Black women have received little attention for the critical role they have played in maintaining their families and contributing to their communities. After running across a brief reference to Rachel Whitfield (1814-1908) a “former slave who made it on her own as head of a household, subsistence farmer,” I began searching for more. How did an uneducated black woman survive after the Civil War? I found Rachel’s story, which was written by her granddaughter Lela Jackson, included in Women in Early Texas.
In 1852 Jim and Rachel Whitfield lived with their six children in Arkansas, Missouri. Their master, a man named Whitfield sold Jim to a slave owner, and the family never saw him again. Rachel and the children were placed together on the auction block. Washington McLaughlin purchased the family, and they began a months-long trip to Texas, sometimes on foot and others times in an oxcart. They settled on a site with deep, rich soil on the north bank of the San Gabriel River in Williamson County.
The slaves cut thick brush and a variety of trees to clear the land, built cabins, and prepared the soil for planting. Lela Jackson writes that McLaughlin “was not even-tempered and at times whipped the slaves.” At other times he gave them passes in compliance with the law that required slaves to carry a pass any time they left the owner’s property. If they were caught without a pass, they could be whipped for being out without permission.
Sometime during the Civil War, soldiers rode into the plantation, took supplies, and then headed south. One of the slaves heard McLaughlin read the “Proclamation of Freedom.” He said nothing until early one morning he gathered the slaves and angrily announced: “You are now free people. You are free as I am. You can go anywhere you want to. You can stay here if you wish, but I don’t need you. I can do without you.”
The slaves stood in silence, stunned, unsure of what freedom meant. Finally, the cook went to the kitchen and prepared breakfast for the McLaughlin family. After the master had eaten, he told all the slaves to leave, not allowing them to eat or carry anything with them.
They slipped along the San Gabriel River, finding places to hide, unsure of their safety, listening for any strange noise. Rachel’s oldest son Allen married that spring and helped Rachel and the younger children settle in a log cabin next to a creek. They foraged for wild plums and berries, ate pecans and black walnuts. The owner of a stray cow gave the family permission to keep the milk in exchange for raising the calf for its owner. They kept milk, butter, and cream fresh by storing it in a bucket lowered into a well. With the change of seasons, they moved about, picking cotton and vegetables for landowners. They gathered prairie chicken eggs and trapped birds, squirrels, and possums. They ironed clothing for white people using flat irons heated on a fire log in the yard. Rachel made quilts and asked men to save their ten-cent Bull Durham tobacco sacks, which she ripped open, bleached, and used for the lining.
The high point in their lives came on “pastoral days,” the Sundays when a preacher held worship services. People came from miles around, and for those who could not read, the leader “lined” out the words. They enjoyed baptizings in the creek, sing-songs, camp meetings, and dances. When someone died, Rachel and her daughter Demmie prepared the body and laid it out on a board or a door that was balanced on chairs. Coffins were made from the plentiful local cedar and stained dark brown.
Lela Jackson writes that her grandmother, who lived until she was ninety-three and all her children held the respect of both their black and white Williamson County neighbors.