Elder and Old Age

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Elder and Old Age

"God ain't ax about your color, God ax about your heart" (Rawick 1977, vol. 11, p. 194). These words were spoken by Ben Horry when he was eighty-five years old. Horry was born a slave in South Carolina. He was one of many former slaves interviewed by a member of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), a Works Progress Administration (WPA) relief program that was later collected and published by George Rawick in the 1970s and later made available online by the Library of Congress. Many of the elderly interviewed during the 1930s project reflected on their experiences during their enslavement: "I got the scars on my body to show to this day," stated Louisiana-born Mary Reynolds, age 105 (Rawick 1972, vol. 5, p. 238). Charity Anderson, age 101, remembered being one of the house servants (Rawick 1977, vol. 1, p. 15). North Carolina-born Sarah Gudger, age 121, stated that she "never knew nothing but work" (Botkin 1989).

Slaves who lived on plantations and performed the laborious tasks dictated by the nature of slavery ceased to be useful laborers once they reached old age. Some of these wise and "tried by the fire" individuals settled among the younger slaves and served as human warehouses of information with remarkable memory. Taken from the narrative of Henry Clay Bruce (1836–1902) is a description of elderly slaves, often called sages:

Then there were a great many old men among them that might be called sages, men who knew the number of days in each month, in each year, could tell the exact date when Easter, Whit[e] Sunday would come, because most masters gave Monday following each of these Sundays as a holiday to slaves … These old sages determined dates by means of straight marks and notches, made on a long stick with a knife, and were quite accurate in arriving at correct dates (1969, p. 13).


What happened in the life of an American slave who reached old age? The elderly slave's fate depended much on the character of his or her master. If the master was kind, the elderly slave may have retired from hard labor and began to watch over the small children who were too young to labor in the fields of the plantation. Conversely, an elderly slave may have been esteemed for his or her memory and ability to archive facts about birth and death places, as seen in the life of Henry Clay Bruce. Bruce was considered particularly fortunate in all his surroundings during slavery. His narrative of his experience is written from the perspective of being a slave for twenty-nine years and then from the perspective of being a free man for twenty-nine years.

Frederick Douglass's narrative, by contrast, may respond to the question about the fate of the elderly with a less positive reflection. The fate of Douglass's grandmother after the death of several generations of her slave owners left Douglass with the opinion, "If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother" (p. 375).

SOURCE: Gates, Henry Louis, ed. Classic Slave Narratives. New York: New American Library, 1987.

Naturally, all slaves after becoming elderly were not as fortunate as Bruce recalls and many suffered a different fate. Following is a very passionate account given by Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) concerning the fate of his grandmother as an elderly slave:

… she had served her old master faithfully from youth to old age. She had been the source of all his wealth; she had peopled his plantation with slaves; she had become a great grandmother in his service. She had rocked him in infancy, attended him in childhood, served him through life, and at his death wiped from his icy brow the cold death sweat, and closed his eyes forever. She nevertheless was left a slave—a slave for life—a slave in the hands of strangers (Gates 2002, p. 375).

Douglass's pain and agony over his grandmother's fate continued to be revealed later in the narrative:

And to cap the climax of their base ingratitude and fiendish barbarity, my grandmother, who was now very old … her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself in perfect loneliness (Gates 2002, p. 375).

Another image of the elderly and old age is seen through the narrative of A. C. Pruitt who was a slave in St. Martinsville, Louisiana:

Dey have 'nother old woman what do nothing on de scene but weave on de loom … One old lady what am mos' too old to git 'round, she take care de chillen and cook dere food sep'rate … I have de old gramma what come from Virginny. Her name Mandy Brown. Dey [the master] 'low her hire own time out. She wasn't freeborn but dey give her dat much freedom. She could go git her a job anywhere jes as long as she brung de ole missy half what she done made. Iffen she made $5.00, she give Miss Frances $2.50 (Born in Slavery, Texas Narratives, vol. 16).


Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Texas Narratives, vol. 16. Available from http://memory.loc.gov.

Bruce, Henry Clay. The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave, Twenty-Nine Years a Free Man. Miami, FL: Mnemosyne, 1969.

Botkin, B. A., ed. Lay My Burden Down: a Folk History of Slavery. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. Classic Slave Narratives. New York: New American Library, 2002.

Rawick, George P., ed. American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972.

Rawick, George P., ed. American Slave: A Composite Autobiography: Supp., Series 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

                         Johnnie M. Maberry-Gilbert