“Interview with Ellis Bennett” (January 7, 1937)


Ellis Bennett, a man born into slavery and veteran of the American Civil War (1861–1865), tells an interviewer from the Virginia Writers Project about his life. He discusses his memories of the Civil War, emancipation, and how enslaved people were prohibited from learning to read and write. The interview begins with a narrative description of Bennett and the Soldiers’ Home Hospital in Hampton where he lived written by the Virginia Writers Project. Bracketed comments were made by the editors of Weevils in the Wheat. 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.



Ellis Bennett (alias Frierson)(b. 1845)

Soldiers’ Home Hospital, Hampton, Va.

Interview: January 7, 1937

Source: Va. State Lib.

[Anderson includes the “key word” list which follows.—Ed.]

patrollerspady rollersjoinjine

I found “Pops” in ward seven of the government hospital at Hampton, Virginia. There he sat, all that was left of what evidently was once a physical giant, comfortably ensconced in a roller chair. He was too weak to operate the chair and too deaf to hear ordinary talking. He wore on his head a huge, felt hat which he never removed during the entire interview. He had a dark complexion which was made very noticeable by splotches of white color which appeared upon his face caused probably by some internal disorder. When he was made to understand what I wanted, he talked very readily. His conversation broken at intervals by questions from the writer, ran somewhat as follows:

Mah War was Civil War. Ah sign papers in Bedford. We come to RichmondCW. Mah officers was General Saxon, Captain Foote, an ol Colonel Watson. We mustered f’om Charleston. Da regment was one hundred four. Put down Thomas Mays, cook. Wen ah jine, ah was half grown boy.

Mah home is Clarendon County, South Carolina. Mah mother was Tena Bennett. Mah father was Miles Bennett. Mah name is Ellis Bennett. Put dat

— page 29 —

down. Ah tell da man to change mah name to mah father’s name. Ah changed mah name down in number ten. Da man whut owned me was name Frierson. Ah took mah father’s name. His name is Bennett; mah name is Bennett.

Wen ah was slave, ah minded cows. Ah had seven brothers an’ sistuhs. White folks run colored people den like dey run sheep. Preachuhs couldn’t preach less white man say so. Ah doan know how old ah am. Back dah nobuddy know how old dey is. Twarn’t no book. Hain’t ah tell you white folks sell colored folks lak cattle, sheep, pigs. Dey have whole pens of colored folks. Doan want you to know nuffin but masters tell you whut dey please. Yes, ah remembuh paddyrollers. Meanest white men out.

Mah mastuh’s name was Mistuh James Frierson. Mistuh Frierson wasn’t mean becuz ah was. Ah was mah mastuh. White folks beat some nigguhs to death—shoot ‘em down. Sell ‘em by carload. Sold mah uncle.

All mah brothers an’ sistuhs could read an write some. Who teach ‘em? Dey go night school aftuh war. White man let no nigguh read fore war. White man stan on poarch. See nigguh walking by wif buk in ‘is ‘and. White man call, “Nig-gu-h nigguh, God dam! Come heah!” Nigguh come. Wite man snatch buk. Say “Buk no fo’ nigguh; buk fo’ wite man.” Kick nigguh in slack o pants say, “Git long wuk you son of a b–!”

Whut cause war was white folk searchin Yankee vessel wen dey come in harbor. Wite man go [on] the boat jes’ lookin. Say, “Nigguh, git outten heah!” Catch nigguh runnin away an kill ‘im. Yankees got mad. Yessuh, Gawd tol Lincoln for ta free his people. He say to Abraham. “Abraham, dey’s got four million ob mah people down dah in bondage. Go down an set ‘em free.” An he did. Wen he come down, all de overseers sayed dey was going to shoot an dey fired on a man at South Carolina named Anderson. Yessuh he da fust man dey shot at an started da wo! Da rebels dey fight, but them Dutch an Irish was too much fer ‘em. Ah know cause I’se traveled and ah’se seen. Seen tings ‘ud make you call me ‘er fool iffen ah’d tell you bout ‘em.

Ah practised on da rifles but ah wasn’t in any battles. Ah saw Grant lots times, but befo we ‘ud git to da fight General Lee jes surrender  an say he warn’t takin up no arm gainst ‘is country no mo.

Den ah goes to Philumdepha. Atter a while ah goes home ‘ergin [again] an seed mah mother an father rite often. Den ah travels a lot an atter while govument sends me heah. An ah ain’t married yit. Lizah Bates, she wuz a woman an ah ain’t married yit. She wuz a good woman an a white woman an ah ain’t married yit.

Aftuh da wo’ everybudy went school fer to learn. Ol folks, young folks, everybudy, went night school ‘an day school ‘an now see dem young debils

— page 30 —

over dah? Dey tink dey knows somepin an dey doan know nuffin. Dey laff at me, but ah tell ‘em ah’s traveled an ah seed. Yessuh.

APA Citation:
Bennett, Ellis & Anderson, Claude. “Interview with Ellis Bennett” (January 7, 1937). (2021, July 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Bennett, Ellis, and Claude Anderson. "“Interview with Ellis Bennett” (January 7, 1937)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Jul. 2021). Web. 18 May. 2024
Last updated: 2021, August 18
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