Houston's Freedmen

Mary Armstrong: A Freedwoman

The subject of this week’s 70 Years a Freedmen series will be Mary Armstrong, a formerly enslaved woman interviewed by the Works Projects Administration (WPA) at her Houston residence. This post will draw from Mary Armstrong’s August 8, 1937 Slave Narrative Interview and if you’re interested in reading Mary’s interview in detail, you can find it here.

Warning: There is some intense violence and cruelty in this post.

Mary’s recollection was incredibly difficult to read at certain points and you will clearly see why. I did not want to “lighten” anything since the institution of slavery, and its cruelties, should not be sugarcoated.

Mary’s story, and the story of countless others, deserve to be told in entirety.

WPA photograph of Mary Armstrong on August 8th, 1937

Mary was born June 2, 1847 on a St. Louis plantation to Sam Adams and Silby [Sylvie]. Mary, her baby sister, and her mother belonged to plantation owners William and Polly [Pauline] Cleveland. Mary’s father belonged to William Adams, a slave trader who lived on a connected plantation.

Plantation Cruelty

“But that old Polly [Pauline] was mean like her husban’, old Cleveland, till she die, and I hopes they is burnin’ in torment now.”

Mary Armstrong, August 8, 1937

During her interview, Mary vividly recollected how cruel and mean her masters, William and Polly [Pauline] Cleveland, were to their enslaved persons. The most disturbing of the painful memories Mary shared was Polly Cleveland’s murder of her 9-month old baby sister. Polly, apparently enraged by the baby’s crying, removed the baby girl’s diaper and beat her to death.

She come and took the diaper offen my little sister and whipped till the blood jes’ ran — jes’ ’cause she cry like all babies do, and it kilt my sister.

Mary Armstrong, August 8, 1937

Mary was 91 at the time of the interview, but the memories of her baby sister’s death were still crystal clear.

While it may seem that Pauline took the cake for cruelty, she was not to be outmatched by her husband, William Cleveland, whose moral compass was dysfunctional both on and off his farm. The most striking example of his cruelty was his tendency to regularly rub salt and pepper on the skin of his enslaved persons prior to whipping them. Mary told interviewers that he simply wanted to, “season him up.”

WPA photograph of Mary Armstrong on August 8th, 1937

Cleveland would often take out loans against his own slaves and then transport them to the South for sale. When it came time for the lender to collect, Cleveland would tell him that the slave escaped and usually did not have to repay the loan.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Master Cleveland always sold men, women, and children separately, even if they were families. Cleveland did not acknowledge family units among his the enslaved and always sold mothers separate from fathers, and both separate from their children. Eventually, Mary’s own parents were sold as well, though she would later reunite with her Mother after the Civil War.

An Eye for an Eye

“Well, I guess mamma has larnt her lesson at last.”

Mary Armstrong on August 8, 1937, recollecting the words of her former mistress, Olivia Cleveland Adams

Olivia Cleveland Adams was the daughter of William and Polly Cleveland, and the wife of William Adams. She was, according to Mary, the complete opposite of her parents as she was loving, kind, and adored by blacks and whites alike. Olivia took a liking to Mary and William Adams purchased Mary from his in-laws for $2,500.

Mary recalls Olivia’s temperament while sharing a story from when she was 10 years old. Polly paid her daughter’s home a visit and attempted to whip Mary in the yard. Mary picked up a rock roughly half the size of a grown man’s fist and busted her eye open. Mary later confessed what she had done to her mistress (Polly’s daughter, Olivia) who responded that her mother had finally learned her lesson.

3326 Pierce Avenue – Mary’s place of residence at the time of her August 8, 1937 interview
The location of Mary’s apartment building where her August 8, 1937 interview occurred

Light Within the Darkness

“…But Miss Olivia say, ‘I’d wade in blood as deep as Hell ‘fore I’d let you have Mary.’ That’s just jes’ the very words she told ’em.”

Mary Armstrong , August 8, 1937

Mary spent the rest of her enslavement working in the Adams family home, and aside from the sadness she felt from missing her mother, her quality of life improved greatly. She assisted the household by performing domestic duties such as nursing infants and spinning thread. Her relaxed workload allowed her plenty of free time for herself, so she filled these gaps by learning how to dance. She apparently became so skilled at dancing that Olivia would request to see her waltz around the room.

Olivia and William genuinely cared for Mary and she made sure to reiterate that fact throughout the interview. Mary never had to refer to William as “master” and instead called him “Mr. Will” in front of company. In private, she called them “pappy” and “mammy.”

On one occasion, William took Mary on a spontaneous trip to spectate a late-night steamboat race along the Mississippi River. Mary excitedly recounted the Natchez and The Eclipse racing each other neck and neck until the Natchez burned bacon grease to gain an advantage.

1860 painting of the same steamboat race Mary and William attended
” A Midnight Race on the Mississippi” / Artist: Frances Flora Bond Palmer

At one point, Polly actually attempted to purchase Mary back from her daughter, but Olivia outright refused claiming she’d rather wade through a bloody Hell, than lose her beloved Mary. Polly was also not allowed to lay a finger on Mary, or any of their 500 enslaved persons, while visiting their property.


“I looks ’round Houston, but not long. It sho’ was a dumpy little place then and I gets the stagecoach to Austin.”

Mary Armstrong, August 8, 1937

Mary lived with the Adams family until 1863, when William Adams emancipated his enslaved persons upon receiving word of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. William Adams gave her official, sealed documents declaring her freedom and lectured her on the importance of what exactly to expect in the Deep South. He warned her that there were still slave plantations in the South and to make sure she minded white people in order to secure her safety. In the event that she was taken by a slave trader, she was to display her documents, but only when she was upon the auction block. William assured her that this was the best way to ensure her safety and protect her from potential violence.

Olivia and William Adams gave Mary money, clothes, and plenty of food for her river-bound journey to Houston, Texas. Mary recollects that Olivia was particularly sad about her departure and told her to be careful as it was particularly “rough in Texas.”

After several boat trips and a stagecoach journey, Mary made it to Austin, Texas. Unfortunately, upon her arrival she was immediately “greeted” by traders and taken to an auction block. She followed the instructions William Adams gave her and was quickly released. The trader, Charley [Charlie/Charles] Crosby was a legislator, and decent enough man that he allowed Mary to room with the rest of his enslaved persons. He told her of a refugee camp for the enslaved in Wharton County and allowed her to work for him in order to receive the wages to pay for her trip. Mary stayed with Crosby until the end of the Civil War and then resumed her search for her mother.

Mary finally found her mother, Silby [Sylvie] in Wharton Country and they lived together until Mary’s marriage to John Armstrong in 1871. The three of them then moved to Houston where Mary worked as a nurse for a Dr. Rellaford during the Yellow Fever pandemic.

Mary was 91 at the time of her August 8, 1937 interview, and died almost 2 months later on September 23, 1937 from “senility,” according to her death certificate. The Google Maps street view seen immediately above is 3419 Bremond Street, Mary’s residence at her time of death.

As of writing this post, I have not found conclusive evidence regarding Mary and John having any children. If and when I do find such evidence, I will make sure to update this post with the information.

As mentioned at the beginning, Mary’s story deserves to be read in full detail, and I did leave out quite a bit for length’s sake. You can find Mary Armstrong’s slave narrative in full here, and as earlier mentioned, I strongly suggest reading it.

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