During the Great Depression, writers and journalists working under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviewed more than 2,300 former slaves across the American South. The leaders of this Federal Writers’ Project believed, as historian Norman R. Yetman has written, that “slavery could best be described by those who had … experienced it personally.” Thus, the writers recorded the stories of the former slaves, most of whom had been born in the 1850s and 1860s, and then published their original, first-hand accounts in a book titled, “Slave Narratives: A Folk History in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves.”
The account of slavery provided by Ellen Evans Payne featured prominently among the Texas narratives. Born into slavery in Marshall, Texas, Payne was owned by Dr. William F. Evans, a pioneering physician, who moved to the Lone Star State from Tennessee in 1842. Dr. Evans was the first medical doctor to settle in Marshall, and he operated both a pharmacy and a grocery store. By 1850, he had accumulated more than $7000 in property and held twenty-six slaves. He used this wealth and the connections it created to win election in 1851 to the Texas House of Representatives.
At roughly the same time, Evans’ daughter, Martha, married the prominent Marshall attorney Edward Clark. Clark was a delegate to the Texas Constitutional Convention of 1845, a member of the first state House of Representatives, and a senator in the Second Legislature. Following a distinguished course of service in the Mexican War, he also served as the Texas secretary of state under Governor Elisha M. Pease, and won election as lieutenant governor of the state in 1859. Later, when Governor Sam Houston was deposed by the Secession Convention in 1861 due to his unionist sympathies, Clark was briefly elevated to the governor’s position, but lost his bid for a full term in the fall of 1861.
Despite her connection to these powerful Anglo Texans, Ellen Evans Payne did not enjoy any of the rights and privileges that they took for granted. For example, Ellen’s family lost any record of her birth date, when Dr. Evans loaned out his family Bible and failed to get it back. At the end of the Civil War, Ellen and the other African Americans on the Evans property were thus forced to simply guess their ages.
Ellen worked on the Evans farm, located a few miles from Marshall proper, minding the smaller livestock, though she and her mother occasionally went into town to work in the Evans household, located on Marshall’s North side. Ellen and her mother worked part time for Evans’ daughter, who married a future governor.
The Evans slaves were seemingly well cared for, with real beds, unlike slaves on other farms, who had “’Damn-it-to-hell’” beds. The Evans’ did allow their slaves to make goods to sell and let them work a small patch of land in order to raise vegetables for sale. Of her owner, she said that Mr. Evans did not allow the overseer to “cut and slash” his slaves, and that she “loved all my white folks and they was sweet to us.”
Mrs. Payne remembers the Civil War, though she did not see much of it firsthand. When the end of war came, recalled Mr. Evans saying, “You is free, and I’m mighty glad, but I’m mighty sad.” Ellen and her mother stayed until the end of the year and then went out into town to be hired on. She worked until she married at age twenty-five to a farmer; her former mistress even sent her a blue wedding dress to wear at her wedding.
Ellen and Nelson Payne farmed the land together for fifty-two years and raised four sons, all deceased. At the time of her interview, she had been widowed going on eleven years, but was still working the family farm on Port Caddo Road and attending camp meetings. The spirit still moved her, and though her fervent praying was made light of by the younger generations, she didn’t care, saying “Style am crowded all the grace out of ‘ligion, today.”