“Well, bless ye little heart, honey, ye say ye is wan’ me to tell ye ‘bout how de people lived way back dere in slavery time. Honey, I dunno wha’ to tell ye cause I ain’ never been treated no ways but good in my life by my Missus.”1 These are the supposed first words spoken by Mom Hester Hunter, a maternal eighty-five-year-old former slave from Marion, South Carolina, to her interviewer, Annie Ruth Davis, a white Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) employee. Davis interviewed Hunter on three occasions between May and October 1937. Through these three interviews, Davis and Hunter engaged in lively discussion, with the latter recalling many fond, personally emotional memories about her mistress, Sara Davis Bethea. At the conclusion of the first interview Hunter revealed, “I know my Missus gone to Hebbun, honey, en I hope se restin’ dere.”2

Mom Hester Hunter remembered her mistress consoling her in times of sorrow, accompanying her to the slave graveyard to pay homage to the deceased, ensuring that she always had well-made clothes and a clean bed, sharing meals with her, taking trips to town with her, and gently instilling in her a sense of morality. During the second interview Hunter revealed just how well she thought of her former mistress, “Yes, mam, I love my old Missus better den I ever love honey an flour bread cause she was a dear old soul.”3 While Hunter shared a trove of memories with Davis, she spoke at length about the special times she shared with her mistress on Sundays in church, expressing gratitude for the ways by which evangelical Christianity had enriched her life. Hunter forever associated her religious identity and beliefs with her mistress:

My God, child, people never know nothin but to go to church on de big Sunday in dat day en time. No, mam, dey know dat dey Massa rule en didn’ nobody have no mind to question nothin bout it. My Old Missus was a dear old soul en she would see to it dat all her niggers wash en iron en cook on Saturday cause she never allow no work gwine on round whe’ she was when Sunday come, be dat she know bout it. I remember my old Massa en Missus used to ride to church in dey big black carriage en dey always would carry me en Bob her brother right dere in de carriage wid dem somewho another. Stuff us down ‘tween de seats somewhe’. I recollects just as bright as de stars be shinin old Missus would carry me en Bob to de same little seats we been sit in every Sunday en den she en old Massa would go to dey certain pew in de front part of de church.4

Later recalling the importance of white-directed Christian instruction in her life and the lives of other slaves on the Bethea plantation, Hunter remarked, “Dat been a mighty good thing, child, been a mighty good thing. Honey, it been de rule to follow what de Bible say do in dat day en time en now it seem like de rule must be, do like you see de other fellow is doin.”5

Hunter’s comment about emancipation, a day she “hates to think bout,” further suggests an emotional bond with her mistress.6 According to Hunter, at the end of the Civil War, Mrs. Bethea informed her slaves that they were free but allowed them to remain on the plantation if they so desired. Hunter could not imagine leaving her mistress. She told her W.P.A. interviewer that her mistress was her “white mammy en I stay dere long as she live too. Didn’ want no better livin den I was gettin right dere. It was a Paradise, be dat what I calls it.”7 This illuminates an especially close mistress-slave relationship—one obviously influenced by the scriptural and theological traditions of evangelical Christianity—as remembered many decades later by one former bondswoman. It is an idealized portrait of antebellum slavery that would support any southern apologist’s contentions about the benevolent nature of the institution. Such a portrayal though does not align with most scholarly descriptions of mistress-slave relationships.

This essay scrutinizes former slaves’ memories of religious education, including Mom Hester Hunter, as well as those of the former slaveholding women who imparted such instruction and values. It examines post-bellum memories of mistress-slave relationships, specifically as they related to the teachings of evangelical Christianity. Thus, what follows is not a discussion of slave religious education presented by slaveholding women as it occurred. Rather, this article presents an analysis of the politics of the memories of slave religious education by both former slaveholding women and former bondspeople. Most distinctively, this essay argues that there was a partial convergence of white and black narratives of the past during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in so doing, it assesses such narratives vis-à-vis the realities of the post-bellum South. Alternately stated, this article contends that the memories of former slaveholding women and former bondspeople were both similar and very much products of their time.

This essay dissents from much of the historiography on mistress-slave relationships, particularly in reference to Christian instruction. Relying largely upon antebellum sources, rather than those dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, previous scholars have characterized mistress-slave relationships in (often) conflicting ways.8 However, in spite of their differing conclusions, nearly all stressed the many obstacles that strained such relationships, including those in the realm of Christian instruction. Antebellum sources—specifically mistresses’ diaries that were never published commercially as well as book-length slave accounts that were intended to incite abolitionist beliefs—reveal that slave missions in general and mistress-directed Christian education in particular were not successful. In fact, plantation mistresses were seldom reticent to record feelings of frustration, anger, or indifference about their respective roles as religious educators in their diaries.9 Likewise, antebellum African-American sources collectively suggest that many white plantation women were not high-minded, kind, or supportive in their efforts as Christian educators and role models.10 For example, antebellum black sources highlight disturbing contradictions between mistress religious instruction and mistress behavior and attitude. Not surprisingly, many enslaved African Americans consequently chose to create and practice their own “brand” of Christianity, one that typically incorporated aspects of traditional African religions with limited input from their mistresses.11

Unlike these antebellum sources, white and black post-Civil War sources contain a number of similarities, including an idealized portrayal of mistress-directed Christian education specifically and mistress-slave relationships more generally. By exploring how African-American sources echo, support, and complement the content of mistress memoirs, this essay also addresses the complex nature of race relations and memory. Even during this era characterized by exceedingly poor race relations, these two populations found common ground when remembering slave evangelization in the antebellum South. This overlap indicates how different sets of social and racial pressures could and did produce similar accounts of a contested past. This essay draws on a deep well of post-bellum primary sources to see how southern whites and blacks remembered their intertwined pasts. Approximately forty post-bellum memoirs written by former-slaveholding women, the majority published between 1895 and 1915, reveal white-constructed memories of evangelical Christianity.12 Black-constructed memories were deduced using nearly 2,000 W.P.A. slave narratives, memoirs written by former bondspeople, and biographies of former slaves written by the subject’s family and friends.

While this essay disagrees with the historiography on mistress-slave relationships, the sources used and the conclusions presented correlate well with the relatively new focus on history through the lens of memory. Specifically, it engages a growing literature on southern and Civil War memory in which scholars collectively have argued that race significantly shaped the ways white southerners chose to remember, and just as importantly forget, aspects of the antebellum and Civil War eras.13 As a group, these monographs consider the reasons why a nostalgic and excessively sentimental version of the antebellum South and Civil War as envisioned by white southerners dominated the southern mind. They likewise explore those reasons why an emancipationist memory of the war, as asserted by such African American leaders as Frederick Douglass, Henry Highland Garnett and W. E. B. Du Bois, was jettisoned.14 Nonetheless, a lacuna in the historiography is the relationship between memory and religion, specifically the process of Christian education. This essay begins to fill this void. Additionally, in contrast to scholars who focus upon differing historical memories, this essay reveals an example of converging white and black narratives during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.15

Many southern figures perpetuated white-constructed memories of the South, slavery, and the Civil War. Elite white women, both individually and as members of their culturally powerful auxiliary organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy (U.D.C.), were one such group.16 During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, middle-class and elite white women of the South boldly entered the world of publishing to an extent never seen before. Historian Sarah Gardner maintains that such women fought for a white supremacist, patriarchal, political order and further argues that they participated equally with their male counterparts in creating a discourse about the South that promoted the transformation of racism into philanthropy.17 As pen and ink warriors, such women saw themselves as invaluable participants in the production of a narrative of the antebellum South and Civil War that reflected the values of their region, race and class. For many elite southern women their memoirs were a means through which they could educate—or even indoctrinate—a new generation of southerners (and northerners) about the benevolent nature of antebellum slavery. One can thus surmise that former slaveholding women’s memories were just as much fiction as fact.18 These commercial-audience memoirs included specific discussions of religious relationships enjoyed between mistresses and slaves.19

Almost universally, these memoirs represent mistress-slave relationships in a positive, warm, and even nostalgic manner. Significantly, a representative sample of mistress memoirs complement the contents of the then-burgeoning literature of white southern apologia published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a manner similar to that of the now-discredited historian U. B. Phillips—whose works praised plantation owners, denied their brutality, and argued that such persons provided for the physical and spiritual needs of their slaves—mistresses’ memoirs described their relationships with bondspeople as enlightened. This especially included any religious setting. Like Phillips, who portrayed the plantation as a school whose mission was to “civilize” and “enlighten” a “lowly” slave population, many former slaveholding women reflected upon their tireless efforts decades before to evangelize their slaves.20 As late as 1922, Elizabeth W. Allston Pringle, a former South Carolina mistress, reflected upon advice imparted to her mother by her mother’s aunt:

It is a very noble life, if a woman does her full duty in it. It is the life of a missionary, really; one must teach, train, uplift, encourage—always encourage, even in reproof. I grant you it is a life of effort, but, my child, it is our life; the life of those who have great responsibility of owning human beings. We are responsible before our Master for not only their bodies, but their souls; and never must we for one moment forget that. To be the wife of a rice-planter is no place for a pleasure-loving, indolent woman, but for an earnest, true-hearted woman it is a great opportunity.21

The degree to which former mistresses selectively remembered, or even revised their personal histories, takes on new meaning when compared to those produced shortly after the Civil War. In many cases, such self-portrayals differ from those produced toward the end of Reconstruction and beyond. During the first few years after the Civil War some ex-slaveholding women expressed frustration, disappointment, and hostility toward their slaves, all of which was consistent with those expressed in antebellum diaries. For example, Ella Gertrude Thomas of Georgia, still distraught over the outcome of the Civil War, wrote in October 1865: “I did not know until then how intimately my faith in Revelations and my faith in the institution of slavery had been woven together—true I had seen the evil of the latter but if the Bible was right then slavery must be—Slavery was done away with and my faith in God’s Holy Book was terribly shaken. For a time, I doubted God.”22 One should not be surprised about the intensity of feeling. Many elite whites were facing life with vastly diminished resources and in a different social order.

Thus, one must consider the reasons why aging former slaveholding women chose to portray themselves—and more generally the antebellum South—in a “better” light long after the Civil War. Some wished to preserve in memory a life and a culture that were irrecoverable. In other ways, their reiteration of antebellum defenses of slavery was an indirect means of supporting the sharecropping and tenant farmer systems—systems that continued to disadvantage African Americans. In other cases, elite white women hoped to justify their former privilege and in so doing ameliorate their post-emancipation guilt. Relatedly, some wished to validate their antebellum lives in the eyes of their grandchildren and other descendants; they felt compelled to characterize themselves in ways that highlighted the white South’s maternalist expectations of its elite women. Some completely disregarded or discounted the feelings within the African American community and painted any picture—regardless of its accuracy—knowing that they would not be censured. More practically, some women, who were in a precarious financial state after the war published memoirs that would appeal to the widest possible commercial audience, even at the expense of veracity. And finally, the precise workings of long-term memory remain largely unknown. In other words, what, why, and how ex-slaveholding women remembered events from several decades earlier lack absolute truth even if their intentions were honorable.23

Ex-slaveholding women, however, were not the sole chroniclers of mistress-slave interactions. Former slaves expressed memories of their past lives in a variety of post-bellum sources. Many former bondspeople divulged their personal histories to the W.P.A. in the 1930s. Important to emphasize, however, is that the W.P.A. slave narratives were not commercially produced as were many memoirs authored by ex-slaveholding women. Equally important to acknowledge is the little standardization of interview questions asked of former slaves.24 These ex-slaves—then elderly and in the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s—may have presented a more benign characterization of slave life than what had existed in reality for reasons many historians have already explored. Nonetheless, it is worth identifying some of those more significant factors that shaped African-American responses to the W.P.A. The Great Depression was especially challenging for those on the lowest economic rungs. Thus, for ex-slaves, the memory of childhood recalled a more “secure” experience. Before emancipation they presumably had housing, food, clothing, an extended family, and adults who took care of them. The difficulties of extreme poverty in old age were measured against the circumstances of their youth.25

Other factors shaping the W.P.A. narratives included: 1) an unequal social dynamic in which blacks felt compelled to defer to their white interviewers; 2) some African Americans may have hoped that by “impressing” white interviewers they might avail themselves of charitable contributions; 3) memory at every stage of life is a complicated phenomenon, and the end of life is especially so. In old age individuals regularly work to find meaning, and that process frequently employs considerable individual revision.26 For some former bondspeople in the 1930s, their benign characterization of life under slavery included their description of their mistress-directed Christian instruction.27

Although a number of factors affected the content and tone of the W.P.A. slave narratives, one must appreciate the omnipresence of white supremacy in the Jim Crow South. During the 1930s, African Americans still experienced racist violence, unwanted sexual advances, poor employment opportunities, and substandard housing. In order to eek out even the most basic of existences, African Americans understood that deference was essential. As historian Paul Escott has explained about slave narratives, “all the rules of racial etiquette had to be observed, and the informant had to give priority to appeasing his interviewer rather than telling the truth about the past.”28

Other valuable black sources include late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century memoirs authored by former slaves as well as biographies of former slaves written by younger African Americans. Such authors of the latter were personally well-acquainted with their subjects but may not have lived during slavery themselves. Several of the reasons why former slaves positively described their antebellum mistress-directed Christian instruction in the W.P.A. slave narratives also apply to these other post-bellum black sources. Furthermore, even though the authors of these memoirs and biographies tended to be elite members of their communities, they still understood the realities of tense race relations and the necessity of garnering white financial support for their communities, including for their churches and religiously-founded colleges. These realities affected such publications.

A large number of ex-slaves indicated in their post-bellum sources that they had received no religious instruction at all, be it from their mistress, master, or white clergyman. For example, the W.P.A. testimony indicated that, in some cases, the mistress expressed no interest in evangelizing slaves, and, in others, she was illiterate and thus incapable of biblical teaching.29 This essay maintains that of those ex-bondspeople who did discuss their mistress-directed religious experiences in post-bellum sources characterized them in a decidedly positive way.30 In fact, such ex-slaves identified the mistress as being second only to white clergymen as the individual who had most instructed them about Christianity. As a group, ex-bondspeople preferred their mistresses to white clergymen or their evangelical masters, who they typically painted as manipulators who used Christianity as a controlling device.

Acknowledging and comparing these two voices of the slaveholding South, the former mistress and the former bondsperson, elucidates their similar and overlapping memories of evangelical Christian instruction in the antebellum South. The following themes found in ex-slaveholding women’s memoirs—which are supported by African American sources—include: 1) the far greater detail of their experiences as slave religious educators in their post-bellum memoirs than in their pre-war diaries, 2) the frequent use of such labels as “enlightenment” and “civilization” by ex-plantation mistresses in their reference to the benefits of religious instruction for slaves, 3) the assumption by ex-mistresses that their former slaves were grateful for their Christian education and mentorship, and 4) the habit of ex-mistresses to describe their relationships during slavery with their bondspeople in much the same way as they described their relationships with their biological children.

In their memoirs ex-mistresses chose to discuss the contents of religious instruction in significantly greater length and specificity than they did in the antebellum diaries. Comparisons of these two genres are significant because they reveal considerable revisionism. For example, antebellum sources referenced very few examples of teaching except for three old standards: the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Ten Commandments. Antebellum mistresses’ lesson plans relied upon such staples of protestant doctrine at the expense of other seminal elements, such as the creation story, Noah and the flood, the exodus from Egypt, the Sermon on the Mount, and Christ’s resurrection. After the war ex-mistresses painted a different picture, claiming that they taught widely from both the Old and New Testaments, and they indicated in several instances that theirs was not a Sunday School. Rather they provided Christian instruction several days a week.31 In particular, these women remembered long hours teaching about Judgment Day and the prodigal son. The lesson of Judgment Day was especially powerful and one that traumatized their slaves. They knew, for example, that bondspeople had been permanently marked by their witness of the 1833 meteor storm, an unusually active display of Leonid meteors that could be seen in Alabama and throughout much of the eastern United States. Many mistresses thus used it in their presentation of Judgment Day.32 As one Maryland ex-mistress recorded: “In 1833, when the stars fell, all the Negroes on the plantation were terrified; they hid under beds, in barn lofts, hay and straw stacks; they thought judgment day had come.”33

In efforts to appear more dedicated and conscientious than was likely the case, many former mistresses addressed both the content and frequency of their religious lessons, even citing the exact portions of the catechisms taught. After reminiscing about her slaves’ general welfare, Victoria V. Clayton of Eufala, Alabama, wrote: “As to their slaves’ religious training, every Sunday morning the mothers brought their little ones to see me. Then I could satisfy myself as to the care they gave them, whether they had received a bath and suitable clothing for the holy day.”34 Shortly after her inspection of her young slaves, Clayton then waited for “the larger children to present themselves to be taught the Catechism,” where she used the “little Calvary Catechism, prepared by Mrs. D. C. Weston.”35 In her memoir, Clayton recorded more details about the adult slaves’ religious experiences: “When the evening meal was over my dining room was in readiness for the reception of all the grown members of the family. They gathered there and took their respective seats. They were taught the Creed of the Holy Apostolic Church, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.”36 Typically at such religious meetings Clayton also “read a short sermon to them,” sang hymns and closed with the following prayer to their Heavenly Father:

Glorious is the blending

Of right affections, climbing or descending

Along a scale of light and life with cares


The degree of Clayton’s detail about the Sunday schedule was incredibly rare in the antebellum diaries. Similarly hymn singing, which was commonly referenced by ex-mistresses, was never discussed in earlier diaries. Although some ex-mistresses chose to record the content of their lessons in great detail, others felt it more important to emphasize the frequency of their efforts. The latter professed that it was less important for their slaves to learn about specific biblical events than it was for them to be reminded on a regular basis that Jesus should always be close to their hearts.

Although discussed in more detail overall, white southern women in post-bellum memoirs made few references to any specific biblical passages shared with their bondspeople. Scholars have consistently shown that the antebellum white clergy—and by extension slave masters and mistresses—stressed biblical elements that encouraged slave subservience.38 This conclusion is confirmed in dozens of slave narratives written before the Civil War. House servant William Wells Brown wrote that Christian instruction in his home state of Missouri solely consisted of “teaching the slave that he must never strike a white man; that God made him for a slave; and that, when whipped, he must not find fault,—for the Bible says that ‘He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth not, shall be beaten with many stripes!’”39 Thus it is likely that former plantation mistresses deliberately omitted discussion of the specific biblical verses they stressed because it would undermine—or even contradict—their emphasized “genuine” efforts to evangelize their bondspeople.40

Unfortunately, due to the constraints of the W.P.A. interviewing format, former slaves did not enjoy the luxury of expounding at length on their relationships with their former mistresses. Thus, the interviews revealed more about social interactions than they did about their specific Christian beliefs. The W.P.A. provided their interviewers with a set of specific questions for standardization. Interviewers did on occasion deviate from those prescribed items, but only rarely. These questions asked for specifics, and, as such, former bondspeople infrequently expounded upon their personal religious beliefs. Nonetheless, former slaves discussed their Christian education in some detail, which often corroborated the content of the memoirs of their ex-mistresses.

Although most slaves were either illiterate or only semi-literate at the end of the Civil War, many ex-slaves interviewed by the W.P.A. recalled their mistresses teaching them rudimentary reading, writing, and arithmetic, along with religious lessons.41 This practice was most common in the Upper South, especially in Maryland, Virginia, Missouri, and Kentucky. Mistresses who presided over Upper South plantations and larger farms often owned considerably fewer bondspeople than those residing further south. Thus, for those Upper South white plantation women, the actual task of educating slaves, religiously and secularly, may have seemed more manageable and less time-consuming due to fewer numbers. Born in 1851 in Charles County, Maryland, ex-bondsman Charles Coles disclosed to the W.P.A. many positives of his life in bondage, including the religious instruction imparted by his Roman Catholic mistress. He said, in reference to her:

Mrs. Dorsey conducted regular religious services of the Catholic Church on the farm in a chapel erected for that purpose and in which the slaves were taught the catechism and many learned how to read and write and were assisted by Catholic priests who came to the farm on church holidays and on Sundays for the purpose. When a child was born, it was baptized by the priest, and given names and they were recorded in the Bible. We were taught the rituals of the Catholic Church and when any one died, the funeral was conducted by a priest, the corpse was buried in the Dorseys’ graveyard, a lot of about 1.5 acres, surrounded by cedar trees and well cared for. The only difference in the graves was that the Dorsey people had marble markers and the slaves had plain stones.42

Gladys Robertson, also an Upper South ex-slave born in Montgomery County, Kentucky, in 1843, corroborated Coles’s portrayal: “The darkies were deeply religious and learned much of the Bible from devout mistresses who felt it their holy duty to teach these ignorant people the word of God. They taught us how to read from the holy book.”43 And Callie Washington, yet another Upper South ex-slave born about 1858 in Red Fork, Arkansas, praised her ex-mistress’s benevolent qualities: “They [her owners] didn’t have no children so old Miss took me in the big house to be her little nigger. Ole Miss tried to learn me to read and write and count on my fingers. Old Miss, also learned me to say my prayers. Every night she would go over ‘Our Father’ with me till I could say it by myself.”44

Ex-slaves from other regions of the South also remembered receiving practical and Christian educations from their mistresses. Although fewer in number than their counterparts in the Upper South, ex-bondspeople acknowledged the practice more frequently than did their predecessors in antebellum sources. For example, several W.P.A. interviewees in North Carolina claimed to have had Moravian owners who combined evangelism with English grammar and arithmetic. Betty Cofer, born in 1856 in Wachovia, North Carolina, is one such example. She praised her mistress for allowing slaves to attend school in a Moravian-constructed log church, remarking, “my mistress always read the bible to us an’ tell us right an’ wrong.”45 In a few rare cases, the extent of the education that a slave received from his or her mistress and master was remarkable. Jimmie Johnson, born in 1847 and who spent his childhood in Spartanburg, South Carolina, said:

Masser and Missus were Episcopalians, and I went to Sunday School where the rock church now stands (Church of the Advent). Miss Mary Legg was my teacher, and she was a saintly woman. She was a niece of old Masser. Old Missus used to come to the house where I lived and teach me the alphabet. After I got older, I use to take care of the Masser’s horse and buggy for him; used to hitch-up the horse for him and go with him on his way to see a patient. Bless his heart, he let me take my Webster’s blue back speller and my history with me when I would drive with him. I would study those books and Masser would tell me how to pronounce the hard words. That is the way I got an education. Masser would tell Missus that Jimmie was a smart boy, that he had no father nor mother and that they must be good to him. They sure was. I never wanted for a thing. Sometimes on our drives Masser would tell me some Latin words, but I never did study Latin—just English.46

The W.P.A. slave narratives further revealed that, in general, mistress religious instruction was also more frequently undertaken in the sparsely populated areas of the South than it was in most areas of the Deep South. In those more remote locations, plantations were small by Deep South standards, resulting in significantly smaller holdings of bondspeople. It was again more manageable for mistresses so inclined to religiously indoctrinate and generally teach their slaves when the numbers were relatively small. The infrequent visits of circuit-riding preachers and the long distances between home and church also help explain the greater number of mistress-directed religious efforts on the frontier. B. C. Franklin, the father of renowned historian John Hope Franklin, was never a slave, but in a 1935 W.P.A. interview he spoke of his mother who was. She had been owned by a Choctaw and lived in an isolated area of northeast Mississippi. B. C. Franklin spoke highly of his mother’s benevolent owner who “allowed his mother every privilege of her people,” and of her devout Choctaw mistress who claimed his mother as her special “Bible student.”47 However, in some cases, frontier mistresses—by virtue of their own literary inadequacies—were not equipped to be the religious educator of anyone, black or white.

A second theme found among the memoirs published by ex-slaveholding women includes the common usage of the terms “enlighten” and “civilize,” as well as variations of them in reference to slave Christian education and mentoring. To some degree, these authors viewed blacks negatively in ways that mirrored late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scientists who placed Africans at the bottom of the evolutionary hierarchy. Such women lived during a time when many scientists upheld the ideologies of both social Darwinism and eugenics. In attempts to reconcile their slaveholding pasts, ex-slaveholding women reflected these ideologies. While some female authors may have upheld scientific racism, more often than not they were rearticulating antebellum defenses of slavery in the manner of U. B. Phillips.48 Nevertheless, in many cases, these mistresses felt divinely directed to spiritually uplift and to physically ameliorate the lives of their slaves, hoping that their efforts brought their bondspeople to God. One must seriously question whether such ex-mistresses exaggerated, in memory, their significance in that role. Thus, in proclaiming their earlier dedication—real or exaggerated—to religious education, it is not surprising that some ex-mistresses expressed the hope that some of their former slaves would return to Africa and be prophets for Christianity. Such women further envisioned their ex-bondspeople promoting and spreading white society’s “enlightened” western values.49

Likewise, African-American post-bellum sources typically characterized former mistresses as good-intentioned, pious women whose mission it was to uplift an inferior, supposedly less evolved, race. In particular, such former slaves recalled their mistress’s sincere desire to bring her slaves to Jesus Christ and to give them, by way of biblical teachings, a roadmap for a better life. Some indicated that their mistresses had cruel, disingenuous, and manipulative intentions as religious educators and in no way exhibited the effects of a higher calling. Another group of ex-slaves, in their interviews, stated that their mistresses had never discussed Christianity with them. Still others remembered the terror imparted to them by their mistresses who threatened them with eternal damnation in punishment for their misdeeds. As a whole, the majority of ex-bondspeople identified positive religious experiences with mistresses. Some of them even expressed affection and gratitude toward those women, habitually using adjectives like “dutiful,” “angelic,” and “holy.”50

Walter Long, born in 1852, remembered his slave days near Columbia, South Carolina, and his mistress who, by the example of her life and her own personal deeds, facilitated his life-long relationship with God. He said: “Mistress was mighty ‘ticular ‘bout our ‘ligion, ‘cause she knowed dere was no nigger any too good no how. Us slaves ‘sorbed all de good us had in us from our mistress, I really believes. She was so kind and gentle, she moved ‘mong us a livin’ benediction, deliverin’ us to God.”51 Other slaves lamented the spiritual condition of African Americans in the 1930s, regretting that they did not possess the piety that mistresses had instilled in them during slavery. Minerva Wells, born about 1853 in Pinola, Mississippi, recalled that “Now I thinks ‘o de slave days an’ ob my Ole Missus, she sho’ wuz a fine, holy purson…. I wishes de young colored folks would settle down an’ think like we wuz by Ole Missus.”52 At least in memory by the 1930s, many ex-slaves often held up the plantation mistress as a positive moral example in part due to her attempts at Christian instruction.

A third theme in ex-mistress memoirs was the gratitude of their bondspeople. These memoirs emphasized the high esteem in which slaves regarded their mistresses because of their religious education. Correctly or incorrectly, naïvely or not, the memoirs describe former slaves who believed their mistresses made significant Christian inroads into their lives. And in most cases there had been general acceptance of such efforts. Margaret Pollock Devereux of Raleigh, North Carolina, whose 1906 memoir contained significant discussion of her “other family,” commented, “Despite their superstitions, they are most grateful for all my teachings.”53 Some memoirs suggested, perhaps in artificial attempts to elevate former mistresses, that slaves perceived them as their personal saviors, sincere spiritual advisors, and individuals responsible for removing them from the “darkness” and “degradation” of Africa and into the light of the white Christian world.

Some antebellum-era slaves apparently were so grateful for their mistresses’ sacrifices—propelled by evangelistic zeal—that if provided the opportunity, they would have chosen to remain with their mistresses rather than to leave.54 Reflecting upon a childhood experience with one “special” slave, ex-mistress Elizabeth W. Allston Pringle of South Carolina wrote, “One day she Maum Maria sat on the ground weaving a rug. I was listening to her stories of her home in Africa, and in my little girl voice said with sympathy: ‘Maum ‘Ria, you must be dreadfully sorry they took you away from all that, and brought you to a strange land to work for other people’”55 Inserting some of the supposed literal words of Maum ‘Ria, Pringle continued, “Maum Maria stopped her work, rose to her full height—she was very tall and straight—clasped her hands and said, dropping a deep courtesy as she spoke: ‘My chile, ebery night on my knees I tank my Hebenly Father that he brought me here, for without that I wud neber hev known my Savior!’”56 Pringle also reported that although some slaves, Maum Maria included, were afforded the opportunity for freedom in addition to a “little sum to be given them yearly,” they elected to remain on the plantation. Their decision was motivated by their love for their mistress and appreciation for the lives, including the religious instruction, she provided them. Pringle recorded, “Daddy Tom took his freedom, and Daddy Prince and Maum Maria said they were grateful to their beloved mistress, but they would rather remain just as they were; they had all they needed and were happy and loved their white family, and they did not want to make any change.”57 According to Pringle, Daddy Prince and especially Maum Maria were so grateful to their mistress for her sincere role in introducing Christ to her bondspeople that they gladly continued to live with their “white family” even when offered their freedom.

Few scholars, if any, would concur with the rosy picture of plantation life that Pringle described. In Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps, historian William Dusinberre described the Pringle plantations, as well as those belonging to their neighbors in coastal South Carolina and Georgia—the Allstons, Manigaults, and Butlers—as inhumane “charnel houses” for slaves, adding that for those in rice-producing areas “slavery was even more horrific than is generally acknowledged.”58 Admittedly, Dusinberre did not discuss slave religious education, but one must question the genuineness of Pringle’s stories of Maum Maria and her choice to remain with Pringle’s family.59 It is unlikely that exploited slaves like Maum Maria, who toiled daily in unhealthy conditions, were as appreciative as Pringle reported. It is also unlikely that they were recipients of a mistress’s religious instruction and the salvation which it supposedly offered. However, if in fact Maum Maria did express sentiments of appreciation, it is probable she did so because she was a “favorite” house slave in a position very different from her counterparts in the fields. Especially, in light of the number of slaves on lowcountry plantations, it is unlikely that large numbers of enslaved people would have been brought to the Christian faith by their mistresses.

Finally, some ex-mistresses claimed that ex-slaves tried to locate them—sometimes many years after emancipation—so they could express gratitude for their religious instruction and moral example. For instance, Mary Norcott Bryan, the daughter of a North Carolina plantation mistress, remembered a post-bellum visit from Reuben, a former family slave. Although the Norcott family “had lost sight of him during the war,” Reuben arrived at Bryan’s doorstep to thank Bryan for her mother’s spiritual guidance.60 According to Bryan, Reuben confessed to her that “he had been a very bad man since he was free, and that he was only then out of the Penitentiary.”61 Reuben had felt compelled to confess his sins—and commit himself to a better future—largely because of his mistress’s lasting influence. Supposedly Bryan’s mother had instilled in Reuben Christian values and morals for which he was eternally grateful. After the Civil War, Reuben had “thought a great deal about his old missus, how she used to read the Bible and pray for her slaves, and as she is gone, he concluded to tell Bryan his resolution.”62

Significantly, antebellum slave narratives did not corroborate the content of the idealized examples and reminisces recorded in mistresses’ memoirs. Before emancipation former bondspeople and their female owners consistently recorded that slaves preferred to worship separately and in different ways from their white owners. Some slaves adhered to elements of African religions, some slaves embraced elements of Islam, some slaves fashioned worship that stressed the Old Testament and downplayed the New Testament emphasized by their evangelical mistresses, and still many other slaves adopted unique forms which incorporated aspects of some or all of the above. Significantly, many of those African Americans who published slave narratives—both before and after the Civil War—like Maum Maria, had served as house servants. As a genre, slave narratives were overwhelmingly authored by ex-house servants who, by virtue of the countless hours spent in and around the Big House, had more intimate relationships with and knowledge of the mistress. In many cases, this interaction translated into negative reportage about mistress-directed slave religious education. Although not numerous, narratives authored by ex-field slaves who had very different relationships with the mistress than her house servants, portrayed more negative feelings regarding white Christianity.63

One can and should be highly skeptical of the claims repeatedly made in post-bellum memoirs of former slaveholding women that their ex-bondspeople were appreciative of their mistress’s religious education and mentorship. In particular, it is significant that ex-mistresses rarely referenced any religious expression within the slave community. It is highly unlikely that they were completely unaware of the quotidian activities of the slave community, especially its syncretic religious culture. Rather, one might assume that former slaveholding women chose to ignore slaves’ religious expression in order to emphasize their own religious function and status with their bondspeople. Furthermore, it is conceivable that such ex-mistresses assumed seemingly innocent roles as chroniclers of their pasts and memories, stories that were written for the benefit of their ancestors. However, in so doing, such women embraced active roles as promoters of the complementary myths of the Lost Cause and the antebellum utopia. Along with their male family members, former slaveholding women forged alliances with white northern compatriots, alliances that constructed a shared narrative relative to the benevolent nature of slavery. The question that remains for another scholar is the extent to which these elite white women were aware of the political implications of their memoirs.

Nonetheless, analysis of the thousands of W.P.A. narratives and several dozen post-bellum African American memoirs and biographies indicates that the majority of respondents, at least at that point in their lives, expressed positive opinions and gratitude for the Christian instruction they received from their mistresses. Very few ex-bondspeople alluded—either implicitly or explicitly—to attempts to resist or reject mistress-directed religious instruction. One must remember, however, that many ex-slaves, by virtue of their age at the end of bondage, would have been too young to have succeeded in most acts of resistance. Regardless of their actual relationships with their mistresses, many ex-slaves within their memoirs or interviews reflected fondly on their antebellum Sunday school experiences. One such example is South Carolinian Alexander Bettis, a prominent Baptist minister and educator, and specifically his biographer Alfred William Nicholson, who credited Bettis’s mistress for identifying his potential as a student and Christian and for gently guiding him down God’s chosen path for him as a Baptist preacher:

For by recognizing the lad’s Bettis’s unusual abilities, and by allowing her Bettis’s mistress kind disposition to give expression to itself in the giving of special training to him, she was preparing thereby a mighty factor for the glory of God through the uplift and betterment of the lowly negro, and she was developing, moreover, a positive protection to her own people through the gratitude this trained negro ever had for his mistress and, because of her, all of her class. For when the untutored host of negroes would likely have confused the term liberty with license, and been easily influenced to believe that ‘might makes right,’ it was the thoughtful negro whose gratitude, to former master or mistress, caused him to interpose in behalf of the white people.64

Nicholson further conveyed the important role that white southerners could continue to play—in the 1910s—in racial and religious uplift and the resultant gratitude of the African-American community. Although Nicholson was born in 1861, his biography of Bettis reflects not only Bettis’s memories but his own memories about the plantation mistress’s role as religious mentor:

And why, one would be tempted to ask, do not the white people of the South today read the negro’s gratitude as expressed in his fidelity in the hours of temptation during the past, and make sure of his fidelity in the ordeals that are yet to come by increasing the occasions for his gratitude through and because of justice and increased kindness shown in the present? A sane and righteous answer to that question, put into vigorous living, would settle for the best good and contentment of all the white people and all the negroes each and every ill growing out of the question of race. What enabled Christ to say, ‘And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me?’ Was it not the concern shown for even his enemies, causing him to pray for rather than abuse them? Anyway, the principle thus exhibited on the cross and the negro’s responsiveness to kindness, racially speaking, combine to convince even a casual observer that the Southern white people have nothing to lose by materially concerning themselves in the negro’s mental, moral and religious uplift, and general prosperity. The life of the subject of this sketch emphatically teaches that fact.65

Corroborating Bettis’s sentiments, African-American Methodist preacher H. M. Hamill believed, or was perhaps indoctrinated to believe, that former slaves who had received white-imparted Christian education not only led more honorable lives as freedmen, but also tended to express appreciation to their former masters and mistresses for decades after emancipation. As Hamill observed in 1904, “whenever he found a negro whose education [came] not from books and college only, but from the example and home teaching and training of his white master and mistress, [he] generally [found] one who sp[oke] the truth, [was] honest, self-respecting and self-restraining, docile and reverent, and always the friend of the Southern white gentleman and lady.”66 Again, it is unknown if this was sincere or if Africans Americans, especially religious figures like Hamill, were attempting to gain financial support from southern white churches and charitable organizations by casting their former owners in a positive light.

However, the relatively rare ex-slave did report his or her desires as a youth to participate in religious activities that were completely separate from the white world. Mississippian George Weathersby, born in 1852 in Simpson County, told his W.P.A. interviewer that they “could go to meeting at de white folks church an’ sit in de back, bus us wanted to have worship in our own way.” Rather, on Sundays, Weathersby’s slave community “would collect at some ole’ vacant cabin an’ have their services. In de summer time they would build big brush arbors off in de woods. At nite they would make big firs to see by, then they would sing prayer an’ shout all us wanted to.”67 Notably, in that same interview Weathersby contradicted himself by saying, “Hit wuz bad fer us niggers to be enslaved, but us wuz cared for, mos’ times a heap bettern po’ folks is a faring these days. Our race has gained Civilazation an’ education by hit so I is satisfied an’ wants de good will on everybody.”68 Corroborating Weathersby, ex- slave Charles Hayes, born in 1849 in Clarke County, Alabama, spoke to the vicissitudes and contradictions of the slave experience: “One who does not know the south, can form no conception of the extreme hardships some of the slaves had to undergo; the many peculiar situations that would arise, nor can he have the faintest idea of the deep regard, and at times, even real affection that existed between the master and the favored slave.” With a degree of appreciation—real or affected—Hayes concluded that “it is a reflex for this regard that is the basis of all the helpful things the better class of southern white people are now doing to help the Negro better his condition to raise to higher planes of manhood.”69

Finally, some ex-slaves who criticized the religious education of mistresses in their earlier lives revaluated their previous positions by the 1930s. Such ex-bondspeople voiced regret for not having exhibited better attitudes toward their mistresses’ efforts. South Carolinian Lincoln Watkins, born about 1850, is such an example. To his W.P.A. interviewer, Watkins expressed regret saying, “Young Miss tried to teach me to read and write and gave me lessons in de Bible but I wus too dumb to learn and didn’t have the sense to appreciate it.”70 Those African-American men and women interviewed by W.P.A. employees were typically only teenagers or young children during their lives in bondage. Such individuals, by virtue of their age, may not have had the patience or interest in their mistresses’ attempts at Christian instruction. Undoubtedly, though, religion often served as a source of comfort to African Americans of all ages during the lean years of the Great Depression. It is thus conceivable that former slaves wished they had been more receptive to their mistress’s earlier efforts to help them establish relationships with Jesus.

Finally, ex-mistresses frequently discussed their former slaves in much the same tone as their biological children. In such instances, they were quick to emphasize that they were responsible and wished to provide materially and especially spiritually for the needs of their own children and likewise for their slave children. A few antebellum diaries describe satisfying relationships with individual slaves, though usually with either small children or persons assigned to the house. However, their later memoirs almost universally glorify the mistress-slave relationship, often in very saccharine ways. Given the content of extant antebellum sources, one might label ex-mistresses as disingenuous for their seemingly universal description of relationships with slaves as loving and familial.

In one such example, ex-mistress Victoria Clayton repeatedly represented her former plantation and its inhabitants as an Eden where everyone was one big, happy Christian family. She wrote: “We simply and naturally understood that our slaves must be treated kindly and cared for spiritually, and so they were. We felt that we were responsible to God for our entire household. We regarded slavery in a patriarchal sense. We were all one family, and, as master and mistress, heads of this family, we were responsible to God.”71 In this vein, the authors of several other post-bellum memoirs claimed that they had always made the spiritual welfare of their slaves one of their first priorities, as they likewise did with their natural children.72 These women reported to have experienced great joy when both their slave children and their biological children developed meaningful relationships with Christ because of their care and example.

Because both black and white residents of a single plantation were all of one family, bondspeople, like their white brethren, deserved tender, loving care, both spiritually and materially. This was the mindset of many former slaveholding women. Clayton, for example, boasted that her “dear” mother assessed the health and safety of her slave children as conscientiously as she did for her own children. Clayton’s mother had reminded her daughter that on “each Sunday morning before Sunday School, the slave mothers brought their children to her, the mistress. She carefully checked the children to satisfy herself that they were being properly attended to, bathed, and dressed.”73 In a similar instance, Susan Dabney Smedes of Raymond, Mississippi, praised her mother for the love and spiritual devotion she directed toward her “other children.” Smedes wrote: “She tirelessly extended over the whole plantation. She had a special eye and care for any neglected or unfortunate or ill-treated Negro child, and would contrive to have such cases near her.”74

Some ex-slaveholding women, in an attempt to convince their readers that the mistress-slave relationship was genuine and strong, described how they received calls to come and sit at the bedside of their dying slaves. Pringle recounted one such incident: “My mother called his name gently, ‘Pompey.’ He opened his eyes and labored breathing; one could not but see that death was near. He appeared unconscious, with a look of great pain on his face.” According to Pringle, upon her mother’s gentle touch and words, Pompey “opened his eyes and a look of delight replaced the one of pain. ‘My mistus!’ he exclaimed. ‘Yu cum! O, I tu glad! I tink I bin gwine, widout see you once more.’”75

The Pringles owned hundreds of slaves. It is unknown whether Pompey was really an object of family affection or only an anonymous field hand. Thus, the accuracy of this story is open to question. She went further, however, in her attempt to characterize her mother as a sincere evangelist who labored on Sunday to impart religion to her slaves. Describing Sunday activities, Pringle wrote:

Mamma every Sunday afternoon had all the children big enough to come assembled in the little church in the avenue, and taught them what she could of the great mercy of God and what He expected of his children. It was always spoken of as “katekism,” and was the event of the week of the children–their best clothes, their cleanest faces, and oh, such smiling faces greeted mamma when she arrived at the church! After the lesson a big cake was brought in a wheelbarrow by one of the house-boys, convoyed by Maum Mary, who cut it with much ceremony, and each child went up to the barrow, dropped a courtesy and received a slice, then passed to my mother which another courtesy, filed out and scampered happily home as soon as safe from Maum Mary’s paralyzing eye. All her life mamma kept this up, and in later years we children were allowed to go on condition that we should sit still and listen to the catechism, and ask for no cake until every child had had his share. Then we were allowed a few scraps, which tasted nicer than any other cake.76

Assuming that Pringle represented reality, it does appear that her mother made a sincere attempt to treat her bondspeople similarly to her children. Additionally, in opposition to common antebellum practice, when mistresses and clergy segregated blacks from whites in order to emphasize the concept of subservience, Pringle’s mother imparted her religious education to a racially-mixed audience. She believed that the message of Jesus should belong equally to all persons. Once again, however, one must call into question Pringle’s portrayal of plantation religious education, especially when rationalized with extant knowledge of the Pringle plantation and others like it in lowland South Carolina. Perhaps she slid into that comfortable revisionist history trap in order to earn a place for herself among many of the elite white authors that the South produced late in the nineteenth century.

Relatedly, ex-bondspeople revealed that mistresses played a crucial personal, even familial, role in their own religious experiences. This included the mistress’s participation in some of their slaves’ most important personal and spiritual rites of passage, especially baptisms and funerals. Through their revelations, ex-bondspeople suggest not only that their mistresses assumed vital supportive and familial positions in their lives, but that their religious relationship was not confined to the weekly Sunday school lesson. For example, many ex-bondspeople remembered their mistress-directed education specifically emphasizing John the Baptist and his baptism of Jesus Christ. Consequently, ex-slaves described the emotional significance of plantation baptisms in their lives. The degree to which ex-slaves discussed this topic varied, but Esther Lockhart, for example, expounded at length about her special day. Lockhart, born around 1850 in Spartanburg, South Carolina, recalled: “All Saturday I prayed and Miss Bessie told me what I was going to do the next afternoon, and read to me from the Bible about baptizing and about John the Baptist baptizing Christ. Yes sir, the Bible say Christ went down in the water, in the waters of Jordan.” Further remembered by Lockhart was that her mistress had kindly advised her ma “how to fix her clothes while Miss Bessie was reading the Bible to me.” As for special baptizing attire, Lockhart informed her W.P.A. interviewer that “all of her clothes was white but her shoes” because “in those day they did not have white shoes.” On that next afternoon, “the sun was good and hot,” and Lockhart “had a white dress to wear to the pond and … two pairs of white stockings.” Lockhart warmly remembered that her family and the slave community were with her at this rite of passage and that “Miss Bessie … and all the white folks went to see their Negroes go under.”77

Apparently, mistresses’ interest in slave baptism was not entirely confined to smaller plantations where white women arguably had more personal relationships with their bondspeople. Jane Sutton, born in 1853 in Harrison County, Mississippi, on a large plantation containing several hundred slaves, remembered her mistress’s attention in obtaining special Baptismal clothing: “My white folks wuz all Baptis’ and dey made us go to church too. De church wuz called de ‘Strong River Church.’ Dey had big babtizing. I ‘members when I jined de church and wuz baptized. De white folks preacher baptized uz in de creek whut run from Mr. Berry’s pond.” Sutton “wuz drest in a white ‘lowel’ slip made outer cloth we spin and weave” and in her Sunday “caliker dresses.” Fondly recalling that day, Sutton told her that her baptismal attire “dat old mistus go fer my granny … sho wuz purty. It wuz white and yaller, and it wuz de purtiest thing I thought I ever saw.”78

Ex-slaves also noted their mistresses’ roles at slave funerals, although white female attendance at such events appeared less common than at baptisms. In selected instances, not only did mistresses attend, but they also delivered the eulogies. The accuracy of memories that recalled a mistress’s presence more frequently at baptisms than at funerals is uncertain, but this can possibly be explained by the significance of a slave’s baptism as a rite of passage. This selectivity of ex-slave memories can also be supported by the fact the ages of slaves at the time of such funerals; they were young enough that they hypothetically may not have processed many of the funeral details.

Still other ex-bondspeople acknowledged that they felt it was their Christian duty to remain with their mistress at the end of her life because of their close familial relationships. North Carolinian William Henry Singleton reflected upon the death of his mistress, who he described as “not liking the idea of owning slaves” and as a “good Christian woman” who had taught her slaves “that the Bible did not teach that it was right to own slaves.” Recounting the slave community’s response to their mistress’s death, Singleton recalled that, “On the day of the funeral all of us slaves on the plantation, between seventy-five and a hundred, men, women and children, followed her body to the cemetery, about five miles away, where she was buried.” According to Singleton, his mistress’s death “was a very sad occasion, for all the women were crying and most of the men too, as well as the children. We knew that she was the best friend we had and that now our lot would be harder.”79

Finally, some former slaves remembered special times when their mistresses dedicated their own lives to Christ and were inspired to do so by a devout bondsperson. Post-bellum evangelist Amanda Berry Smith recalled in her autobiography the role her own mother had played in “the wonderful conversion” of her mother’s young mistress, Miss Celie, just outside of Baltimore. In particular, Smith—who was a young child at the time—remembered her mother accompanying her young mistress to a Methodist camp meeting and reveling in how “the spirit of the Lord had got hold of her young mistress.” According to Smith, her mother had undergone her own conversion experience just two years before this, but had vigorously prayed for Miss Celie within that time. Smith also revealed that her mother’s “heart was bounding with gladness when Miss Celie was converted.” Overcome by her conversion, the young mistress expressed a desire to attend African-American religious services and learn to pray in a highly emotional manner, reminiscent of the style exhibited by her bondspeople.80 Here, Smith’s memories lead readers to contemplate a religious world that whites and blacks made together.

Post-bellum white and black sources reveal memories of a favorable and heartfelt mistress-slave relationship. Ex-slaveholding women portrayed their roles as religious educators and mentors more positively in their post-bellum memoirs than they did in their antebellum diaries. Likewise ex-bondspeople remembered their religious experiences with their ex-mistresses more positively in post-bellum sources than they did in pre-Civil War book-length narratives. This being said, it is essential for those who research these documents to proceed with caution when making generalizations based upon them. One can fault ex-slaveholding women for representing themselves as more pure and high-minded than they appeared in their antebellum diaries. Likewise, one can question the recollections of ex-slaves who were probably also guilty of consciously (mis)remembering their slave experiences.

Nonetheless, despite their flaws, these sources are valuable because they shed light on the complexities and politics of memory. In fact, these post-bellum memories reveal almost as much about southern religion and race relations at their time of publication as they do about the antebellum South. They demonstrate that both white and black populations continued to embrace and promote evangelical Christianity as an ideal. Perhaps more importantly, these post-bellum memories also confirm that whites continued to control the master narrative. Meanwhile, stemming from the complementary realties of racism and deference, African Americans felt compelled to affirm the saccharine and sentimental master narrative of white southerners. In accounting for the politics of memory, we are one step closer to understanding why similar, often converging black and white post-bellum narratives concealed different social realities.

  1. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, vol. 2, parts 1 and 2 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972), Part 2, 331.

  2. Ibid., 334.

  3. Ibid., 338.

  4. Ibid., 338–39.

  5. Ibid., 339.

  6. Ibid., 340.

  7. Ibid.

  8. See Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982); Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988); Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Minrose Gwin, Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985); Anne Firor Scott, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830–1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Brenda E. Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); Marli Weiner, Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830–1880 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1997); and Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Old South (New York: Norton, 1999).

  9. This is not to suggest that there were not extant antebellum sources that presented slavery, specifically slave missions, in idealized terms. To the contrary, white southerners produced innumerable sources in an effort to defend the institution. For example, denominational literature—including advice literature, formal resolutions, and catechisms—portrayed slave missions in paternalistic ways.

  10. Such antebellum African-American sources include slave narratives and black newspapers. See William Wells Brown, Narrative of the Life of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Society Office, 1848), Lewis and Milton Clarke, Narratives of the Sufferings of Lewis and Milton Clarke, Sons of a Soldier of the Revolution, During a Captivity of More than Twenty Years Among the Slaveholders of Kentucky, One of the So Called Christian States of North America. Dictated by Themselves (Boston: Published by Bela Marsh, 1846) and Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, ed. Jean Fagin Yellin (1861; New York: Harcourt Brace Company, 1973). See also John B. Boles, ed., Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord: Race and Religion in the American South, 1740–1870 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988).

  11. See Janet Duitsman Cornelius, Slave Missions and the Black Church in the Antebellum South (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999); Alonzo Johnson and Paul Jersild, eds., “Ain’t Gonna Lay My ‘Ligion Down”: African American Religion in the South (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996); Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); and Milton C. Sernett, Black Religion and American Evangelicalism: White Protestants, Plantation Missions and the Flowering of Negro Christianity, 1787–1865 (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1975). Nonetheless, not all scholars accept this characterization of slave religious life. For example, Charles F. Irons argues that significant interaction between black and white Virginians existed relative to the development of evangelical Christianity in the antebellum South. See Charles F. Irons, The Origins of Proslavery Christianity: White and Black Evangelicals in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

  12. These post-bellum sources are of tantamount importance for what they reveal about the post-war psychology of plantation mistresses regarding their antebellum roles. Historians should not disregard this collection of documents just because it is relatively small in number, significantly smaller in number than the known array of antebellum diaries. Researchers should remember that some proper Victorian ladies believed it not socially appropriate for their names to appear in print. This mentality partially accounts for the paucity of known post-Civil War memoirs.

  13. See David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001); W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash in Race and Memory (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008); Kathleen Ann Clark, Defining Moments: African American Commemoration and Political Culture in the South, 1865–1913 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Gaines Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause and the Emergence of the New South, 1865–1913 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Sarah E. Gardner, Blood & Irony: Southern White Women’s Narratives of the Civil War, 1861–1937 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); and Nina Silber, The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865–1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997). Among the most influential and prolific members in this group is David Blight, who has argued that white Americans from both the North and South redefined their understanding of the causes and meanings of the Civil War as they attempted to reconstruct the nation. In particular, for Blight, the causes of the war were alternately the preservation of the Union or of slavery, and its most important legacy was emancipation. This interpretation, however, was largely rejected during the post-bellum era by whites because it derailed the road to white national reconciliation and renewal—a theme also articulated by Nina Silber. Rather, according to Gaines Foster, and later adopted by Blight, between 1865 and 1915, the Civil War was reduced to chivalrous recollections, the essential meaning of the war was practically forgotten, and complementary myths of the Lost Cause and the antebellum utopia had been successfully constructed by the South. These scholars further contend that white northerners and southerners alike allied relative to shared memories of slavery as a benevolent institution, the Civil War as a tragic misunderstanding, Reconstruction as a failure, the Ku Klux Klan as a necessary institution to uphold enlightened civilization, and Jim Crow laws as a justifiable and paternalistic means to uplift African Americans—all in the name of white interregional reconciliation.

  14. According to Blight and Brundage, some African Americans, including Douglass and Garnett, vehemently rejected this version of southern history manufactured by powerful whites. Kathleen Clark, in particular, argues that black commemorative traditions—including Emancipation Day and Fourth of July ceremonies—served as opportunities for African Americans to assert their own understandings of the antebellum South and slavery, the Civil War, and Emancipation. See Blight, Race and Reunion; and Brundage, The Southern Past.

  15. David Blight, Fitzhugh Brundage and Kathleen Clark are among those scholars who focus on historical memory difference.

  16. See Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003).

  17. Gardner, Blood & Irony.

  18. Although one may reasonably assume that former slaveholding women purposely remembered their lives as mistresses in idealized terms, one cannot assume that their writings are consciously created or largely fabricated. In other words, just as historians of memory point out the constructed nature of historical narratives, they cannot (reasonably) assume that such sources are not true.

  19. Note: I was unable to find a single slaveholding woman who produced both a pre-emancipation diary and a post-bellum memoir. This is not to say that there were no such women, but it would appear as if there is no publically accessible pre-1865 diary written by a woman who published a post-bellum memoir. It would have been very revealing had I been able to identify such women.

  20. See Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor, as Determined by the Plantation Regime (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1918).

  21. Elizabeth W. Allston Pringle, Chronicles of Chicora Wood (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), 77. Historian William Kauffman Scarborough provides further analysis and contextualization of Allston female responsibilities and duties with regards to their bondspeople. See William Kauffman Scarborough, The Allstons of Chicora Wood: Wealth, Honor, and Gentility in the South Carolina Lowcountry (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011).

  22. Virginia Ingraham Burr, ed., The Secret Eye: The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1848–1889 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 276–77.

  23. Such assumptions, original to me (the author), were inspired by those scholars who have examined the lives and psychologies of post-bellum elite white southern women. See Cox, Dixie’s Daughter; Jane Turner Censer, The Reconstruction of White Southern Womanhood, 1865–1895 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003); Gardner, Blood & Irony; and Scott, The Southern Lady. Censer, in particular, explores those reasons why elite, white, southern women embraced roles as writers. Censer’s focus, however, is upon southern white women who published fiction, not memoirs. Nonetheless, Censer touches upon themes similar to the ones I identify relative to women’s memories of Christian instruction of slaves.

  24. According to Paul Escott, there were some efforts in standardizing the W.P.A. interviews. In particular, the national director of the Federal Writers’ Project, Henry G. Alsberg, dispatched a memorandum containing several suggestions and a list of twenty categories of sample questions. Alsberg’s sample questions, which were meant only as starting points, covered three broad areas: 1) conditions of life in slavery (including religion, food, work, clothing, resistance, care of the sick, and relationships with owners), 2) lives during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and 3) lives in more contemporary times. Paul D. Escott, Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979).

  25. Particularly significant is that fact that those subjects at the time of their interviews were at a minimum of 80 years old. The vast majority of interviewed ex-slaves were born between 1845 and 1860, a period by which most slaves had been Christianized. An ex-slave born in 1845 hypothetically could have been interviewed as late as 1937 at which time he could have been 92 years old. Factoring in the harsh reality of compromised life expectancy for African Americans in the 1930s, very few of the W.P.A. subjects would have been born any earlier than 1845. The testimonies of interviewees born before 1845 are subject to question. Acknowledging that most interviewees were in fact born between 1845 and 1860, a large percentage of them would have been children or very young teenagers during their period of bondage. This assertion does not to imply that the lives of slave youth were easy; certainly there were many physical, material, and psychological discomforts. However, in contrast to the lives of older teenagers and adults, those existences of children were usually less difficult. As a group, children experienced fewer rapes, less frequent sexual harassment, certainly less pregnancy, fewer beatings, and joined in less arduous physical work. Considering these factors, as a group, those ex-slaves interviewed by the W.P.A., African Americans who were at least 80 years old, in reality may have reported a more tolerable experience in slavery because, by virtue of their age, they did have a more tolerable experience. A small number of those persons interviewed claimed ages between 90 and 100, making them born between the mid-1830s and the mid-1840s. Their testimony was especially valuable because, unlike so many of the other interviewees, these ex-slaves had lived in bondage as young adults. By consequence, they would have experienced more of the realities, particularly the negative realities, of the slave experience than the bulk of the W.P.A. subjects. Regrettably, some of the responses of the excessively elderly were sometimes compromised either because of their incoherence due to dementia, or their inability to recall many details from so long in the past. Thus, it is the interviews taken from persons born in that 15 year window (1845–1860) which comprise the most usable portion of the W.P.A. collection. See Escott, Slavery Remembered. On the 1930s African-American experience in the South, see Kenneth J. Bindas, Remembering the Great Depression in the Rural South (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009); Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Doubleday, 2008); James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992); Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); and Jay R. Mandle, Not Slave, Not Free: The African American Economic Experience Since the Civil War (Durham: Duke University Press, 1992).

  26. Other scholars have made similar arguments. See Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Millers, eds., Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Freedom (New York: The New Press, 1998); and Escott, Slavery Remembered.

  27. James C. Scott explores the ways by which subordinate or subaltern peoples resist authority. More specifically, Scott provides scholars with a theoretical approach to read, interpret, and ultimately appreciate the words or actions of subordinate individuals, for example, ex-slaves. He assigns the term public transcript to describe the open, public interactions between dominators and oppressed and the term hidden transcript for the critique of power that goes on “offstage,” about which those in power are typically clueless. Thus, in order to study the systems of domination and the voices of subordinates, Scott maintains that scholars must pay careful attention to what lies beneath the surface of evident, public behavior. According to Scott, those who are oppressed typically accept their domination in public—perhaps out of fear if nothing else—but they will far more openly question their domination offstage. If one accepts Scott’s theoretical framework and applies it to the ex-slaves considered in this article, one realizes that it is essential not to accept the ex-slave testimony at face value. More concretely, an ex-slave—who might gain employment or other financial assistance via their white W.P.A. interviewer—will present a gentler, less acrimonious version of his/her life in bondage than may have been reality. I thus take caution when using such sources. James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

  28. Escott, Slavery Remembered, 7–8.

  29. See Hamp Simmons (born in Pontotoc County, Mississippi in about 1854) in George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Vol. 5 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979), 1938; Malindy Smith (born in Webster County, Mississippi in 1860) in Rawick, ed., The American Slave, Vol. 5, 1994; and Alice Alexander (born in Jackson Parrish, Louisiana in 1831) in Rawick, ed., The American Slave, Vol. 12 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979).

  30. Elizabeth Craven, in her study of the relationship between plantation mistress and slave, surveyed both the nineteenth-century slave narratives—of which there were several dozen—and the twentieth-century W.P.A. interviews of ex-bondspeople—of which there were several thousand. She found that 75 percent of slaves who wrote nineteenth-century narratives discussed, at least at some length, the mistress. In the twentieth-century interviews, by contrast, only 40 percent of ex-slaves referenced her, and some only in passing. Of the W.P.A. documents, 65 percent of references to the mistress were positive and 35 percent were negative. Among the positive responses, 55 percent of them elicited were from males and 45 percent of them elicited were from females. Note: Elizabeth Craven’s manuscript, as far as can be ascertained, was never published. Catherine Clinton cited Elizabeth Craven’s study in The Plantation Mistress, 188.

  31. Although most southern states passed anti-literacy laws, these were difficult to enforce. In some instances, both for practical reasons and benevolence, members of some white families taught favored slaves rudimentary reading, writing, and arithmetic.

  32. John C. Hall, “When Stars Fell on Alabama,” Alabama Heritage 55 (Winter 2000): 16–23.

  33. Edmund K. Goldsborough, Ole Mars An’ Ole Miss (1900; Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1972), 77.

  34. Victoria V. Clayton, White and Black under the Old Regime (Milwaukee: The Young Churchman Co., 1899), 58.

  35. Ibid.,

  36. Ibid.,

  37. Ibid., 58–59.

  38. See Boles, ed., Masters and Slaves in the House of the Lord; Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Johnson and Jersild, eds., “Ain’t Gonna Lay My “‘Ligion Down”; and Raboteau, Slave Religion.

  39. Brown, Narrative of the Life of William W. Brown, 83.

  40. An important frustration related to the plantation mistress sources was the fact that mistresses, in both their pre- and post-Civil War writings, were typically vague when they discussed those particular aspects of Christianity which they imparted to their slaves. Evidence revealed that mistresses commonly based their curriculum on the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm and a handful of other old standbys. However, mistresses cite few other specific biblical passages in their accounts.

  41. There were statutes that prohibited teaching enslaved and/or free blacks in the following states: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. See Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

  42. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Vol. 16 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972), 4–5.

  43. Ibid., 85.

  44. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Supplement Series 2., Vol. 1 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979), 2186, 2188.

  45. George P. Rawick,, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography: Supplement Series 1, Vol. 11 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977), 19

  46. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Vol. 3 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972), 53.

  47. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography: Supplement, Series 1, Vol. 12 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977), 130.

  48. Although “benign” and paternalistic, Phillips was nonetheless a racist who acknowledged the biological and cultural inferiority of African Americans. As such, he praised slaveholders for their role relative to the advancement, especially moral advancement, of their bondspeople. To Phillips, slavery was a labor system molded by mutual concessions, and understandings that ultimately produced reciprocal codes of conventional morality and responsibility. Nonetheless, some historians have argued that Phillips moved away from strictly racist doctrines as he gradually accepted the new anthropological and biological research of the 1920s. Phillips, American Negro Slavery.

  49. A significant group of African Americans in the antebellum days, Reconstruction era, and particularly in the years after that, who advanced the idea that newly freed blacks should return to Africa as opposed to remaining in the United States, commonly argued that a primary mission upon arrival in Africa was to bring civilization to that continent. Most significantly, in 1858, prominent abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet founded the African Civilization Society (AfCS) which stressed such ideas. See Kenneth C. Barnes, Journey of Hope: The Back-to-Africa Movement in Arkansas in the Late 1800s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); and Martin B. Pasternak, Rise Now and Fly to Arms: The Life of Henry Highland Garnet(New York: Garland Pub., 1995). Former slaveholding women who expressed interest in former slaves embracing missionary roles in Africa include Letitia M. Burwell, A Girl’s Life in Virginia Before the War (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1895); and Nancy Bostwick DeSaussure, Old Plantation Days: Being Recollections of Southern Life Before the Civil War (New York: Duffield & Company, 1909).

  50. See Octavia V. Rogers Albert, The House of Bondage, or, Charlotte Brooks and Other Slaves, Original and Life Like, As They Appeared in Their Old Plantation and City Slave Life; Together with Pen-Pictures of the Peculiar Institution, with Sights and Insights into Their New Relations as Freedmen, Freemen, and Citizens (New York: Hunt & Eaton, 1890); Nina Hill Robinson, Aunt Dice: The Story of a Faithful Slave (Nashville, Tenn.: Publishing House of the M. E. Church South, 1897); Alfred William Nicholson, Brief Sketch of the Life and Labors of Rev. Alexander Bettis. Also an Account of the Founding and Development of the Bettis Academy (Trenton, S.C.: Published by the Author, 1916); and Amanda Smith, An Autobiography. The Story of the Lord’s Dealings with Mrs. Amanda Smith the Colored Evangelist; Containing an Account of Her Life Work of Faith, and Her Travels in America, England, Ireland, Scotland, India, and Africa, As an Independent Missionary (Chicago: Meyer & Brother, 1893).

  51. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Vol. 3, 119.

  52. George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography: Supplement, Series I, Vol. 10 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977), 2261.

  53. Margaret Devereux, Plantation Sketches (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1906), 47.

  54. Pringle, Chronicles of Chicora Wood, 48.

  55. Ibid., 54. This quotation was allegedly spoken to a child. I have no way of knowing if Maum Maria softened her reply because she was speaking to a non-adult, one who was white. I also have no way of knowing the degree of accuracy by which Pringle remembered this encounter.

  56. Ibid., 54. It is again impossible for me to know the source of Maum Maria’s religious instruction. Pringle implies in her memoir as a whole that slave religious instruction emanated from her family home.

  57. Ibid., 55.

  58. William Dusinberre, Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), viii.

  59. Dusinberre does, in fact, rely on the mistresses’ own words, albeit their sources from the antebellum years. The author draws heavily upon observations made by Fanny Kemble, Pierce Butler’s famous and oft-cited wife. Dusinberre reports that Kemble was especially affected by the tragedies and tribulations of her husband’s female slaves whom she witnessed suffering multiple miscarriages, excessive mortality among their children, and serious, if not fatal, health problems, all of which, it can be argued, related to the rigors of their labor. Again, one must carefully consider to what extent Pringle “revised” her memories for her memoir.

  60. Mary Norcott Bryan, A Grandmother’s Recollection of Dixie (New Bern, N.C.: Owen G. Dunn, 1912?), 15.

  61. Ibid., 15.

  62. Ibid., 16.

  63. Berlin, Favreau, and Millers, eds., Remembering Slavery. For examples of antebellum slave narratives—written by both ex-house slaves ex-field slaves—that portray white Christianity negatively, see William J. Anderson, Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-four Years a Slave; Sold Eight Times! In Jail Sixty Times!! Whipped Three Hundred Times!!! or The Dark Deeds of American Slavery Revealed. Containing Scriptural Views of the Origin of the Black and of the White Man. Also, a Simple and Easy Plan to Abolish Slavery in the United States. Together with an Account of the Services of Colored Men in the Revolutionary War–Day and Date, and Interesting Facts (Chicago: Daily Tribune Book and Job Printing Office, 1857); Leonard Black, The Life and Sufferings of Leonard Black: A Fugitive from Slavery (New Bedford: Press of Benjamin Lindsey, 1847); Brown, Narrative of the Life of William W. Brown, William and Ellen Craft, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; Or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery (London: William Tweedie, 1860); Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself; and Lunsford Lane, The Narrative of Lunsford Lane, Formerly of Raleigh,, N.C. Embracing an Account of His Early Life, the Redemption by Purchase of Himself and Family from Slavery, and His Banishment from the Place of His Birth for the Crime of Wearing a Colored Skin. Published by Himself. (Boston: J.G. Torrey, Printer, 1842).

  64. Nicholson, Brief Sketch of the Life and Labors of Rev. Alexander Bettis, 7.

  65. Ibid., 10–12.

  66. H. M. Hamill, D.D., The Old South, A Monograph (Dallas, Texas: Smith & Lamar, 1904), 32.

  67. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography: Supplement, Series I, Vol. 10, 2233

  68. Ibid., 2235.

  69. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography: Supplement, Series 2, Vol. 1, 38.

  70. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Vol. 3, 2210.

  71. Clayton, White and Black under the Old Regime, 57.

  72. Burwell, A Girl’s Life in Virginia Before the War, 43–46; DeSaussure, Old Plantation Days, 29–36; Mrs. Burton Harrison, Recollections Grave and Gay (New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1911), 143–44.

  73. Ibid., 59–60.

  74. Ibid., 95.

  75. Pringle, Chronicles of Chicora Wood, 64.

  76. Ibid., 92.

  77. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Vol. 3, 108.

  78. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography: Supplement, Series I, Vol. 10, 2087.

  79. William Henry Singleton, Recollections of My Slavery Days (Peekskill, N.Y.: Highland Democrat, 1922), 6.

  80. Smith, An Autobiography, 19–21.