A Mythical Slave

(June 18, 2019) Since the 1950s historians have rightly challenged portrayals of the typical black slave as the loyal servant depicted in Gone With the Wind. Partly due to the 1976 release of Alex Hayley’s Roots, such challenges shifted into overdrive in the mid-1970s. Consequently, popular culture has presently replaced the loyal servant stereotype with the cliché of the slave as a silent-suffering prisoner whose attitude toward his master was much closer to Nat Turner’s than to any of Tara’s servants. Notwithstanding consistent efforts to eradicate the “loyal slave myth”  and replace it with an equally distorted portrayal at the opposite pole, evidence remains that the impression was at least sometimes, or in some ways, valid.

The aged slave narratives transcribed during the Great Depression show that some were resentful toward their master, while others were affectionate.  Perhaps the key determinant was their perception of the relationship as either Master-Slave or Guardian-Ward. Nonetheless, today’s example comes from Richard Williams’s Relics and Bones Blog

“Old Bob”

When Union Major General David Hunter raided Lexington, Virginia in 1864 he marked the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) for plunder and destruction. One household slave owned by Superintendent Francis Smith took it upon himself to preserve what school records and valuables he could in the manner of the loyal slave. Properly named  Robert Price, Old Bob would serve the Smith family for fifty years, first as a slave and later as paid worker. When Smith was often away from Lexington during the war Old Bob “assumed charge of the household as a protector and each night he would spread his pallet in the hall, in front of the bedroom of his mistress”, even though Price was, himself, the “father of a large family.”

Shortly before the Yankees arrived Bob buried an old dead horse near the family garden. According to a 1925 VMI student newspaper article:

“Bob” realized at this time that his responsibility was not only for the family of his master, but for all else in which he was interested. Quietly he set to work gathering valuable papers, institute records, family silver, and other valuables in order that they might be preserved. Rumors which arrived caused him to hesitate as to where to store them, when he thought of the solitary grave. Without hesitating he set to work digging up the remains of the old comrade and placed his collection at the bottom of the grave. He then returned the horse to its resting place.

The Yankees were properly suspicious that Old Bob was a master-loyal slave that dug a fake grave to conceal buried treasure. Despite Old Bob’s warnings that  the horse carcass was badly corrupted, they ordered him to dig until they were satisfied the hole contained nothing valuable. When Old Bob’s diggings got down to the carrion, the stench prompted the troopers into ordering him to refill the hole. Readers can find the  complete story at Relics and Bones

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