Original URL 4/21/1997: http://www.umsl.edu/services/library/blackstudies/armstro.htm
University of Missouri-St. Louis
Thomas Jefferson Library
from the Rawick Papers, Series 5
C. H. Drake, P. W. 9-1-37
Mary Armstrong, 91 years old, who lives at 3326 Pierce Ave., Houston,
was born on a farm near St. Louis, Mo. Her mother, Siby Adams, belonged
to Wm. Cleveland and his wife, Polly, while her father, Sam Adams,
belonged to a "nigger trader" that had a farm adjoining the Cleveland
"I'se Aunt Mary all right, but you all has to 'scuse me if I don't talk
so good 'cause I has been feelin' potly for a spell an' I ain't so young
no more. Law me, when I think back what I used to do, an' now it's all I
can do to hobble 'round a little. Why Mis' Olivia, my mistress, used to
put a glass plumb full of water on my head, an' then have me waltz
'round the room, an' I would dance so smooth like, I don't spill nary
drop. "That was in St. Louis whar I was born. You see when I was born,
my mamma belong to old Wm. Cleveland an' old Polly Cleveland, an' they
was the meanest two white folks what ever lived, 'cause they was always
beatin' on their slaves. I know 'cause mamma told me, an' I hear about
it other places, an' besides, old Polly-she was a Polly devil if there
ever was one-whipped my little sister what was only 9 months old an'
jes' a little baby, to death. She came an' took the diaper off my little
sister an' whipped 'til the blood jes' ran jes' cause she cry like all
babies do an' it killed my sister. I never forgot that, but I got some
even with that old Polly devil, 'cause when I was about 10
years old I belonged to Mis' Olivia, what was their daughter, an' one
day old Polly devil come to where Mis' Olivia lived after she got
married, an' tried to give me a lick out in the yard, an' I picked up a
rock 'bout as big as half your fist an' hit her right in the eye an'
busted the eyeball an' told her that was for whippin' my baby sister to
death. You could hear her holler for five miles, but Mis' Olivia when I
told her, say, 'Well, I guess mamma has learnt her lesson at last'. But
she was mean like old Cleveland 'til she die, an' I hopes they is
burnin' in torment now.
"I don't remember 'bout the start of things so much, 'cept what
Mis' Olivia and my mamma, her name was Siby, tell me. Close up there it
was powerful cold in the winter times an' the farms was lots diffrunt
from down here. They call 'em plantations down here, but up at St. Louis
they was jes' called farms. An' that's jes' what they was, cause we
raise wheat, barley, rye, oats, corn an' fruit. They wasn't no cotton
growin' up there.
"An' the houses was built with brick an' heavy wood, too, 'cause
like I say it was sure cold in the winter time. But mamma say, that when
I was little, old Cleveland took a lot of his slaves what was in
'custom', an' brought 'em to Texas to sell. You know he warn't supposed
to do that 'cause when you was in custom, that was 'cause he had
borrowed money on you, an' you was supposed to not leave the place 'til
he paid up. 'Cose old Cleveland would jes' tell the one he owed the
money to that you had
run off, or squirmed out in some way, he was that mean. I was jes' a
baby an' don't rec'lec it, but mamma say she was in one bunch an' he had
me back in 'nother bunch.
"Mamma had been put together before this with my father, Sam
Adams, what belonged to a nigger trader what had a place next to old
Cleveland. But that didn' make no difference to old Cleveland. He was so
mean that he never would sell the man anw woman an' chillen to the same
one. He would sell the man here, an' the women there, an' if they was
chillen, he would sell them some place else. Oh, old Satan in torment
wouldn' be no meaner than he and Old Polly was to the slaves. Why, mamma
has tole me that when he would chain up a nigger to whip him, he would
rub salt and pepper on him, like he said to 'season' him up. An' when he
would sell a slave, he would grease their mouth all up to make it look
like they had been fed good an' was strong an' healthy.
"Well, mamma said they hadn't no more than got to Shreveport
'fore some law men cotch old Cleveland an' took them all back to St.
"Then my little sister was born, the one old Polly devil killed,
an' I was 'bout four year old then.
"Mis' Olivia had took a likin' to me an', 'though her ma an pa
was so mean, she was kind to everyone, an' everyone jes' love her. So
she gets married to Mr. Will Adams what was a fine man an' had 'bout
five farms an' 'bout 500 slaves, an' he bought me
for her from old Cleveland an' pay him twenty five hundred dollars an'
gives him George Henry, a nigger to boot. Lawdy, I sure was happy to get
with Mis' Olivia an' away from old Cleveland an' Old Polly 'cause they
had killed my little sister.
"We don't live on the farm, but we live in St Louis on Chinkapin
Hill, an' I was house girl for Mis' Olivia, an' when the babies start
comin' I nursed 'em an' when they was asleep, I spin thread for clothes
on a loom. I spin 6 cuts of thread a week, but I has plenty of time for
my self, too. That is whar I learn to dance so good. Law, I sure jes'
crazy 'bout dancin'. If I settin' down eatin' my victuals an' hear a
fiddle play, I get up an' dance.
"Yes suh, Mr. Will an' Mis' Olivia sure was good to me. An' I
never call Mr. Will 'Massa' neither. No, suh, he wouldn't let me 'cause
he was a good man. When they was company I call him 'Mr. Will' an her,
'Mis Olivia', but 'round the house by ourselves, I calls them 'pappy'
an' 'mammy', 'cause they raised me up from a little girl.
"Then I hear old Cleveland take my mamma to Texas again with 'cause
Mis' Olivia some other slaves, but I couldn't do nothin wouldn' have
much truck with her folks. Once in a while old Polly she come over, but
Mis' Olivia tell her not to touch me or the other servants, but one day
like I told you she try to hit me, an' then is when I hit her in the eye
with a rock an' put it out.
"Old Cleveland ane his wife, Old Polly, tried to buy me from
Mis' Olivia,-jes' pestered her lots to try ant get me, ane if they had,
they would killed me sure. But, Mis' Olivia said, 'Ied wade in blood as
deep as Hell before I let you have Mary.' Thats jes' the very words she
"Then I hear my papa is sold some place I don't know where.
'Course I didn't know him so well, jes' what mamma had tol' me, so that
didn't worry me so much as did mamma bein' took so far away, an' I was
scared I never would see her no more~ It jes' seem like Mr. Will an'
Mis' Olivia try to make up to me for how bad my own folks has been
"I rec'lec's one day, pappy, that was Mr. Will, say to me,
'Mary, you want to go to the river an' see the boat race today?" Law me,
I never won't forget that. FIhar we live on Chinkapin Hill, t'warn't far
to the Mississippi River, an' I goes there an' pretty soon here they
comes, the Natchez an' the 'Clipse, (Eclipse) with the smoke an' fire
jes' pourin' out of the smokestacks. I runs 'long tryin' to keep up for
a while, but that old Capt'in on the 'Clipse starts puttin' in bacon
meat in the boiler to make it go faster an' the grease jes' come out of
the smokestack a-blazin' an' it beat the Natchez to pieces. Law me, it
sure was excitin' though.
"I stayed with Mis' Olivia 'til in '63 when Mr. Will set all his
slaves free. He said we had a right to freedom an' read a
proclamation. I was a big girl then, bout 17 years old an' they said I
was mighty good lookin'. Mis' Olivia she ask me what I want to do an' I
tell her I want to find my mamma. Mis' Olivia talk to Mr. Will an' he
fixes me up two papers, one 'bout a yard long an' the other some smaller
but both has writin' on what I don't know about an' big gold seals what
he says is the seal of the State of Missouri. An' he gives me money an'
buys my fare ticket to Texas. He tells me they is still slave times down
here an' to put the papers in my bosom, but to do whatever the white
folks tell me to, even if they want to take an' sell me, but he says
'before you get off from the block, jes' pull out the papers, but jes'
hold 'em up to let folks see 'em an' not let 'em get out of your hands,
an' when they see them they has to let you alone'.
"Then Mis' Olivia cry an' carry on like everythin' an' say to be
careful of myself 'cause it sure is rough in Texas, an' if I don' find
my mamma to come back. She gives me a big basket what had so much to eat
in it, I couldn't hardly heft it an' another one what had clothes in it,
an' it took two big husky colored men what was still with Mr. Will to
carry it to the boat.
"They put me in the back end whar the big old wheel what run the
boat was an' I was all by myself, 'cause Mr. Will tell the Capt'in I is
free an' has papers. I goes all the way to New Orleans, an' the Capt'in
puts me on 'nother boat an' I comes to Galveston, an' the Capt'in of
this boat puts me on 'nother boat
an' I comes up this here Buffalo Bayou to Houston, an' nobody bothers me
'tall 'cause de Capt'ins all tell folks I has papers an' has had the
fare all the way paid.
"I looks 'round Houston, but not long. It sure was a dumpy
little place then, an' I gets the stage coach to go to Austin. It looked
like a bus you see now-a-days but it had big wheels an' had six horses
pullin' it. They puts me in the back of that, too, an' it takes us two
days to get to Austin. Law me, when we get there I think my back busted
sure 'nuff, it was sech rough ridin'.
"Then I has trouble sure. The man what drives the stage coach
from Gonzales to Austin ain' been told I is free an' has papers, an'
when we gets to Austin, he talks to some man, an' this man come to whar
I is at an' say 'who you belong to?' I tells him nobody now, I has been
freed an' am lookin' for my mamma.
"Then I sure 'nuff got scared. He says to come 'long an' he
takes me up a street an' calls to a man what I find out later is named
Mr. Crosby, Mr. Charley Crosby. They talks, an' then this man what brung
me from the stage coach, calls some more men an' they takes me to a
block what they sells slaves on. I gets right up like they tells me,
'cause I rec'lec's what Mr. Will had tol' me to do, an' they starts
lookin' me over an' biddin' on me. An' when they cried off an' this Mr.
Crosby come up to get me, I jes'pulled out my papers an' held 'em up
high like this, an' when he sees the gold seals, he says 'lemme' see
it,' but I says 'you jes'
look at it up here' an' wouldn't let the papers outen my hand. Mr.
Crosby he squints up an' say 'why sure 'nuf this gal is free an' has
papers,' then he asks me lots of questions an' tells me he is a
Legislature man, an' he sure was good to me 'cause he takes me to where
they is livin' an' lets me stay in some quarters with his slaves. I
guess he is sure good to 'em 'cause they all love him.
"Oh, Law me, so many things has gone clean outen my rec'lecshun
'cause its been so long gone by.
"But Mr. Crosby he say to me in a few days that they is a slave
refugee camp of slaves an' some of 'em has been brought down from
Missouri. He say this camp is over on Pedernales River near some place
call Shoveltop Mountain. I don't know whar that is from Austin, but it
'pears to me now it was over that way (west). But they wasn' no way I
could get there an' pretty soon I hear they has moved this refugee camp
to some place else in Wharton County. Mr. Crosby tells me how I can get
there, but I didn' have no money much left. But he let me work in the
house for my livin' an' paid me a little besides an' when the war was
over, I started out an' looked for mamma again, an' found her like they
said in Wharton County near where Wharton is. Law me, talk 'bout cryin'
an' singin' an' cryin' some more, we sure done it. I stayed with mamma
an' we worked right there 'til I gets married in 1871 to John Armstrong
an' then we all comes to Houston.
"I gets me a job nursin' for Dr. Rellaford an' was all through
the yellow fever epidemic, I rec'lec's ' 'twas in '75, an' people die
jes' like sheep with the rots. I has seen folks what had the fever jump
from their bed with death on 'em an' grab other folks. But the doctor
saved lots of folks, white an' black, 'cause he used to sweat it out of
'em. I don' rec'lec' all he used but some of the stuff he mixed up had
hot water, vinegar an' mustard an' some else in it.
"But Law me, so much has gone out of my mind years 'cause I'se
91 years old now an' my mind jes' like my legs,-jes' kinda hobble 'round
"Yes, I knows some of the songs, too, what I used to dance to, but
I is in the Church now, an' the Lord don' like no dance tunes so I jes'
forgets 'em cause He wants me to. An' the Lord learnt me how to read the
Bible, but I can't read a newspaper. I can tell the letters but can't
pronounce the words.
"Here's that watermelon man 'round here agin', an' this old
nigger ain't got but a nickel an' he ain't got none lessen 15 cents.
Thanks sir. Hey, come up here you watermelon man!"
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Date Last Modified: June 06, 1996