Baily Cunningham: A Former Slave Remembers

By Patricia B. Mitchell

In 1938 Baily Cunningham, an ex-slave over 100 years old, was interviewed at his home in Starkey, Virginia (near Roanoke), by I. M. Warren, who was working in the Federal Writers' Project. In the following excerpts Cunningham describes life on a plantation a few miles west of Pittsylvania County.


“My father was a Cunningham and a white man, my mother was a Silvers, and was colored…. My mother and my grandmother were slaves. My mother belonged to Bemis English who had a large plantation about eleven miles from Rocky Mount, Virginia, in Franklin County. He moved to another plantation on Roanoke River in Bedford County soon after the war.

“When I was a boy he had about seventy-five slaves, including the children. The children were considered free until they were twenty years old and did not have to work. After they were twenty they had to work on the plantation or be sold [hired] out by our master.

“I was sold [hired] to a hotel man in Lynchburg soon after I was twenty for one year for $125.00. I remember well as I had never had on ‘britches’ or a suit of clothes until I went to Lynchburg. All the boys and girls wore 'shirttails' until we were twenty. I never had a hat or shoes until I was twenty. All under twenty were treated the same as the stock on the plantation. [Shirttails] was a long garment that came down to the knees. The boys and girls never wore but one garment even in the wintertime. It was made large and out of cotton, flax, or wool on the old loom which was kept going all the year.

“We ate twice a day, about sunup and at sundown. All the work hands ate in the cabins and all the children took their cymblin [gourd] soup bowl to the big kitchen and got it full of cabbage soup, then we were allowed to go [to] the table where the white folks ate and get the crumbs from the table. We sat on the ground around the quarters to eat with wooden spoons. Rations were given to the field hands every Monday morning. [We] would go to the smokehouse and the missus would give us some meal and meat in our sack. We were allowed to go to the garden or field and get cabbage, potatoes, and corn, or any other vegetables and cook in our shanties. We had plenty to eat. We had a large iron baker with a lid to bake bread and potatoes and a large iron kettle to boil things in. On Saturday morning we would go to the smokehouse and get some flour and a piece of meat with a bone so we could have a hoecake for dinner on Sunday. Sometimes we had plenty of milk and coffee.

“[Our homes] were log cabins, some had one room and some had two rooms, and board floors. Our master was a rich man. He had a store and a sawmill on the creek. The cabins were covered with boards, nailed on and had stick-and-mud chimneys. We had homemade beds, corded, with mattresses made of linen filled with straw, and pillows the same and a woolen or cotton blanket. We had homemade tables and chairs with wooden bottoms. The field hands had wooden sole shoes, the wooden bottom was made of maple, the size of the foot, one half inch thick or thicker and the leather nailed to the wood. Our master had lots of sheep and the wool was made into yarn and we had yarn socks in the winter. The cabins were built in two rows not very far from the missus' big house. My mother kept house for our missus and looked after the quarters and reported anything going wrong to the missus.

“A sick slave was reported to the missus. She had three kinds of medicine that would cure everything. One was vinegar nail, one rosin pills, and the other was tar. When we had aches or pains in the stomach or the back she would make us drink `vinegar nail' which was made by getting about a pound of square-cut iron nails and put[ting] them in a jug with a lot of vinegar, then at night we had to take two rosin pills. These pills were made of raw pine rosin. When we had the toothache or the earache she would fill the tooth or ear full of tar. We never had a doctor.

“[The most eventful day of my life was] the day the stars fell [probably the great Leonid meteor storm of Nov. 13, 1833]. I was eight years old but I remember it as well as if it was yesterday. [The stars] began to fall about sundown and fell all night. They fell like rain. They looked like little balls about as big as marbles with a long streak of fire to them. They fell everywhere but you couldn't hear them. They did not hit the ground, or the house. We were all scared and did not go out of the house but could see them everywhere. A few days later it began to snow and snowed three days and nights. The snow piled up over some of the houses. Some people froze and some starved.”


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This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.