We are not sure if the image on this book is actually Annie L. Burton or one of the other writers included in the volume. The woman depicted on the cover may merely be representative, but let us presume it is a likeness of Burton because her story is absolutely compelling and warrants discussion.
For us, she was first encountered years ago in Margaret Busby’s definitive collection Daughters of Africa. After profiling several pre-Revolutionary War individuals who lived in the northeast, we felt it was time to balance the geography and venture South again. Women’s Slave Narratives and Burton’s story is an informative portal.
Busby’s brief precis provides an engaging introduction to Burton, noting that she was born into slavery circa 1860. “Her father was a white man from Liverpool, England,” Busby begins, “and she was liberated in childhood by the Union army. Moving North in 1879, she was among the earliest Black emigrants there from the U.S. South during the post-Civil War era.
“First as a laundress,” Busby continued, “and later as a cook, she successfully supported herself in Boston and New York. She took on the responsibility of raising her sister’s son, moved to Georgia, and eventually became a restaurateur in Jacksonville, Florida and subsequently in Boston, seeing her nephew through college. She married Samuel Burton in 1888.” Burton published Memories of Childhood’s Slavery Days in 1909, and the excerpt below is from her opening chapters, where she begins recollecting a happy life on the plantation.
“The memory of my happy, care-free childhood days on the plantation, with my little white and black companions, is often with me. Neither master nor mistress nor neighbors had time to bestow a thought upon us, for the great Civil War was raging. That great event in American history was a matter wholly outside the realm of our childish interests. Of course we heard our elders discuss the various events of the great struggle, but it meant nothing to us. On the plantation there were ten white children and fourteen colored children. Our days were spent roaming about from plantation to plantation, not knowing or caring what things were going on in the great world outside our little realm. Planting time and harvest time were happy days for us. How often at the harvest time the planters discovered corn stalks missing from the ends of the rows, and blamed the crows! We were called the ‘little fairy devils.’ To the sweet potatoes and peanuts and sugar cane we also helped ourselves.
“Those slaves that were not married served the food from the great house, and about half-past eleven they would send the older children with food to the workers in the fields. Of course, I followed, and before we got to the fields, we had eaten the food nearly all up. When the workers returned home they complained, and we were whipped. The slaves got their allowance every Monday night of molasses, meat, corn meal, and a kind of flour called ‘dredgings’ or ‘shorts.’ Perhaps this allowance would be gone before the next Monday night, in which case the slaves would steal hogs and chickens. Then would come the whipping-post. Master himself never whipped his slaves; this was left to the overseer.
“We children had no supper, and only a little piece of bread or something of the kind in the morning. Our dishes consisted of one wooden bowl, and oyster shells were our spoons. This bowl served about fifteen children, and often the dogs and the ducks and the peafowl had a dip in it. Sometimes we had buttermilk and bread in our bowl, sometimes greens or bones. Our clothes were little homespun cotton slips, with short sleeves. I never knew what shoes were until I got big enough to earn them myself. If a slave man and woman wished to marry, a party would be arranged some Saturday night among the slaves.
“The marriage ceremony consisted of the pair jumping over a stick. If no children were born within a year or so, the wife was sold. At New Year’s, if there was any debt or mortgage on the plantation, the extra slaves were taken to Clayton and sold at the courthouse. In this way families were separated. When they were getting recruits for the war, we were allowed to go to Clayton to see the soldiers. I remember, at the beginning of the war, two colored men were hung in Clayton; one, Caesar King, for killing a blood hound and biting off an overseer’s ear; the other, Dabney Madison, for the murder of his master. Dabney Madison’s master was really shot by a man named Houston, who was infatuated with Madison’s mistress, and who had hired Madison to make the bullets for him. Houston escaped after the deed, and the blame fell on Dabney Madison, as he was the only slave of his master and mistress. The clothes of the two victims were hung on two pine trees, and no colored person would touch them. Since I have grown up, I have seen the skeleton of one of these men in the office of a doctor in Clayton.
“After the men were hung, the bones were put in an old deserted house. Somebody that cared for the bones used to put them in the sun in bright weather, and back in the house when it rained. Finally the bones disappeared, although the boxes that had contained them still remained.
At one time, when they were building barns on the plantation, one of the big boys got a little brandy and gave the children a drink, enough to make us drunk. Four doctors were sent for, but nobody could tell what was the matter with us, except they thought we had eaten something poisonous. They wanted to give us some castor oil, but we refused to take it, because we thought that the oil was made from the bones of the dead men we had seen. Finally, we talked about the big white boy giving us the brandy, and the mystery was cleared up.”