“Interview with Robert Ellett” (December 25, 1937)


Robert Ellett, a man born into slavery, tells an interviewer from the Virginia Writers Project about his life. Some of his major memories include hearing rumors of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, his arrival in Hampton with his mother as refugees during the American Civil War (1861–1865), and Abraham Lincoln’s death. Ellett’s interviewer, Claude W. Anderson, included comments in this transcription. His 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.



Robert Ellett (b. 1849)

Hampton, Va.

Interviewer: Claude W. Anderson

Date of interview: December 25, 1937

Source: Va. State Lib.

I was born in 1849 in King William County, about seventeen miles from West Point, Virginia at a place called Sweet Hall, Virginia. I was a slave for ten years. There are seven boys and four girls in my family; all of them are dead except me. When I was eighteen months old, I hurt my hand. They say I was such a peart little feller that everybody wanted me, and some one had taken me out in the field where the hands was working. They had me all up in the air playing with me, and the first thing they knew I had my hand in the shuck cutter, and had cut it up—these three fingers (left hand). But they say I was a remarkable child—so strong and so healthy.

— page 84 —

We was favored slaves. My parents was the two best slaves on the plantation. They was valued high. My people are proud, fierce, and full of pride. They have terrible tempers, if you try to be hard, but will do anything for you if you are gentle with them. They never have nor ever will let anyone beat them or make them do anything by force. Ask for, and you get, but don’t command. You get their temper, that bad blood up and they die before they do it. Here’s the reason—I am a mixture of Negro-Indian-French and white blood. My father’s grandfather was Governor of the State of Virginia, Governor Ellett, yessir! [No Ellett was ever governor of Virginia.] My mother’s father was a white preacher. She was also part Red Indian which is one of the fiercest tribes of Indians that lived as you probably know. So you can see why I was so proud, fearless, and full of the devil.

I grew up with the young masters. I played with them, ate with them and sometimes slept with them. We were pals. Because of my unusual strength and spirit I would let none of them beat me at any game or in any wrestle. I was the best of the young boys on the plantation. My mistess was a nice woman. In fact, she was an angel. I’ve seen her often, whenever she was nursing one of her boys at her breast, have one of my brothers nursing at the other breast. We got the best of food and care. If anybody came to visit us, the mistess never let them leave without giving them something to eat. She and mother had babies at the same time. They was very devoted to each other. My master was a Garrett and an old devil. He was the meanest man out, but father wouldn’t let him beat him. I’ve seen him time and again try to beat my father an’ I always heard my father say, “I’ll die before I’ll let you beat me!” I wus the same way and still am even though I am lying here in this bed. No white man or black man ever beat me. No sir. If any white person or anybody else jumped me I could jes’ get these two fingers in his throat and wham him with this fist once, down he goes to the ground and I walk on him.

In those days if you was a slave and had a good looking daughter, she was taken from you. They would put her in the big house where the young masters could have the run of her. Father was French, Indian, and African. Such a mixture, you know, hated any walking white man. Paw was very mean and always said just what he wanted. He met you half way and expected you to meet him the same. One day a strange white man came down around our cabin and tried to get my sister out. Father jumped him and grabbed him in the chest. He pointed at the big house and said, “If you don’t git in that house right now, I’ll kill you with my bare hands.” The white man flew.

— page 85 —

One day the old master carried me in the barn and tied me up and whipped me ‘cause I wouldn’t call my young masters, “masters.” He beat me till the blood run down and I wouldn’t say a squeak. Not one word of promise did I give to call either of those two boys I was raised with, “master.” He kept yelling, “Call him master! Say master.” I ain’t said that first word till yet, so finally he untied me an’ turned me loose, and before we could git out of the barn, we, the young master and me, was fighting like dogs. They had to part us again and take me off him. Next day I heard old master telling the mistess that she had to git rid of Emmy’s (my mother’s) boys, because they was too proud and couldn’t be managed.

And just to show you what a fine looking lad I was I had eight hundred dollars in bank notes and silver laid on my head one day when I was eight, by a white man. He wanted to buy me. He said there was something in me that he wanted. Of course I was only eight, but I was strong and was working in the fields a-worming tobacco then. I examined tobacco leaves, pull off the worms, if there were any, and killed them. That’s why that old white man offered so much money for me. He laid the money on my head and dared old master to pick it up. He couldn’t take it up because I belonged to the mistess and she couldn’t take it up because the will that left us to her said that not one of us could be sold out of the family. That’s all that saved me.

The overseers was white and of the lowest grade. The slaves always hated them. They used to sell slaves one mile below King William Court House jes’ like you sell sheep, cattle, or horses. They would drive them up there in droves from Middlesex, Essex, King and Queen, and Gloucester counties and sell them. They would be handcuffed with chains and shackled with a long chain running down the middle of them, first two men and then two women, all in a long line waiting to be sold. I’ve seen the white folks beat slaves unmercifully for running away. They used bloodhounds to hunt them and catch them. After they beat all the skin off the slaves’ backs, they wash them down in salt and water. Many slaves escaped though, through West Virginia to Ohio. They’s safe when they get out there. “Moses” would come around like today and tonight she would run them away and get them over near the border line and run them over into Pennsylvania the next night on what you call the “Underground Railroad.” I never saw “Moses.” I heard talk of her, but I never saw her. [Harriet Tubman, an ex-slave active in the Underground Railroad, was known as “Moses.”]

— page 86 —

I had a cousin named Rosena Lipscombe. She was a slave and lived on a plantation a few miles from our place. Rosina was about eighteen years old when she was sold down south. Rosina was sold by her guardian in the absence of her master. Her guardian was a white man and was her father. Rosina married the man who bought her. He said that she was too pretty and fine a girl to be sold. They had to steal her off to sell her. It was a dirty trick her guardian played on her owner. Anyway the war came along and the slaves was freed. Then Rosina’s husband came back to King William County, sued her father for her property. He got it too.

I came down to Hampton with mother in June 1863 as a refugee. Father was cooking in the Union Army and brother was waiting on a Colonel in General Storeman’s [probably Stoneman’s] Cavalry. We runned away and came to Hampton. The colored people followed the Union Army back as refugees.

You see it all happened this way. At that time McClelland was on the Pamuky River near White House Landing, Virginia, around Lee’s farm. That was in 1862. Longstreet got behind McClelland and blowed up his magazine at White House . The result was the Seven Day Battle. Then McClelland fell back down to Harrison’s Landing and retreated by way of the Potomac River from Old Point Comfort. General Dicks made a raid around Fredericksburg and brought back everything he could pick up such as animals, food, and all the colored men to put them behind the Union lines where they could help fortify the place, cook food, and work for the officers.

I saw the battle of the Merrimac and Monitor. The shores was lined thick with people watching that strange fight. All I could see was the flash of the guns. In the battle of Big Bethel the rebels claimed a victory and all it really was, was the Union soldiers firing on their own men by mistake. At that time Newport News was just one old house. Hampton has been here for years, man. During the war Lee had a general called General Wade Hampton who burned most of Hampton.

When Lincoln was killed, everybody went into mourning. Very few were sad; most were rejoicing. I was out in the field plowing when the news came that Booth had shot Lincoln. That was five days after the fall of Richmond. After his death Johnson, an old democrat, wouldn’t give the colored people any more government credit. He deprived the black man of all his privileges. Why the only thing that saved the black man from slavery again was the fact he fought in the war.

I saw General Armstrong the first day he put a foot in Hampton and I used to see Butler every day. Butler! Why man General Butler’s headquarters were in the Segar’s House. The Soldiers’ Home is sitting in that place now.

— page 87 —

I was going to school down at the old Butler school when General Armstrong came. The teacher was a white man by the name of Mr. Raymond. Before the war there was a girls’ high school where the Soldiers’ Home now sits. This man taught there. During the war Butler put him to teaching in Butler’s school. The Butler school had four wings. All the wings opened on to a big meeting room in the center. I attended this school in 1865. Butler’s camp was between Butler school and Soldiers’ Home. It was right here that Butler made up the Second and Tenth Cavalry out of Negroes entirely. The lumber for the school was gotten from clearing the woods for roads up above Newport News. Soldiers did all the work. They had an old steam engine which they used to make slabs with. The school was built from slabs, the greener the better. You can cut slabs straight when the wood is green, you know.

Armstrong wanted to start up independently. Butler had charge of everything except the farm which sits where the school sits now. The farm belonged at Senator Segar; so the whole farm was transferred to General Armstrong. At that time Armstrong was enlisting men down here where the Building and Loan is located on the corner of King and Lincoln Streets. Slaves lived anywhere then. Most of them lived in slab houses in Slabtown. That was in Phoebus. Anyway Armstrong began Hampton out of the best classes from Butler’s School.

At that time I was the strongest man in this state. Ask these people around here about me. They can tell you. I could almost beat a horse running and could make ten miles anywhere inside an hour. I could lick any two men. Mr. Rogers from Hampton Institute was one of my best friends later on, and even then he used to always be on me to control my temper. He is a fine man. Do you know him?

I sailed in the Peabody Firm for two years. I remember the time when I stood on the levies at New Orleans and took a cotton hook and stuck it in a bale of cotton and raised chest high alone. I been up in Lapland where they have one and one half hours day, twilight, all the rest of the night. I’ve crossed the Atlantic five times one way. I’ve been around the whole world. I saw some of the colored folk that were shipped from here to Haiti when they took a shipload from Hampton. I saw two of the men I knew down there. I was hurt pretty badly in Bristol, England. We were in harbor and a jib boom struck me across the middle of my back. Ever since that I’ve had spells of weakness which only a change of job could stop. That’s the reason I had to leave my job at the Institute several times. I worked at the Institute for thirty years, and was pensioned from the Hampton Institute. Once before that, I was in the mouth of the Mississippi at Orleans on the Zephyr, a 3,676 ton ship. I fell overboard and went under the ship, but I saved myself by

— page 88 —

swimming out from under the ship and swam up to the surface on the other side. The Lord was truly with me. When your time comes, you’re going. People live too fast now therefore, they die fast. Nobody lives long anymore. Everything moves according to the time. The whole world is speeded up now. Come back again soon. Goodbye.

APA Citation:
Ellett, Robert & Anderson, Claude. “Interview with Robert Ellett” (December 25, 1937). (2021, July 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Ellett, Robert, and Claude Anderson. "“Interview with Robert Ellett” (December 25, 1937)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Jul. 2021). Web. 11 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, August 18
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