Memories of Childhood’s Slavery Days (Chapter: Reminiscences), 1909

Annie Burton was born into slavery and lived to share her story decades afterwards. Born on a plantation near Clayton, Ala., Annie was raised working in the home of her enslaver. She received special treatment, which led her on a course unlike any other. In “Reminiscences,” Burton reflects on emancipation and the way it changed her life.
Annie L. Burton
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concept 6.

The times changed from slavery days to freedom’s days. As young as I was, my thoughts were mystified to see such wonderful changes; yet I did not know the meaning of these changing days. But days glided by, and in my mystified way I could see and hear many strange things. I would see my master and mistress in close conversation and they seemed anxious about something that I, a child, could not know the meaning of. But as weeks went by, I began to understand. I saw all the slaves one by one disappearing from the plantation (for night and day they kept going) until there was not one to be seen. 

All around the plantation was left barren. Day after day I could run down to the gate and see down the road troops and troops of Garrison’s Brigade, and in the midst of them gangs and gangs of negro slaves who joined with the soldiers, shouting, dancing and clapping their hands. The war was ended, and from Mobile Bay to Clayton, Ala., all along the road, on all the plantations, the slaves thought that if they joined the Yankee soldiers they would be perfectly safe. 

As I looked on these I did not know what it meant, for I had never seen such a circus. The Yankee soldiers found that they had such an army of men and women and children, that they had to build tents and feed them to keep them from starving. But from what I, a little child, saw and heard the older ones say, that must have been a terrible time of trouble. I heard my master and mistress talking. They said, “Well, I guess those Yankees had such a large family on their hands, we rather guessed those fanatics on freedom would be only too glad to send some back for their old masters to provide for them.” 

But they never came back to our plantation, and I could only speak of my own home, but I thought to myself, what would become of my good times all over the old plantation. Oh, the harvesting times, the great hog-killing times when several hundred hogs were killed, and we children watched and got our share of the slaughter in pig’s liver roasted on a bed of coals, eaten ashes and all. Then came the great sugar-cane grinding time, when they were making the molasses, and we children would be hanging round, drinking the sugar-cane juice, and awaiting the moment to help ourselves to everything good. We did, too, making ourselves sticky and dirty with the sweet stuff being made. Not only were the slave children there, but the little white children from Massa’s house would join us and have a jolly time. The negro child and the white child knew not the great chasm between their lives, only that they had dainties and we had crusts. 

My sister, being the children’s nurse, would take them and wash their hands and put them to bed in their luxurious bedrooms, while we little slaves would find what homes we could. My brother and I would go to sleep on some lumber under the house, where our sister Caroline would find us and put us to bed. She would wipe our hands and faces and make up our beds on the floor in Massa’s house, for we had lived with him ever since our own mother had run away, after being whipped by her mistress. Later on, after the war, my mother returned and claimed us. I never knew my father, who was a white man. 

During these changing times, just after the war, I was trying to find out what the change would bring about for us, as we were under the care of our mistress, living in the great house. I thought this: that Henry, Caroline and myself, Louise, would have to go as others had done, and where should we go and what should we do? But as time went on there were many changes. Our mistress and her two daughters, Martha and Mary, had to become their own servants, and do all the work of the house, going into the kitchen, cooking and washing, and feeling very angry that all their house servants had run away to the Yankees. The time had come when our good times were over, our many leisure hours spent among the cotton fields and woods and our half-holiday on Saturday. These were all gone. The boys had to leave school and take the runaway slaves’ places to finish the planting and pick the cotton. I myself have worked in the cotton field, picking great baskets full, too heavy for me to carry. All was over! I now fully understood the change in our circumstances. Little Henry and I had no mere time to sit basking ourselves in the sunshine of the sunny south. The land was empty and the servants all gone. I can see my dainty mistress coming down the steps saying, “Rit, you and Henry will have to go and pick up some chips, for Miss Mary and myself have to prepare the breakfast. You children will have to learn to work. Do you understand me, Rit and Henry?” “Yes, Missus, we understand.” And away we flew, laughing, and thinking it a great joke that we, Massa’s pets, must learn to work. 

But it was a sad, sad change on the old plantation, and the beautiful, proud Sunny South, with its masters and mistresses, was bowed beneath the sin brought about by slavery. It was a terrible blow to the owners of plantations and slaves, and their children would feel it more than they, for they had been reared to be waited upon by willing or unwilling slaves. In this place I will insert a poem my young mistress taught us, for she was always reading poems and good stories. But first I will record a talk I heard between my master and mistress. They were sitting in the dining-room, and we children were standing around the table. My mistress said, “I suppose, as Nancy has never returned, we had better keep Henry, Caroline and Louise until they are of age.” “Yes, we will,” said Massa, Miss Mary and Miss Martha, “but it is ‘man proposes and God disposes.’”

So in the following pages you will read the sequel to my childhood life in the Sunny South. Right after the war when my mother had got settled in her hut, with her little brood hovered around her, from which she had been so long absent, we had nothing to eat, and nothing to sleep on save some old pieces of horse-blankets and hay that the soldiers gave her. The first day in the hut was a rainy day; and as night drew near it grew more fierce, and we children had gathered some little fagots to make a fire by the time mother came home, with something for us to eat, such as she had gathered through the day. It was only corn meal and pease and ham-bone and skins which she had for our supper. She had started a little fire, and said, “Some of you close that door,” for it was cold. She swung the pot over the fire and filled it with the pease and ham-bone and skins. Then she seated her little brood around the fire on the pieces of blanket, where we watched with all our eyes, our hearts filled with desire, looking to see what she would do next. She took down an old broken earthen bowl, and tossed into it the little meal she had brought, stirring it up with water, making a hoe cake. She said, “One of you draw that griddle out here,” and she placed it on the few little coals. Perhaps this griddle you have never seen, or one like it. I will describe it to you. This griddle was a round piece of iron, quite thick, having three legs. It might have been made in a blacksmith’s shop, for I have never seen one like it before or since. It was placed upon the coals, and with an old iron spoon she put on this griddle half of the corn meal she had mixed up. She said, “I will put a tin plate over this, and put it away for your breakfast.” We five children were eagerly watching the pot boiling, with the pease and ham-bone.

The rain was pattering on the roof of the hut. All at once there came a knock at the door. My mother answered the knock. When she opened the door, there stood a white woman and three little children, all dripping with the rain. My mother said, “In the name of the Lord, where are you going on such a night, with these children.” The woman said, “Auntie, I am travelling. Will you please let me stop here to-night, out of the rain, with my children?” My mother said, “Yes, honey. I ain’t got much, but what I have got I will share with you.” “God bless you!” They all came in. We children looked in wonder at what had come. But my mother scattered her own little brood and made a place for the forlorn wanderers. She said, “Wait, honey, let me turn over that hoe cake.” Then the two women fell to talking, each telling a tale of woe. After a time, my mother called out, “Here, you, Louise, or some one of you, put some fagots under the pot, so these pease can get done.” We couldn’t put them under fast enough, first one and then another of us children, the mothers still talking. Soon my mother said, “Draw that hoe cake one side, I guess it is done.” My mother said to the woman, “Honey, ain’t you got no husband?” She said, “No, my husband got killed in the war.” My mother replied, “Well, my husband died right after the war. I have been away from my little brood for four years. With a hard struggle, I have got them away from the Farrin plantation, for they did not want to let them go. But I got them. I was determined to have them. But they would not let me have them if they could have kept them. With God’s help I will keep them from starving. The white folks are good to me. They give me work, and I know, with God’s help, I can get along.” The white woman replied, “Yes, Auntie, my husband left me on a rich man’s plantation. This man promised to look out for me until my husband came home; but he got killed in the war, and the Yankees have set his negroes free and he said he could not help me any more, and we would have to do the best we could for ourselves. I gave my things to a woman to keep for me until I could find my kinsfolk. They live about fifty miles from here, up in the country. I am on my way there now.” My mother said, “How long will it take you to get there?” “About three days, if it don’t rain.” My mother said, “Ain’t you got some way to ride there?” “No, Auntie, there is no way of riding up where my folks live, the place where I am from.” 

We hoped the talk was most ended, for we were anxiously watching that pot. Pretty soon my mother seemed to realize our existence. She exclaimed, “My Lord! I suppose the little children are nearly starved. Are those pease done, young ones?” She turned and said to the white woman, “Have you-all had anything to eat?” “We stopped at a house about dinner time, but the woman didn’t have anything but some bread and buttermilk.” My mother said, “Well, honey, I ain’t got but a little, but I will divide with you.” The woman said, “Thank you, Auntie. You just give my children a little; I can do without it.” 

Then came the dividing. We all watched with all our eyes to see what the shares would be. My mother broke a mouthful of bread and put it on each of the tin plates. Then she took the old spoon and equally divided the pea soup. We children were seated around the fire, with some little wooden spoons. But the wooden spoons didn’t quite go round, and some of us had to eat with our fingers. Our share of the meal, however, was so small that we were as hungry when we finished as when we began. My mother said, “Take that rag and wipe your face and hands, and give it to the others and let them use it, too. Put those plates upon the table.” We immediately obeyed orders, and took our seats again around the fire. “One of you go and pull that straw out of the corner and get ready to go to bed.” We all lay down on the straw, the white children with us, and my mother covered us over with the blanket. We were soon in the “Land of Nod,” forgetting our empty stomachs.

The two mothers still continued to talk, sitting down on the only seats, a couple of blocks. A little back against the wall my mother and the white woman slept. Bright and early in the morning we were called up, and the rest of the hoe cake was eaten for breakfast, with a little meat, some coffee sweetened with molasses. The little wanderers and their mother shared our meal, and then they started again on their journey towards their home among their kinsfolk, and we never saw them again. My mother said, “God bless you! I wish you all good luck. I hope you will reach your home safely.” Then mother said to us, “You young ones put away that straw and sweep up the place, because I have to go to my work.” But she came at noon and brought us a nice dinner, more satisfactory than the supper and breakfast we had had. We children were delighted that there were no little white children to share our meal this time. 

In time, my older sister, Caroline, and myself got work among good people, where we soon forgot all the hard times in the little log cabin by the roadside in Clayton, Alabama. Up to my womanhood, even to this day, these memories fill my mind. Some kind friends’ eyes may see these pages, and may they recall some fond memories of their happy childhood, as what I have written brings back my young life in the great Sunny South. I am something of the type of Moses on this 49th birthday; not that I am wrapped in luxuries, but that my thoughts are wrapped in the luxuries of the heavenly life in store for me, when my life work is done, and my friends shall be blessed by the work I shall have done. For God has commanded me to write this book, that some one may read and receive comfort and courage to do what God commands them to do. God bless every soul who shall read this true life story of one born in slavery. 

It is now six years since the inspiration to write this book came to me in the Franklin evening school. I have struggled on, helped by friends. God said, “Write the book and I will help you.” And He has. It was through a letter of my life that the principal of the Franklin school said, “Write the book and I will help you.” But he died before the next term, and I worked on. On this, my 49th birthday, I can say I believe that the book is close to the finish.


              My life is like the summer rose  

              That opens to the morning sky,  

              But ere the shades of evening close  

              Is scattered on the ground to die.  

              Yet on the rose’s humble bed  

              The sweetest dews of night are shed,  

              As if she wept a tear for me,  

              As if she wept the waste to see.  


              My life is like the autumn leaf  

              That trembles in the moon’s pale ray.  

              Its hold is frail, its date is brief,  

              Restless, and soon to pass away.  

              Yet, ere that leaf shall fall and fade,  

              The parent tree will mourn its shade,  

              The winds bewail the leafless tree;  

              But none shall breathe a sigh for me.  


              My life is like the prints which feet  

              Have left on Tampa’s desert strand.  

              Soon as the rising tide shall beat  

              All trace will vanish from the sand.  

              Yet, as if grieving to efface  

              All vestige of the human race,  

              On that lone shore loud moans the sea. 

              But none, alas, shall mourn for me. 

This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/burton/menu.html.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    How does Annie describe her experiences as an enslaved child? In what ways has slavery affected her as an adult?
    Annie describes “my good times all over the old plantation. Oh, the harvesting times, the great hog-killing times when several hundred hogs were killed, and we children watched and got our share of the slaughter in pig’s liver roasted on a bed of coals, eaten ashes and all. Then came the great sugar-cane grinding time, when they were making the molasses, and we children would be hanging round, drinking the sugar-cane juice.” As an adult, slavery has affected her in that she thinks of the “luxuries … in store for” her, and when she found work to support herself she “forgot all the hard times.”
  2. Question
    How long was Annie away from her mother, and how were they reunited?
    After emancipation, her mother returned to the plantation where Annie and her siblings were living to “claim” them and start a life together. Annie had been separated from her mom for four years .
  3. Question
    How would you describe Annie’s mother’s treatment of the white woman and her children who show up at their hut in the rain?
    Answers may vary and include these ideas: Annie’s mother welcomes the woman and her children into the hut and divides the little bit of food they have with them. She is generous and welcoming.
  4. Question
    Draw a connection between her story and another character in contemporary literature, media or pop culture. In what ways are they similar?
    Answers will vary.
Reveal Answers