Visiting Our Past
By Rob Neufeld
Every day we see and feel the beauty of the world and of humanity. But history sometimes shows us how wrong things can go, and we wonder why we are vulnerable to such aberrations.
One of the most powerfully distressing examples of human cruelty and suffering comes from the testimony of W.L. Bost, an African-American former slave who moved to Asheville from Newton and spoke with Marjorie Jones of the Federal Writers’ Project in 1937, when he was 87.
W.L.’s last name derives from his “Massa,” Jonah Bost, who owned two plantations and a hotel in Newton.
The Bost “Missus” was “a good woman,” W.L. said. “There was never an overseer” on the plantations; the “oldest colored man” looked after the other slaves. And “she never allowed the Massa to buy or sell any slaves.”
Bost’s slaves had come down through at least two generations.
On occasion, speculators — slave merchants — would come through town and stay at Bost’s place. W.L. witnessed what ensued when he was a boy.
“They always come ‘long on the last of December,” he recalled, “so that the n—s would be ready for sale on the first day of January. Many the time I see four or five of them chained together.
“They never had enough clothes on to keep a cat warm. The women never wore anything but a thin dress and a petticoat and one underwear. I’ve seen the ice balls hangin’ on to the bottom of their dresses as they ran along, jes like sheep in a pasture ’fore they are sheared. They never wore any shoes.”
To keep warm, the slaves were made to run around by mounted overseers. “Lord miss, them slaves look jes like droves of turkeys runnin’ along in front of them horses,” W.L. said.
When the speculators stayed in the hotel, the slaves slated for sale stayed outside in a pen, like hogs. “All through the night I could hear them mournin’ and prayin’,” W.L. recollected. “I didn’t know the Lord would let people live who were so cruel.”
There was no escaping slavery. Paddyrollers — patrollers searching for fugitive slaves — would capture any person of color out and about without a pass from his or her master. They then would strip that person and lash him or her with a bull whip.
W.L. talked about seeing one young man slashed with a whip, salted and then whipped again, until he died.
W.L.’s mother, though grateful not to be separated from spouse and children, as was the case with the slaves on the market, prayed and sang for freedom.
The Bost slaves would sneak off to have church services in the woods back of the barn. They sang: “As I went down in the valley to pray/ Studyin’ about that good ole way/ Who shall wear that starry crown/ Good Lord show me the way.”
Two years before the end of the war, another Newton plantation owner, “ole man Hall,” freed his slaves and gave them money to buy their own land.
When the war ended, the Bost family went to work for Hall’s nephew, Solomon Hall. A few years later, W.L. found his way with his wife to Asheville and eventually built a house on Curve Street (off present-day Martin Luther King Jr. Drive).
The post-war years were as frightening to African-Americans in the plantation South as the slave years had been, according to W.L. and other former slaves interviewed by Marjorie Jones.
Fear, the sequel
When Union soldiers came into Selma, Alabama, Lizzie Williams, a petted slave to the wife of “Marse Jim Moore,” recalled, they looted and set fire to buildings. She knew of one man, “Marse Hyde,” who burned up inside his home when the soldiers torched it.
After the surrender, Williams said, “all the n—s (were) just lost. Nowhere to go, nothin’ to do, unless they stay with the massa. Nobody had anything but ’federate money, and it no good.”
White men, dispossessed and angry, went around tormenting and killing black men, Williams recounted. They went to kill her father, but he managed to persuade one of the vigilantes that he planned on staying on his massa’s plantation and helping him.
Lizzie’s pappy had had such confrontations before emancipation. Once, he evaded paddyrollers when he didn’t have a pass on him by jumping into a ditch and making grunting sounds like a hog.
In the post-war climate, the Ku Klux Klan struck fear into black people. Unlike paddyrollers, they moved around late at night, abducting victims.
They were known for their white hoods and robes, and, on occasion, horns they put over the caps of their hoods.
“They had another thing they called the ‘Donkey Devil,’” W.L. Bost related. “They take the skin of a donkey and get inside of it and run after the poor Negroes ... After the war was over, we were afraid to move.”
Sarah Gudger, a former slave of Joe Gudger in Oteen, and then of the Hemphills near Old Fort, told Marjorie Jones about the time a new slave woman joined the Hemphill household just before the end of the war.
“Some of these days yo’all gwine be free,” the woman said, jes’ like the white folks.” Sarah and the others laughed. “No, we jes’ slaves,” Sarah responded. “We allus have to work and never be free.”
Gudger recalled working from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. in all weather for the Hemphills. “I never knowed what it was to rest,” Gudger said. “Lawdy, honey, I’s took a thousand lashin’s in my day.”
Gudger’s worst moment was when she was not allowed to come in from the field after her mother had died and before she was put in the ground.
Fannie Moore, interviewed by Jones at her home at 151 Valley St. in 1937, recalled how hard her mother had worked.
“My mammy, she worked in the field all day and pieced and quilted all night. Why, sometimes I never got to bed. Had to hold the light for her to see by.”
Fannie’s father was a blacksmith, but when the war came, he was escort and cook for the master’s sons, Andrew and Tom Moore, of Moore, South Carolina.
Andrew was killed, shot while raising the Confederate flag for his regiment. Fannie’s father took him home, and then went back to stay with Marse Tom.
Tom was shot, too, but was protected from a fatal injury by a Bible in his breast pocket. “Pappy, he bring Marse Tom home,” Fannie related, “and take care of him till he well. Marse Tom gave pappy a horse and wagon cause he said he save his life.”
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly “Visiting Our Past” column for the Citizen-Times. He is the author of books on history and literature and manages the WNC book and heritage website The Read on WNC. Contact him at RNeufeld@charter.net
Photos and slave narratives are from the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. Visit www. memory.loc.gov, click on African-American history.