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Texas Slave Narrative

  Jeptha Choice

Jeptha Choice , 1117 Brashear St., Houston, Texas, was born in slavery, on the plantation of Jezre Choice , about 6 miles south of Henderson, Texas. Jeptha was sent to school with the white children, and after he was freed, he was sent to school for several years, and become a teacher. He moved to Houston in 1888 and opened a barber shop. Jeptha claims to have been born on Oct. 17, 1835, which would make him 101 years old. He has the appearance of extreme age, but has a retentive memory, and his manner of speaking varies from fairly good English to typical Negro dialect and idiom.

I'll be 102 years old, come fall, 'cause my mother told me I was born on Oct. 17, 1835, and besides, I was about 30 years old at the end of the Civil War. We belonged to the Choices and I was born on their plantation. My mother's name was Martha and she had been brought here from Serbia. My father's name was John and he was from the East Indies. They was brought to this country in a slave boat owned by Captain Adair and sold to someone at New Orleans before Master Jezze Choice bought them. I had five sisters and one brother but they are all dead, 'cepting one brother who lives near Henderson. Master Jezze was right kind. He had 50 or 60 slaves and a grist mill and tannery besides the plantation. My white folks sort of picked me out and I went to school with the white children. I went to the fields when I was about 20, but I didn't do much field work 'cause they was keepin' me good and they didn't want to strain me. On Sunday we just put an old Prince Albert coat on some good nigger and made a preacher out of him. We niggers had our band, too, and I was one of the players. The master was mighty careful about raisin' healthy nigger families and used us strong, healthy young backs to stand the healthy nigger gals. When I was young they took care not to strain me and I was as handsome as a speckled pup and was in demand for breedin'. Later on we niggers was 'lowed to marry and the master and missus would fix the nigger and gal up and have the doin's in the big house. The white folks would gather round in a circle with the nigger and gal in the center and then master laid a broom on the floor and they held hands and jumped over it. That married 'em for good. When babies was born old nigger grannies handled them cases, but until they was about three years old they wasn't 'lowed round the quarters, out was wet nursed by women who didn't work in the field and kept in separate quarters and in the evenin' their mammies were let to see 'em. We was fed good and had lots of beef and hawg-meat and wild game. Possum and sweet yams is mighty good. You parboil the possum about half done and put him in a skewer pan and put him in a hot oven and just 'fore he is done you puts the yams in the pan and sugar on 'em. That's a feast. "Sometimes when they's short of bread the old missus would say, 'How 'bout some ash cakes?' Then they'd mix cornmeal and water and sweep ashes out of the open hearth and bake the ash cakes  The master and his boys was all kilt in the war and after freedom I stayed all summer. It was pretty tough on us niggers for a while, 'cause the womenfolks what was left after the war didnt have money. But Colonel Jones , the master's son-in-law, took me to live in Henderson and paid twenty-five cents a weak for more schoolin' for me and I learned through fractions. Then I got me a job teachin' school about six months a year and in off times I'd farm. I did lots of different kinds of work, on the narrow gauge railroad out of Longview and I learned to be a barber, too. But I had to give it up a few years back 'cause I can't stand up so long any more and now I'm tryin' to help my people by divine healing.

Jeptha (Doc) Choice , 1117 Brashear St., Houston, Tex., was born in slavery, Oct. 17, 1835, on the plantation of Jezro Choice , located about 6 miles south of the present city of Henderson, Tex. Being well-liked by his master, Jeptha was given a rudimentary education, attending the plantation school with the white children, and learning to read and write. After the Civil War, Jeptha , 30 years old and no longer a slave, wanted a better education, and Col. Jones , ex-Confederate officer, son-in-law of Jeptha's former master, paid 25cents weekly to a nearby school for the negro's tuition, the pupil advancing through "fractions" and becoming according to his own statement a "sure 'nuff colege nigger". Jeptha then taught school for several years. He moved to Houston in 1888, and opened a barber shop, one of two in this city at that time. Advanced years forced him to give this up and he has since practiced "Divine Healing" among members of his race. In spite of his extreme age, Jeptha, or "Doc", as he is more familiarly known, has an exceptionally clear mind and retentive memory for past events during his lifetime. His pronunciation is also quite good, although, at times his speech drops back into typical negro dialect for a word or phrase.

Yes, suh, I'll be 102 years old come fall, 'cause I was bo'n Oct. 17, 1835, and that's the truth. My mother told me that was the date and I reckon she know; and beside', I was grown up befo' the War". We belonged to the Choice's , old Massa Jezro and the Missus, I don' remember her name. We niggers all called her the 'old Missus', and I was bo'n on their plantation, 6 miles south of where Henderson now is. 'Course, at that time there wan't no town there. The Massa and Missus had three children, and I was named after one of the boys, Jeptha . I don' recall the other children's names, but one was a girl and she married Col. Jones what took care of me right after the war, when things were mighty tough for us niggers". My mother's name was Martha . She had been brought here from Serbia, and my father's name was John , he was from the East Indies. They was brought to this country in a slave boat owned by Capt. Adair , and sold at New O'leans to some one, I don't recollect Mamma telling me who, befo' they belonged to Massa Jezro . I 'member Mamma telling me the old Massa liked them and let them 'jump ovah the broom' (marry), and I was the first child. I had five sisters and one brother, but they is all dead 'ceptin' my brother who lives up near Henderson. I think I hear Mamma tell that her folks lived in Albino".Old Massa Jezro was a right kind one and treated us good. He had 50 or 60 slaves and besides the plantation, he had a grist mill and tannery". I recollec' hearing the womenfolks say that befo' I was bo'n some stars fell in April or May, - fifteenth of April or fifteenth of May in 1835, about a year befo' the Texas War; and where the stars fell they set fire to all the small stuff on the ground, like chaff and straw, and the old nigger folks thought that the world was comin' to the end". Yes, suh, my whitefolks was pretty good to me and sort a picked me out. You see if a nigger was smart and showed promise, he was taught how to read and write, and I went to school with the white children on the plantation. Once in a while old Massa would take me along to Nacogdoches and would give me five or ten cents for soda water or candy. When we got back, I sure would uppity them other young niggers. I went to the fields when I was about 20 years old, but I didn' have to do much field work, 'cause they was keepin' me good and they didn' want to strain me. In 'puttin' in time' in the spring and 'pickin' time' in the fall, the most slaves went out to the field as soon as it was light, and got in at sundown. During in between times it was easier. The men worked every day except Saturday afternoon and Sundays. The womenfolks had Saturday off to wash clo'es and do the cleanin'.

On Sundays, we'd just put a ol' Prince Albert coat on some good nigger and make a preacher out of him. The white folks was mostly Methodists, and sometimes they would listen to our preachin's and sorta keep an eye on us thataway". We niggers had our band, too, and I was one of the players. They was a nigger by the name of Ole Man Tout , the 'Conjoor', who could play the violin jus' as good as anyone you hear today. I don' know why he was called 'Conjoor', except that he never had to do any hard work and was always around the 'Big House'. If any one would say, 'I think we'll send Ole Man Tout to the fields today', the old Missus would say, 'No. The day is too warm, and the work too hard for the old man. He'll stay at the house', and sure 'nuff he would. Course, sometimes the niggers in the field would get o'nry and not work good, but the overseer on our place wasn' 'lowed to whup. At night, when they came in he would tell the old Massa what the trouble was about, and then the Massa would whup the nigger what he thought he deserved. Our Massa had a tree he tied a bad nigger to to whup him, but some white folks had ring posts, and tied a nigger around the neck with a rope  and run the rope through the ring  and tied him up like a mule to whup him. Then in the field was always a big strong nigger to keep peace among the hands. He was called by the other slaves 'nigger traitor' behin' his back, and was sorta like a straw-boss-man. He had to be good with his fists to make the boys who got bad in the field, walk the line. 'Course when Old Massa come to the field, anyone who was actin' up started right in to choppin', and everything would get quiet as could be". The old Massa was mighty careful about the raisin' of healthy nigger families, and used us strong, healthy young bucks to 'stand' the healthy young gals. You see when I was young, they took care not to strain me, an' I was a pretty good nigger, as handsome as a speckled pup, and I was in much demand for breedin'. You see in those days people seemed to know more about such things than they do now. If a young, scrawny nigger was found foolin 'round the women, he was whupped, and maybe sold". "Later on we good strong niggers was 'lowed to marry, and the Massa and old Missus would fix the nigger and gal up in new clo'se and have the doin's in the 'Big House'. White folks would all gather round in a circle with the nigger and gal in the center. Then old Massa would lay a broom down on the floor in front of 'em an' tell 'em to join hands and jump over the broom. That married 'em for good. When babies were bo'n, old nigger grannies handles 'most all them cases, but until they was about three years old, the children wa'n't 'lowed 'round our regular living quarters, but were wet nursed by nigger women who did not work in the field and kept in separate quarters. In the evenin', the mammies were let to see them. Course, when anything bad in sickness turned up, a doctor would be sent for, but for ordinary sick folks, roots and herbs was most the medicine used until they brung in drugs from over the water. Befo' the War, they used mostly bitter apple root and blue mass pills. After the war, quinine was brought in from over the ocean. Once in a while old Massa would send some niggers to another plantation to help with the crops, and would give them a furlough so that when they were off the plantation they would not be stopped by white folks and whupped. Iffen old Massa hear of anyone who he let borrow his niggers mistreatin' 'em, he never would loan them to him no more. Old Massa used to feed us good too, and they was lots of beef and hogs on the plantation, and lots of wild game, too. 'Possum and sweet yams is mighty good. You fix it this way  first, parboil a 'possum 'bout half done and then put him in a skewer pan. You know what one of them are? Then put the 'possum in a red-hot oven, and a little while befo' he is done, lay the yams in the pan and sprinkle a little sugar over them and cook them together a little while longer. Then Cap'n, you has a feast! Sometime at mealtime when they was short of bread at the house, the old Missus would say, 'What about some ash cakes? 'Ash cakes is what we called them  plain ash cakes. The womenfolks would take cornmeal and mix it with water, sometimes they would put in a little milk; but mostly plain water, that's why they was called plain ash cakes. Then they would sweep away the ashes from in front of the big open ha'th and put the ash cakes on the hot coals to bake. When they was done they would sweep the ashes off 'em and there they was!Course sometime they was grief, too, when some of the niggers was sold. Iffen old Massa sold a nigger man that was married, he always tried to sell the wife to the same white folks so they would not be separated. Children under 12 were 'thrown in'. But sometimes a nigger would be sold to some one, and the woman to some one else; and then they'd be carryings-on. But they was so 'fraid of getting whupped, or maybe killed, that they went pretty peaceful-like  but mighty sorrowful. The children went with the mother. "I stayed with my white folks right through the war, but the old Massa and his boys joined the South' army and they was all killed. I was in the 'Home Guard', which was to protect the old Missus and the other womenfolks. The old Massa wouldn't take any of us niggers along 'cause he said this was a white man's fight. "After the war, some Federal provost officers on horseback, came to the plantation and told the old Missus to call everybody up to the house, and then read a proclamation saying that we niggers was as free as our masters; and not to work anymore unless we got paid for it and that if we wanted to, we could have land free to farm. This was in July, 1865. I did not have any place else to go, so I stayed and helped put up the crops. That fall, Col. Jones , who married the old Massa's daughter, came home from the war. The reason he did not get back sooner was because he had been wounded and in the hospital. "It was pretty tough on niggers for a while. The white folks what was left was mostly womenfolks and they hadn' no money. Then the 'Kluxes' was bad on niggers, too, and they and some young white men would whup niggers 'til the Federals told them iffen they didn' stop that, they would shoot them. After that it wasn't so bad. "They didn't whup or bother me 'cause Col. Jon es sorta took care of me, and when he went to live in Henderson, took me with him. Then he paid 25cents a week for more schoolin' for me and I learned through fractions. When I learned them I was rated a sure 'nuff College nigger'. "Then I got me a job teachin' school. The schools in them times went about six months, and in off times I would farm some and help keep niggers out of trouble, 'cause on account of my learnin' and not using tobacco, or drinking, I was kinda boss among the niggers, and the white folks liked me, too. "Well, then, I did lots of different kins of work, - worked on the narrer g'age railroad out of Longview; farmed some more, - and did lots of other work. "I learnt to be a barber, too, and come to Houston, in 1888, and started a barber shop. They was only one or two barber shops here when I come. That was the longest steady work I ever done; but I had to quit a few years back 'cause I can't stand up for so long no more. Now, I'm tryin' to help my people by 'Divine Healin', and tellin' them the right way to live  Ive been married eight times, but haven't got any legitimate children that I know of. I've got some children from 'outside' women I've had to 'stand' for, but I don't know how many. You see, them old days was different from what it is now!"

"Like I told you, Massa Jezro's plantation was on Barnhart Creek, 'bout 6 mile south of where Henderson now is at, and on the home place they was 'bout a section of land. Then he had lots mo' land what he farmed, up near Lindale. He raised mostly cotton and co'n and some oats and rye for feed. "The gin and gristmill and tan yard was all on the home place, and I rec'lec the gin was run by horse power and the gristmill by water. "I don' rec'lec' how many slaves Massa Jezro had, but they was 20 or 25 houses or quarters for the slaves,  you know, jes' regular shot-gun kind of 2 or 3 rooms and built with logs. The big house was made with logs too, but was sealed with 3 foot boards. It sure was a fine big house for them times, and had galleries upstairs all 'round it. "I rec'lec's our school what I went to with the white folks children was in the plunder house. We called it that 'cause any thing that they had that they didn' know where else to put it, they put in the plunder house. Our teacher was a white man, but I don' rec'lec' his name, it's been so long ago, but we used a Webster spell book, and had slates and chalk, and he teach us spellin', readin', writin', and to count to a hundred. "Like I told you Massa Jezro kind of chose me and treated me mighty good and I even plays games with the white boys, like marbles and mumble peg,  you know, iffen you miss doin' all the things with the knife what the leader does, you has to pull the peg outten the ground with your teeth. Then when I got older, 'bout 14 or 15 we used play ring games like 'Choose Your Lady' and 'Ring 'round Rosie'. But when I got this old, Massa Jezro made us play games 'mongst ourselves and wouldn't let us mix up none with the white children in playin'. Sometimes though he would give us a furlough on Sunday and let us go to a neighbor plantation and play with the nigger children there. You had to have a furlough when you went, cause iffen you hadn't the paddlerollers would whup you. But the white folks watched us mighty close 'long bout that time, 'cause they didn't want no foolishment 'tween us boys and young gals  Our clo'es were all made right on the plantation by grannies, on spinning wheels and for colorin' they used berries, mostly poke berries. "Come Saturday noon, the field hands all came in and they was no more work till Monday, 'ceptin' the womenfolks washin' clothes. Mos' Saturday afternoons we would go fishin' down in the creek, and it wasn' no job to get a mess of cat fish or perch or silver slides for supper. "Then mos' every Saturday night iffen it wasn' cold weather some one would start up a song. I rec'lecs' one 'bout 'Miss Sally' and 'Howdy Mr. Bear,' but its been so long ago I don't 'members' the tune or words. "Out in the fields the hands had a song what went like this: 'I'm goin' away tomorrow, Oh, Oh, Oh, Oh, I'm goin' away tomorrow, Oh,Oh, Oh.' Our church songs was mostly 'Amazing Grace' and 'My Heavenly Home', but Massa Jezro wouldn' let us sing no church songs in the field. "When some one would die, they would make a box and put him in it, then put it on a wagon and haul it to the graveyard on the plantation. We would follow after the wagon and when we got to the grave when they put the box in the ground we would sing soft like: 'Hark, from the tomb the mournful sound, My ears attend the cry. A living man now views this ground, Where we may shortly lie.' The men would shovel the dirt in and cover up the grave, and someone would start singin': 'Oh Lawd, how lo-o-o-ng How lo-o-o-ng, how lo-o-o-ng, how lo-o-o-ng.'

Come Christmas time though, was when they was big doins' at Massa Jezros '. Come Christmas, iffen you could get 'Christmas Gif' first on Massa Jezro , he would give you two-bits. Then he would always give a Christmas party and tree. Then they would have a big curtain drawn across and back of this was all the presents, and when your name was called, you walked up to the curtain and the voice in the back what was Massa Jezro would say 'Jeptha , is you a good boy?' And I would say 'Yes suh!' Then he would hand out a present, what was usually clothes and candy. Then we niggers would have a big Christmas dinner in the 'plunder house', 'cause they was more room in there. "But when the wah' come 'long, it sure changed things up. Massa Jezro and the boys went away and I never see them no more cause they all got killed. Before Massa Jezro went away, he told some of us that we would be a home guard to protect Old Missus. We didn't have no guns and never had no trouble 'ceptin once in a while from no 'count white men what was dodgin' army service. "Durin' most of wah times I was at the tan yard. I 'members Gen. Magruder come and got some boots and harness and they was always some soldiers around 'cause we made lots of harness for the horses what was used in our army. "Then like I said after the wah, Col. Jones sorta took care of me, and I went to school in Henderson. Prof. Riggins , a white teacher, taught us, and Col. Jones paid two-bits a week for my learnin'. They was all niggers in the school and all of them younger than what I was and that was where I got most of my learnin' like I told you. Then I got a job teachin' in a 'nother school for niggers what they started and that's jes 'bout all I can tell you 'bout myself."