Henry Clay Bruce was born a slave in Virginia in 1836. His owner Lemuel Bruce sold the family eight years later to Jack Perkinson, who lived in Keytesville, Missouri. After being rented out to several different people, Perkinson moved back to Virginia in 1847.
Henry Clay Bruce died in 1902.
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
My mother often told me that I was born, March 3rd, of the year that Martin Van Buren was elected President of the United States, and I have therefore always regarded March 3rd, 1836, as the date of my birth. Those who are familiar with the customs that obtained at the South in the days of slavery, will readily understand why so few of the ex-slaves can give the correct date of their birth, for, being uneducated, they were unable to keep records themselves, and their masters, having no special interest in the matter, saw no necessity for such records. So that the slave parents, in order to approximate the birth of a child, usually associated it with the occurrence of some important event. Thus by recalling any one of these occurrences, the age of their own children was determined. Not being able to read and write, they were compelled to resort to the next best thing within reach, memory, the only diary in which the records of their marriages, births and deaths were registered, and which was also the means by which their mathematical problems were solved, their accounts kept, when they had any to keep.
My parents belonged to Lemuel Bruce, who died about the year 1836, leaving two children, William Bruce and Rebecca Bruce, who went to live with their aunt, Mrs. Prudence Perkinson; he also left two families of slaves, and they were divided between his two children; my mother's family fell to Miss Rebecca, and the other family, the head of which was known as Bristo, was left to William B. Bruce. Then it was that family ties were broken, the slaves were all hired out, my mother to one man and my father to another. I was too young then to know anything about it, and have to rely entirely on what I have heard my mother and others older than myself say.
During the crop season in Virginia, slave men and women worked in the fields daily, and such females as had sucklings were allowed to come to them three times a day between sun rise and sun set, for the purpose of nursing their babes, who were left in the care of an old woman, who was assigned to the care of these children because she was too old or too feeble for field work. Such old women usually had to care for, and prepare the meals of all children under working age. They were furnished with plenty of good, wholesome food by the master, who took special care to see that it was properly cooked and served to them as often as they desired it. On very large plantations there were many such old women, who spent the remainder of their lives caring for children of younger women.
About January 1, 1845, my mother and her children, including myself and those younger, were hired to one James Means, a brickmaker, living near Huntsville, Randolph County, Missouri. I remember the day, when he came after us with a two-horse team. He had several children, the eldest being a boy. Although Cyrus was a year older than I, he could not lick me. He and I had to feed the stock and haul trees to be cut into wood for fire, which his father had felled in the timber. Mr. Means also owned a girl about fourteen years old called Cat, and as soon as spring came he commenced work on the brick yard with Cat and me as offbearers. This, being my first real work, was fun for a while, but soon became very hard and I got whipped nearly every day, not because I did not work, but because I could not stand it. Having to carry a double mold all day long in the hot sun I broke down. Finally Mr. Means made for my special benefit two single molds, and after that I received no more punishment from him.
In January, 1846, with my older brothers I was hired to Judge Applegate, who conducted a tobacco factory at Keytesville, Missouri. I was then about ten years old. At Judge Applegate's I was kept busy every minute from sunrise to sunset, without being allowed to speak a word to anyone. I was too young then to be kept in such close confinement. It was so prison-like to be compelled to sit during the entire year under a large bench or table filled with tobacco, and tie lugs all day long except during the thirty minutes allowed for breakfast and the same time allowed for dinner. I often fell asleep. I could not keep awake even by putting tobacco in my eyes. I was punished by the overseer, a Mr. Blankenship, every time he caught me napping, which was quite often during the first few months.
During the summer, in Virginia and other southern states, slaves when threatened or after punishment would escape to the woods or some other hiding place. They were then called runaways, or runaway Negroes, and when not caught would stay away from home until driven back by cold weather. Usually they would go to some other part of the state, where they were not so well known, and a few who had the moral courage would make their way to the North, and thus gain their freedom. But such cases were rare. Some, if captured and not wishing to go back to their masters, would neither give their correct name nor that of their owner; and in such cases, if the master had not seen the notice of sale posted by the officers of the county wherein they were captured, and which usually gave the runaway's personal description, they were sold to the highest bidders, and their masters lost them and the county in which the capture was effected got the proceeds, less the expense of capture. A runaway often chose that course in order to get out of the hands of a hard master, thinking that he could not do worse in any event, while he might fall into the hands of a better master. Often they were bought by Negro traders for the cotton fields of the South.
I hope from what I have said about "runaways," that my readers will not form the opinion that all slave men who imagined themselves treated harshly ran away, or that they were all too lazy to work in the hot weather and took to the woods, or that all masters were so brutal that their slaves were compelled to run away to save life. There were masters of different dispositions and temperaments. Many owners treated their slaves so humanely that they never ran away, although they were sometimes punished; others really felt grieved for it to be known, that one of their slaves had been compelled to run away; others allowed the overseer to treat their slaves with such brutality that they were forced to run away.
Farming in Missouri consisted in raising tobacco, corn, wheat and stock, but tobacco was the principal product for sale. With five hands we usually raised about twenty thousand pounds, which at that time sold in Brunswick for about eight cents per pound. Each man was allowed one acre of ground to raise his own little crop, which, if well cultivated, would produce about nine hundred pounds of tobacco.
We used his horse and plow, and worked our crop as well as we did his in the daytime, and when ready for market, he sold our crop with his, giving each one his share. This was our money, to be spent for whatever we wanted aside from that given by him. He gave two suits of summer and one of winter clothes, hats and boots, blankets and underwear. Our cash was spent for Sunday clothes, sugar, coffee and flour, for we would have biscuits at least once a week, and coffee every day.
The practice of allowing slaves ground to raise a little crop obtained generally among slave owners, but most of them had to work their crop of tobacco after sundown, and without plowing. The master got the benefit of this money after all, because the slave spent it for his own pleasure and comfort, which was a direct advantage to his master.
The national election of 1860, created more excitement probably than any that had preceded it, not excepting the "Hard Cider Campaign " of 1840, because greater questions and issues had to be met and settled. The North was opposed to the extension, of slavery, in fact there was a strong sentiment against its existence, while the South wanted more territory for its extension; then there was a spirit of disunion existing North and South. The abolitionists of the North had declared the National Constitution to be a league with hell, while the extreme southern men such as Bob Toombs of Georgia, wanted to extend slavery to every State in the Union, and he declared in a speech delivered early in 1861, that he wanted to call the roll of his slaves on Bunker Hill, and would do so if the South was successful.
After the war had commenced, about the spring of 1862, and troops of both sides were often passing through that county, it was not safe for patrols to be out hunting Negroes, and the system came to an end, never to be revived. The regular confederate troops raised in that and adjoining counties went South as fast as recruited, so that only bushwhackers remained, and they were a source of annoyance to Union men and Union troops of that county up to the fall and winter of 1864, when they were effectively cleaned out. Many of these men claimed to be loyal, especially so in public and at their homes in the day time, in order to be protected, while at heart they were disloyal, aiding bushwhackers not only with ammunition, rations, and information as to when and where Union troops would pass, but with their presence at night on the roadside, shooting at Union citizens and soldiers while passing. They would select some safe spot where a returned fire would not reach them.
On March 31, 1864, I landed at Leavenworth, Kansas, with my intended wife, without a change of clothing and with only five dollars in cash, two of which I gave Rev. John Turner, Pastor of the A. M. E. Church, who united us in marriage in his parlor that day. I knew a friend in that city, who came from Brunswick, Paul Jones, and upon inquiry soon found and secured room and board with him. The next day I was out hunting for work, which I obtained with a brick contractor, at two dollars and seventy-five cents per day, to carry a mud-hod, which I had done before; so that the work was not entirely new, nor the contractor a stranger to me.
I found the white men of Kansas quite different from those of Missouri, in their dealings with Colored people or ex-slaves. They would talk and act nicely and politely, and in such a way as to win my confidence; always referring to my former condition and abusing pro-slavery men, pretending great friendship for me, and by so doing they ingratiated themselves into my confidence to such an extent, that I would follow their advice in the purchase of what they had to sell.
The freeing of the American slaves and their partial migration to these states, seeking employment, excited the enmity of the white laborers, particularly the Irish, because at that time they constituted fully seventy-five per cent of the laboring class, and who imagined that the influx of Negro laborers from the South, would divide the labor monopoly which they held, and of course they became opposed to the Colored people and so much so, that they would have done almost anything calculated to extirpate them. They were always ready to incite a riot and take the lead in it, and had not the business men, capitalists and ministers frowned upon their course, would have succeeded in doing serious harm. I remember the bitter feeling existing between the Irish and the Colored laborers in Leavenworth, Kansas, which had its beginning about the close of the war. They had several little conflicts, and on one occasion the civil authorities interfered to prevent bloodshed.
The freeing of the American slaves and their partial migration to these states, seeking employment, excited the enmity of the white laborers, particularly the Irish, because at that time they constituted fully seventy-five per cent of the laboring class, and who imagined that the influx of Negro laborers from the South, would divide the labor monopoly which they held, and of course they became opposed to the Colored people and so much so, that they would have done almost anything calculated to extirpate them. They were always ready to incite a riot and take the lead in it, and had not the business men, capitalists and ministers frowned upon their course, would have succeeded in doing serious harm.
I remember the bitter feeling existing between the Irish and the Colored laborers in Leavenworth, Kansas, which had its beginning about the close of the war. They had several little conflicts, and on one occasion the civil authorities interfered to prevent bloodshed.