Wickliffe, Sylvester Sostan
SYLVESTER SOSTAN WICKLIFFE. of Ames, Texas, was born in St. Mary's Parish, Louisiana, in 1854. A free-born Negro. Wickliffe tells an interesting story about his life and that of his uncle, Romaine Vidrine, who was a slave-holder. Wickliffe has a nicely furnished home in Beaumont, and two of his children have been to college.
"I's what dey call a free-born nigger. Its a long story how dat come about, but I can tell you.
"Three Frenchmen come to Louisiana from France. In three generations day mix with Indians and Negroes. Dey high-born Frenchmen and 'cumulate plenty property. Before dey die dey make 'greement 'mongst demselves. When one die de property go to de other two; de last one livin' git all three plantations and all dat's on dem. It so happen dat old man Vidrine's daddy live longes', so he git it all. But he so good he divide up and my daddy gits forty acres good land. My daddy's greatgrandpapa was one dem first three Frenchmen.
"My daddy was Michael and mama was Lucy and dey a whole passel chillen, Frances, Mary, Clotilde, Astasla and Tom. Samuel, Gilbert and Edward. My daddy was part Indian and I had some half-brothers and sisters what wore blanket and talk Indian talk. Dey used to come see daddy and set round and talk half de night and I never understan' a word dey sayin'.
"Mama didn't have no Indian blood in her, but she born in Louisiana and a right purty, brown-skin woman, probably some French or Spanish in her.
"My uncle, Romaine Vidrine, de son of old man Vidrine, he have de bigges' property. He was a slaveholder. Dey was a number niggers in Louisiana what owned slaves. Romaine, he have 'bout thirty-eight. Dey was a big dif'ence make 'tween slave niggers and owner niggers. Dey so much dif'ence as 'tween white folks and cullud folks. My uncle wouldn't 'low slave niggers to eat at de same table with him or with any of us free-born niggers.
"Folks come down from de north sometimes and mistook de slave for de owner or de owner for de slave. My uncle was sech a purty, bright man, he must of been a quadroon. He had long burnsides and a long tail coat all de time. He was very dignified. He was good to all he slaves, but when he say work, he mean work. He ain't never 'low none de slaves be familiar with him.
"De old Pomaine house was a old-fashioned house make out of cypress. Dat everlastin'. It come to a peak on top and dere was one big room what run de whole length in de back and dat de sleepin' room for all de li'l chillen. De growed-up folks have sleepin' rooms, too. Dey have a cook shack outside. It a sep'rate house.
"Us live in a purty good house not very far from de big house. Dey have what dey calls a private school. It was kep' by my uncle. Only de free-born niggers went to it. De older ones educated in French and de young ones in French and 'merican, too. After de war dey hire a white man named William Devoe to be teacher. He educate de chillen to de third gen'ration. He come to Texas with me and die 'bout five years ago.
"When a couple want to git marry on de old Romaine place, uncle sent for de priest from St. Martin. Dey wasn't no priest round Franklin or what dey call New Iberia later. When I's most a growed boy de priest come baptise 'bout forty of us. He use de water out uncle's cistern for de ceremony. When us goin' down de road to de baptisin' dey's a squirrel run 'cross de road and us chillen all broke and run to cotch it. Law, dat jus' 'bout scare my old godmother to death. She took so much pain dat us all nice and clean and 'fraid us git dirty. Her name was Nana Ramon Boutet and she live here in Ames settlement for many year. Us laugh many time 'bout dat squirrel.
"Dey used to call us de free Mulattoes from 'cross de bayou. De nearest town was Pattersonville and it five mile away. Now dey calls de settlement Vidrinville for old man Romaine Vidrine. De plantation suppor' a grist mill and a raw sugar mill. Dey make de sugar dark, big grain, 'cause dey ain't no 'finery in dem days. Dey put de sugar in big five hunerd pound hogshead and take it by boat down de Teche to New Orleans and sell it. Dey use de money to buy coffee and cotton. Us didn't raise cotton. I never see no cotton till I's a big boy and come to Fort LaFayette.
"De grist mill was built 'way from de house. Dey have a long lever what stand out de side and hitch hosses with a rawhide belt to make de mill turn. Us folks all raise rice. Not like now. Lawdy, no. Dey jes' plant rice in rows like corn and cultivate it like any other crop. Dey wasn't no irrigation ditch. After de rice harves' dey put it in a mortar make out a cypress log or block and knock de roughness off de rice with de pastle.
"Every fall us go huntin' deer round Chicimachi Lake. Dey calls it Grand Lake now, but de reg'lar Indian name am Chicimachi. Dere was a tribe of Indians by dat name. Dey wasn't copper skin, but more yaller like.
"When war commence it purty hard on folks. Us see soldiers comin' 'cross de bayou in blue suits. Dey raid de sugar mill and take de livestock and foodstuff on de Pumphrey place. Dey have a awful battle five mile away. Dat at Camp Boesland, on de Teche. Dat a awful battle. My brother go dere next day and see soldiers standin' up dere 'gainst trees with dey bay'nots still sot.
"De Confed'rates come and took all de slaves to build de fort at Alexandria. When dey come to de Fomaine place dey see niggers, and ain't know which free and which slaves. Dey line my daddy up with de others, but a white man from town say, 'Dat a good, old ann. He part Indian and he free. He a good citizen. He ain't s'pose do work like dat.' So dey didn't take him.
"De Yankees damage de Romaine property 'siderable. Dey take a whole year crop of sugar and corn and hosses. Afterwards dey pass a law and de gov'ment 'low money for dat. It was 'bout twenty year before dey git de money, but dey git it. Romans and he heirs git $30,000 for dem damages.
"After war over, old man Romaine tell he slaves dey free now. But he say, 'You is most born right here and iffen you is bright you stay right here.' Dey all did stay. But dey ain't never git to jine with de free-born. Dey still make a dif'ence.
"After freedom I 'cide to larn a trade. I 'prentice myself to de black-smith trade for clothes and board. I larn all I can in three year and quit and open a shop on Bayou Torti, 'tween St. Martin and Lafayette. I charge $2.00 for to shoe a hoss all de way round. Den I beat plows, build two-wheel buggy and back. I make sweepstocks and Garrett and Cottman plow. Dat after de time of be wood mould boards. I make mine with metal.
"I come to Texas in 1990, to Liberty, and been right round dere and was for forty-seven year. I start me a gin and blacksmith shop when I first come. I marry in Houston to Epheme Pravda, 'nother free-born nigger, and I still marry to her after forty-seven year. Dat a good long hitch. We have seven chillen, all livin'. One gal went to de Catholic church school in Galveston. One boy go to Predeau University in New Orleans. Dey two blacksmith, one farmer, one good auto mechanic and de three gals keeps house.
""I 'member lots of songs us sing in French but I can't give 'merican for dem. I know de song, LaLoup Garou. I try to translate one song for you:
"Master of de house Give me meat without salt; When de stranger come. He give me roast chicken."
Wickliffe, Sylvester Sostan -- Additional Interview
A good humored, small man with a face crinkled about the eyes from much laughter, and a smiling mouth, edged with a drooping gray-black mustache, such is Sylvester Sostan Wickliffe of Ames, Texas. Although not slave-born, Wickliffe's story presents one of the most unusual angles of the slave situation. He was born in St. Mary's Parish, Louisiana about 7 years before the Civil War, the nephew of a free negro, Romaine Vidrine, who was an extensive slave-holder. Wickliffe, today, exhibits a lively interest in politics and other topics of interest. His home is tastefully furnished, and his children, two of whom have received some college education, are of a superior type.
"I's w'at dey call a free-bo'n nigger. It's a long story how dat come about but I kin tell you. Dey was t'ree Frenchmen w'at come to Lou'sana from France. In t'ree generations dey mix wid some de Injuns and later some negroes. Dey was high-bo'n Frenchmen and dey 'cumulate plenty propity."
"Befo' these t'ree Frenchmen die' dey mek a 'greement 'mongst deyse'fs. Dey 'gree dat w'en one die de prop'ity be divided 'mongst de other two and de las' one livin' git de t'ree plantations and all dat's on dem. Well, it so happen dat ol' man Vidrine' daddy he live de longes' and so he git it all. Dat leave all de sons and gran'sons of de other two men outen nuthin'. Ol' man Vidrine so good that he ain'
like to see dis happen so he divide up. In dat way my daddy git 40 acres of good lan'. His father's mother's father was one dem Frenchmen."
"My daddy' name was Michael and my mama' name Lucy. Dey was a whole passel of de chillen, four sisters name' Frances, Mary, Clotile and Astasia and five brudders, 'cep'in' me, name Tom, Samuel, Gilbert, Sylvester and Edward."
My father was half Injun, and I have some half-brudders and sisters w'at wo' blanket', and dey talk dat ol' Injun talk I can't even understan'. I talk mos'ly French until I come to Texas. Dem half-brudders and sisters dey uster come to see my daddy and dey sit 'roun' and talk half de night and I neber understan' a word dey sayin'."
"Mama didn' have no Injun in her, but she was bo'n in Lou'sana too. She was a right purty brown-skinned woman. She prob'ly have some French or Spanish 'cause dey was lots of folks dat did down dere."
"My uncle, Romaine Vidrine, dat was de son of de ol' man Vidrine, and de one w'at had de bigges' prop'ity, was a lan' holder and a slave-holder. Dey was a number of negroes in Lou'sana w'at owned slaves. Romaine he have 'bout 38 slaves to wuk de big plantation. Dey was a big diff'rence mek between de slave niggers and de owner niggers. Dey was as much diff'rence between dem as between de white folks and de cullud folks. My uncle he wouldn' 'low de slave niggers to eat at de same table wid him or wid any of de free-bo'n niggers."
"Folks uster come down from de No'th and dey come 'roun' and mistook de slave for de owner or de owner for de slave and dat was lookin' odd. My uncle was sich a purty bright man, he muster been a quadroon. He have long burnsides, and wo' a long tail coat all de time. He was very dignified. He was good to all de slaves on de place, but he mean for dem to wuk w'en he say wuk. He ain' never 'low none of dem to be famil'ar wid him. He would allus say dat de darkes' one dem darkies was de meanes' one w'at he have on de place."
"Ol' Romaine' house was a ol' fashion' house mek outen cypress, dat everlastin'. It come to a peak on de top. Dey was one big room in de back w'at run de whole length and dat was de sleepin' room for all de li'l chillen. De growed up folks have dey sleepin' room inside de house. Dey have a cook shack outside. It a sep'rate house from de other house. Dey do all de cookin' out dere."
"Us live in a purty good house and us trac' was not very far from de big house. Dey have one place w'at dey call a school. Dey call it a private school. Dat was kep' by my uncle. De ol'er people was educated in French but de younger ones git 'Merican too. Right atter de war dey hire a white man name William Devoe to come and be de school teacher. He educate de chillen to de third generation. He come here wid me to Texas and die 'bout five year' ago, clost to Houston. Dey uster have a li'l log house for a school buildin'."
"When a couple want to git marry on ol' Romaine place he sen' for de pries' from St. Martin. Dey wasn' no pries' 'roun' Franklin or de place w'at dey call New Iberia later on. De pries' from St. Martin jes come to de plantation onct in a long while.
"I 'member onct atter I's mos' a growed boy de pries' come and baptise' 30 or 40 of us. He use de water outen my uncle' cistern for de ceremony. Dat was when I git baptize' too. Us was goin' down de road to de baptisin' and I 'member dey's a long row of trees. Dey's a squirrel run crost de road and up in de trees and us chillen all broke and runned to try to ketch it. Law, dat jes' 'bout skeered my ol' godmother to de'f. She tuk so much pain' dat us all git nice and clean up and us has us bes' clo's on and she 'fraid us git dirty. Her name was Nana Ramon Boutet and she live here in Ames settlement for many year'. Us laugh many a time 'bout dat squirrel."
"Dey uster call us de Free Mulattoes from crost de bayous. De neares' town to dere was Pattersonville, in dem days and it 'bout five mile' away. Now dey calls de settlement Vidrinville for de ol' man Romaine Vidrine. De plantation support' a gris' mill and a raw sugar mill. Dey mek de sugar dark, big grain' 'cause dey ain' no refinery in dem days. Dey put de sugar in big 500-pound hogshead. Den dey tek it by boat down de Teche to New Orleans and sell it. Dey use de money to buy supplies like coffee and cotton to mek clo's on de loom. Us didn' raise cotton. I never see no cotton 'till I's a big boy and come to Fort LaFayette."
"De gris' mill where us grin' de meal was buil' away from de house. Dey have a long lever w'at 'stends out de side and dey hitch de hosses wid a rawhide belt to mek de mill tu'n. Us folks all raise rice. Not like dey do now, Lordy, no. Dey jes' plant dat rice in rows like co'n or potatoes and cultivate it jes' like any other crop. Dey wasn' no irrigation ditch or nuthin' like dat. Atter de rice was harves' dey tek it and put it in a mortar mek outen holler' out cypress log or block.
Den dey mek a pestle to knock de roughness off."
"Dey have sheep and hosses and cows 'roun' de place for dey own meat. Dey was lots of wil' hosses in de woods 'roun' dere. My brudder went out one day to ketch one and he git los' in de woods. Us was 'fraid de Yankees done ketch him and mek him go off wid dem, but he fin'lly mek he way home ag'in. Dey ketch de wil' hosses and tame dem."
"Us li'l free-bo'n chillen play mos'ly togedder. Marbles and swing ropes was de fav'rite games, but us play a baseball game. It was play wid a hard ball on a diamon', but I don' reckilleck de details of de way to play it."
"Ev'ry fall us go out huntin' deer 'roun' Chicimachi Lake. Dey calls it Gran' Lake now but de reg'lar Injun name was Chicimachi. Dat was from a tribe of Injun by de same name. Dey wasn' copper skin' Injuns but more yellowish like. Dat de kind of Injuns mos' of dem was down dere. W'en us go to de Lake to hunt deer us would go 'roun' de lake in a skiff row boat. Us stay 'bout two week sometime on a hunt."
"Dere uster be a story on my father dat us laugh at many a time. He's so skeer of bears dat he ain' knowed w'at to do. He didn' want us to know how skeered he really was. He git out in de woods so far he git to thinkin' 'bout dat bear. One time he sen' my cousin, dat Romaine ol'es' boy, back to de house for de gun. He say, I' jes' goin' git me a coon.' But ev'rybudy knowed dat jes' 'cause he skeered of de bear. Dey was a big bear, and I mean a big bear, come in de yard. One de men jump up and kill de bear wid a rice pestle. Dat muster been a fight."
"W'en de war commence it were purty hard on de folks. Us could see de sojers comin' cross de bayour in dey blue suits. Dem was de Yankees. Dey raid de sugar mill and tuk de livestock and foodstuff on ol' man Pumphrey' place. Dat was at de beginnin' of de war."
"I see dat dey have a awful battle 'bout five mile' away. Dat at Camp Beesland 'tween Morgan City and Franklin on de Teche. Dat was a awful battle. My ol'es' brudder he go dere de nex' day atter de fight, and see sojers standin' up dead 'gainst trees wid dey bay'nets still set."
"De Confed'rates dey come 'roun' and tuk all de slaves wid dem down to buil' de fort at Alexandria. When dey come to Romaine' place dey see niggers and dey ain' knowed which was de free ones and which de slaves. Dey line my father up wid de others but one de white men from de town come down de line and he say, 'Dat a good ol' man. He part Injun and he's free. He is a good citizen. He ain' s'pose to go wuk like dat.' So dey didn' tek him, but dey did tek all de other able men but 'low dem to come back atterwards."
"W'en de Yankees come dey tuk some of Romaine' propity. Dey damage up de place con'siderable too. Dey tuk a whole year' crop of sugar and co'n and hosses. Atterwards dey pass a law and de gov'ment done 'low money for dese damages. It have been 20 year' ago befo' dey git de money, but dey git it. Romaine and de heirs git $30,000 for de damages."
"Atter de war was over de ol' man he call up de slaves and say, 'Now you is all free.' You kin do w'at you want. But you is mos' bo'n right yere and you ain' knowed nuthin' else. Iffen you is bright you stay right yere.' And dey all did stay. But dey ain' never git to jine wid de free-bo'n. Dey still mek a diff'rence. De slaves wuk some de ol' plantation lan' on de shares."
"One de t'ings I reckilleck mos' atter freedom was de picnics us uster have. De white folks farmers uster come and have picnics wid us free-bo'n but dey ain' 'low de others to come. Dem picnics was hel' at Gran' Lake. Dat was a big lake on top a hill. Dat hill was 'bout a acre square and 'bout 20 feet above the surface of de groun'. It was s'pose to be a ol' Injun burial moun'. Us li'l chillen uster go play on de hill and dig up skulls and teeth and jawbones. Dat hill is mos' wash away now since I's growed up, but it was a fav'rite place for us chillen to play. W'en de high water come up, dat hill's where us uster go git to keep outen de flood 'till de water go down."
"Dey say niggers is mos' 'fraid of sperrits. But us li'l chillen ain' never seed no ghos'es even on de Injun moun'. Mos' de folks in dem days did beleeve in ghos'es. Dat was prevalent. Dey was superstitious. I 'member dey was a ol' lady name Aunt Jane. Dey raise sugar cane on de place where she was. One day she was jes' a-cuttin' cane down de row and she fall fas' asleep. She ain' woke up 'till she git to de en' of de row and den she fin' she done cut de row jes' right. She ain' miss a stalk. Dat in her sleep, too. She sho' was glad 'cause dey would have wored her out wid de rawhide. Some dem marsters sho' liketer use de whip in dem day anyway."
"Atter freedom I decide to learn a trade. I go 'prentice myself to learn de blacksmith trade for my clo's and bo'd. Dey ain' pay no wages for de five year' you s'pose to tek to learn de trade. Dat too slow for me though, so I learn all I kin in t'ree year' and den I quit and open me a shop on Bayou Torti, 'tween St. Martin and Lafayette. I charge $2.00 for to shoe a hoss all de way 'roun'. Den I beat plows, buil' two-wheel buggy' and hack. It tek 'bout a couple of weeks to buil' one dem buggy by jes' one man wukkin'. I mek sweepstocks and Garrett and Cottman plow'. Dat was atter de time of de wood moul' boards. I mek mine wid metal."
"I come to Texas in 1890, to Liberty, and been right 'roun' dere and Ames for 47 year'. I start me a gin and blacksmith shop w'en I fus' come. I marry in Houston to Epheme Pradia, another free-bo'n nigger gal, and I's still marry to her atter 47 year'. Dat a good long hitch. Us move to Liberty under dat big pecan tree where de golf park now stan's."
"Us have seben chillen, all livin'. One gal went to de Cath'lic chu'ch school in Galveston, and one de boys go to Pradeau University in New Orleans. Dey's two blacksmith', one farmer, one good auto mechanic and de three gals keeps house."
"I reckilleck I voted de fus' time at a place name' Broussardville on de Southern Pacific road. I was 'bout 21 den I beleebe. Dey niggers didn' have no trouble votin' in dem times but I hears later dat dey mighty skeerce 'bout lettin' dem vote in Lou' sana now. I 'member dat 'lection well. A man name' Andre Martine he was runnin' for clerk of co't (court), and Nichols and I t'ink Womack was a-runnin' for governor of Lou'sana."
"Now you wanter know sump'n'. I kin 'member jes' lots of de songs us sung in French, but I kin not give de 'Merican for dem. Dey was a dance song name' Mam'selle Marie, but I can't give you de spellin' of de words. Dey was anudder call' LaLoup garou' and I daresay when I bring dem up dey's others I could 'member. One dat de slaves sung I try to translate for you. It go:
Master of de house
Gimme meat widout salt
When de stranger come
He gimme roas' chicken.
Dey was one say:
'I sittin' on de riverside
Weepin' all de day
For I never see my darlin'
De very las' I kin think of:
'What's de use of repinin'
For while dere's a will
Dere's a way.
Tomorrow de sun
May be shinin'
Although it be cloudy today.'"