The 'Slave Narrative' of Sarah Woods Burke
Henry Robert Burke
Family History Collection
Editors Note: The economic depression that beset the United States and other countries in the 1930s was unique in its magnitude and its consequences. In 1933 at the depth of the depression, one American worker in every four was out of a job. In other countries unemployment ranged between 15-25% of the labor force. The great industrial slump continued throughout the 1930s, shaking the very foundations of Western capitalism.
The New Deal is the name applied to U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt's program (1933-39) of relief, recovery, and reform that aimed at solving the economic problems created by the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Authorized by Congress and created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, the Public Works Administration (PWA), [its name was changed to Works Projects Administration (WPA) in 1939], was the most important New Deal work-relief agency. Headed by Harry Hopkins, the PWA developed relief programs to preserve people's skills and self-respect by providing useful work during this period of massive unemployment. The PWA sponsored the Federal Theater Project, Federal Art Project, and Federal Writers' Project--to give work to persons in the arts--and the National Youth Administration, to provide youngsters with part-time employment.
In was from this period of the "Great Depression" that the Federal Writers' Project documented the recollections of many ex-slaves who were still living at that time. This 'Slave Narrative', given by Mrs. Sarah Woods Burke, of Washington county, Ohio, gives us some perspective about the day to day living conditions of slaves in Virginia. Today there are hundreds, maybe a thousand or more of descendants of Charles and Sarah Woods Burke. Some living in Washington county, Ohio and others living other places across the United States!
James Immel, the reporter who interviewed Mrs. Sarah (Woods) Burke, was also a native of Washington County, Ohio. His father owned the Immel (Oil Well) Fishing Tool Company, in Marietta, Ohio, where they manufactured special tools for retrieving expensive strings of drilling tools, that had become lost in the drill hole.
(Edited portions of this narrative are italicized.)
File No. 340021
(PWA) Federal Writers' Project
District Three - Washington County, Ohio - Folklore
James Immel, Reporter
The 'Slave Narrative' of
Mrs. Sarah Francis (Woods) Burke
"Yessir, I guess you all would call me an ex-slave cause I was born in Grayson County, Virginia and on a plantation I lived for quite a spell, that is until when I was seven years old when we all moved up here to Washington County, (Ohio)."
"My Pap's old Mammy was supposed to have been sold into slavery when my Pappy was one month old and some poor white people took him to raise. He worked for them until he was growed up man, also 'til they give him his free papers and 'lowed him to leave the plantation and come up here to the North."
"How did we live on the plantation? Well-- you see it was like this, we lived in a log cabin with the ground for floors and the beds were built against the walls jus' like bunks. I 'member that the slaves had a hard time getting food, most times they got just what was left over or whatever the slaveholder wanted to give them so at night they would slip outa their cabins on to the plantation and kill a pig, a sheep or some cattle which they would butcher in the woods and cut up. The wimmin folks would carry the pieces back to the cabins in their aprons while the men would stay behind and bury the head, skin and feet:"
"Whenever they killed a pig they would have to skin it, because they didn't dare to build a fire. The women folk after getting home would put the meat in special dug trenches and the men would come erlong and cover it up."
"The slaveholders in the part of the country where I came from was men and it was quite often that slaves were tide to a whipping stake and whipped with a blacksnake until the blood would run down their bodies."
"I remember quite clearly one scene that happened jus' afore I left that there part of the country. At the slaveholders home on the plantation I was at, it was customary for the white folks to go to church on Sunday morning and to leave the cook in charge. This cook had a habit of making cookies and handing them out to the slaves before the (slave owners) folks returned. Now it happened on one Sunday for some reason or 'tother the white folks returned before the regular time and the poor cook did not have time to get the cookies to the slaves, so she just hid them in a drawer that was in a sewing chair."
"The white folks had a parrot that always sat on top of the door in this room and when the mistress came in the room the mean old bird hollered out at the top of his voice, -It's in the rocker. It's in the rocker-. Well the Missus found the cookies and told her husband, where upon he called his man that done the whipping and they tied the poor cook and whipped her till she fainted. Next morning the parrot was found dead and a slave was accused because he liked the woman that had been whipped the day before. They whipped him until the blood ran down his legs."
" Spirits? Yessir I believe in them, but we warant bathered so much by them in them days but we was by the wild animals. Why after it got dark we children would have to stay indoors for fear of them. The men folks would build a big fire and I can remember my Pappy a sittin on top of the house with a old flint lock across his legs awaiting for one of them critters to come close enough so he could shoot it. The reason for him being trusted with a gun was because he had been raised by the poor white man who worked for the slaveholder. My Pappy did not work in the fields but drove a team of horses."
"I remembers that when we left the plantation and come to Washington County, Ohio that we traveled in a covered wagon that had big white horses hitched to it. The man that owned the horses was Blake Randolls. We crossed the river 12 miles below Parkersburg, W.Va. on a ferry and came to Stafford, Ohio in Monroe County where we lived until I was married at the age of 15 to Mr. (Charles) Burke, by Justice of the Peace, Edward Oakley (Edward Oakey J.P. Monroe County, Ohio). A year later we moved to Curtis Ridge which is seven miles from Stafford and we lived there for 20 years or more. We moved to Rainbow for a spell and then in 1918 my husband died. The old man hard luck came around cause three years my home burned to the ground and then I came here to live with my boy Joe and his family."
"Mr. Burke and myself raised a family of 16 children and at that time my husband worked at farming for other people at $2.00 a month and a few things they would give him."
"My Pappy got his education from the boy of the white man he lived with because he wasn't allowed to go to school and the white boy was very smart and taught him just as he learned. My Pappy, fought in the Civil War too. On which side? Well, sho' 'nuff on the North, boy."
[Both the father of Sarah Woods Burke, David Woods, and her husband Charles Burk(e), served with the 27th Regiment, United States Colored Troops, during the American Civil War.]
(Newspaper) [page 10]
Saturday, Feb. 10, 1940
MRS. SARAH BURKE
AGED 96 SUCCUMBS
Mrs. Sarah Woods Burke, 96, widow of Charles Burke, one of Washington County's the oldest residents, died at the home of her son, Joseph H, Burke, near Lowell on Saturday at 2:15 a.m. following a decline.
Funeral service will be held at the G.A. Spies Funeral Home at Lowell on Monday at 1:p.m.. Interment will be made in the Putnam Cemetery at Devol's Dam.
Mrs. Burke was a daughter of the late Mr. and Mrs. David Woods. She was born at Mt. Solomon, Va., on August 11, 1842. She lived in the Lowell neighborhood for many years. She was a member of the Wesleyan Methodist Church at Rainbow.
Mrs. Burke's husband died 22 years ago. Surviving are five sons and two daughters, James Burke of Wheeling, W.Va., Charles Burke of Canton, Joseph H. Burke of the Lowell neighborhood, Grant Burke of Columbus, William McKinley Burke of Marietta, Mrs. Martha Moss of Parkersburg and Miss Della Burke of Charleston, W.Va. Nine sons and daughters are deceased. There are 67 grandchildren, 34 great-grandchildren and five great-great grandchildren.