Tempe Herndon Durham grew up on a large plantation in Chatham County, North Carolina. Plantation owners George and Betsy Herndon raised corn, wheat, cotton, and tobacco. Tempe Herndon Durham explains how life changed after “surrender” and how her and her husband eventually purchased their own farm.
Durham was 103 years old when she shared her story with Travis Jordan, an interviewer from the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Progress Administration (WPA) in 1937. The WPA interviewed over 2,300 ex-slaves between 1936-1938.
My name is Tempe Herndon Durham…I was 31 years old when the surrender come. That makes me sho nuffold. Near ’bout a hundred an’ three years done passed over this here white head of mine. I’ve been here. I’ve been here so long that I done forgot near ’bout as much as these here new generation folks know… ..or ever gon’ know.
I sho do remember my weddin’ though. ..to Exter Durham. We had a big weddin’. My white folks, Master George and Mistress Betsy let us get married right on the front porch of the big house. Yes, that was some weddin’.
I had on a white dress, white shoes an’ long white gloves that come to my elbow. An’ Exter done made me a weddin’ ring… .outta a big red button… .with his pocket knife. He cut it so round an’ polished it so smooth that it looked like a red satin ribbon tied round my finger. That sho was a pretty ring. I wore it ’bout 50 years.. ..till it got so thin I lost it one day in the wash tub when I was washin’ clothes.
Uncle Edmond Kirby mauied us. He was the colored preached that preached at the plantation church. …After Uncle Edmond said the last words oVer men an’ Exter, Master George got to have his little fun. He say, “Come on, Exter, you an’ Tempe got to jump over the broomstick backwards, You got to do that to see which one of you gon’ be boss of your household. The one that jump over it backwards an’ never touch the handle gon’ boss the house. An’ if both of you jump over without touchin’ it, won’t be no bassin’ from nobody, jus’ be ‘genial.
Well, I jumped first, an’ you ought to seed me. I sailed right over that broomstick same as a cricket. But when Exter jumped, his feets was so big an’ clumsy that they got all tangled up in that broom that he fell head long. Master George laughed and laughed an’ told Exter he gon’ be bossed till he scared to speak, After the weddin’ Exter and me went down to the cabin Mistress Betsy done all dressed up, but Exter couldn’t stay no longer than that night… Cause he belonged to Master Snipes Durham. Exter left the next day to go back to his plantation, but he come back every Saturday night an’ stayed till Sunday night. Yes, he did.
We had eleven children. Nine was born before surrender, an’ two after. So I had two children that wasn’t born in bondage. I was worth a heap to Master George, you see, cause I had so many children. The more children a slave had, the more they was worth.
I was glad when the war was stopped. … Cause then me an’ Exter could be together all the time, ‘stead of just Saturday and Sunday. After we was free, Exter an’ me lived on Master George’s plantation…for a long time. We rented land there for a fourth of what we made. Then, after a while we bought us a farm for three hundred dollars. Mistress Betsy went right up in the attic an’ give us enough goose feathers to make two pillows. Then she give us a table an’ some chairs… some dishes too. Master give Exter a bushel of seed corn, some seed wheat, an’ a bag of cotton seed. Then we hitched up the wagon, throwed in our passel of children, an’ moved to our new farm.
But I know everybody who was a slave didn’t have it as good as me an’ Exter. No, Lordy. Everybody’s master and mistress wasn’t good as our white folks.
We was lucky.. . real lucky.
Voice-over by Loretta Devine