The other day, while one of our readers was defending the institution of slavery in our comments section, I was performing the final edits on our new entry, The Negro in Virginia. Published in 1940 by the Virginia Writers’ Project, the book draws on the recollections of former slaves for its history of slavery, and this caused a conflict between its editor, Roscoe E. Lewis, and Lewis’s boss, Eudora Ramsay Richardson. Ms. Richardson, like our commenter, was of the “it couldn’t really have been that bad” school of slavery studies and regularly struck passages from the text she found to be implausible.
Or, as our commenter writes, “If African American slavery had been as violent as it is too often overtly misinterpreted, then it would not have endured as long as it did.” (“But why?” one is bound to ask.)
Anyway, The Negro in Virginia‘s chapter on slave punishment, “Thirty and Nine,” was particularly tough on the Lewis-Richardson relationship. That’s because it contained a remembrance by Henrietta King—a former slave then still living in West Point—that was so gut-punchingly awful that Richardson simply could not believe it; in her words, it must have been a “gross exaggeration.” To Richardson’s credit, though, she actually traveled to West Point to question Ms. King herself. And when she did, she changed her mind, writing in a letter, “She looks exactly as Mr. Lewis describes her and [she] told me, almost word for word the story Mr. Lewis relates.”
So what did Henrietta King look like, and what was the story that she told? This is what Lewis published in The Negro in Virginia:
Numerous living ex-slaves have scars and welts to show—raised, they say, by cow hides in slavery days. These marks are usually on the arms, back or shoulders. But Henrietta King bears the scars of slavery on her face. She lives in West Point, Virginia, in a ramshackle hut and is listed in the county records as being ninety-eight years old. Henrietta King is a ward of the town and gets along “tol’able well.” Her face is a hideous mask—her mouth horribly twisted across one cheek with the jagged fangs of rotted teeth protruding. One cheek is speckled with lumps—”ends of de jawbones,” she explains. She says she has no idea what she looked like before her face was smashed. “I musta been a good lookin’ gal,” she admits.
You can read the rest of the chapter to learn the details, or read her full interview here. (The queasy need not apply.) That such violence did not happen to every enslaved man, woman, or child is not the point; it did not even happen to most. The point, of course, is that slavery was founded on the possibility and, more to the point, the legality of such violence, and it is too bad that we can no longer resolve our disputes by going to visit Ms. Henrietta King of West Point. Instead, too many of us are like her mistress’s family.
“She got relatives livin’ here in West Point now,” King told her interviewer. “Dey all know me an’ know how come I look dis way. Met one of dem—Missus’ granddaughter, I reckon—not long ago. She crossed de street to de other side an’ made b’lieve she didn’t see me. But it don’ bother me none. She’ll be wid ole Missus one o’ dese days.”
IMAGE: Washington, D.C., 1916. “Convention of former slaves. Annie Parram, age 104; Anna Angales, age 105; Elizabeth Berkeley, 125; Sadie Thompson, 110.” National Photo Company Collection glass negative. (Shorpy)