“Interview with Rev. Ishrael Massie” (April 23, 1937)

Cowrie ShellDecorative Slave Item

Reverend Ishrael Massie, a man born into slavery, tells an interviewer from the Virginia Writers Project about his life. Rev. Massie describes witnessing the sale of enslaved people and violence from white enslavers, as well as some religious practices of the enslaved communities he was part of. The editors of Weevils in the Wheat inserted comments in this transcription. Their bracketed comments have been included below. This narrative is a compilation of various sources of interviews with Rev. Massie. 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.



[Rev. Massey enjoys talking about slavery in his own words.]

Aw waal. I kin give ya my age mighty easy. Now de fus thing I want ya to figger hit out. Does ya know how long hits don’ bin since Cox’s Snow? Den I was 8 years old de 8th of March.

(Are you 88 years old?) Yassum, dat’s hit. White an’ colored got my age at dat. Whole lot of folks don’t b’lieve I’m dat age but dat’s what my mother an’ my white folks say. Was bred an’ bo’n right in Emporia—South Emporia.

Now listen ‘fo’ ya start to writin’. I b’longed to de Masses [Massies] an’ de Masses had a ‘vision [division] in de chillun an’ de one drawed me took an’ sold me to Ira Wyche. Marster Ira weighed 500 pounds. You kno’ he wuz de biggest man I eber saw! I wuz sold ‘cause dey say I had fits when I wuz a baby. I don’t ‘member, ha, ha, ha, ha—never havin’ none ‘cept ‘twas a devilish fit! Ha, ha—guess we all have dem some time or other.

Ya ain’t done yet tracin’ me up. ‘Nother legatee got to come in dar.

Everytime I wuz sold privately wid de family. No mam, I wasn’t put on de block. Dar wuz a block in de neighborhood. Dat’s whar dey sold slaves.

Certainly, cer-tain-ly, I’se don bin at dese sales—use to go any day. Well now, dey had certain days fer the sales. Yas mam! Dey put ya on dat block an’ whosoever wanted ya, bid for ya. De higest figger in de biddin’ got ya. Ain’t ya don seen auction sales of property like dat? Ya’ll see slaves chained—sometimes de slaves be in pens like cattle. Dey stan’s ya on dis block after de ones think dey want ya ‘zamines ya to see ef ya a strong nigger—a good worker. Dey trot ya up de road [to] see ef ya breath long.

All night long some dem slaves cried ‘til dey eyes look like dey gwine pop out dey head.

While slave standin’ on block, ol’ auctioneer say, “Strong nigger! Good color! Good worker! Who’ll buy? $100, $100, $100, $200, etc.” Ef hits a ‘oman, say pretty much same. Ya see, nobody wanted ol’ slaves. Young ones brought more money. Good breedin’ ‘oman brought big money. Dey say sometimes, “Fine wench! Good breeder,” and de like.

Lord chile, ef ya start me I kin tell ya a mess ‘bout reb times, but I ain’t tellin’ white folks nuthin’ ‘cause I’m skeered to make enemies. Lord chile, dar wuz mo’ grievin’ an’ mo’ crying over de family partin’—jes’ like de grief when

— page 206 —

ya sister or brother dies. Pew! Pew! Pew! Speculatin’ on us humans! God’s gwine punish deir chillun’s chillum, yas sur! Dem wuz terrible times! I had two brothers sold away an’ ain’t never seen ‘em no mo’ ‘til dis day.

Now, I wanna tell ya ‘bout a funny thing dat happen on de plantation jining my marster’s.

[At this point in the pencil copy of the interview, one entire page and some lines at the top of the next are missing.—Ed.]

Lord chile, I could [keep?] ya writin’ ste’dy two [weeks?] tellin’ ya—I mean pure [facts?] ‘bout dem times. Yas, everything that I’m tellin’ ya I’m a witness to an’ I don’t want to tell ya nothing dat ain’t true.

Aw—er—go back to dat sellin’. I ain’t tole ya ‘bout dat third marster of mine. When Wyche bought me he took ‘an carried me and give me to his son-in-law dat night—Dr. June Weaver. June Weaver had, er—a good many of us slaves but he didn’t never git a home of his own—jes stayed dar wid his father-in-law, an’ give us de understandin’ dat we ‘longst to him—yas, his niggers. Den I wuz fourteen years old.

Baby, ya kno’ dey whupped me? Yas, dey whupped me. Some whitefolks wuz terrible, terrible mean an’ some of ‘em wuz what ya might call medium. All ‘em worked ya like puttin’ out fiah.

Yas, dey made ya take off all yo clothes—strip jes’ like ya wuz bo’n an’ beat on ya natural hide. Dis back of mine don’ had a many, many lashin’ an’—oh baby!—I jes had to take it. Um! Um! Um! I try to forgit an’ not bring dem terrible time b’fo’ me. No, no, no, baby! I ain’t tellin’ ya all I seed wid dese eyes.

I was whipped by a ‘oman once when I ‘longst to Masses, ‘til de blood ran down to my heels—back open—so bad off had to grease. Couldn’t stan’, set, or walk after dem beatin’s. Lord, Lord, how dat salt an’ water use to sting. We went through sumpin. Don’t ya kno’ God gwine keep er punishin’ white folks—keep er sendin’ dem floods, win’ storms an’ lettin’ ‘asters [distasters] come to deir chillum an’ deir chillun’s chillun in dis day an’ time.

I recollect my marster use to do dis in som’ cases. He’d have a hole dug by us slaves in de smoke house an’ we’d bring oak bark an’ pile hit dar in dis hole an’ he’d make a big fiah. Ya kno’ he had a pipe wid a long, long stem dat he smoked. Well, he’d run dis pipe in de fiah, heat hit red hot, have slaves nacked, and as he set puffin’ he stop, call a slave, an’ stick dat red hot pipe to dey bare flesh. O Lord! Lord! Ya had to come to him—feared not to. Mercy! Mercy! Mercy! I ain’t gwine tell ya no mo’ dis ‘cause hit makes us jes’ hate all de white folks dat don’ us so bad in dem times.

— page 207 —

While dat sucker is stickin’ dat hot pipe to yo’ nacked flesh he make ya call him “Lord.” “Now ya say, ‘Oh Lord’—don’t say ‘Oh marster’—say, ‘Oh Lord.’ I’m yer God.” Den, mind ya, now ya is tied ‘cross a barrel. Ah, chile, I’se bin through sumpin, I tell ya.

Did de dirty suckers associate wid slave wimmen? I call ‘em suckers—feel like saying something else but I’ll ‘spec [respect] ya, honey. Lord chile, dat wuz common. Marsters an’ overseers use to make slaves dat wuz wid deir husbands git up, do as dey say. Send husbands out on de farm, milkin’ cows or cuttin’ wood. Den he gits in bed wid slave himself. Some women would fight and tussel. Others would be ‘umble—feared of dat beatin’. What we saw, couldn’t do nothing ‘bout it. My blood is bilin’ now [at the] thoughts of dem times. Ef dey told dey husbands he wuz powerless.

Are ya tellin’ me God ain’t er—er—punishing ‘em? Lord, Lord, I keep telling ya dem wuz terrible, terrible times. When babies came dey ain’t exknowledge ‘em. Treat dat baby like ‘tothers—nuthing to him. Mother feard to tell ‘cause she know’d what she’d git. Dat wuz de concealed part.

I know our overseer we all thought wuz doin’ wrong wid dis slave gal but we wuz feard to say hit. When de chile come ‘twas white.

One day all de little chillun was in yard playing—running ‘roun. An de gal’s husband wuz settin’ near de do’ wid de baby in his arms—rockin’ away—looking in child’s face an’ at de chillun playin’ in de yard. Wife wuz tendin’ to sumpin in de house. All at once he called her an’ sed, “Ole lady, dis chile ain’t like our other chillun.” She say, “Ole man, er—er—stop stedin’ [studying] so much foolishness.” He dar rockin’ de chile looking down at hit and says, “Dis chile is got blue eyes. Dis chile is got white fingernails. Dis chile is got blue eyes jes like our overseer.” “Ole man, I don’ tole ya, stop settin’ dar stedin’ so much foolishness! Ole man, you kno’ jes as well as I kno’, de mornin’ I went ya to Aint Manervia’s to git dat buttermilk. Dat wuz six months gone—March an’ setch, April an tetaple, May an’ dat”—Ha, ha, ha. Dats 3 months she counted. Ha! Ha! Ha! Foolin’ de ole man.—He sed, “Yas, dat is nine months.” Den he satisfied hit wuz his chile. De pint I’m at is, she wuz feard to tell on overseer den. I don’ witness everything I ya an’ knowd de gal. Her name wuz Sarah an’ wuz a slave of Wells in Greenville County—both she an’ her husband.

Now here’s another thing dat ‘kured [occurred] on de plantation jining ours. Hit ‘longst to Miles. A slave named Fairfax was foun’ dead in de road an’ ‘nother slave wuz foun’ standin’ near de body seeing ef he wuz really dead. White folks took Thomas (the slave), made him undress, smeared or dobbed tar all over his body from heels up under his arms, strung him to a tree, an’

— page 208 —

set fur to him. Terrible! Terrible! I hate to bring dis picture ‘fo’ me. He took ‘an blazed all up in a minute, seemed like, an’ he swallowed de blaze ‘an wuz dead in a little while. I wuz standin’ right dar watchin’.

No, dar wuz no church fer de slaves in dem days. We went to de white folks church to carry dinner an’, after dat white preacher finish preachin’ to de white folks, he would take us niggers down in de bushes under a tree. Dar he would preach one hour to us niggers. Ole man Josiah Bailey wuz dis preacher—der ol’est [oldest] one in Greenville County. He had another one to come an’ help him sometimes. His name wuz preacher Owens. When Josiah Bailey died I wuz working wid his son-in-law, Collier.

Paterrollers? Yas, dar wuz plenty of ‘em. I done bin to a many, many meetin’ whar dey come.

In dese meetin’s de preacher didn’t know a letter in a book but, ya know, he preached his kind of doctrine. Dar wasn’t no Bible in dem days ‘cept what de white folks he an’ dey won’t gwine let de nigger see hit—even ef he could read. Dar wuz no gwine to school. Nothin’ of dat sort. De ole mistess started learnin’ us slave chillun. As soon as ole marster foun’ hit tout, he stopped her from learnin’ niggers anything.

Lemme tell ya dis happenin’ at a meetin’. Ole preacher would come in bringing—ha, ha, ha—a long knot of lightwood. Ha! Ha! Ha! An’ he’d stick hit close to de fir’ so dat de fiah draw pitch out hit. When de paterrolers knock at de dow, ‘twas already hot. Ya see, dis preacher would run to de fiah place, git him a light an’ take dat torch an’ wave hit back an’ fo’th so dat de pitch an’ fiah would be flyin’ every which a way in dese paterrollers faces—you know dat burnt ‘em. Out de dow niggers go every which a way in de dark. Dar wuz a mighty scramble an’ scuffle. Ya see, paterrollers wuz mostly after de preacher ‘cause he wuz de leader of de meetin’ an’ ef dey caught ‘im, he knowd dar wuz a beatin’ fer ‘im. De Captian of my crowd wuz Jim Bennett. Chile, he’d slip dem shoes off an’ run like de devil. I kin see him now! As far as ya’d seed him dat torch wuz a’wavin’. Ole pat a-runnin’ in one direction an’ he’d be in another—light misleadin’. Sometimes, yas, dey would ketch ‘im but hit seldem. Dem whar didn’t run out would praise God in de way we knowd. Honey, we had answer from dem prayers. God knowd in dem days we wuz servin’ him best we knowd how.

Now, sometimes ya had no trouble at dem meetin’s ‘cause de marsters would say to dem ole paterrollers, “Ef ya ketch my nigger out, don’t ya beat or bother ‘im.” On de t’other han’, ole mean marsters would tell ‘em to ketch dey slaves an’ beat ‘em.

— page 209 —

Naw, slaves didn’t have wives like dey do now. I’ll tell ya de way we useta do.

Ef I liked ya, I jes go an’ tell marster I wanted ya an’ he give his consent—dat’s on de same plantation ef both slaves wuz his. Ef I see another gal over dar on another plantation, I’d go an’ say to de gal’s marster, “I want Jinny fer a wife.” Waal, dat marster will give me a strip of paper to take to my marster dat I could have her. I got two wives now, ain’t I? Hit may be still another gal I want an’ I’ll go an’ git her. Allright now, dars three wives an’ slaves had as many wives as dey wanted. Do ya kno’ women den didn’t think hard of each other? Got ‘long fine together. Now, out of all dem wives, when Lee surrendered, ya choose from dem one ‘oman an’ go an’ git a license an’ marry her. Some turned all dey wives loose an’ got a new wife from some t’other place.

Dar wuz a marriage on our plantation like de one whar I don’ explain to ya ‘bout. Ha! Ha! Ha! When Tom died dar wuz Ginny, Sarah, Nancy, an’ Patience. All four dar at de grave crying over dat one man. Do ya kno’ chile dem women never fou’t, fuss, an’ quarrel over dem men folks? Dey seemed to understood each other. Yes siree! Not any bit of hit.

None of our slaves made clothes. Dar wuz an ole loom dat we slaves carded on. Night time was spinnin’ time.

I got ‘ligion in loom clothes. Yas, I did. Had on ole wooden bottom shoes—ya could hear ‘em walking—plock, plock, plock—‘specially ef de groun’ wuz frozen—an’ dey didn’t give way to yer foot one bit. We had two suits. One fer summer—cotton—an t’other fer winter. We raised lots of sheep. See, git dat wool an dey had us to weave hit into cloth.

Aw chile, woods stayed full of niggers an’ sometimes dey would ketch ‘em by dogs (sometimes) called bloodhounds. Lord, Lord, dem ole dogs scent ya up to de crick. Ef ya ar’ runnin’ ‘way, jump in de crick. Dogs loose de scent of ya an’ too, ef ya take a raw onion [and] rub feet bottom ya make de dogs loose ya.

Dese slaves stay in woods ‘til dey git tired. Come back to marster, git a beatin’—“nine and thirty,” dey use to call hit.

We had one slave dat runned away an’ he had a vault in th’ woods fixed jes like dis room an’ he had a wife an’ two boys dat he raised under dar. Waal, ya say, “ ‘Scribe”—ya mean how ‘twas built? Dar wuz a hole cut in de groun’. I don’ cut a many a one an’ stole lumber at night to kiver hit over wid. Den dirt wuz piled on top of dis plank so dat hit won’t rain in dar. Den he has him some piping—trough-like—made of wood dat runned so many feet in de groun’. Dis carried smoke way away from dis cave. Fer fir used oak bark

— page 210 —

‘cause hit didn’t give much smoke. He had him a hole to come up on lan’. Dar wuz sticks, pine beard, and trash on top to kiver de hole. Ha, ha, ha. Ya could stan’ right over dis hole an’ wouldn’t kno’ hit.

Dis cave wuz not far from de crick. Reasons fer dat is ya could git water—an’ de dirt we throwd in crick to be washed down. Bob ‘longst to de Masses an’ so dar he an’ his family lived ‘til Lee surrendered. He wuz a half-brother of mine an’ all us slaves knew whar he wuz but, in dem days ya kno’, nigger didn’t tell on each other. Yas, yas, I don’ et many er good meal of vituals in Bob’s den.

T’other part of dis is de room wuz 10 feet square. In dis room dar wuz bed made out of rails. De mattress wuz made out of his wife’s old dresses an’ somebody else’s dat he could steal. De fiah place wuz made of rocks an’ bricks. Dar wuz no stoves. Sawed off blocks wuz used fer his chairs. Cooking things wuz old pieces of pots an’ pans broken at de great house.

Look here! Ain’t ya tired writin’ dis stuff? Go on gal, ya done picked me as de sayin’ is “like a turkey.” Does ya do everybody like dat? Ya gwine have a nigger histry? Ha, ha! Dat will take enybody er yeah to git through readin’. I hop’ ya ain’t wanna kno’ much mo’ ‘cause I ‘bout through. What ya say? I ‘clare! Ya kin git anything out. I don’ seed dat from de way ya git me.

Th’ fust money I got wuz made by cuttin’ pine poles—makin’ pit-coal. To make dis coal ya burn wood into coal. After all wood part burn out ya’d put fir’ out wid water—let coal dry off—den sell hit. Ya marster would lend ya his ole steer an’ kart to take hit to town. Sometimes hit stayed out dar fer weeks an’ weeks waitin’ few a chance to go.

My pappy made extra tobacco fer hisself—sold hit an’ use de money to buy us extra garments from de store. See, ef dey didn’t have anything fer ya to do ya could do dis work fer yoself at night time ef ya wuz a smart fellow.

Dar wuz a Captain who lived not far from my marster’s. His name was Parsons. He an’ my marster wuz pretty good friends. He wuz de Captain of a regiment dat wuz goin’ roun’ catching men to carry to th’ battlefield. Dey come to our house an’ got two—now listen. Dis wuz at de “groun’” plantation. Marster had two plantations. Dey got two from de “Great House” and two from de “Low Groun’.” I happen to be one of ‘em at de Low Groun’. Dey took me to go ‘roun’ wid ‘em to help dem to catch men.

We went to Mr. Young’s plantation an’ we caught one man—‘member dese is slaves—an’ hit wuz me and dis man er tusslin’. I wuz a-holdin’ ‘im an’ he wuz a—er—tryin’ to git loose to run ‘way. To weaken dis man down, one t’other men stuck de bayonet in him. Dey missed his arm an’ stuck mine right above de elbow. Sometime now dis arm pains me but his don’t las’ long. Dey

— page 211 —

stopped—put somethin’ on my arm. Other men took dis slave right on to de battlefield and put him to wuck on de breastworks.

Some slaves would volunteer an’ steal over on de Union side an’ wuz pentioned. My ha’f brother, Albert Prince, did dat. He belong to de Masses.

No, I didn’t see any fighting. Jes helped ketch slaves.

My marster didn’t leave us nothin’—no, nothin’ but de [interview ends here].

Date: June 14, 1937

Source: Va. State Lib.

[This copy also includes the first page of the interview given above.—Ed.]

Reverend Massey of the City Home, Petersburg, Virginia is five feet, ten inches tall, has a dark complexion with gray hair and a snow white mustache. He is very active and has a good strong voice. His eyesight is slightly impaired although he says he threads needles without his glasses at times. Rev. Massey walks two miles each week to see his many friends. He is a talkative and pleasant old gentleman who has seen “ ‘bout ev’ything to be seen in this life.”

For a number of years he preached but now he lives at the City Home. He has no relatives. He claims to be 93 years old, but the records of the Home list him as 88 years. His one task there is to dig the graves for his deceased brothers and supervise burial services.

Source: Negro in Virginia, published version, p. 173

[This may be part of the material missing from the copy in the Lewis Papers.—Ed.] Some nights house servants would come down to de quarters wid long faces an’ tell de fiel’ hands Marsa an’ Missus been talkin’ ‘bout money. Dey know dat mean dey gonna sell some slaves to de nex’ nigger-trader dat come ‘roun’. Sometimes dey would hear dem discussin’ what slaves to sell. Den sech prayin’, honey. Dem what ain’t named would pray to God ole Marsa ain’t gonna sell dem, an’ dem what been named would pray dey get a good Marsa. Nobody wantin’ to be sol’; but Marsa he ain’t ask you nothin’ ‘bout wantin’ to be sol’; he gwine sell you, an’ you got to go whar dey take you. I don’t know how much my sister Sadie was sol’ for, but ‘twas right much money. De man dat bought my sister took her to Southampton. Name was some kinda Hood. Po’ gal. We didn’t see her no mo’ till Lee’s surrender. Den my father went after her. You chillun what come ‘long since don’t know jus’ what us slaves went through.

APA Citation:
Massie, Ishrael & Byrd, Susie. “Interview with Rev. Ishrael Massie” (April 23, 1937). (2021, April 28). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Massie, Ishrael, and Susie Byrd. "“Interview with Rev. Ishrael Massie” (April 23, 1937)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (28 Apr. 2021). Web. 12 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, August 18
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.