During the Great Depression, more than 2,300 former slaves were interviewed by writers and journalists working under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The leaders of this 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 associated with this project reached out to former slaves, most of whom had been born in the 1850s and 1860s, and recorded their original, first-hand accounts of slavery.
At the time of her interview, Callie Shepherd was 84 years old and remembered well the days of slavery. Born in Gilmer, Texas, in 1852, she had been a slave of the Stevens family. She recalled that Miss Fannie, the wife of her owner, Dr. Stevens, “raised me, right in de house with her own chillen.” Dr. Stevens died after contracting an illness in the Civil War, and Miss Fannie remained to raise her children and manage the homestead as best she could. After the war, however, Miss Fannie returned to Georgia without her former slaves.
Although Shepherd remembered Miss Fannie and Dr. Stevens fondly, she also recalled the horrors that were inflicted on slaves who tried to escape their bondage. They were chased through the woods by dogs, captured through brute force, and then whipped in front of their children. This tortuous punishment was visited on those who attempted to escape in hopes that it would discourage others from just such efforts in the future.
Shepherd’s description of her life under slavery was brief, but complicated. She remembered having good owners and attending dances, where people commented on her wonderful performances. But, she also expressed her spiritual feeling that slavery was wrong. As she said: “I danced at de balls in de sixteen figure round sets… but I gits ‘ligion and left de old way to live in de ‘termination to live beyond dis vale of tears.”
In the end, Shepherd discovered that the slavery regime was over when soldiers came through Gilmer on their way home. As they rode through the area, the soldiers tossed metal cups to the children playing alongside the road and told them that they were free. Life was not necessarily easier for Callie Shepherd as a free person, however. Although she had her liberty, Miss Fannie and her old life were gone, and Shepherd was forced to perform backbreaking labor in the cotton fields of East Texas to make ends meet. Even so, she remained in Gilmer long after the Civil War, and moved to Dallas (where she was interviewed) only late in life to live with her son and daughter-in-law.