Julia Francis Daniels, freedwoman, laundress, farmer, and WPA Slave Narrative interviewee, was born into slavery in Georgia, and moved to Texas as an infant. Her interview was one of 300 chronicled in the late 1930s by the Texas Writers’ Project as part of the larger Federal Writers’ Project under the Work Projects Administration. In it, she shared memories of slave community culture, family, religion, foodways, clothing, weddings, violence, intimidation, division of labor, emancipation, and life after freedom. Due to the scarcity of historical records on enslaved persons and freedmen, much of what historians know about Julia Francis Daniels’s life comes from her WPA interview.
Daniels told her interviewer that her parents’ names were Lottie and Boyd Denman, shown as Lottie and Bert on her death certificate, and possibly Barton and Charlotte in Houston County in the 1880 census. She had approximately ten siblings, including brothers Tom and George and sisters Marthy and Mandy, but she could not remember all of their names. During her enslavement, she and her family were owned by farmer and Primitive Baptist preacher Moses Hampton Denman, Sr., whom she called “Old Man Denman.”
She was likely born in late 1849 or early 1850 in Cobb County, Georgia. Although she knew her birthplace, as with many born into slavery, Daniels never knew her exact date of birth. She told her WPA interviewer that she turned fourteen at the end of the Civil War, the same year she married, learned to plow, and had her first child. Based on this, her birth year would have been 1850 or 1851. In other records, however, her birth year varied from 1848 to 1856. If born in Georgia, she was likely an infant when Denman moved to Georgia. According to tax records and the 1850 federal census, Denman moved his family and approximately twenty-three enslaved individuals from Cobb County, Georgia, where he held property in 1849, to Cherokee County, Texas, where he was listed with twenty-three slaves but no real estate on the tax rolls in September 1850. The 1850 slave schedule for Cherokee County listed Denman with twenty-three slaves, but its pages were too water damaged to read the ages of those enslaved.
She remembered that the overseer, named Briscoe, was not allowed to whip anyone without permission from Denman. When he did whip an enslaved person, he made them take their shirt off and used a strap on them. Abuse of this type was common among slaveholders, and first-hand accounts in records serve as important evidence.
Physical and psychological dangers against enslaved persons came from every direction. Daniels recalled soldiers tormenting an old Black woman on a mule. While in the woods, near their home, Daniels and her sister Mandy heard noises, which they later discovered were soldiers when their brother came to get them for dinner. Once out of the woods and away from the danger, her brother told them about the soldiers. Daniels was so traumatized by this story that she could not eat and feared they would come after her. Later as Daniels and her father rode through the woods to “hide out,” they encountered soldiers who grabbed at her and said they wanted to take her. Daniels fainted before her father safely escaped with her.
Daniels’s father, her uncles Lot and Joe, and her brothers worked in the fields, and she brought them water. Daniels’s mother cooked inside the Denman home as well as for her own and Uncle Joe’s family. She and her family ate collard greens, pork, the rabbits her brother hunted, and occasionally beef, which became her favorite. After they had finished planting, the slave community often gathered socially and had what Daniels called a “party,” often referred to by other former slaves as a frolic, that featured singing, dancing, and games. On some Sundays, her uncle Joe led camp meetings in front of his or Daniels’s family’s home for those on the Denman place and surrounding farms. Camp meetings usually included preaching, singing, and a picnic dinner.
By 1860 Denman had moved his family and those he held as property, including Daniels, to Houston County, Texas, where they lived near Crockett. The 1860 slave schedule showed Denman owned twenty-two individuals including a ten-year-old girl that was likely Daniels. In late 1860 or in 1861 Denman split up Daniels’s entire family. Daniels and two of her sisters were gifted to Denman’s daughter, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Denman, when she married Aaron Cramer, referred to by Daniels as Creame Cramer, the former husband of Elizabeth’s deceased sister Mary Jane. All three lived in a small outside room by the Cramer’s backdoor. Denman gave another pair of Daniels’s sisters to one of his sons.
Daniels’s time with the Cramers ended in 1862 not long after Cramer joined the Confederate Army. She remembered being afraid of men in gray talking about a fight when they came to take Cramer. She also recalled hearing a rumor that he had died as a prisoner and that he never came home. Elizabeth then returned to live with her father, and Daniels and her sister returned to their family. Soon after, Denman’s son died, and her other sisters came back to Moses Denman’s farm, but not until after they were placed for sale at auction. He promised to purchase them and ultimately bought Daniels’s sisters, but did so under the name William Blackstone Denman, likely a pseudonym, to purchase them. He allowed them to believe someone else purchased the girls the entire ride home, then laughed at Daniels and her family’s distress once he told them he was the buyer.
After the Civil War ended, Daniels heard Denman announce that she and the others were free. He asked his former slaves to stay until the planting season was over. The men in her family decided to stay and took Denman as their surname. She decided to work for Denman’s daughter Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s second husband Joseph G. McMinn, who married in January 1864.
Daniels remembered she married within the year following Elizabeth’s marriage to McMinn. The exact date of Daniels’s marriage is not clear but most likely took place in 1865, as she recalled a marriage ceremony conducted by a preacher. She did not give the name of her husband in the WPA interview, and it has not been ascertained from the available historical records. She and her husband grew corn and their own food. The couple had seventeen children, but their residential location during these years is unknown.
By 1920, possibly as early as 1910, Daniels moved to Dallas, Texas, where she went by the name of Francis or Julia. In 1920 she lived with her daughter Martha Payne, Payne’s husband Warren, and their children. Daniels worked as a laundress and was listed as a widow in the 1920 census. She lived in Dallas with her daughter in 1930. On September 9, 1937, a member of the Federal Writer’s Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviewed Daniels at her daughter’s home in Dallas for the WPA Slave Narrative project. At the time of her interview, Daniels continued to participate in church activities and had started to learn how to read and write. She died on November 26, 1945, of angina pectoris and was buried at Lincoln Memorial Park cemetery in Dallas. At the time of her death, she lived with her daughter Martha, then divorced, at 4522 Wahoo Street in South Dallas. Martha later died in San Mateo County, California, in 1968.