An Alabama Freedman Remembers ReconstructionJoseph Farley

Abstract and Keywords

Joseph Farley, born in 1843 in Virginia, ran away and joined the Union army. Later he was given a pension. “At that time I never thought about dying,” he remembers. “I never thought about anybody shooting me; I just thought about shooting them.” Interviewed in 1930 by a black student from Fisk University, he gave a rambling account, from which the postwar material has been excerpted. As with all distant recollections, Farley’s may have been affected by the lapse of time and the person conducting the interview.

Source: George P. Rawick, ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Volume 18. Unwritten History of Slavery (Fisk University) (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972), pp. 121–28.


It was a long, long time before everything got quiet after the war. On Franklin Street here I saw once 100 Ku Klux Klans, with long robes and faces covered. You don’t know anything of them. They were going down here a piece to hang a man. There were about 600 of us soldiers, so we followed them to protect the man. The Klan knew this, and passed on by the house and went on back to town and never did bother the man.

One time a colored soldier married a white whoman over here at Fort Bruce. The man belonged to my company. His name was Sergeant Cook. About twenty of the soldiers went to the wedding, and they had about five or six white men who said he couldn’t marry this woman. Old Dr. Taylor … came over to marry them. He stood near me and I told him to go on and marry this couple or else someone here would die. He looked around and saw all these soldiers and he knew about us and that we meant for him to do as he had been told. He married them and we guarded our hack over to the war boat on the Cumberland. They went over to Nashville and lived there. They had a daughter whose name was Mrs. Gnatt. When they married was in 1866. Mrs. Gnatt could tell you her father was named Cyrus Cook. Guess you know you can’t do that now, no sir; you just can’t do that now. At one time a colored man could ride anywhere he wanted to, but now he can’t do it. I am one of the first voters of Montgomery County. They told me at one time that I was not to come to the polls or I would be met by 600 men on horses. So about six or eight hundred of us armed and went to the polls with our bayonets. That man that had told me that did not show up. So we voted, and voted for whom we wanted. At that time the Rebels who rebelled against this country could not vote and they said that these Negroes shouldn’t vote but we showed them. Of course, they came down and stood and looked at us but they didn’t bother us. We went there armed and prepared for fighting so that if they started anything, there would be trouble. When they mustered me out from the army, I brought my gun from Nashville right here to Clarksville and kept it twenty-five years. Finally I let an old soldier have it.

When I first came here we had no teachers here but white teachers. They would call the roll same as calling the roll for soldiers. They taught school in the churches before they had school houses. They used to go to school at night and work all day. Clarence C. White’s father, Will White, was the first teacher or principal of the school here in Clarksville.

When the War was over some of the colored returned to their white folks, but I didn’t want to be under the white folks again. I was glad to get out. Once, for fifteen years here, I run a saloon and livery stable. One time I worked on a boat. When I was on my first boat, one time I went to vote. A white man told me that if I voted Republican he would fire me, so I told him to fire me then. I just told him he could fire me right now for I didn’t want to work anyway. I went on and voted the Republican ticket, and they told me they liked my principle and I could go on and go to work.

I still got my discharge from way back in 1866. I keeps it and I mean to keep it as long as I live. I am proud of it.

ESSAY HINT: Consider what freedom meant to Joseph Farley in your discussion of this source! In the long term why do you think school was so important?

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