During the Great Depression, the U.S. Government funded a special Federal Writers' Project to support authors like John Steinbeck and Ralph Ellison. As part of this effort, the government also paid interviewers to record the personal stories of African Americans who had experienced slavery during the nineteenth century. One former slave, Betty Simmons, was, by her own estimation, between 100- and 102-years-old at the time of her interview in Beaumont, Texas around 1937.
Like many of the other people interviewed for the Slave Narratives project, Simmons had vivid memories of her time as a slave. She was born in Macedonia, Alabama, to a free man, yet Betty was not free. She and her mother belonged to Leftwidge Carter until he was financially ruined. At that time, she was sold and resold to slave traders. She eventually made her way to Texas via the slave market in New Orleans, and never again saw her family in Alabama.
As the property of Colonel Fortescue in Liberty, Texas, Simmons led a simple life. She related that her master had been good to her and had even allowed her to keep a garden and animals where she lived. She also recalled a darker moment, however, when a young slave boy ran away and the dogs were sent after him. After Colonel Fortescue saw how the dogs had mangled the poor boy's body, he refused to pay the recapture fee.
Simmons married George Fortescue at some point during her time as a slave. The couple had at least fourteen children, seven of whom lived into adulthood. And, Simmons remembered well when freedom came, and with it, the relief that her toddler would not be sent out into the fields to work.
At the end of the Civil War, Colonel Fortescue gave his former property some of the crops from the fields they worked as slaves, but little else. As Betty recollected, “We gits on all right after freedom, but it hard at first ‘cause us didn’t know how to do for ourselves. But we has to learn.” According to one of her descendents, Betty Simmons died in 1941, at the age of 108.