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Ford, Sarah Mitchell (1854–1945)

Robert Felder Biography Entry

Sarah Mitchell Ford, freedwoman, wife, mother, laundress, and WPA Slave Narrative interviewee, was born into slavery in Brazoria County, Texas. Sarah was possibly the eldest of four children born to Mike Mitchell, an enslaved tanner, and Jane (Christopher) Mitchell. Her birth date has been recorded as February 12, 1854. 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 (WPA). In it, she shared memories of enslaved community culture, family, slave concubinage, medical care, foodways, violence, intimidation, division of labor, emancipation, and life after emancipation. 

Sarah and her family were held as slaves by the Patton family on Columbus “Kit” Patton’s plantation in West Columbia, Texas (see VARNER-HOGG PLANTATION STATE HISTORIC SITE). The year Sarah was born, Kit’s brother, Charles F. Patton, took over the Patton plantation after having Kit declared insane and committed to an asylum in South Carolina. When Kit died in 1856, many family members contested his will, and his relationship with Rachel Patton, an enslaved concubine who was to receive an annual stipend, was a central component of the subsequent probate case. In her interview, Sarah referred to Rachel as Kit’s wife and compared to her a “bird which flies high but eventually must come down.” This metaphor, often quoted by historians, summarized one view of those enslaved on the Patton plantation during that time. During and after the court drama, Charles Patton remained on the plantation and assumed authority over the enslaved people, including the Mitchell family, who lived there. The 1860 slave schedule showed eighty-three individuals on the plantation.

According to her interview, Sarah described her father’s resistance to enslavement and the harsh punishment he and others suffered at the hands of “Uncle Big Jake,” an enslaved Black overseer, under the directive of Charles Patton. The physical abuse included being burned with hot grease then whipped and chained in solitary confinement without food. Sarah remembered that sometimes her father stayed away for long periods of time but continued to provide for his family during his absence. During one such absence her father worked as a tanner for a German man named Ebbling, possibly William Ebeling in Fayette County. On several occasions, he returned, always before she woke in the morning, to leave her family food and clothes, “even store clothes,” at their slave cabin door. He likely stayed to watch them find the items. One morning, when the overseer threatened to whip Sarah’s pregnant mother to learn where he went, her father came around the corner of the cabin. Her mother gave birth to Sarah’s sister while her father was shackled in the stock house.

After the Civil War ended, Sarah and others on the Patton plantation heard through word-of-mouth that they were free. Then Union soldiers came on the plantation and told the enslaved people and Charles Patton of their new freedom, which Sarah referred to often as the “bright light.” This announcement created a strange mixture of joy and confusion. Patton promised to pay wages to the newly freed men and women but dismissed Sarah’s father as his independence was “a bad influence.” Sarah’s father left, borrowed a wagon and mules, and returned to collect his family, then built a cabin and corn crib on the other side of the Brazos River in East Columbia. In the 1870 census, her father was listed as a laborer, her mother as keeping house, and Sarah was attending school (see RECONSTRUCTION).

Sarah lived with her parents in East Columbia until she married Wes Ford on June 12, 1874, in a ceremony by Methodist Episcopal minister Collin Mays in Brazoria County. She and her husband moved to their own cabin not far from her parent’s home. On approximately September 17, 1875, as a hurricane devastated Indianola and the upper Texas Gulf Coast, Sarah went into labor. Aided by her sister Rachel, Sarah gave birth to the Fords’ first of eleven children. While she was in labor, the intense winds destroyed her parents’ home and killed everyone inside including her parents (see INDIANOLA HURRICANES).

By 1886 Sarah and Wesley had purchased a lot in Columbia, Texas. Between 1897 and 1900 Wesley Ford died. The 1900 census listed Sarah as a widow, homeowner, and a laundress. Her seven living children, whose ages ranged from two to twenty-four, lived in her home. By 1910 Sarah had moved to Houston’s Third Ward. There she continued to work as a laundress and later helped raise two of her grandchildren. Her youngest son, Wilson Ford, served in World War I. He and Sarah’s daughter Bessie (Ford) Harris, moved to Detroit, Michigan, in the 1920s. Sarah Mitchell Ford died on January 27, 1945, in Houston. She was survived by four children and several grandchildren. According to her death certificate, Sarah Ford was buried in West Columbia, Texas, by the E. Viola and Sons Funeral Home.

Daina Ramey Berry and Leslie M. Harris, eds., Sexuality and Slavery: Reclaiming Intimate Histories in the Americas(Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2018). Randolph B. Campbell, An Empire for Slavery: The Peculiar Institution in Texas, 1821–1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991). Sarah Ford, Federal Writers' Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 2, Easter-King, 1936, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/item/mesn162), accessed June 19, 2018. John Lundberg, “Texas Must Be a Slave Country:” Slaves and Masters in the Texas Low Country, 1840–1860,” East Texas Historical Journal 53 (Fall 2015). David Roth, Texas Hurricane History (Camp Springs, Maryland: National Weather Service, n.d.).

Categories:

  • Agriculture
  • Labor
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Women
  • Slaves, Freedmen, and Free Blacks

Time Periods:

  • Antebellum Texas
  • Civil War
  • Reconstruction
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Great Depression
  • Texas in the 1920s

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Robert Felder, “Ford, Sarah Mitchell,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed November 28, 2020, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/ford-sarah-mitchell.

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