In the 1930s and early 1940s, more than 140 years after the U. S. Constitution declared slavery illegal in the United States, former slaves were interviewed under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. The materials, archived at the Library of Congress, are known as the Slave Narrative Collection. Some of the narratives have been published including “Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938—Indiana.” Although a majority of the narratives in that particular collection are from Vanderburgh County, there is one from Monroe County. It consists of an interview with Thomas Lewis. (See pp. 123-127.)
Lewis reportedly was born a slave in Spencer County, Kentucky, in 1857. His father was killed “in the Northern army” and afterward he lived with his mother, stepfather and several siblings. When Lewis was seven years old he was set free and when he was twelve the family located in Indiana.
Family members met in Louisville and took a ferry across the Ohio River into New Albany. The next morning after their arrival, they left for Bloomington. In Bloomington, Lewis recalled meeting the Dorsett family. “Two of their daughters had been sold before the war. After the war, when the black people were free, the daughters heard some way that their people were in Bloomington. It was a happy time when they met their parents.”
Lewis had a cousin name Jerry. Before the slaves were freed “…[A] white man asked Jerry how he would like to be free. Jerry said that he would like it all right. The white men took him into the barn and were going to put him over a barrel and beat him half to death. Just as they were about ready to beat him [a] bomb went off [presumably planted by Union soldiers] and Jerry escaped…There was no such thing as being good to slaves. Many people were better than others, but a slave belonged to his master and there was no way to get out of it…If a slave resisted and his master killed him, it was the same as self-defense today.”
On June 30, 1885, Lewis married Mary Gill. Together with her he fathered at least two children, Howard and Ethel. He married a second time to Geneva Johnson in Monroe County in1923 and fathered four more children: Anna, James, George and Raymond.
Most of his life was spent in Monroe County where he was employed at a variety of jobs. Undoubtedly he was limited by his lack of education. According to the 1940 census, he had completed only grades one through three.
As he became advanced in years, he went to live at the Monroe County Home otherwise known as the poor house. On September 19, 1951, at the age of 99, he died in the Bloomington Hospital. According to his death record, completed by his son, Howard, Lewis’s father was unknown and his mother’s maiden name was noted simply as Drake. Other records indicate Thomas Lewis was the son of Elijah and Sina (Drake) Lewis. Sina was later married to George Ditto.
NOTE: Two copies of the book titled Slave Narratives…Indiana are available at the Monroe County Public Library in Bloomington. One is shelved with Adult Nonfiction; the other in the Indiana Room. The latter does not circulate. See call number 306.362 Ind. The interview with Thomas Lewis as noted in the book is also available online at https://www.accessgenealogy.com/black-genealogy/slave-narrative-of-thomas-lewis.htm
Blog post by Randi Richardson