Sarah Ford: A Freedwoman
For the sake of changing things up a bit and adding more variety to the blog, I have created a section specifically to share the stories of formerly enslaved men and women. This section, titled, “70 Years of Freedom,” takes its namesake from the Slave Narratives done by the Works Progress Administration between 1936 and 1938. These narratives will be used to paint a picture and will be supplemented by whatever photos, locations, and documents that I can dig up. Lastly, the WPA Slave Narratives are known for potentially having some bias, as the interviewers were primarily white, and that bias will definitely be noted. Without further ado, the first post will be about Sarah Ford, a freedwoman from West Columbia.
“Massa Charles and Uncle Jake don’t like papa, ’cause ain’t so black, and he had spirit, ’cause he part Indian…”
Sarah Ford was born around 1850 to Mike Mitchell and Jane Christopher, while both were enslaved on Kit Patton Plantation in West Columbia, Texas. Mike Mitchell, a tanner by trade, was from Tennessee and purchased from a slave trader. According to Sarah, he was part Native American, and visibly so, being lighter skinned than other enslaved Africans. Later during their enslavement Sarah’s younger sister, Rachel, was born.
“But iffen a bird fly up in de sky it mus’ come down sometime, and Rachel jus’ like dat bird, ’cause Massa Kit go crazy and die and Massa Charles take over de plantation and he takes Rachel and puts her to work in de field.”
Columbus “Kit” Patton and his two brothers, St Clair “Charles” and Matthew are the only two siblings mentioned in Sarah’s recollection. However, according to the Texas Historical Commission, Kit had at least four brothers and two sisters, America and Margaretta. The Patton family was very wealthy and moved to Texas from Kentucky to purchase land with the intent of profiting from the lucrative sugarcane and cotton industries.
Kit, judging from Sarah’s recollection and other historical sources, appeared to be the outcast of the family, and even had a Black wife named Rachel, who moved with him from Kentucky. His family vehemently opposed his relationship with Rachel, who apparently held the status of a white woman on and off the Patton plantation.
Sarah recollected that everyone on the plantation, including the enslaved, had to refer to Rachel as, “Miss Rachel.” She also frequently made purchases in town with Patton money and even sat in the White pews in the local church. Naturally, this caused problems with not only Kit’s family, but other members of the community and even former Patton employees who were angry at the idea of this Black woman being treated so fairly. In one instance, Kit’s nephew, a son of his brother Charles, beat Rachel and after Charles came to his son’s defense, Kit removed both of them from his will.
Not long after the incident, The Patton family had Kit committed to an institution in South Carolina citing his mental instability as the reason. While some say his commitment was his family’s way of getting revenge, historical evidence shows that he actually had a brain tumor which began to cause erratic behavior and vision problems. He died in the facility from typhoid dysentery a few years after his commitment, and upon his death, his will and Rachel’s place in it, caused many issues among the Patton family members.
Big Uncle Jake
“But de overseer was Uncle Big Jake, [who’s] black like de rest of us, but he so mean I ‘spect the devil done make him overseer…”
After Kit’s death his brother, Charles, took over the plantation. According to Sarah, there were good and bad sides to Charles. The good side was that he took care of the slaves in the sense that they were well-fed and clothed. The bad side, however, was that he allowed his overseer, Uncle Big Jake, to whip and punish the slaves as he pleased. Jake was black, but ruthless, and worked the slaves, “from early mornin’ till night.” Whippings were done often, but Jake’s punishment of choice was dripping hot grease on the backs of disobedient slaves, and starving them for 3 days.
Charles and Big Jake despised Sarah’s father, Mike, as he frequently escaped the plantation. In fact, Sarah stated that he was so good at it, he came and went as he pleased, even spending up to a year away from the plantation at times. Mike would slip in and out of the plantation undetected and bring food and gifts for Sarah and her mother, Jane. For this reason, Mike was viewed as a bad influence and any time something went wrong, Uncle Big Jake didn’t hesitate to blame him for it.
There was only one occasion where Uncle Big Jake managed to get his hands on Mike, and it was only because Mike allowed himself to be caught. Jake was interrogating Sarah’s pregnant mother, Jane, about Mike’s whereabouts and threatened to whip her if she didn’t tell him. Mike, overhearing the conversation, revealed himself to Jake in order to protect his wife, and he carried the grease scars for the rest of his life.
Upon Emancipation, Charles offered to pay all of the (now) formerly enslaved an honest wage if they decided to stay on the plantation. Mike, being the bad influence, was the only slave excluded from that offer, and he subsequently packed his family up, and moved to East Columbia. There, he built a modest cabin and corn crib for his family, and they found work as sharecroppers. Sarah claimed they were the happiest they had ever been because, “de bright light done come and dey no more whippin’s.”
In an odd twist of fate, Uncle Big Jake, having been shunned by all of the other former slaves due to his cruelty as an overseer, found Mike’s land and begged him for a place to sleep. Mike, being the bigger man, made a space for him in the corn crib, where he lived until he fell ill and died a month later.
“…and I shows you how de Lawd done give and take away”
Sarah lived with her parents until her marriage to Wes Ford, upon which they moved into their own cabin in close proximity to that of her parents. One night, in 1875, Sarah recollects a violent wind storm that ripped her parents cabin apart. Upon further research, this “wind storm” was actually the 1875 Indianola hurricane, and during this hurricane, Sarah gave birth to her first child. Sarah, her sister, Rachel, her newborn, and husband, Wes survived the storm, but her parents perished due to the violent nature of the storm.
Sarah, Wes, and their children settled in Houston 20 years after the death of her parents. At the time of Sarah’s interview in 1937, her husband, Wes, and 7 of their 11 children had already died.
Sarah’s death certificate shows that upon her death in 1945, she had lived at her 3115 Clay Street residence for 42 years. The present day location of her home is currently an empty lot to the far right of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church. The current Google Maps Street View is below.
If you want to read Sarah Ford’s story in its entirety, which I highly recommend, you can do so here. If you want a deeper dive, here is a link to all of the Slave Narrative writings.