he wobble up to de fence an’ de niggers wake an’ hol’ dey sides alaffin’ at him. An’ he try to climb de fence—(Sarah Ann ain’t had no gate in de front yard.) an’ he fall on de groun’, an’ he pick hisse’f up an’ he try again, an’ fall back, an’ he keep dat up sometime gittin’ nearly over but always fallin’ back. An’ den after while he pick hisse’f up an’ start to sing dis song:

Keemo, Kimo dar you are?

Heh, ho, de rum to pum adiddle,

Set back penny wink,

Come Tom Nippy Cat,

Sing song Kitty,

Kain’t you carry me o’er.


You see, dere was a ole cat, named Tom Nippy Cat dat Miss Sarah Ann let de slaves keep down in de slave row an’ dis cat use to roam all roun’ an’ in de house an’ he ain’t belong’t to any one slave, but he belong’t to dem all. When Mr. Herbert would call fo’ Tom Nippy Cat to come he’p him over de fence, all de niggers what was watchin’ him would bus’ out laughin’ an’ purty soon after dey listen to him sing dat Keemo, Kimo a number of times dey would, some of ’em, come out an’ lift Mr. Herbert up an’ put him on his feet on de inside of de fence. An’ he’ ud walk jes’ as straight right up to de do’ an’ open it an’ take hisse’f up-stairs to baid.

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So de niggers learnt dat song an’ dey use to sing it purty wid de words dey learn’t from Mister Herbert an’ partly wid words got out dey own minds. An’ all de chillun use to sing:

Keemo, Kimo, dar you are?

Heh, ho, de rump to pumadiddle,

Set back penny wink,

Come Tom Nippy Cat,

Sing song Kitty,

Kain’t you carry me o’er.


Skippers in de milk ’til dey nine days ole,

Sing, song Kitty,

Kain’t you carry me o’er?

If you don’ git ’em out dey’ll git mighty bold,

Sing, song Kitty,

Kain’t you carry me o’er?


Repeat: Keemo, Kimo, etc.


Keemo, Kimo, dar you are?

Heh, ho, de rum to pumadiddle,

Set back penny wink,

Come Tom Nippy Cat,

Sing, song Kitty,

Kain’t you carry me o’er?


Uppity darky’s haid so po’,

Sing, song Kitty,

Kain’t you carry me o’er?

If dey don’t watch out dey’ll git de crow,

Sing, song Kitty,

Kain’t you carry me o’er?


Repeat: Keemo, Kimo, etc.


An’ dey use to come roun’ him in de afternoon an’ sing his own song to him an’ Mr. Herbert use to laff an’ try to make ’em sing his words, but de chillun al’ways sing dem what dey done made up. Chile, I kin hear ’em now, dancin’ roun’ an’ buckin’ to beat all goodness, an’ he jes’ a carryin’ on wid ’em.

An’ den come de time ole John Brown raised all dat ruckus up at Harpers Ferry. I member ole Marser comin’ home an’ sayin’ dat on his way to de gallows ole John stopped an’ kissed a little nigger chile.

How come I don’t ‘member? Don’t tell me I don’t, cause I do. I don’t keer if it’s done been a thousin’ years, I know what Marser say an’ it’s as fresh in

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my mind as it was dat day. Anyhow ole Marser started to sing dis song an’ all de little nigger chillum use to sing it wid him.

Old John Brown come to Harpers Ferry town,

Purpose to raise an insurrection,

Ole gov’nor Wise put de specks upon his eyes,

An’ showed him de happy lan’ of Canaan.


Ole John Brown come to Harpers Ferry town,

Purpose to steal our chickens,

They walked him up a slope, an’ they hung him wid a rope,

An’ showed him de happy lan’ of Canaan.


Purty soon de war come an’ dey was fightin’ all aroun’ an’ fust we went to Petersburg an’ we left Petersburg when de Yankees started to shootin’ shells in de city. An’ we went to Pamplin in a box car to git out de way. An’ ev’y-body was scared, ’cause you like to be kilt any minute by stray bullets. An’ jes’ before de shellin’ of Petersburg dey was sellin’ niggers fo’ little or nothin’, hardly. I recollec’ a friend of Marsers, Julius Broadie, bought some niggers, but dey didn’t stay slaves long cause de Yankees come an’ set ’em free.

Source: Typed copy, Lewis Papers

[The following is a collection of anecdotes apparently compiled by Roscoe Lewis from Fannie Berry’s interview(s).—Ed.]


On a neighboring plantation when the old heads died out it was necessary to divide up the slaves among the children, the custom being to put the “niggers in a hat” and draw for them. The youngest children of the family always the priviledge of drawing first. (Mrs. Berry) remembers one such lottery. Her mother’s husband was drawn by the youngest—George Blood a lad of six or seven. He promptly sold the man to a “nigger trader,” (Probably his older brothers sold the slave for him.) But since “a nigger and a horse don’t know there own master” the man ran away before the slave-trader took possession and hid in the woods where he stayed 12 months. Finally Miss Sarah Ann bought him and united him with the rest of his family—his wife and three children. [Above is in Lewis’s words]

Old man Chelton was a terror. One morning when the horn blowed for us to go to de field we started out and heard de most awful screamin’ an’ ahollerin’. Didn’t know what was wrong ceptin’ that some poor nigger on de next plantation belongin’ to old man Chelton was gittin’ a hidin’. Den some

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one say et was Dick Davison who had in some way kilt one of de hawgs on de place.

When de horn blowed fo’ tuh stop wuk at noon dey was still abeatin’ him, an’ some of us went thew de bushes back of ole man Chelton’s hawg pen an’ dere de overseer was jus’ a layin’ et on dat poor boy’s necked back. An’ poor Dick was jes’ a moanin’ an’ a groanin’ an beggin’. “Please, suh, pray suh, please suh, pray suh, please suh, pray suh,” but dat ole white man kep’ alayin’ it on. An’ every once in a while dat ole overseer ud git tired an’ stop tuh res’ an’ Dick would jus’t draw hissif up against de tree trunk an’ sigh an’ kinda lie there. ‘Cause he knew dere was more tuh come. An’ presently ole overseer start layin’ it on agin, an’ poor Dick’s back was all cut tuh ribbons je’s like a hawg dat been stuck. An’ den some one went an tole Miss Sarah Ann an’ she come steppin’ down dere right across de fence ontuh ole man Chelton’s lan’ wid huh scissors which she had been sewin’ wid in huh hand. An’ she walk right up tuh dat overseer and pushed him aside an’ take dose scissors an’ cut de rope dat bin’ poor Dick tuh de tree. An’ poor Dick fell on de ground an’ rolled over an’ twisted jus’ like a chicken wid his haid cut off, tryin’ tuh git up an’ tryin’ tuh run an’ not bein’ able tuh stan’d an’ soon he fell over in a patch of blackberry briers an’ lay still. Dick was daid.

Another time ole Mr. Chelton whupped an’ old colored woman till her back was all cut tuh pieces. She crawl’t all de way to Miss Sarah Ann’s house an’ Miss Sarah Ann tuk uh needle an’ picked all de splinters outa huh back. Ole man had licked huh wid a dried white oak branch an’ de hard knots had cut huh skin up somepin’ terrible. De Miss Sarah Ann greased huh back wid lard an’ told her tuh go on back to her master.

“Naw, Miss Sarah Ann, ain’t goin’ back.”

“You must go back. He’ll only make it worse for you later.”

“No, ain’t goin’ back. He’d only start whuppin’ me agin’.”

“Lawd, chile, dere ain’t nowheres else fo’ him to whup you. I’ll see him in de mawnin’ an’ see dat yuh don’t git no mo’ whuppin’s.”

“Ain’t goin’ back. Sorry, Miss Sarah Ann. I thanks yuh fo’ whut yuh done, but he done whupit me fo’ de las’ time.”


An’ out Nellie went, takin’ uh basket uh food Miss Sarah Ann had given her but she didn’t go back to ole man Chelton’s. Ain’t no one seed her fo’ 8 or 9 days when one day some white boys what had been out huntin’ came tuh tell Miss Sarah Ann whut dey had found. Up on de hillside dey had found Ant Nellie’s body. Dey knowed it was her’n ’cause de back was all ate away where de buzzards had jus’ picked away all de flesh dat was already soft an’ raid frum de beatin’ ole man Chelton had given huh. Right dere

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beside huh was de bread an’ food Miss Sarah Ann had given huh; but the buzzards ain’t tetched dat. Down at de foot uh de hill was Ant Nellie’s haid, where et had rolled. De buzzards had picked de eyes out.

Den dere was another nigger dat was beat to death de same year dat Lee surrendered. Dere was an’ ole tannery dat caught on fire, or else some one burnt it. Anyway dey catched a nigger—I don’t recollec’ whut was his name—an’ dey say he did it. An’ he swore dat he didn’t do it—dat he ain’t never even been near it fo’ mo’rn a month but dey strapped him up and dey laid it on him—all day day. An’ long ’bout sun down dat nigger died.

When de Yankees come dey sot de niggers free an’ de niggers went on wukin’ jus’ like dey did befo’ only now whut dey make is dere’n an’ dey don’t have tuh take et an’ put et away in de master’s barn. An’ de whites couldn’t say nothin’ ’cause dey was po’ as de niggers an’ besides de Yankees was dere to watch ’em.

But after while de Yankees went on back up North, an’ den de “po’hickories” got tuh actin’ up. Dey would put on de ole uniforms de Yankees done lef’ behin’ an’ go ridin’ all over de lan’ at night in bands jus’ ah shootin’ up all de niggers dey saw. Dey would shoot ’em daid an’ ride on. An’ some on finally sent word up No’th to de Yankees an’ de Yankees come aridin’ back an’ dem ole whites was jus’ as nice an’ pleasant fo’ a while as could be. Long as de Yankees was aroun’. But soon’s de Yankees leave dey start in again. An’ don’t you know, Yankees had tuh come back tuh Appamattox three times fo’ de whites leave us po’ niggers alone?

Miss Sarah Ann was uh fine woman, even ef she was uh slave owner. She wouldn’t never ‘low no patterrollers on huh place.

Dey was an’ ole man, Uncle Granville dat used tuh go ’round sellin’ aigs. He belong’t tuh ole white man named Derby dat lived some miles down de county road. Ole Uncle Granville usta count out his aigs like dis: He would take up an aig an’ say, “Ter-men-ah” an’ lay et aside an’ say “Oh-no,” an’ dat was two, an’ “Ter-men-ah,–Oh-no,” dat was three—”Ter-men-ah—oh-no.” An’ say dat tell he knowed he’d said it half dozen times. An’ ef he wanted uh dozen he would do the same thing over. Ole Oncle couldn’t count none other than half dozen, dozen an’ uh half, two dozen an’ so on. Yuh couldn’t never buy three aigs from Oncle Granville, nor seven nor eight. Yuh gotta take uh half dozen or uh dozen.

One day Miss Sarah Ann say, “Uncle you better stay here tonight. ‘Pears like a bad storm gonna start in any moment.” Uncle was kinda bad tongue-tied, an’ Uncle say—”Ah thanky, Miss Sary Ann, but ah bleed ah bleestah

— page 44 —

blide tuh go home.” “But you’ll get soakin’ wet. Stay here tonight. I’ll tell your master I kept you.” “I bleedah-bleestah blide tuh go home, Miss Sary Ann.” An’ no matter what Miss Sarah Ann say ole Uncle jus’ answer de same an’ do’ [though] et was a thunderin’ an’ alightenin’ he started on out in de rain, wid his aig-basket cross one arm an’ his stick tappin’ out de way befo’ him.

An’ when uh slave ud run away, ef dey catched him dey would “punch and gag an’ double-quick” ’em all de way back home. Dey did dat tuh a woman what had been beat so bad dat she run away one night—was gonna make uh try fo’ freedom. Dey catched huh ’bout 5 miles off an’ dey did huh dis way. Dey cut a fresh limb uh white oak an’ den dey put uh notch in de end uh et. Den dey bent huh over an’ catched uh big pinch in huh back, down roun’ de buttops an’ squeeze et tight in de notch uh dis limb. Dey tie de other end uh de limb round huh neck an’ den roundst huh knees so dat she gotta walk stooped. An’ dey tie huh hands round de stick so dat ef she pull on et she pull on huh meat dat is in de notch an’ make et hurt worse. Den dey stick a corn-cob in huh mouth. Den dey “double-quick”—Huh? Dat is dey make huh tuk jump couple of quick steps an’ den uh slow one, uh couple quick ones, den uh slow one, an’ dey walk huh all de way back like dat. Ain’t no body whut dats been done to ever run ‘way no mo’.

But min’ me, chile, ain’t none ob these happenings took place wid Miss Sarah Ann’s niggers. She was uh fine woman, jes’ as Christian doin’ as dey come. She ain’t ‘low no one tuh beat huh slaves. Huh ole dad had sayed dat he don’t want none uh his niggers ever sole, an’ she ain’t sole nary one uh ’em. She ain’t done much farmin’ but she ud hire out all de nigguhs dat wasn’t wukin’ in de gyardens an’ de house. ‘Cause de money fo’ dese nigguhs Miss Sarah Ann took hurse’f, ’cause money ain’t mean nothin’ tuh nigguhs any how, an’ she give ’em ev’y thing dey need.

Source: File 1547, UVa. Lib.

[Though Fannie Berry generally speaks well of her owner, in the following tale attributed to Mrs. Berry her “Miss Sarah Ann” is seen as cruelly causing her dog to bite Fannie’s brother’s toes. However, the version following this one attributes the cruelty to “ole white boys.” There is no way to tell which of these versions—if either—was actually told by Fannie Barry.—Ed.]

My missus use to ‘muse her company sometimes just like dis. She had a ole dog who could do funny tricks, and to make de tricks more ‘musin’ she would take my little brother and let de dog bite his bare toes; de dog would do dis over an’ over, dis would hurt my brother awful an’ he would cry out

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loud, too, an when he would cry out loud de company would laught an’ have a good time over it, ’cause dis was a part of de ‘musement. So one day I’se got tired of dey playin’ wid my brother dis way an’ call it ‘musement. I goes an’ git a rope an’ I cides dat I’se gwine fix dis dog; so I takes de dog ‘way out in de woods, throwed one end of de rope over a limb of a tall tree. Den I ties de dog to de rope. Den I runs git de other end dat I’se throwed over de limb of de tree. I pulls dat end till it got high as de limb den I tied him dere. I went on home myself, an’ nobody knows how long dat dog got up dat tree like dat. When dey found him he was dead and had been dead for months. I ain’t said a word ’bout it myself.

I had a young brother named James, fattes’ little boy I ever seen. Didn’t live long, though. Died in wartime. Ole white boys livin’ roun’ Miss Sarah Ann’s used to pester de life outa him. He a dog named Bowser, dey used to sick on him. De dog would jump an’ pull onto his shirt an’ make him cry an’ roll over (’cause he was so fat). ‘Couse Miss Sarah Ann didn’t know it an’ I tole her. She scolded dem boys but dat didn’t stop ’em. So I made up my mind I was gonna fix dat dog. One day dat ole dog came roun’ an’ I give him a morsel of meat an’ led him to de woods. Got him in de thicket an’ I drapped a noose roun’ his neck an’ clambed up de tree an’ pult him up arter me. Ole dog was jus’ kickin’ an’ thumpin’ gainst de branches but he couldn’t bark ’cause dat noose was chockin’ him. Well, I held him tell he didn’t move no more, den I clambed up to de top of dat tree an’ fastened dat rope an’ hastened home. Dem ole boys came roun’ lookin’ fo’ Bowser an’ nobody seed him. I wouldn’t go near dem woods fo’ a year. One day I went out dere an’ dere was dat dog still hangin’. Wasn’t a speck of meat on him, jus’ dem bones hangin’ up in de sky…Dey ain’t never knowed what happened to Bowser.

(Fannie Berry, of Petersburg, says she remembers a young fellow named John Brice who belonged to ole man Carter, on the next plantation.)

John was married to a gal named Sally, who lived ’bout six miles off from Pamplin. John used to have to git a pass f’om marser ev’y Saddy night to go see his wife. ‘Couse John couldn’t read an’ marse would always laught when he gave him de pass. An’ whenever de patterollers stop John dey would always have themselves a good laugh too when dey read his pass. So John got to wonderin’ what was on dis pass dat made ’em laugh so. So one night he went into Appomatox ‘stead of goin’ straight to Sally’s place an’ got a free nigger man to read it to him. An’ de free nigger read to him:

— page 46 —

To my man John I give this pass,

Pass an’ repass to Sally’s black [ass],

Ef don’t nobody like dis pass,

Dey can kiss [Sally’s ass].


[The following is included under the heading “Negro Tales” and bears the date May 9, 1939—apparently the date of compilation.—Ed.]

Me and young marser Tom was a caution. He was my real marser too, but I b’longed to Miss Sarah Ann, ’cause he couldn’t own me till he was 21. Us used to play together all de time. Used to come down to de quarters early in de mornin’ an’ call neith de window, “Fanny, git up, we gonna git bark.”

Member one day he got me up, an’ we started out to de woods to git de bark for de ironin’. Bark? Put under de iron on de coals so’s to keep de iron clean. Marse Tom an’ me used to make a game of it. We’d go runnin’ from tree to tree each tryin’ to find de bigges’ pieces of bark. You see de big pieces was thick an’ lasted long time, so you didn’t have to git much. Well dis day dat devilish little rascal had brung de axe along. Wasn’t sposed to you know. Spose to take de parin’ knife, an’ cut de bark. Well I spied a big tree, an’ I run up to it an’ put my arms ‘roun’ it, an’ say, “I got de bigges’, I got de bigges’,” and he come runnin’ wid de axe cross his shoulder, an’ he say, “Fanny, take your han’ away fo’ I cut it off.” Ah say, “Go way, I saw it fust. Git yo’ own bark.” So he made b’lieve he gonna chop, an’ thought he’s foolin, but dat axe slipped an’ come right down cross my little finger. See? Chip de end right off. Twas jus’ hanging on by a little thread of skin, an’ de blood come flyin’ out, an’ spattered, an’ Marse Tom got skared an’ started cryin’, “Didn’t mean it Fanny, didn’t mean it. Don’t tell Missus, I give you all my sweet bread in de mornin’.” So I say, “All right, Marse Tom, I won’t tell,” an’ I look at dat finger, an’ pulled it off an’ thowed it in de bushes. Den I tore off piece off my petticoat, an’ wrapped all roun’ it an’ started fo’ home, an’ Marse Tom come long behind me totin’ all de bark, an’ callin’, “Member, Fanny, you promised you won’t gonna tell.”

An’ I won’t neither, but jus’ when I got to de yard, dat piece of rag came loose an’ de blood start flyin’ every which a way, an’ missus look out de window an’ sawed it, an’ she come runnin’ out, an’ yellin’, “Chile, what you do’?” But I wouldn’t tell her. She washed it off, an’ put mustard on it an’ tied it up tight, an’ all the time she kep’ astin’ how it happened, but I never would tell her, but she knowed cause she got holt Marse Tom an’ give him a

— page 47 —

good whuppin’. How I knowed dat was cause I heard him cryin’. White folks never whupped white chillun in front of niggers, no matter what dey do. But I never did tell, an’ show nough next mornin’ he gimme his sweetbread.

Nother time Marse Tom come to me, an’ say, “Fanny look here, look what I got.” An’ he had some little sticks wid yellow ends on em. I didn’t know what dey was. So he took ’em over back of de barn an’ drawed one cross a rock, an’ it made a fire. So I said, “Marse Tom give me one dem.” Well he ain’t had but three, an’ now he only got two left, but he give me one. I stuck it in my hair an’ went on doin’ what I been doin’ till dat afternoon. Den I struck dis piece of wood cross a rock jus’ like Marse Tom done an’ sho’ nough it made a fire. An’ I drap it in de leaves, an’ run on out de barn down in de corn fiel’ an’ pretty soon de smoke come rollin’ out, an’ de flames show an’ dar was de corner of de barn on fire.

It was gittin’ bigger an’ bigger an’ I could hear it crackin’. Den I hear ev’body yellin’ an’ pretty soon ole Marse come runnin’ an’ shoutin’ an ev’body. Well dey formed a chain an’ passed water fum de well an’ purty soon dey put it out. Den ole Marse called all de nigger chillum together an’ tole em he gonna whup ev’y las’ one of ’em cause he knows one of dem done made dat fire. An’ he whupped ’em too till he got tired, whilst I lay dere in de corn fiel’ not darin’ to raise my head. Never did whup me. An’ I never did play wid none dem fire sticks no mo’.

Source: Negro in Virginia, MS version, draft no. 2, chap. 16, pp. 20-21

[This story is also in the first draft with the editorial comment “omit.” It is attributed to Fannie Berry.—Ed.]

Sukie was her name. She was a big strappin’ nigger gal dat never had nothin’ to say much. She used to cook for Miss Sarah Ann, but ole Marsa was always tryin’ to make Sukie his gal. One day Sukie was in the kitchen makin’ soap. Had three gra’ big pots o’ lye jus’ comin’ to a bile in de fireplace when ole Marsa come in for to git arter her ’bout somep’n.

He lay into her, but she ain’t answer him a word. Den he tell Sukie to take off her dress. She tole him no. Den he grabbed her an’ pull it down off’n her shoulders. When he done dat, he fo’got ’bout whuppin’ her, I guess, ’cause he grab hold of her an’ try to pull her down on de flo’. Den dat black gal got mad. She took an’ punch ole Marsa an’ made him break loose an’ den she gave him a shove an’ push his hindparts down in de hot pot o’ soap. Soap was near to bilin’, an’ it burnt him near to death. He got up holdin’ his hindparts an’

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ran from de kitchen, not darin’ to yell, ’cause he didn’t want Miss Sarah Ann to know ’bout it.

Well, few days later he took Sukie off an’ sol’ her to de nigger trader. An’ dey put Sukie on de block, an’ de nigger traders ‘zamined her an’ pinched her an’ den dey open her mouf, an’ stuck dey fingers in to see how her teeth was. Den Sukie got awful mad, and she pult up her dress an’ tole ol’ nigger traders to look an’ see if dey could fin’ any teef down dere. Ole Jim, Marsa’s coachman, tel’ us all ’bout it, ’cause he done see it. Marsa never did bother slave gals no mo’.

Source: Negro in Virginia, published version, pp. 87, 92-93

Slaves lived jus’ fo’ Christmas to come round. Start gittin’ ready de fus’ snow fall. Commence to savin’ nuts and apples, fixin’ up party clothes, snitchin’ lace an’ beads fum de big house. General celebratin’ time, you see, ’cause husbands is comin’ home an’ families is gittin’ ‘nunited agin. Husbands hurry on home to see dey new babies. Ev’ybody happy. Marse always send a keg of whiskey down to de quarters by ole Uncle Silas, de house man. Ole Joe would drink all he kin long de way, but dey’s plenty fo’ all. Ef dat don’ las’ ole Marse Shelton gonna bring some mo’ down hisse’f.

Used to go over to de Saunders place fo’ dancin’. Musta been hundred slaves over thar, an’ they always had de bes’ dances. Mos’ times fo’ de dance dey had Dennis to play de banjer. Dennis had a twisted arm, an’ he couldn’t do much work, but he sho’ could pick dat banjer. Gals would put on dey spare dress ef dey had one, an’ men would put a clean shirt on. Gals always tried to fix up fo’ partyin’, even ef dey ain’t got nothin’ but a piece of ribbon to tie in dey hair. Mos’ times wear yo’ shoes to de dance an’ den take ’em off. Dem ole hard shoes make too much noise, an’ hurt yo’ feet. Couldn’t do no steppin’ in dem field shoes.

Wasn’t none of this sinful dancin’ where yo’ partner off wid man an woman squeezed up close to one another. Danced ‘spectable, de slaves did, shiftin’ ’round fum one partner to ‘nother an’ holdin’ one ‘nother out at arm’s length.

What kind of dances? Well, dey wasn’t no special name to ’em. Dere was cuttin’ de pigeons wings—dat was flippin’ yo’ arms an’ legs roun’ an’ holdin’ yo’ neck stiff like a bird do. Den dere was gwine to de east, an’ gwine to de west—dat was wid partners an’ sometimes dey got to kiss each other, but dey stan’ back an’ kiss widout wrappin’ no arms roun’ like de young folks do

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today. An’ dere was callin’ de figgers an’ dat meant dat de fiddler would call de number an’ all de couples got to cut dat number.

Set de flo’? Dat was—well de couples would do dat in turn. Dey come up an’ bend over toward each other at de waist, an’ de woman put her hands on her hips an’ de man roll his eyes all roun’ an’ grin an’ dey pat de flo’ wid dey feet jus’ like dey was puttin’ it in place. Used to do dat bes’ on dirt flo’ so dey feet could slap down hard against it. Sometimes dey would set de flo’ alone—either a man or a woman. Den dey would set a glass of water on dey haid an’ see how many kinds of steps dey could make widout spillin’ de water.

Dancin’ on de spot was de same thing as set de flo’—almos’. Jus’ mean you got to stay in de circle. De fiddler would take a charred corn-cob an’ draw a circle on de flo’, den call one arter de odder up an’ dance in de circle. Effen yo’ feet tetch de edge you is out. Dat was jus’ like a cake-walk, ’cause sometime dey bake a cake an’ give it to de one dat did de mos’ steps on de spot. No, I never did win no cake, but I was purty good at it jus’ de same, I reckon.

February 26, 1937
Formerly enslaved Fannie Berry tells about the rebellions of Nat Turner and John Brown, her marriage, and her experiences during and after the Civil War.
APA Citation:
Berry, Fannie. “Interview of Mrs. Fannie Berry” (February 26, 1937). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Berry, Fannie. "“Interview of Mrs. Fannie Berry” (February 26, 1937)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 14 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2021, August 18
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