“Interview with Baily Cunningham” (1938)


Baily Cunningham, a man born into slavery, tells an interviewer from the Virginia Writers Project about his life. His narrative includes detailed descriptions of the clothing enslaved people wore at different ages, the homes the enslaved community in which he lived resided in, and a meteor shower he witnessed as a young boy. The interview begins with a narrative description of Cunningham written by the Virginia Writers Project interviewer I. M. Warren. Warren’s questions are included. 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; and social relations and hierarchies shaping their relationship and conversation. Although the interviews aren’t unmediated autobiographies, they are no less authentic and are just as fruitful a source for reconstructing historical experience.


Bailey Cunningham (b. ca. 1838)

Starkey, Va.

Interviewer: I. M. Warren

Date of interview: 1938 (before March 14)

Source: File 1547, UVa. Lib.

Baily Cunningham (Colored) was born in Franklin County, Va., he claims, December 25, 1937 [must mean 1827], however I am of the opinion that he is mistaken, as he says his master sold (hired him out) him to a man running a hotel in Lynchburg when he was twenty years old and he remembers seeing the soldiers march through Lynchburg at the first of the war which was, more than likely, 1862, this would make him about 99 years old, however his daughter, who is about 60 years old says he was 110 years old Dec. 25, Christmas day, 1937. His mind is fairly clear and he can readily recall incidences of his boyhood days. He never attended school nor can he read or write. His eyesight is good and he has never used glasses. He owns and lives on a little plot of land he bought near Starkey, six miles south of Roanoke, Va., on which he built a one story two-room log house seventy years ago.

— page 81 —

In reply to a question regarding his parents he said, “My grandfather Cunningham, was a white man. He came from the old country, Germany, and brought my grandmother, a colored woman, with him. My father was a Cunningham and a white man, my mother was a Silvers, and was colored.” His appearance indicates the possession of caucasian blood. “My mother and my grandmother were slaves. My mother belonged to Bemis English who had a large plantation about eleven miles from Rocky Mount, Va. in Franklin County. He moved to another plantation on Roanoke River in Bedford County soon after the war. When I was a boy he had about seventy five slaves, including the children. The children were considered free until they were twenty years old and did not have to work. After they were twenty they had to work on the plantation or be sold (hired) out by our master. I was sold to a hotel man in Lynchburg soon after I was twenty for one year for $125.00. I remember well as I had never had on “britches” or a suit of clothes until I went to Lynchburg. All the boys and girls wore “shirt tails” until we were twenty. I never had a hat or shoes until I was twenty. All under twenty were treated the same as the stock on the plantation.” What do you mean by “shirt tails”? “It was a long garment that came down to the knees. The boys and girls never wore but one garment even in the winter time. It was made large and out of cotton, flax, or wool on the old loom which was kept going all the year.”

How did the boys and girls spend their time until they were twenty, if they did no work? “We played around the quarters, and played ‘Hide the Switch’ most of the time. I did not work in the field until I came home from Lynchburg.”

What kind of rations did you have? “We ate twice a day, about sunup and at sundown. All the work hands ate in the cabins and all the children took their cymblin [squash] soup bowl to the big kitchen and got it full of cabbage soup, then we were allowed to go [to] the table where the white folks ate and get the crumbs from the table. We sat on the ground around the quarters to eat with wooden spoons. Rations were given to the field hands every Monday morning. They would go to the smokehouse and the misses would give us some meal and meat in our sack. We were allowed to go to the garden or field and get cabbage, potatoes and corn or any other vegetables and cook in our shanties. We had plenty to eat. We had a large iron baker with a lid to bake bread and potatoes and a large iron kettle to boil things in. On Saturday morning we would go to the smokehouse and get some flour and a piece of meat with a bone so we could have a hoe-cake for dinner on Sunday. Sometimes we had plenty of milk and coffee.”

— page 82 —

What kind of cabins did you have? “They were log cabins, some had one room and some had two rooms, and board floors. Our master was a rich man. He had a store and a sawmill on the creek. The cabins were covered with boards, nailed on and had stick-and-mud chimneys. We had home-made beds, corded, with mattresses made of linen filled with straw, and pillows the same and a woolen or cotton blanket. We had home-made tables and chairs with wooden bottoms. The field hands had wooden sole shoes, the wooden bottom was made of maple, the size of the foot, one half inch thick or thicker and the leather nailed to the wood. Our master had lots of sheep and the wool was made into yarn and we had yarn socks in the winter. The cabins were built in two rows not very far from the misses big house. My mother kept house for our misses and looked after the quarters and reported anything going wrong to the misses.”

What kind of amusements did the grown folks have? “They had big dances at night, sometimes. Somebody would play the fiddles and some the banjo and sometimes had a drum. We did the ‘buck dance.’ A boy and girl would hold hands and jump up and down and swing around keeping time with the music. We would dance awhile then go to the other room and drink coffee, corn whiskey or apple brandy, sometimes some of us would get drunk. We would dance and play all night but had to be ready to work the next day. We had to get a pass from our master or misses to go to the dance, as we were afraid the ‘Patty Rolers’ (patty roler—a corruption of the word pa-trol) would get us. The master would have eight or ten men on horses watching and any one caught without a pass was taken up and punished, sometimes whipped. The boys and girls were not allowed to play together, any violation was a serious matter.

Did you have any holidays? “We didn’t know but one holiday, that was Christmas day, and it was not much different from any other day. The field hands did not have to work on Christmas day. We didn’t have any Christmas presents. We never went to school or to church. All the field hands our master did not need on the plantation were sold (hired out) to the tobacco factories at Lynchburg. The stray slaves wandering about were taken up by the ‘traders’ and held until he had about a hundred then they were sold and taken to the southern cotton fields. They were chained together, a chain fastened to the arm of each one and they went afoot to North Carolina, South Carolina, or Georgia driven by their new master.”

How were you treated when you were sick? “A sick slave was reported to the misses. She had three kinds of medicine that would cure everything.”

— page 83 —

What were these medicines? “One was vinegar nail, one rosin pills and the other was tar. When we had aches or pains in the stomach or the back she would make us drink ‘vinegar nail’ which was made by getting about a pound of square cut iron nails and put them in a jug with a lot of vinegar, then at night we had to take two rosin pills. These pills were made of raw pine rosin. When we had the tooth ache or the ear ache she would fill the tooth or ear full of tar. We never had a doctor.”

Uncle Baily, what was the most eventful day of your life? “The day the stars fell. I was eight years old but I remember it was well as if it was yesterday. They began to fall about sundown and fell all night. They fell like rain. They looked like little balls about as big as marbles with a long streak of fire to them. They fell everywhere but you couldn’t hear them. They did not hit the ground, or the house. We were all scared and did not go out of the house but could see them everywhere. A few days later it began to snow and snowed three days and nights, the snow piled up over some of the houses, some people froze and some starved.

Note: You will observe that the customs and slave life under Baily’s master, Bemis English, who was of German descent, is somewhat different from the usual Virginia slave owners. The foregoing continuity is in the language of Baily Cunningham just as he related it, in the most part. He does not use any of the usual slave broge [brogue], in fact talks very well.

APA Citation:
Cunningham, Baily & Warren, I. M.. “Interview with Baily Cunningham” (1938). (2021, May 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Cunningham, Baily, and I. M. Warren. "“Interview with Baily Cunningham” (1938)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (25 May. 2021). Web. 11 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, August 18
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.