Abner Jordan, interviewed by Daisy Whaley at his home in Durham County, North Carolina, WPA Slave Narrative Project, North Carolina Narratives, Volume 11 Part 2, Federal Writers' Project, United States Work Projects Administration (USWPA); Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Accessed via Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938, American Memory, Library of Congress.
Abner Jordan, Ex-slave, 95 years.
"I wus bawn about 1832 an' I wus bawn at Staggsville, Marse paul Cameron's place. I belonged to Marse Paul. My pappy's name wus Obed an' my mammy wus Ella Jordan an' dey wus thirteen chillun on our family.
I wus de same age of Young Marse Benehan, It might be surprising that Mr. Jordan played with Bennehan Cameron, the son of the plantation owner. Given that white slave holders were wealthy, powerful families and that African American slaves were legally considered property and could be sold, beaten, or mistreated without any recourse, it might be surprising that children from these very different backgrounds whose parents had such a potentially oppositional relationship to each another would play together. These youthful friendships, however, were quite common, and frequently, the boyhood playmate of the master's son would become his personal servant as the two became older. As historian Eugene Genovese points out in the book Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, "Some slave children learned early and others late that they were slaves and that their white playmates stood in a superior position to them." (Genovese, p. 516) Certainly the shift from a relationship of playmates to one of master and slave must have been challenging, particularly for the slave child who would have lost so much in the transition. an' wus his body guard. Yes, suh, Where ever young Marse Benehan went I went too. I waited on him. Since Bennehan Cameron was born in 1854, he would have only been eleven years old, even at the very end of the war. Running away to join the Army seems unusual at this young age. It could be that the account is not accurate, or it could be that Bennehan did attempt to run away from home, as many young children threaten to do when angry with their parents, thinking he would join the Confederate Army, but didn't get very far before his father brought him back to Stagville. It would be interesting to consult Cameron family diaries and letters to see if any mention is made of Bennehan trying to run away..
Marse Paul had heap if niggahs; he had five thousan'. It may seem surprising that slaves were walking in the road without any kind of white supervision. It was relatively common for slaves to be permitted to travel away from the plantation either to do business for the plantation owner (picking up supplies, delivering messages and so on) or with special permission, such as to visit a spouse living on another plantation. In these cases, planters usually provided slaves with a written pass so that anyone stopping them in the road would know that they were away from the plantation with the owner's permission. On a plantation the size of Stagville, it would have been very difficult for whites to supervise the every movement of each of a thousand or more slaves on a daily basis. The pass system as well as the threat of violent physical punishment if slaves were found to be off the plantation without permission or were not doing the work assigned to them served as deterrents to slaves who might think about running away or avoiding their work while on an errand for the slave owner. On the plantation, the work of African American slaves would have been supervised by both white overseers, noted for their cruelty in many slave narratives, and African American slave foremen or drivers like Mr. Jordan's father. These slave foremen were in a difficult position. Often given special privileges by the master in exchange for making sure that the slaves under his charge did their work efficiently and well, the foreman would have been held accountable for any problems and would probably feel responsible for seeing that the master's wishes were, to a certain extent, carried out. On the other hand, being a slave himself and feeling an allegiance with the other slaves on the plantation, he probably would have been sympathetic to field hands' wants and needs as well. It's easy to imagine how the foreman could feel torn between these two competing sets of goals and concerned about his own welfare and that of his family. What might you worry about in that situation? And how would you resolve the conflict between what the master wanted, what the slaves under your charge wanted, and what you wanted for yourself and your family? What were the possible dangers of seeming to side to much with the other slaves? Of the other slaves thinking you were siding too much with the master?.
My pappy wus de blacksmith an' foreman for Marse Paul, an' he blew de horn for de other niggahs to come in from de fiel' at night. Dey couldn' leave de plantation without Marse say dey could.
When de war come de Yankees come to de house an' axed my mammy whare de folks done hid de silver an' gol', an' dey say dey gwine to kill mammy if she didn' tell dem. It is interesting that Jordan's mother stood up to Union soldiers in this way. On the one hand, the soldiers could be seen as her salvation since Confederate defeat would mean freedom for plantation slaves. On the other hand, the soldiers threatened to kill her. Slaves may have also felt that they needed to be careful during the war — while they may have been inclined to welcome the Yankees, if the war suddenly shifted and the Confederacy won, those slaves who had been supportive of Union troops would have surely been severely punished. Similarly, while the Union troops were moving through the South, slaves who wanted to support the Union may have been disinclined to do so because when the blue-coated soldiers would move on in a day or two, they would be left at the mercy of white plantation owners and overseers once again, at least until the end of the war. Moreover, slaves had no real reason to trust whites in Union uniforms any more than they trusted white Southerners. Their experiences with Northern troops (and the rumored experiences of others nearby) may have been much like this one, in which they were threatened and bullied, giving them little reason to rely on Union soldiers for kindness or liberation. This must have been a frightening and confusing time at Stagville — even if slaves felt no sense of loyalty toward the Cameron family, they may still have been unsure of how they should act and what would be in their own best interest. Also interesting in this passage is the question of whether or not Jordan's mother knew where the gold and silver were hidden. If the Union soldiers were asking her about it, she was almost certainly a house servant, so she would have had access to the white family and their belongings. While they weren't often given access to money, slaves who worked in the white household often polished silver dinnerware, candlesticks, and the like and often were around the white members of the household enough to overhear conversations and be aware of the white family's decisions and actions. It wouldn't be unusual, then, for a house servant, particularly one who had grown up (as many did) serving the white family in the household from a young age, to know a lot about the white family and their activities, or to know their patterns and tendencies well enough to make educated guesses about things not personally witnessed. So she could well have known where the Cameron family had hidden their valuables — indeed, where the Camerons would store something that they didn't want found. If so, why might she have kept that knowledge from the Union soldiers? Loyalty to the Cameron family? Or was she put off by the threats from the soldiers? Did she figure she was better off with the "devil she knew" than the "devil she didn't know?" It may be, too, that as the war drew to a close, the Cameron family saw the handwriting on the wall and realized that the Confederacy was going to lose the war. Understanding that their slaves would be freed, they may have feared the reaction from their slaves once they were liberated. Would there be violence? Looting? Theft? As a result, the Camerons may have been less open with their household servants than they might have otherwise and may have carefully guarded the secrets of where they hid their valuables. So perhaps Jordan's mother was telling the truth when she said she didn't know where the gold and silver were because the Camerons had carefully kept that information from her. Ultimately, we have no way of knowing whether Jordan's mother knew anything about the Cameron valuables. We could, if we were really interested, go to the diaries of the white family members living at Stagville at the time and see if they make any mention of hiding family valuables or of enlisting the help of slaves in doing so. It would also be interesting to see their perspective on the arrival of Union soldiers on the plantation..
De sojers stole seven or eight of de ho'ses an' foun' de meat an' stole dat, but dey didn' burn none off de buildin's nor hurt any of us slaves.
My pappy an' his family stayed wid Marse Paul five years after de surrender den we moved to Hillsboro an' I's always lived 'roun' dese parts. I ain' never been out of North Carolina eighteen months in my life. North Carolina is good enough for me."