As part of the United States Work Progress Administration started by President Franklin Roosevelt during the great depression, in 1935 the Federal Writers’ Project was created. The project went on until 1943. The purpose of this project was to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. Much of the project involved the research and production of history and guidebooks of the states. Another part of the Writers’ Project was to interview former slaves. Most of those interviews were published soon after. But those of the Louisiana Writers’ Project remained unpublished for almost fifty years. In 1990 that all changed with the release of “Mother Wit – The Ex-slave Narratives of the Louisiana Writers’ Project” by Ronnie W. Clayton, the University of Kansas, Humanities Series 57, David M. Bergeron, General Editor, published by Peter Lang, New York.
In this book the narratives of former Louisiana slaves are in print for the first time. It is their true stories providing a graphic and moving portrait of life during and after slavery, describing topics like punishment, marriage, religion, food, medical treatment, funerals, war, education, and other subjects. Two of the ex-slaves, Henry Reed and Mary Ann John were from Opelousas, interviewed by Flossie McElwee, one in 1936 and the other in1940.
Henry Reed talked to McElwee about his life, the food he ate, the clothing he wore, his education, medical care, recreation and his experiences following the Civil War. Born into slavery in 1853 on a cotton plantation in St. Landry Parish near Opelousas, Henry was the son of Margaret and Lewis Reed. He had an older brother named Nat and a younger brother named Lewis. The Reed family belonged to Governor Alexandre Mouton.
Here is some of that interview in Henry Reed’s exact words:
“I was a house servant and yard boy – waited on the master and missis. My missis christen me in St. Landry Parish. Yes, Ma’am, she always feed me when I was hungry. We had milk, Taters, possums, wild duck and all kinds of good grub. In dem days you did not have to pay to hunt them. Us got our vegetable out of the master’s garden. You see, we had worked and made dem.”
Reed went on to describe what type of clothing he wore, the house they lived in, his education, religion, medical care, entertainment and much more. Reed said during the Civil War soldiers took his father away to fight in the war, and the rest of the family was set free. His father died while in the service. Following that the family moved to Morgan City. Reed, who was christened a Catholic, became a Baptist and eventually was a preacher.
Reed ended his interview with his favorite song:
Glory, Glory Hallelujah , When I lay my burdens down, When I lay my burdens down, No more Monday, no more Tuesday
Glory, Glory Hallelujah, Howdy, Jesus, Howdy, No more sorrows, no more weeping, When I lay my burdens down.
The other Opelousas ex-slave interviewed by Flossie McElwee on June 6, 1940, was Mary Ann John. She was born on February 14, 1855, on a large cotton, corn and potato plantation near Opelousas. Her parents were Alfred and Maria, and she was their oldest child. In the interview, she said her owner was a Creole man she called Mr. Lizi, who owned many slaves. She described the treatment of slaves in the interview, and her life on the plantation.
Mary Ann also recalled she was ten years old when peace was declared (when the Civil War ended). She remembered when she saw the Yankee soldiers coming down the road with swords flashing, and all the folks running and crying. Following the war, she married and sold vegetables on the street. Her husband was a moss picker, gathering the Spanish moss that was used as stuffing for mattresses and chair cushions.
The book “Mother Wit – The Ex-slave Narratives of the Louisiana Writers’ Project” is a fascinating story. It is a story that only those who lived it could describe. Those interested in reading the book can contact the Opelousas Public Library or the Louisiana State Library.