Ellen Evans Lewis Payne, freedwoman, landowner, farmer, and WPA Slave Narrative interviewee, was born into slavery around 1849 in Marshall, Texas, to Isom and Rebecca “Becky” Lewis. 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 foodways, medical care, household labor, division of labor, emancipation, and daily life.
According to her interview, Ellen, her parents, and at least some of her sixteen siblings were owned by William F. Evans, a physician who moved to Marshall, Harrison County, Texas, from Tennessee around 1842. Ellen’s parents may have been a part of the enslaved community moved by Evans to Harrison County. According to her WPA interview, Evans lived in Marshall, about four miles from his agricultural property. She remembered that approximately thirty enslaved people worked on the farm. According to the 1860 slave schedule, Evans owned thirty-nine enslaved people.
Ellen tended to Evans’s calves, chickens, and turkeys, and sometimes went to Marshall with her mother to work for Evans’s wife, Nancy Wilson (Davidson) Evans. She recalled that in general she was treated well. Evans allowed enslaved families to hunt for meat, tend a garden patch, and sell handmade baskets and cane chair seats for money. Ellen and her mother worked for a time for Evans’s daughter, Martha Melissa Evans, after she married Edward Clark, then a member of the state legislature. Clark was elected lieutenant governor in 1859 and moved to Austin in Travis County. He served briefly as governor in 1861. It is not clear from Ellen’s interview if she moved with the Clarks. Of the nine enslaved people held by Clark in the 1860 slave schedule, none match Ellen’s approximate age.
After emancipation Ellen remained with her mother on the Evans place until Christmas of 1865, not long after William F. Evans died. Then they “hire[d] out” and worked for someone else. Records show that her father, Isom, registered to vote in 1867 in Harrison County during Reconstruction when the federal government was closely monitoring voter registration (see AFRICAN AMERICANS AND POLITICS). Ellen’s mother Rebecca was listed as a widow in the 1880 census for Harrison County, so Isom Lewis likely died sometime between 1867 and 1880.
Ellen continued to live and work with her mother until February 21, 1878, when she married Nelson Payne, a farmer from the area. She married in a blue worsted dress sent to her by Martha Evans Clark. They initially rented a farm and lived next door to Nelson’s parents, James and Prozilla Payne. Ellen and Nelson Payne eventually owned and farmed a plot of land on Lower Port Caddo Road, outside Marshall. There the couple owned anywhere from sixteen to one hundred acres, some of which Nelson inherited from his father, and likely went to Ellen upon Nelson’s death sometime around 1926. Ellen outlived all four of her children and husband.
The Federal Writers' Project interviewed Ellen Payne in 1937 as part of the WPA Slave Narrative Project. In this interview, she described her life in slavery as an amicable situation in which she suffered little severe abuse and “loved all [her] white folks.” She worked her farm and made a crop every year with the help of her sons until she felt she was too old. She, however, remained active in her later years with gardening and religious activities such as going to church services. She noted in her interview that she received a pension of fifteen dollars a month, which was likely from the Texas old age pension, established by constitutional amendment and approved by voters in 1935, or from an early form of Social Security. She died on January 30, 1947, at the age of ninety-seven in Leigh, Texas, near Marshall. She was buried in Marshall.
On May 31, 1991, forty-four years after Ellen Payne’s death, a reader submitted a photo of Ellen to the Marshall News Messenger and fondly recalled, “She was never too tired to let small children ride on her foot while she would sing ‘This is the Way that Country Boys Ride.’”