Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2016/Spring/Section 023/Uncle John Peebles

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Overview[edit]

"Uncle" John Peebles was an ex-slave, minstrel performer, and farmer in Creeksville, North Carolina during the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras.

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

John Peebles was born in Creeksville, North Carolina in the mid 1850’s. He never knew his exact birthdate. He was born a slave for a man named Mr. Deloatch. Peebles was freed after the Civil War.

Marriage and Family[edit]

Upon gaining his freedom, Peebles married a woman named Lucy, who had also been a slave owned by Mr. Deloatch. Peebles estimates that he was about 21 and Lucy was about 19 when they were married. Lucy was given 10 acres on which she and Peebles built a farm. They grew corn and cotton and tended cattle. They had nine children together: Willie, Lady Bug, Ida, Elliot, Eddie, Billy, and two stillborn children. According to Peebles, Lucy was a white woman. A 1920 United States Federal Census verifies her race as white, however a 1910 census account labels both Lucy and John Peebles as mulatto. The census also states that both of them were literate. In an interview conducted by the Federal Writer’s Project, Peebles recalled that he only had a few months of school. He and Lucy taught themselves to read and write together

Later Life[edit]

Alongside farming, Peebles worked as an entertainer at Harvey Long’s store, singing for minstrel shows. As a minstrel he sang hymnals, taught others to sing, performed skits, and told stories about his days as a slave. Some of these stories were about being whipped and beaten by the patroller and underfed and overworked by his master. Peebles worked as the “minstrel of the countryside” until he “ [was] too old” and he began to go blind[1]. Peebles’s wife, Lucy, died of unknown causes at an unknown date. He lived with one of his sons after his disability made it difficult for him to live alone. It is not known when John Peebles died. He was thought be in his 90’s in his Federal Writer’s Project Interview.


Historical Context[edit]

Slavery in North Carolina[edit]

Slavery in the U.S. existed even before North Carolina was a colony. The first slaves were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619[2]. The majority of slaves in North Carolina came through the port city of Wilmington on slave ships[3]. North Carolina had strict slave codes, as most Southern states did, that would not allow slaves to leave their plantation without a pass from their master. Anyone who ran away was supposed to be killed or returned to their plantation under these laws.[4] Many of the slave codes before the Civil War were made harsher to contend with the abolitionist movement. An important abolitionist in North Carolina, David Walker, a free black author born in Wilmington, North Carolina wrote a pamphlet calling for immediate freedom of all slaves.[5] In response to Walker and other abolitionists, antebellum South slave codes became even more restrictive. For instance, a North Carolina law passed in 1830, made it illegal to distribute the writing of David Walker and banned free blacks from voting, attending school, preaching in public, or gathering in groups.[6] A law passed in 1835 made it illegal to teach slaves to read or write. A historical account of a slave auction in Wilmington says that often masters let their slaves “run naked mostly, or in rags, an accustom them as much as possible to hunger, but exact of them steady work.”[7] Slavery in North Carolina ended in 1865 because of the Civil War.

Interracial Marriage and the Color Line:[edit]

Over the course of U.S. history, at least 30 out of 50 states had laws banning marriages between people of different races[8]. This makes the U.S. “one of the few countries in the world to have enacted laws restricting and prohibiting sex and marriage between whites and blacks or other persons of color.”[9] “The Color Line”, or the amount of African ancestry that makes one “negro”, “mulatto”, or “white” differed greatly between states, counties, and people. For instance, many people, such as Lucy Peebles, were sometimes labelled as white and sometimes labelled as mulatto. In North Carolina the penalty for breaking miscegenation laws was up to ten years in prison plus fines[10]. However, illegal lynchings were often carried out by townspeople or white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Many blacks in the South long after slavery was over were beaten and hanged for just looking or whistling at a white woman, as seen in the case of Emmett Till.

Minstrelsy:[edit]

Minstrelsy was a popular genre of entertainment that evolved in the U.S. in the 1830’s. It included skits and songs that “exaggerated real-life black circumstances”[11]. Minstrelsy began as white performers putting on “blackface” or dark face paint and acting and singing in humorous skits that focused on stereotypes of African Americans. Many minstrel shows “lampooned” and “ridiculed” blacks, making them seem “childish”, “ignorant”, and “crude”[12]. This was the first time that blacks were shown in American entertainment.[13] After emancipation in 1865, many African Americans began performing in shows as well. Scholars debate the impact of minstrel shows. Some argue that blacks began to use these shows as an “opportunity for advancement” despite the racist stereotypes in blackface minstrelsy[14]. Some black performers began to use their shows as platforms to talk about race and politics. Many early black entertainers like John Peebles, used their shows to tell stories about their days as slaves or life in the segregated South.

  1. "I Can't Sing Like I Used To". Federal Writer's Project Interview conducted by J.K.K.
  2. "The Growth of Slavery in North Carolina." Learn NC. The Growth of Slavery in North Carolina. Accessed March 07, 2016. http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-newnation/5252.
  3. "The Growth of Slavery in North Carolina." Learn NC.
  4. "The Growth of Slavery in North Carolina." Learn NC.
  5. "The Growth of Slavery in North Carolina." Learn NC.
  6. "The Growth of Slavery in North Carolina." Learn NC.
  7. "A Slave Auction at Wilmington." A Slave Auction at Wilmington. Accessed March 07, 2016. http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-newnation/4382.
  8. "Anti-Miscegenation Laws in the United States." Duke Bar Journal. Accessed March 7, 2016. http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1544&context=dlj.
  9. "Anti-Miscegenation Laws in the United States." Duke Bar Journal.
  10. "Anti-Miscegenation Laws in the United States." Duke Bar Journal.
  11. "USF Library Special & Digital Collections Exhibits | Summary of The History of Minstrelsy." Omeka RSS. Accessed March 07, 2016. http://exhibits.lib.usf.edu/exhibits/show/minstrelsy.
  12. Lott, Eric. Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995.
  13. "USF Library Special & Digital Collections Exhibits | Summary of The History of Minstrelsy." Omeka RSS.
  14. "USF Library Special & Digital Collections Exhibits | Summary of The History of Minstrelsy." Omeka RSS.