During the Great Depression, journalists and writers working under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviewed more than 2,300 former slaves across the American South. The stories these writers recorded were then published in a landmark book titled, “Slave Narratives: A Folk History in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves.”
Eda Rains, a 94-year-old native of Little Rock, Arkansas, was living in Douglassville, Texas, when she was interviewed in the late 1930s. Her story involved a number of long-distance moves, changes in ownership, and the occasional joys that could be experienced even in the slave regime.
Born in 1853, Rains had lived in Little Rock until the age of seven, when she was sold to a man named Carter and brought to Douglassville. Unlike many other slaves, Rains had been sold along with her family, and so had not had to experience the terrible pain that accompanied separation from loved ones.
When she arrived in Texas, Rains was sent to do “parchin’ coffee” work for another family in Douglassville, the Tomlins. The injection site of the small pox vaccine she had received before leaving Little Rock was causing her a sore arm, and as a result she was charged with tending to the Tomlins’ children. She once fell asleep while doing her work and was struck in the face for her infraction with a “turkey wing fan.”
Later, the Tomlins sold Rains and her family as a unit to a man named Roack. The Rains lived together in a small cabin, and Roack fed them the same thing every morning that he fed his own family: “milk and mush.” At Christmas, Roack gave each of his slaves some money so that they could buy “a string of beads" or other small gifts. And on Christmas morning, he presented his slaves with their yearly ration of new clothes and shoes. Despite these acts of kindness, Rains recalled that Roack also chained any runaways that came into his possession until their masters could be located.
When the Civil War ended and Roack gave his slaves the option of leaving or staying on his property. Since Rains had no money or property of her own, she chose to stay, at least until she married and moved to Jacksonville, Florida. She outlived most of her friends and acquaintances by the time of the interview.