Growing up in D.C., I never heard of “Juneteenth.” But I will jump on any pretext to stream some cool audio, so... prepare to hear the words of Fountain Hughes, a former slave. (Actually, I’m not streaming this one; the Library of Congress is.)
Fountain Hughes was interviewed on June 11, 1949, by Hermond Norwood, an engineer with the Library of Congress. Hughes said he was 101 years old.
Strangely, one of the first things Mr. Hughes says, by way of introducing himself to posterity, is: “My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson.” As if, after 100 years of living, that’s what he’s most proud of – that his grandfather had been the slave of a great and famous white man.
In a fucked-up way, I guess that is something to be proud of. We can assume that Thomas Jefferson would only own the best.
In a more obvious way, it’s a psychological tragedy. And yet that’s the value to us of hearing Fountain Hughes (or “Uncle Fountain,” as Norwood calls him in the condescending politeness of a bygone era) speak in his own voice about slavery times.
“Colored people that’s free ought to be awful thankful,” Mr. Hughes says about 19 minutes into the recording. “And some of them is sorry they are free now. Some of them now would rather be slaves.”
“Which would you rather be, Uncle Fountain?” asks Norwood, adding a laugh.
“Me? Which I’d rather be?... If I thought, had any idea, that I’d ever be a slave again,” Fountain Hughes says, “I’d take a gun and just end it all right away. Because you’re nothing but a dog.”
Mr. Hughes emerges instantly on this recording as a vivid, appealing character. He had the gift of gab, and then some. (He spends the first six minutes going on and on about the evils of buying on credit before the interviewer can get a word in edgewise.)
When it comes to his boyhood memories of slavery in Virginia, the small details resonate. “I told a woman the other day, I said, ‘I never had no shoes till I was 13 years old.’ She say, ‘What, you bruise your feet all up? Stump your toes?’ I said, ‘Yes, many times I’ve stumped my toes, and blood run out ’em. That didn’t make ’em buy me no shoes.’ ”
Click here to listen to an mp3 file of this living, breathing artifact of American history, courtesy of the “American Memory” project of the Library of Congress. (It’s about 29 minutes long.)