Primary Resource

Interview with Allen Wilson (July 16, 1937)

In this interview, taken by Susie R. C. Byrd on July 16, 1937 as part of the Virginia Writers Project, Allen Wilson, a former slave from Petersburg, recalls his memories of enslavement, including helping to found the Zion Baptist Church.

Transcription from Original

I am a slave born the year 1845, the sixth day of April. I don't know whether hit was in the day or night, ha ha. Dat's what my master give me as my age.

I belonged to Benjamin Myrick, Brunswick County. Brunswick and Greenville County line runs through my marster's plantation in Brunswick County.

He owned right many slaves and my marster wasn't very kind to 'em. He never whipped me but once in my life and dat was fur fighting. He sent me and my cousin to gather apples—Jim Wilkins. Hit is jes too funny, dis occruence but chillun will be chillun—specially boys got to be boys. Jim was way up in the top of dis ole apple tree jes shaking tree and gra' big red, mellow apples was falling. See, they looked so good I—child-like—picked out a gra' big, red, mellow one and start eating. Hit was so good, I picked up 'nother one—stuck dis one in my pocket [and] stepped aside to eat these apples.

Ole Jim stopped shaking tree, peeped down, saw me eating my apples. [He] hollowed out, "I goin' tell my marster dat you ain't helping me but jes er ra [sic] eating up his biggest and nicest apples." Jes den he saw my marster coming up dat ole long path—Lawd, I can see hit now!—When he—marster—got to us, he say, "Marse Ben, Allen ain't helping me none—jes eating all yer apples." Dar was a big ole rock dar at my feet. I got so mad [I] picked up dis rock, threw hit up dat tree and hit knocked a hole in his head and the blood jes spueed [sic] and he fell to the ground. Marse took him and carried him to the big house. Missus bathed his head and he got alright. I was skeer'd to death 'cause I thought dat he was de'd.

Well now, old marse Ben say, "Allen, you go down to the carriage house." I know'd hit meant a beating. I went jes a-crying on down dat path—Ole marse walking 'hind me. When I got dar, said to me, "Take dem rags off!" Ha, ha, ha, hit won't but one ole long shirt. But chile, old marse whopped me right and left and I never furgits dat time fur dat one beating. I 'members 'til today and a many, many a day has passed. Now I'm 92 years ole.

He use to whip mother awful. She was crippled too. Fell off fence when she was 15 or 16 years old—on road leading to Belfield.

[Here the middle ten lines of the page, about forty words, are missing.—Ed.]

I've seen dat—'cuse me—dat dam [word obscure] overseer take my dear mother; strip her clothes off down to her waist; tie her to an ole peach tree—um, um, right behind the house whar we lived in and give her 9 and 30 wid his cowhide. Lawd, Lawd! I prayed Gawd dat someday he'd open a way fur me to protect mother. I use to tell my brother, Shed, "ef I got a big man, le's kill dat man!" (overseer). With my bad temper I know ef de War hadn't ended I'd done hit.

Yes, I done seen paterrollers many, many nights riding—coming through searching for other slaves but, no, I've never bin to any meetings.

We went to church once a month in Belfield to Ephram Riles' church during slavery time. I don't know whether this church is dar now ‘cause I ain't been dar fur over 60 years. I never bothered ‘bout name of church. Jes we always said "Ephram Riles'" 'cause he was preacher.

Our marster would carry us, sister Rose, Shederick, and Jeff, ten miles to church. Marster always believed in church. Mother had eleven of us chillun, you know. Sometimes ole marster would ride horseback leading the way and we walk along. I use to toat some of my little sisters and brothers fur mother 'cause we'd git so tired walking up dat long road.

When we got back from church our orders were to go right to work gitting dat cotton ready, I done told you 'bout. I had to go straight to the dining room—wait on table, fix lunches for 'em all. Miss Tilda Maclin was dar too. She was teaching white folks school in Greenville County. You know, baby, I was tired from walking dem ten miles but dar I had to stay all night. Between times I would git a cheer, prop my foots dar and steal one or two cat naps. Fear'd to let marse catch me sleep.

Well now, here's whar I changed my marsters. Let me tell you.

Young marster was promoted to high school from the country school to Levenworth's school here in Petersburg—as it was named then. Ole marster gave me to him as a present for his finishing the country school. Railroads hadn't run through Petersburg then and dat was in the year 1862.

He brought me here then with him and put me to work in Mr. Lustly's factory on Washington Street. This is the first factory I worked in. Juring [sic] the day I worked in this fact'ry. After work, long in the evening, I went to our quarters which was his room and stayed dar to look after him—soughter companion like. I belonged to him, see, and I had to do and obey him jes like I did my ole marster. I got no salary for my work. I was dar to learn. Am pretty sure young marster, since he hired me out, got some salary fer me.

Every [sic] since then my work has been in 'bacco factory and, although I'm 92 years ole, I am working every day of my life in the factory. This trade I've followed for over seventy odd years.

My father belonged to Braxton Wilson, Brunswick County. He ran away a slave and got with the Yankees in Grant's army and served his time until 1867 (Father's name, Edward Wilson). Then he was mustered out. [In?] 1865 he had two more years to serve. Then he moved to Petersburg, taking mother and all her children. We worked and bought a home on Dunlap Street and I've been living here ever since.

Church

We joined Third Baptist Church, 1867. At that time the organizers of this church were Tom Scott, James Carter, Tom Garnes, John Walker, George Mason. These brethren came out from Gilfield Baptist Church.

When I first come here a white preacher was preaching dar and he would get, once a month, Ephram Riles, an ole colored slave preacher, to preach to the slaves who were allowed to go to church. Then next came was John Jasper. He wasn't called but would come and serve us. It was not until 1872 that he was called to pastor but he did not accept because he had a church in Richmond and they refused to release him. After Jasper didn't accept we called Rev. Henry Wills.

The next early pastor was Rev. Henry Dickerson and it was during his time that a lot of us pulled out and organized Zion Baptist Church—called Byrne Street Church. Why we pulled out? Well, 'cause, see, at dat time Gordon had good meetings at his church and we went to Gordon's church when no services was at ours, ha ha ha. Dis was against the rules of our church (Third Baptist). At the church meeting, seventy nine of us were expelled. All seventy nine of us went to James Coleman's (colored) shoe shop hall, rented it and started a church and organized what is now Zion Baptist Church.

Organizers of this church are John Allen [Allen Wilson?], James Monroe Smith, Rosa Smith, Norman Featherstone, Octavia Featherstone, Sarah Jefferson, William H. Baugh, Lizzie Byrd, Shederick Wilson, James Evans, Lelia and Sophronia Venerable, Giles Evans and 'cou'se dese was main leaders. Other members followed us. Sis Rosa Smith, wife of brother James Monroe Smith, named the church "Zion Baptist." The name has never been changed.

Zion Baptist Church was formerly occupied by whites during the War and when they sold, we arranged and started buying. Only rented hall 'bout month I recon. Out of the original 79 organizers who are yet spared are Allen Wilson, Norman and Octavia Featherstone, Sophronia and James Evans, Lizzie Byrd, Johnson and Cora Allen.

Schools

Yes, I recollect a school that was held in Third Baptist Church and Miss Kate Brown, a white woman, use to teach this school.

The very first colored school in Petersburg after the War was taught by a Mrs. Elam at the Freeman's Bureau at the Oak Grove on West Street between Farmer and Rome Streets.

Freeman's Bureau? Why, hit was a house for soldiers to come to be recognized as citizens before entering as citizens—naturalized jes like foreigners or people coming from other places.

I don't know whether any rent was paid fur dis school or not. My youngest brother and youngest sister attended dis school—Jeff Wilson and Lucy A. Wilson. I never had a chance at schooling. Jest picked up a little learning from my ole young marster.