Original Photo Credit: Dadeval
Source: Library of Congress, “Slave Narratives:” Vol. 8, P. 4
Charles Coles was an old man by the time he was interviewed at his home by an out-of-work writer employed by the Federal government. Mr. Rogers, the writer, was a slim fellow with a receding hairline. His clothes weren’t the finest old Mr. Coles had seen, but Mr. Rogers didn’t seem to notice. He stood there on his door step with the kind of twisted pride that came from three hundred years of being told people like him were better than most.
Mr. Rogers came by on a chilly November afternoon. It was just a few days before the holiday that good ole President Lincoln made national. Mr. Coles lived peacefully at his home in Baltimore Maryland. He lived on 1106 Sterling Street, somehow enduring the lack that the Great Depression brought with it.
I was born near Pisgah, a small village in the western part of Charles County, about 1851. I do not know who my parents were nor my relatives. I was reared on a large farm owned by a man by the name of Silas Dorsey, a fine Christian gentleman and a member of the Catholic Church.
By the time of the interview, Mr. Coles was 86 years old. He’d lived his entire life without siblings and without a mother and father. Those facts never really bothered him though. That was life, at least, as he’d known it. He couldn’t fathom another.
I have been told that the Dorsey farm contained about 3500 acres, on which were 75 slaves. We had no overseers. Mr. and Mrs. Dorsey managed the farm. They required the farm hands to work from 7 A.M. to 6:00 P.M.; after that their time was their own.
Like most, he’d been raised on the same plantation that exploited him for labor. By the end of the Civil War, Mr. Coles was about 14 years old. Once Reconstruction (1877) rolled around, Mr. Coles was around 26 years old.
Mr. and Mrs. Dorsey conducted regular religious services of the Catholic church on the farm in a chapel erected for that purpose…
The slaves were taught the catechism and some learned how to read and write and were assisted by some Catholic priests who came to the farm on church holidays and on Sundays for that purpose….
We were taught the rituals of the Catholic church and when anyone died, the funeral was conducted by a priest…
The only difference in the graves was that the Dorsey people had marble markers and the slaves had plain stones.
Mr. Coles went silent all of sudden. His mind traveled back all those years, to the Dorsey Plantation where everything he’d ever known had been on those 3500 acres of land. He couldn’t remember the Dorseys beating or selling their slaves. Or maybe he didn’t want to.
A thoughtful frown knotted his brow as he thought about his faceless parents, always appearing to him in feverish dreams. It used to frighten him when he was boy. He’d pray to St. Peter for peace, just as he was taught. That was all he knew.
I do not remember whether the slaves worked or not on Saturdays, but I know the holidays were their own. Mr. Dorsey did not have dances and other kinds of antics that you expected to find on other plantations.
He stared at Mr. Rogers who was leaning against the railing of his small, worn porch. If Mr. Rogers had any substantial weight to him, he’d have already fallen into the dirt.
“Tell me, Charles, how well did they teach you?”
I am still a Catholic and will always be a member of St. Peter Clavier Church.
Learning about the history of slavery in America isn’t about gaining the ability to spew dates and events. It’s about learning the names of the people who were forced into servitude, understanding the way they saw the world and understanding how America saw them. Maybe this will help inform your current worldview, or maybe it won’t. What matters here is that you read to understand.