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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

William Street: "There is not a man born, who can represent slavery so bad as it is."

Benjamin Drew, a Boston abolitionist acting in cooperation with officers of the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society, visited various towns of Upper Canada around the middle 1850's, interviewing scores of refugees from the slave states and printing their interviews. For reasons of safety, he protected the identity of his informants and used fictitious names. There were about 30,000 people of African descent at that time in Upper Canada, mostly adults who had once been enslaved. 

Will Street was a blacksmith from Middle Tennessee. He mentions knowing of the Perkins family's iron works.  I can't help but wonder if he was somehow related to Williamson County's Reuben Street whom I have written about before.  Street's narrative provides a fascinating description of his escape from a slave trader while onboard a steamboat in Nashville as he was about to be taken south to be sold. 

Below is a full transcript of his story.  I am printing it as an example of what life in Middle Tennessee was like for those who lived under the horror of slavery.  This was not "Gone With the Wind."  These were places of torture and we should not and must not forget that.

A North-Side View of Slavery.The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada.Related by Themselves, with an Account of the History and condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada: Electronic Edition. Drew, Benjamin, 1812-1903

Testimony of WILLIAM STREET. 
I am from Middle Tennessee, where I worked as a blacksmith, another man taking my wages. All I got was my victuals and clothes, and not much at that. Twenty-five years I was a slave,--was bred and born a slave, and cannot read or write.

My mother has several times told me that her father was sick, and his mistress drove him out of the house, and he leaned his breast over the fence and died. She often showed me the place where he died. I was hired out when very young--did not get the lash. It was never "Can you do it?" or "Will you do it?"--but "You must go and do it." Sometimes I would do a good day's work, and then have another job put on me. I can't paint it as bad as it is. I have seen a man at the iron-works--Perkins's--who said he did not believe that there was a bit of skin on him that he was born with,--they had whipped it all off.

If a northern man were to go right into a slave State, he would not see the worst of slavery. By the time he was up in the morning, the slaves would be a mile off--he would see but little of the evil--he wouldn't get to see it.

My master died when I was seven; my mistress when I was twenty-five. Then we were divided out: I fell to a son who lived in Mississippi. I had been living with a doctor two years, and I asked him to buy me. But my master wouldn't sell--the doctor offered $1,100 for me. I was put in jail five days--I and my brother, who had fallen to the same man, were there. Our owner came in with irons and handcuffs, and put them on, and took us to the blacksmith to have them riveted. I left two men in the jail who had run away from Mississippi and had lain there eleven months,--in one month to be sold. One of them was a great fellow to pray: I'd hear him praying every morning for the Lord to help him. He said he wished the doctor would buy me. The rivets were fixed: we went to Nashville, and were put on board a steamboat, I and my brother chained together. They were loading the boat, which takes two or three days. I heard some one tell a colored man to pump the boilers full, and they'd put out in the morning. I said to my brother, "When you hear me say to-night, the dog's dead, then we 'll put out."

At 11 o'clock we laid down. I made believe that something ailed me, and kept going out. By and by, I said "the dog's dead." We crept into the wheelhouse, and down on the wheel, to the outside of the guard, and got on board a stone-coal boat. We walked eighteen miles that night,--but we were not away yet--yet had no thought about Canada. I had heard of it, but had no thought about getting to it. We laid down, meaning to stay till next night.

Two men went out to hunt partridges, and at about one o'clock they came across us. "What are you doing here, boys?" We had broken off the chains, but the handcuffs were on each of us. "I am going to Columbia--did n't you see that wagon with the boiler on it?" They said, "Come, go this way," and one threatened with his gun. We up and ran. The slaveholders both followed us. We ran across a field about half a mile: when we got across there was a mill and a creek. We ran through the creek: there was a big hill. I went one side, and my brother the other: they followed after me. I stopped and hailed, "What do you want?" They thought I was coming in to give up,--but I passed them and went into the creek, where I fell down, and got wet all over. I crossed at the mill; they after me: there was a horse tied there, and there were several men about the mill; one a colored man, who had the horse. "Can I take your horse?" "No." I took him any how. I cut the bridle, jumped on, and started. Then a white man put his gun over a tree and shot me--some eight or ten small shot went in--they are most of them in me now. The horse then put out with me--then I was shut of them. They had no horse--he put out like lightning--I did not know where I was going,--I rode two miles, got off, hitched the horse, and went away and left him. Thinks I, they 've gone from the mill now--I'll go back and get my clothes now,--I had left them in my hurry. As I went back to the mill, I saw them and took them, and then I saw the men coming back from pursuing my brother. I heard them say, "Yonder he is! yonder he is!" I ran to an open field where there was a little grass, and laid down. They did not see--they hunted about and gave it up: then I went to an old house that had hay in it, and put my clothes in there. I then walked right before the door of a house where were slaves at work--nobody spoke a word to me. After I got through them, I saw an old colored man with a wagon. He told me, "You go this way, and when they come I'll tell 'em you 've gone that way." I did as he advised me, and got into a tree that had been burned out, and stayed in it till night: then I went and got my clothes, and started for the old place where I was raised.

I went on to where my oldest brother lived in Tennessee and told him the circumstances. I was then told to go into the barn-loft, and stay there,--I did--stayed three days hid in the wheat: then I went in the woods, and stayed eight months without ever going into a house,--from Christmas until the last of August. Then my owner came from Mississippi, with a man named T--, who brought three bloodhounds along with him. A white man who saw me the day before, told them where they had seen me. They went to that place, and put the bloodhounds on my track. I had never seen a bloodhound, but I heard them, and I spoke to myself; says I, "I'm gone." I had a pistol, a big stick, and a big knife. Then I ran out of the corn field into a little skirt of woods, and the bloodhounds got over the fence when I did. I wheeled and shot one of them through and through. He never got away from the place at all. I got back to the corn field, the others both with me in the field; one hold of my wrist, the other of my leg. I have the marks--here they are on my wrist. I struck at the dog with my knife a number of times--but he dodged every time. Then my master came up with a pistol, and said if I did'nt stand, he'd put a ball through me. T--came up and struck me with a hickory stick five or six blows, on the back of my neck. I cried, "Oh Lord! Oh Lord!" then T--made the dogs let go. He then took out his handcuffs and chains, and put them on, and took me to a blacksmith's, to have them riveted, putting in another chain between the cuffs, to make 'em strong, so I could n't get away anyhow.

They concluded I must know where my youngest brother was, but I did not and could not tell them any thing about it. They did n't believe that, I was standing up; a great many gathered round to see me: I was chewing tobacco. T--said, "G--d--you, quit chewing tobacco, and tell us where your brother is, for I know you know." Some fellow asked my master what he was going to do with me,--he said he was going to give me up to T--, because I had killed the bloodhound,--T--would n't have taken five hundred dollars for him; said "he was worth more than him, d--n him." He was the fastest one they had; before they brought them from Mississippi, they had caught a man and torn out his entrails,--T--told me so himself. They kept me going round from that day, Tuesday, to Friday, trying to find my brother,--chaining me to the bedstead at night. Thursday morning they thought they had heard of him; went eighteen miles to Shelbyville. A great many went with them for the fun of the thing. This was in the beginning of September, 1851.

I was now at the old place where I was bred, and was left with master's brother-in-law, in his care. At three o'clock, the brother had some sheep to shear: he took me into the stable, put on shackles, and took off my handcuffs, so I could shear. After dinner, said I, "Mr. E--, won't you give me some grease, if you please, to grease my boots?" "Oh, yes." I went into the kitchen where my mother had lived, close by, and thought over all things that had passed before. Pretty soon he told me to fill a kettle with water. The kettle was some fifty yards from the house; there were some six men on the piazza, who could watch me. I filled the kettle. "Did you see my boys?" says he. I told him, "Yes--behind the barn." The barn was further off than the kettle. "Shall I go and tell them to make a fire about the kettle?" Says he, "Yes." They wanted to kill a shoat against the folks got home with my brother. I stepped to the barn to tell them; I looked round,--no one was looking. I told them. They all started for wood, etc. I looked up to the sun, and said to myself, "it's three o'clock." I threw my boots over a stump, and drew them so I could run, I kept my boots, and ran off to Canada. . . . .

It is above my language to tell how overjoyed I was on getting into Canada. Nothing harasses a man so much as slavery. There is nothing under the sun so mean: after a man is dead, they won't let him rest. It is a horrible thing to think of, the ignorance slaves are brought up in. There is not a man born, who can represent slavery so bad as it is.

I work here at blacksmithing: I own this shop. I have plenty of work, and good pay."

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