Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 2/Lettice Joyner

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Lettice Joyner
Not Lettice Joyner but an ex-slave with a similar circumstance.
Borncirca 1845
Bryant Plantation, Northampton County, North Carolina
Other namesLettier Joyner

Overview[edit | edit source]

Lettice Joyner was an African-American woman born into slavery. She was interviewed for the Federal Writers' Project in 1939.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early Life[edit | edit source]

Lettice Joyner was born circa 1845 on the Bryant Plantation near Northampton County, North Carolina[1]. Joyner was made to work on from a very young, waiting on the table ‘before she could even see above it.’[2] She also nursed the children on the plantation[3]. Joyner reportedly had 19 brothers and sisters, and her father was a ferry-man who helped people cross the near-by Roanoke River[4]. When Joyner was still young, the Bryant plantation was run by the wife of the plantation owner, ‘Miss Julia.’[5] Miss Julia’s husband was a traveling preacher, so he was often away from the plantation[6]. Despite her enslavement, Joyner claimed that Miss Julia treated the slaves well. Miss Julia did not allow the overseers to beat or whip the slaves, there was always plenty to eat, there was a dance every Saturday night for the slaves, and the slaves were encouraged to practice religion in church[7]. Every winter, all the slaves on the Bryant plantation received two pairs of yarn stockings and two pairs of winter shoes[8]. In the summer, the slaves received new shoes, summer dresses, and a shaker hat[9]. After Miss Julia died and the plantation overseers took control, the slave's situation changed[10].

“The slaves had tolerable good times. There was a dance every Saturday night, sometimes more often than that… We went to white folk’s church and learnt to sing their songs and enjoy religion… It was all changed after Miss Julia died and the overseers took hold.” - Lettice Joyner, Federal Writer's Project (1939)

Antebellum Life[edit | edit source]

“When they sent me in the field, my hard times started. Lord, how they did beat us. We was stripped and held by our heads and feet while the lash was laid on our backs. The men slaves was staked out whilst they was whooped.”- Lettice Joyner, Federal Writer's Project (1939)

Following Miss Julia’s death, the overseers treated the slaves much more violently and more in line with ‘traditional’ forms of slavery of the time[11]. Joyner was frequently beaten and whipped[12]. Joyner’s brother, a shoe-mender, was beaten to death after he cut off a small strip of leather from an old gin belt to patch his shoes[13]. It is unclear how long the overseers controlled the plantation before the Civil War and Joyner's subsequent emancipation. As the Civil War approached, Joyner said the slaves could feel conflict brewing even before the masters could[14]. Joyner’s mother, a slave, had learnt to read and write during her life, which allowed her to read the Bible[15]. In her interview, Joyner recites Matthew 24:29 which her mother believed signified the approaching war[16]. When war broke out, Joyner was married and had three children although one would die at an early age[17]. Although Joyner attests she was 110 years old at the time of her interview for the Federal Writers' Project (1939), census records recount she was closer to 94 years of age[18].

“The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, the starts will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” – Matthew 24:29

Postbellum Life[edit | edit source]

After the war, Joyner and her family remained on the Bryant plantation as sharecroppers until her children grew up[19]. One of her children died before the family could move[20]. When Joyner and her husband had saved up enough money, they purchased a 50-acre farm at Rehoboth, NC[21]. Joyner remained at the farm until much of her family died and her physical ability began to decline[22]. Then, Joyner’s surviving children and their families were able to take care of her. In her interview with the Federal Writers' Project, Joyner details how throughout her life she had worked tirelessly plowing, digging stumps, chopping broken steers, ginning cotton, keeping the corn out of the corn sheller, etc[23]. At the time of her interview in 1939, Joyner reports she had one granddaughter, several great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren[24]. It is not clear when Joyner died.

“Don’t ask me what I has done, but what I ain’t [done]” - Lettice Joyner, Federal Writer's Project (1939)

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

Women in Slavery[edit | edit source]

Gender impacted every aspect of slavery: how people worked, what they did, how they treated each other. Ar’n’t I a Woman (1985) by Deborah Gray White highlighted how in the field of studying slavery, the assumption was that “the slave” was typically considered to be a man[25]. According to White, it was important to understand that not only were slavery’s ideological underpinnings set in race, but also gender[26]. Slavery was largely a patriarchal system; however, there existed matriarchal aspects to it[27]. In Burke County, North Carolina, slavery was matriarchal in the sense that the legal ownership of slave-children was attributed to the mother, not the slave-father[28]. This distinction was strategic in upholding the larger patriarchal system where the white-master was top. Most are familiar with the racial hierarchy and white supremacy of the time; however, assumptions about women, specifically about their “deviant” sexuality, distinguished how slave-owners treated and punished women[29]. A large discrepancy between male and female enslavement was the greater amounts of sexual abuse women endured at the hands of their slave masters[30]. There was never any real option for a slave woman to deny their masters, who would gravely punish them for denying their advances. Women were concubines in the antebellum south[31]. Often times it was the slave women who suffered the wrath of their master’s wife, not the actual master himself[32].

Slave Codes[edit | edit source]

J.D.B. De Bow was an advocate for slavery and head of the US Census from 1853 to 1857[33]. He believed support for slavery in the south was largely underestimated and one must consider people who indirectly benefitted from the work of slaves to truly calculate slavery’s support[34]. Essentially, De Bow thought it was necessary to multiply the number of slaveholding families by how many people were in the family. De Bow maintained the idea that one does not have to hold ownership of something to benefit from it. Although statistics show 34,658 slaveowners in North Carolina in 1860, the figure may not represent the cultural and indirect support for the institution[35]. With a more encompassing view of slavery, it is easier to observe the impact of slave brutality and punishment. Slave codes varied from place to place; however, the brutality and viciousness of the offences remained[36]. Besides the conventional whippings and beatings that the slaves regularly endured, cruel and unusual punishments were ubiquitous. A slave from Edenton, North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs, recalled a go-to punishment which involved hoisting the slave in the air, lighting a fire above them, and then dangling a slice of pork fat above the fire[37]. As the pork slowly fried, scorching pig fat would melt and burn the victim below[38]. Another slave in South Carolina, Moses Roper, recounted how overseers, those who directly managed the slaves, would hammer nails through a hogshead, driving the sharp point of the nail through to the inside of the carcass[39]. Then, slaves would be made to get into the hog’s head and stay in it whilst it was rolled down a violent hill[40]. In her interview with the Federal Writers' Project, Joyner noted the ‘hog-roll’ method of punishment as something her father had gone through during his enslavement[41].

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Joyner, Lettice. “No Stick Leg”. Interview by Bernice K Harris, Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, 1939. Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Fountain, Daniel L. “A Broader Footprint: Slavery and Slaveholding Households in Antebellum Piedmont North Carolina.” North Carolina Historical Review 91, no. 4 (October 2014): 407–44.

"Master-Slave Relationships." Slave Laws. Accessed October 01, 2018. https://www.bowdoin.edu/~prael/projects/gsonnen/page4.html.

"Matthew 24:29." Bible Hub. Accessed October 07, 2018. https://biblehub.com/matthew/2429.html.

Penningroth, Dylan. "Writing Slavery's History." OAH Magazine of History 23, no. 2 (2009): 13-20. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40505983.

Phifer, Edward W. "Slavery in Microcosm: Burke County, North Carolina." The Journal of Southern History 28, no. 2 (1962): 137-65. doi:10.2307/2205185.

Simkin, John. "Slave Punishments." Spartacus Educational. September 1997. Accessed September 30, 2018. https://spartacus-educational.com/USASpunishments.htm.

"Statistics on Slavery." Native American Literature. Accessed October 07, 2018. https://faculty.weber.edu/kmackay/statistics_on_slavery.htm.

Year: 1920; Census Place: Roanoke, Northampton, North Carolina; Roll: T625_1313; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 83. https://www.Ancestry.com

References[edit | edit source]

  1. United States Census 1920, Roanoke, Northampton, North Carolina.
  2. Joyner, “No Stick Leg”, Interview. 5488.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid, 5490.
  5. Ibid. 5491.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid. 5493.
  8. Ibid. 5492.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid. 5493.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid. 5494.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. United States Census 1920, Roanoke, Northampton, North Carolina.
  19. Joyner, “No Stick Leg”, Interview.
  20. Ibid. 5498.
  21. Ibid. 5495.
  22. Ibid. 5498.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Penningroth, “Writing Slavery’s History,” 13-20.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Phifer, “Slavery in Microcosm,” 137-65.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Penningroth, “Writing Slavery’s History,” 13-20.
  30. Slave Laws, “Master-Slave Relationships.”
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Fountain, “A Broader Footprint”, 407-44.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Native American Literature, “Statistics on Slavery.”
  36. Simkin, “Slave Punishments.”
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Joyner, “No Stick Leg”, Interview.