Octavia Victoria Rogers Albert: “But the half cannot be told”

ZP_The House of Bondage by Mrs. Octavia V. Rogers Albert_published 1890

Octavia Victoria Rogers Albert (1853-1890) was born into slavery in Oglethorpe, Georgia. After Emancipation she studied to be a schoolteacher at Atlanta University. A devout young woman, she felt strongly that teaching was a form of worship and Christian service. Her first teaching post was at the age of 21, in Montezuma, Georgia, where she also met and married A.E.P. Albert, another teacher who would later be ordained as a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The couple settled in Houma, Louisiana, where Octavia began to interview former African-American slaves. She collected their narratives into a volume entitled The House of Bondage, or Charlotte Brooks and Other Slaves, published in 1890. Rogers Albert died before her valuable historical document became widely known.

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From The Introduction to The House of Bondage:


The story of slavery never has been and never will be fully told. In the last letter that John Wesley ever wrote, addressed to Wilberforce, the great abolitionist, and dated February 24, 1791, and this only six days before his tireless hand was quieted in death, he wrote these words: “I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy” (slavery and the slave trade), “which is the scandal of religion of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you who can be against you P Are all of them together stronger than God? O, be not weary in well doing.’ Go on in the name of God and the power of his might till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it.”

It is because American slavery was “the vilest that ever saw the sun” that it is and will remain forever impossible to adequately portray its unspeakable horrors, its heartbreaking sorrows, its fathomless miseries of hopeless grief; its intolerable shames, and its heaven-defying and outrageous brutalities.

But while it remains true that the story can never be completely told, it is wise and well that the task should be attempted and in part performed; and this for the reason that there are some who presume that this slavery, “the vilest that ever saw the sun,” has been, and is still, of divine appointment; in short, that from first to last it was a divine institution. It is well to remind all such people that the Almighty Ruler of the universe is not an accessory, either before or after the fact, to such crimes as were involved in slavery. Let no guilty man, let no descendant of such man, attempt to excuse the sin and shame of slave-holding on the ground of its providential character. The truth is that slavery is the product of human greed and lust and oppression, and not of God’s ordering.

Then it is well to write about slavery that the American people may know from what depths of disgrace and infamy they rose when, guided by the hand of God, they broke every yoke and let the oppressed go free. Finally, it is well to tell, though only in part, the story of slavery so that every man, woman, and child of the once enslaved race may know the exceeding mercy of God that has delivered them from the hopeless and helpless despair that might have been their portion if the Lord God Omnipotent had not come forth to smite in divine and righteous wrath the proud oppressor and bring his long-suffering people out of their worse than Egyptian bondage.

This volume, penned by a hand that now rests in the quiet of the tomb, is a contribution to the sum total of the story that can never be entirely told.

In her young girlhood the author had known the accursed system, and she knew the joy of deliverance. With a deep, pathetic tenderness she loved her race; she would gladly have died for their enlightenment and salvation. But she has gone to her reward, leaving behind her the precious legacy of a sweet Christian influence that can only flow forth from a pure and consecrated life.

May this volume go forth to cheer and comfort and inspire to high and holy deeds all who shall read its pages!

Willard Francis Mallalieu

(Bishop, Methodist Episcopal Church)

Boston, Mass., Nov.15, 1890

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“The Curse of Whisky”: Chapter VIII from The House of Bondage by Octavia Victoria Rogers Albert :


The Methodist Episcopal Church–The colored people and whisky-drinking–When the Yankees came to Louisiana–The End of Aunt Charlotte’s story

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“AUNT CHARLOTTE, which church are you a member of here?”

“I am a member of the Methodist Church. Our minister said the other Sunday the Methodist Church divided on account of slavery many years ago, and that the old mother Church never failed to crush out slavery at every turn. It seems to me every Christian that honors God in the pardoning of their sins ought to agree to every thing that is holy and good. How could any Christian man believe it was right to sell and buy us poor colored people just like we was sheep? I tell you, I have seen black people, in slave-time, drove along–may be one hundred in a drove–just like hogs to be sold. Sometimes men were sold from their wives and mothers from their children. I saw a white man in Virginia sell his own child he had by a colored woman there. They say a ‘Merican man never would take care of his children he would have in slave-time by the black women, as a Frenchman would here in Louisiana. Old marster used to say niggers did not have a soul, and I reckon all the white folks thought so too.”

“Aunt Charlotte, education and religion taught them better.”

“Yes, child; for when I first got religion I did not want to hurt an ant. Everything was love, joy, and peace with me. I sometimes think my people don’t pray like they used to in slavery. You know when any child of God gets trouble that’s the time to try their faith. Since freedom it seems my people don’t trust in the Lord as they used to. “Sin is growing bold, and religion is growing cold.’ That’s what our minister says sometimes.”

“Aunt Charlotte, I am told that the colored people are suffering more from the habit of indulging in strong drink than any thing else here in the South.”

“Yes, my dear child; in the time of slavery one hardly knew what whisky was in some places; but since freedom we see men and women drunk. About a year ago I went out to a plantation near this town and I saw two hundred liquor-barrels emptied and laying around on the place. All the planters keep whisky for the laborers, and they spend more money for drink than they do for any thing else. They don’t get much for their work, no way, and I can’t see how the hired men can drink so much whisky.”

“Aunt Charlotte, how much are the men paid per day?”

“They get only fifty and sixty cents a day. Some of the men have a wife and four or five children to take care of. They have their wife to help them, but, la, me! the wife’s help is next to nothing in the field. The women can’t get as much as the men, now way, although they go out and work hard all day long and keep up with the men too.”

“I can’t see, Aunt Charlotte, how any man who has four or five children can afford to drink when he makes only fifty and sixty cents per day!”

“Well, I tell you how they do. They always have an account open in the plantation store, and they allow them to get anything they want from the store. If they come out in debt at the end of the year they work on the next year and pay it. Sometimes they find at the end of the year they owe the planter fifty dollars for whisky. Why, my dear child, I know children on some of them plantations ten years old never had a pair of shoes to keep their feet off the cold, frosty ground since they were born.”

“Yes, I am induced to believe, Aunt Charlotte, that whisky is causing more suffering among the colored people than slavery, or as much, any way. The temperance society that has been lately organized in this town is destined to do much good among the colored people.”

“Yes; the preacher holds temperance meeting every Sunday evening now in our church after preaching. It would do your heart good to hear our sisters make little temperance speeches after preaching on Sunday evenings. We had a sister named Ellen, and her husband was named Jack. Sister Ellen couldn’t read, but she would make her speech whenever her time came around on Sunday evening. She said, ‘Brothers and sisters, I don’t know much and can’t say much, but let me tell you all, since Jack got in this little society the preacher started here he is changed all over. Why, Jack used to sleep in the gutters of water one half of his time at night. I used to have to pick Jack up almost every night and carry him home. He’s got religion too. Jack is a good man. He did not care any thing for his children, and I could not get a cup of coffee one half of my time when he drank gin; but now I get coffee, sugar, and shoes, and he takes care of his children too. Now,’ she said, come up, all you men sitting over yonder, come and join this little society.’ We all would laugh at Sister Ellen, for she seemed so earnest in her talk. She would shake her first and knock on the railing around the altar whenever she got up to speak. She did not mind us laughing, though; she went right on. One time after she got through speaking about ten men and women came up and joined the ‘little society.’

“Aunt Charlotte, it is a great pity, and, my deed, a great sin, for the planters to keep whisky on their plantations for their laborers. It’s a temptation set before them.”

“Yes; I always thought so too; but the planters don’t care just so they get them to do the work good. They don’t get too drunk to work through the week; but on Sundays they lay about almost dead drunk on some plantations. I tell you, I am afraid whisky will ruin my people yet.”

“I trust not, Aunt Charlotte. There is a great temperance movement going on throughout this country, and we are destined to see good results from it. We hope to have a law to prevent the sale of any intoxicating drinks. It may be many years, but I believe we shall have it.”

“I trust in the Lord to bring it to pass. Our people suffer more than any body, for we were turned loose without any thing, and we got no time to waste. We must get education, and, above all things in this world, get religion, and then we will be ladies and gentlemen.”

“Yes; I believe religion and education will lift them upon a level with any other of the civilized races on earth. It’s true we see so much prejudice manifested almost every-where we go; but we must wait on the Lord. He has promised to carry us through.”

Aunt Charlotte said: “It makes me so glad to see my people going to school. Never did I think to see these good times! White people would not let us learn the book in slave time. I used to want to learn when I was young, but they would not even let us have a book to study in. La, child! when the Yankees came out here our eyes began to open, and we have been climbing ever since. Whenever I see a Yankee it makes me mighty glad, for I just feel that God sent them down here to set us free. When the war was going on I heard they was fighting for us. I tell you, when it was going on I did not cease to pray. ‘We done the praying and the Yankees done the fighting, and God heard our prayer’s way down here in these cane-fields. Many times I have bowed down between the cane-rows, when the cane was high, so nobody could see me, and would pray in the time of the war! I used to say, ‘O, my blessed Lord, be pleased to hear my cry; set me free, O my Lord, and I will serve you the balance of my days.’ I knowed God had promised to hear his children when they cry, and he heard us way down here in Egypt.”

Thus ends the story of Aunt Charlotte’s life in the cane-fields of Louisiana.  “But the half cannot be told”.

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Editor’s Note:

The above text was provided through the online archives of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, located in Harlem, New York City, at the site of the former 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, which opened in 1905, with construction moneys donated by Andrew Carnegie. In 1920, librarian Ernestine Rose, with the help of Catherine Latimer, the first Black librarian hired by the NYPL, helped to both “integrate” the library’s workforce, and to “integrate” Reading into the lives of patrons, schools and organizations within Harlem. This was achieved with the help of Sadie Peterson Delaney. The 135th Street library soon became a germinating spot for what would later be known as The Harlem Renaissance – via the nurturing efforts of another branch employee – one Regina M. Anderson.  If ever there were “cool” librarians, well, those Ladies were It!

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