Primary Resource

A Sketch of My Life and Our Family Record by Willis M. Carter (ca. 1890s)

In A Sketch of My life and Our Family Record, handwritten on twenty-two pages in the 1890s, Willis M. Carter tells of his life enslaved in Virginia and describes his education. It is one of the longer and more-detailed accounts of a former Virginia slave written after the American Civil War (1861–1865) and includes information about his great-grandmother's birth and enslavement in Africa before the American Revolution (1775–1783).

Transcription from Original

Preface

My own inclination would naturally lead me to say as little as possible about myself and our family: but as some record is necessary for the satisfaction of every well regulated family, I will here venture to record the most—particular incidents and other subject-matter relative to our family: all of which I hope may serve as a benefit—some time to its members. In view of these facts I deem any apology that—I might make for this my feeble production, entirely unnecessary and out of place.

Yours Respectfully,

W. M. Carter [signature]

[Main Text]

I was born at Locust Dale Virginia in the county of Albemarle the 3rd of September in the year 1852—the first of eleven children of Rhoda Carter the wife of Samuel Carter. My lot being that of a slave.

Although it was an age of ignominy and one in which we were surrounded by the ascending cries of the oppressed for mercy which was produced by the tyrannical and iron hand of slavery accompanied by some of the greatest inhumanities that have ever stained with cold blood the pages of the history of any nation I cannot reflect without pleasure on the bounty of nature which cast my birth into the hands of a philanthropic family of honorable rank and decently endowed with fortune, and on the other hand with a woman who was highly respected by both the white and sable races for her honest impartial and Christian character.

Owing to the educational advantages enjoyed on my mother's side of the house, we have a very correct history of our lineage on her side which dates back to their home and country in Africa, the land of our fathers. My great grand mother on my mother's side was during the colonist days born in that part of Virginia now called Augusta county. When a girl seven years of age she was purchased by the Wynns whose home she was in a part of the same state now called Caroline county.

According to the old family record and the statements of my great grand mother she descended from a party of Africans known in the Portugal history as the Ambiquistas

To what we have been told by travelers in those parts were famed for their knowledge of history and intelligence generally sold in Virginia and have the nickname they gave her "The Ethiopian" which was derived from her complexion, hair, and temper being characteristic of a true-blooded Ethiopian. And it is simplyuseless to say that she and her posterity have been much cared for in the face of the numerous educational attainments received by them at the hands of their owners and the very strict family history of them kept by the same.

My great grandmother became early in years the wife of Harry Yarber. He belonged to the Wynns also and was his masters confidential body servant. He entered the British war of 1812 with a heroic heart and as captain foreman of a wagon train during which contest, he obtained great favor in the eyes of his master by meritorious deeds and acts of bravery rendered in behalf of the American Republic. He retired home from the great American conflict where he died in peace and quietude.

His wife, my great-grandmother, lived to a good and ripe old age her head had blossomed for the tomb when early one bright morning about the rising of the sun she slept

  • "A sleep in Jesus
  • Blessed sleep
  • From which none ever
  • Wake to weep"

Many a child had played around her door among which was a daughter whose name was Clara. She became when in her fourteenth year the wife of Willis Brown after whom I take am given my first name. Now in the Wynn family was a brilliant daughter by the name of Ann who married John Goodloe after which Clara my grandmother fell (1) as a bridal present (to her, 2) My grandmother received from Ann Goodloe many glorious privileges almost equivalent to freedom among which was the hiring of her own time for a very small sum which was paid annually. She had this right granted her from a very early age, till the emancipation of the American slaves. Rhoda (her oldest daughter and my mother) was never sold nor hired out but was kept at home and thus she was enabled to give attention to raising of her children, a glorious grand privilege of which so many thousands of our race were deprived.

The only ones of mothers children ever away from her during the whole time that we were possessed by the Goodloes were sister Jennie and myself. And it is with much pride that I can say that we were not out of the family: for Mrs. Ann Goodloe who cherished us as if we had been two Alaska diamonds instead of two young sables, and who use to call us about her knees and tell us the most interesting tales of the day to which as children we listened with delight and gratitude—for her memory was stored with a never ending stock of stories, many of which were wonderfully like those I have since heard while sitting in jovial and respectable companies of the American cities—allowed us only to go West with her tow married daughters—Maria Stephens and Sallie A. Jackson—my sister being with the former and myself with the latter. This occurred in the fall of Eighteen hundred and fifty nine, and in my eighth year. We were West in the little town of (West Union) Jane Lew nearly two years, after which, in the summer of sixty one we were returned home to see once more our friends and relations.

But we all were in dire distress to find not Mrs. Ann, for during our sojourn in the West she had in submission to the will of God, gone the way of all the earth.

As I have said, our return was in the summer of Eighteen hundred and sixty one which year brought with it the beginning of one of the most cruel wars ever known in the history of the world.

At a certain period during this great civil strife in which the father vied with the son and the son with the father, impressment began upon the poor bondsmen in the South for the purpose of getting men to throw up breastworks at various points in the South. So the poor slaves were seized in every section, dragged brutally to different places, and forced under the scourge to build fortifications, not only against those in whose hands was held the proclamation of their emancipation, but to defeat if possible the men who sought to save the Union from the slavish disgrace that had already with its hideous crimes shocked the world from its centre to its circumference. My father who belonged to Geo. A. Farrow in Albemarle county Virginia, fell a victim to this terrible command. He was impressed in Eighteen hundred and sixty three, was taken below Richmond Virginia to help fortify it where soon afterward, he had an attack of pneumonia which proved fatal.

The war raged on till by the ever ruling hand of the All Wise the north was victorious in Eighteen hundred and sixty five, which put an end to the atrocious war, and with it brought the emancipation of all the slaves throughout the south.

I was then in my thirteenth year and was seized with a greater desire to improve my mind, which spirit had shown itself from early childhood: for I have often heard my aunt Harriet say that I, when but a boy five years old, could count a hundred by two's three's, and five's and when in the West Jane Lew I would every opportunity I could get go in the white school and hear them recite their lessons, also succeeded in getting a spelling book of my own and would learn by chances, so when emancipation came I was very good in spelling and reading, and it was now that I was like one who had wandered in a wilderness of darkness with a hope of seeing the bright beams of the Heavenly sun—arrayed in all his glories and brilliancy—and who suddenly escaping from this forest of dispair, leaps with joy over the great boon of Providence which had placed him in sight of the desired glories.

But still, under existing circumstances I saw that it would be a rigid task to ever accomplish my education aim, my mother being a widow and I the oldest child and son would undoubtedly have to work constantly in assisting my dear mother her to gain subsistence for herself and family. And under these circumstances it was plain that should there any provision be made for the education of the much degraded, but deserving race of which I was a member, I could not be able to attend regularly.

Having thus conjectured my future course, I provided myself with such books as I needed; and with the courage and resolution of a Julius Caesar, I determined to confront all difficulties and in the event of my not having an opportunity to enter school I would make my way to a classical education, by private study. And to my good fortune my striving for improvement met the hearty approval of the Goodloe family, and from one another I received great aid in my educational efforts. But those most conspicuous in the work of my advancement, and to whom I owe so much gratitude for the laying of the foundation of my education, were the two amiable and younger daughters of the Goodloe family, Lucy and Punney. Under their generous attention which was always rendered so willingly, I advanced amid every day duties, very rapidly toward my desired literary attainments.

These advantages I enjoyed from the spring of (1865.) until (1870.) excepting one winter which I spent at Mechums River with my grandmother, who had moved from Charlottesville to Mechums River immediately after the civil war.

On March 6th (1868.) my mother moved from the old "homestead" to Goshen in Bell's valley about 31 miles west of Staunton Va. Continuing with the Goodloes who were carrying through a lumber contract with the Chesapeake and Ohio R. R. Co.

I was here employed by Mr. James Goodloe as screw turner at the saw mill: as he had as he said taken notice of my very good knowledge of figures.

After serving a short while at this, I was promoted to the position of fireman continuing still with my studies which were made very progressive by the attentiveness of the Goodloes.

I attended Sunday school which was begun at Craigsville by a white gentleman sent out to do educational work among the colored people of that section. This was in (1868.) in the autumn of which the Goodloes retired east from their business leaving my mother and her husband in charge of their property.

They returned the following Spring, broke up their works and moved east to a place near Fishersville called the Entry where they began their business again.

But my mother here discontinued her business with the Goodloes and went to Mechums River where she lived with her mother for awhile, moving very soon to Locust Dale or the old "home stead" while I was still in the employ of the Goodloes at their place of business.

In the Spring of (1870.) she moved to the Entry, where Robert Spears her second husband died. After his death we moved in the autumn of the same year to Hangers farm a mile north of Waynesboro Va. on which farm I was employed as laborer. We continued here until the fall of (/71.) when we bought a house and lot on the Winchester road a mile east of Waynesboro and there my mother settled down on her home.

I was employed on the section of the C&O R.R. which passes through Waynesboro, from the first of January (1872.) to first—June (1873.) serving most of the time, as flagman, a position of considerable trust.

On the 8th of June (/73.) I went to Capon Springs in Hampshire county W.Va. where I served as waiter during the whole season after which on the 12th of September I went to Hinton, in Summers county W. Va. where I again worked as laborer under N. B. Sheppard who was building a round house for engines on the C.& O. R.R.

I came home from there in December of the same year and entered school first Jan. continuing to the 24th of Feb. when I was engaged at Porcelain Works 7. miles west of our home serving till the first of June on the 10th of which I again left for Capon Springs W. Va.

After having spent an agreeable and successful summer at Capon I went home where I remained till 9th of Oct. when I left for Washington city in which to persue a course of study. My studies were continued very rigidly but privately till first May—/75.) after which on the 10th of July became Head waiter for Daniel O'Brien, a proprietor of a dining saloon in Washington.

Continued in this position until the 27th of June (1876.), July 2nd left on the 9:40 P.M. train for the Ocean House, Newport R.I. passing Philadelphia about 4 A.M. on the 3rd, got to N.Y. about 7:30 A.M. where I estimated till 5 P.M. at which time left for Newport R.I. arriving there 3:00 AM the 4th of July.

Spent two months and nine days here during which I made many pleasant acquaintances. Left on the 12th of Sept. 1876, by the 9 o'clock P.M. boat (Providence) for Washington. Arrived in N.Y. 7.A.M. the 13th. Left on the 9:25 boat for Jersey City where I took the 9:40 train for Philadelphia arriving there 12:30 P.M.

Remained to see the Centennial. Visited the Centennial on the 14th. Left on the six P.M. train for Washington. by way of the Pa. Route. Arrived at Washington, D.C. 12:15 A.M. Sept. 15th—76.

Sept 26th opened private school on Va. Ave. Washig D.C. Was elected in Oct. Vice Pres. And gen'l. manager of "The Young Mens Dramatic Association" a club organized for the moral and intellectual culture of its members. I appeared in all of its literary and dramatic entertainments and every time, but one, in the leading role. Among the many successful plays given by the Association were: "Lucretia Borgia," in which I appeared as: Gennaro, "Lady of Lyons" in which I was: "Melnotte", "Massaniello or the Dumb Girl of Portici" in which I appeared as: Alfonzo.

On the 22nd of June—77. went to Capon Springs, spent the summer there and at Rock-Enon after which I returned to Washington where I spent the term—1877–78 in school at "Columbia law building."

Spent the summer of—78. From 20th of June to 4th Sept. at Capon Springs after which time returned to Washington, where on the 25th of Sept—78. I entered "Wayland Seminary" and finished there the term of—78–79. On May 14th—79. received a telegram of my mother's sudden death. I went home arriving too late to see her, remained a week and returned to school, stood my examinations and at the close of school received the first prize as best speaker of my division. I spent also the terms of 1880 & 1881 at the same school, graduating May 25th '81 taking the prize of $5. as best speaker of graduating class. I received also in '80 what was known as the first "Tom Brown Prize" as the best speaker of the Institution. Spent the summer of '81 at Cresson Springs in Pa. as hotel waiter. Returned to Waynesboro Va. on the 18th Sept., on the 20th was examined for a public school teacher, received certificate of Supt. Grattan in Staunton and opened school Smoky row on 24th of Oct. '81. My term of five months closed March 17th '82. But during this session death again visited our family, and our sister Clara at the age of 21 was taken from us on the 5th of Jan. Taught again The Smoky Row School the term of 1882–3, 6 months with great success. In the Autumn of 1883—became the Principal of the West End school on the Western Suburbs of Staunton holding said position for ten consecutive years, and still there at this writing. Was two years from 1886–8 President of the Augusta county Teachers Association, declining reelection for the 3rd term year upon the ground that I believed in rotation in office. Was three years 1889–92 President National Memorial Association, resigning on account of business. In 1891–92 was editor of the Southern Tribune, a weekly newspaper published in Staunton Va. by the colored people and President of the company publishing paper. In 188 Sept 13th 1888, I married to Miss Serena B. Johnson of Middlebrook Augusta county Virginia. In description Miss Johnson was tall, graceful and of a comely figure, possessing a wealth of dark hair, of very light complexion with sparkling blue eyes. Her education was such as the Public schools of her neighborhood afforded with private tutorage. My first child, Roscoe Wilson Carter, was born July 4th 1889 about 11 a.m. at 905 West Beverley street Staunton Va. in the house owned by Wm. B. Davenport and his mother and which we were renting at the time.