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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, July 28, 1976. Interview G-0056-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Family story about grandmother's escape from slavery

Simkins recalls hearing tales of how her grandmother had run away from her enslavers around the time of the Civil War. After having been undressed and whipped in front of other enslaved people, Simkins' grandmother, Sarah, ran away from the Seals plantation in Sumter County to Columbia, South Carolina. Along the way, she ran into Union soldiers who told her she was free. Later, Sarah offered hospitality to her former mistress who had fallen on hard times. Simkins' recollection of this story is indicative the importance her family placed on fearlessness and helping others, two characteristics she emphasizes throughout the interview.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Modjeska Simkins, July 28, 1976. Interview G-0056-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
Hmm. What was your grandmother's name, your mother's mother's name?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
I don't know. I never knew her name—at least, if I did I don't remember it. I heard only back to my mother's mother. Now my mother's mother's name was Sarah; and she was a slave. She came from Sumter County in this state. And I think I related in there about her leaving Sumter; I believe I did, I don't know.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I think you did.
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Well anyway, she belonged to a family of Seals, S-e-a-l-s, that owned property in Sumter County. And my mother's mother was in some way or some degree of Turkish ancestry. There was and still is a settlement of Turks in Sumter County, in one section of Sumter County; they're still there. Some years back they wouldn't permit them to go into the white schools, and they would not attend the Negro schools. They tried to force them into the Negro schools; they wouldn't. Well, somehow or other my mother's mother branched off from those Turks. Her mother, she was a house slave and her mother was a quarter slave (that is, lived in the quarters, with what they might call the servant slaves). My mother's mother was very fair and I would judge (although I never saw a picture of her mother, which would be my great-grand-mother) that she was dark skinned. And on one occasion, I understood from my mother that her mother was very devoted to her mother, and after dark she would slip to the quarters to see her mother. There were some rules on some plantations that the house slaves should not associate with the slaves in the quarters. And her mistress found that she had slipped out of the house at night and had gone to the quarters to see her mother, and she had her thrashed or whipped the next morning. Had her whipped, and I understand she was undressed in the presence of some of the people on the plantation, like overseers and like that. And she was so indignified that she decided that she was going to run away from that area of Sumter County and come to Columbia, where her grandmother was. Her grandmother was in slavery (that'd be my great-great-grandmother), my great-great-grandmother on my mother's side was in slavery in Columbia. And she had heard that she was here, and she was going to run away from the slave plantation to get to her grandmother. And on the way into Columbia, my mother said, she saw people on the highway and she ran into the woods to hide. And whoever saw her called her and asked her why was she running and where she was going. And they were union soldiers. And they told her that she wouldn't have to hide, and that she could walk the highway like anybody else did because she was now free. So I conclude that the slaves had been freed already, but the masters of this plantation hadn't told them. I heard my mother say many times that her mother said they told her, "Get right in this road and stay in the highway, and go on to Columbia, because you are free as we are." Then I heard my mother tell how as she was a child, a young girl, that the old slave mistress who had then become poverty-stricken, would come to their home (which was right up here across the street from our governor's mansion). And she said that she had seen her mother give her food many a day when she'd come to their home. And then she'd say to her, "Sarah, I never thought I'd come to this, that you would be able to give me food and be kind to me no matter what I've done." I've heard my mother tell that many a time.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Did Sarah feel that her mistress had been kinder to her than her master had been? Or why did she do this; why did she help her mistress? Why did she help her in that way?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
Oh no, no; I never heard her say that she saw the master again. Evidently the old man died, and this old lady found her way to Columbia. And then she found where my grandmother was, and she'd come to see her. And evidently she was hungry and poverty-stricken.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I'm wondering if she saw any difference between her master and her mistress in the way they treated the slaves?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
I never heard that; I never heard that. But the master did the whipping, did the thrashing. I never got any impression that the master was any more sympathetic or kindly. But I did get the impression that old lady Seals was an old heifer, and that she just told him he had to whip her; and he did. And then she made up her mind she wasn't going to take another whipping, she was going to run away to Columbia.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Do you remember any other stories that your mother told about her mother?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
No, I don't remember any others. See, my mother's father's people came from Athens, Georgia. How they met up here together I don't know. You know, that's a funny thing about fate: people coming to the end of the world and meeting, and nobody knows why they did. But anyway, he was from Athens. And I've heard her tell how my father's mother was sold away from him in slavery. He was just a lad, and they sold her away. And she had—you know, the old ladies or the women in those days wore kerchiefs they tied their heads in, and sometimes they'd have one around their neck like a little cape. So we had for years (I don't know what became of it) in my mother's effects—that is, in our homestead—but I know that she kept for years this kerchief. When she was sold away from him and he was pleading and holding to her, she pulled off this kerchief and gave it to him as a memento. And then we had for the longest a pair of his little trousers that he was wearing around that time. Whatever slave caretaker, or whoever it was that took care of him, I mean, they had those: I do know that. Eventually he found his mother after freedom was declared, because she came to Columbia. And as I remember it she died here.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Do you know how he found her?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
No, I don't.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Do you know the name of the people who owned him?
MODJESKA SIMKINS:
No, I don't. I do know that evidently when he got back to … I mean, when freedom was declared no matter where she was sold to she perhaps would come back to Athens. And when she came back to Athens perhaps he was still a lad just freed. I don't mean to say that she found him in Columbia. They evidently found each other after the Emancipation but before he came to Columbia; then she later came to Columbia.