Mary Vaughn Reynolds, a freedwoman, farmer, cook, laundress, and a WPA Slave Narrative interviewee, was born into slavery in approximately 1847 to Sallie and Tom Vaughn in Mississippi. 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 family, religion, foodways, clothing, weddings, sickness, funerals, violence, intimidation, concubinage, labor, interracial children, the lease and sale of slaves, liberation by Union soldiers, life after freedom, and varied relationships of black and white women under slavery and after emancipation. Because she spoke on many aspects of slavery in her lengthy narrative, her interview has been frequently reprinted and cited by historians.
According to her interview, her father, a free man born in the North, built and tuned pianos. On a trip into the South to find work, Vaughn met Reynolds’s mother, then an enslaved widow, and offered to purchase her and her three children from slave owner Andrew Robert Kilpatrick, a surgeon and obstetrician who lived with his wife and children in Concordia Parish, Louisiana, in 1850. Kilpatrick refused to sell but allowed Vaughn to stay and marry Sallie. The Vaughns had six daughters: Mary, Martha, Pamela, Josephine, Ellen, and Katherine. By 1860 Kilpatrick owned fifty-three slaves and had a 320-acre plantation on the Black River.
Although Reynolds’s exact date of birth is unclear, she believed she was born around the same time as Kilpatrick’s third child, Sarah, whose date of birth was listed as March 21, 1847, because Reynolds’s mother nursed both her and Sarah at the same time. Perhaps because of this, she and the owner’s daughter developed a strong friendship and grew up playing together. Unhappy with this relationship, Kilpatrick sold a young Reynolds for at a low sale price to a man in Trinity, Louisiana, near Jonesville. Vaughn’s new owner left her home alone with a doll, fed her, and had her sleep at the foot of his bed; she often cried and became scared at night. Soon after Sarah Kilpatrick fell ill and Reynolds’s absence was considered a possible cause. Kilpatrick bought Reynolds back for a higher price than he sold her and his daughter’s health recovered.
Despite Sarah Kilpatrick’s attachment to her, Reynolds soon labored in Kilpatrick’s fields where fear of the overseer’s whip drove production. Her work day started with the sound of a conch shell and roll call. She worked fields of corn, cotton, sugar cane, potatoes, beans, and peas, but disliked picking cotton in particular when frost was on the bolls because her hands cracked and bled. When the weather was cold, she and others warmed their hands with little fires made in the fields. She remembered fondly the best tasting food was a pilfered potato roasted in the hot ashes of those fires, rolled in her hands for warmth, and secretly eaten. She recalled never having enough to eat and, on hot days in the field, not having enough water. In addition, Reynolds described the slave cabins, beds, clothes, and shoes, as well as the garden patch Kilpatrick allowed them, but only if they tended to them at night. They washed their clothes on Saturday evenings, and then when they were done, they gathered to listen to music and dance. Kilpatrick provided meat and tobacco to the slave community on Christmas and rewarded clothes to the slave who picked the most cotton and to any enslaved mothers who gave birth to twin children.
Reynolds’s memories of the violence and intimidation that she watched and personally endured as Kilpatrick’s property remained vivid in her memory throughout her life. With great concern, an old enslaved woman taught her as a child how to cut corn and scrape fields properly and warned about beatings by the overseer, a man named Solomon, if her work was not precise. Reynolds recalled times when Solomon stripped her of clothing and beat her without her knowing why. With threats of violence, Solomon forbade those held in slavery on Kilpatrick’s plantation from attending church or praying. Despite the risk, she and her family prayed in secret and occasionally attended spiritual gatherings away from their cabin. Once, when Solomon set his dogs upon them while they were on their way home, her parents protectively led the dogs away from Reynolds and her sister Katherine, who were hidden behind a tree. Then all circled back safely to their cabin.
Reynolds witnessed firsthand the precarious position of slave women on the plantation as well as the brutal capabilities of Solomon’s dog. She shared a memory about a woman she called Aunt Cheyney, who Kilpatrick kept as a concubine. Reynolds and others in her slave community knew that Kilpatrick raped many of his female slaves, but he treated Aunt Cheyney to certain privileges and even acknowledged his paternity of their four biracial children. After Kilpatrick’s third wife protested their brazenness, Aunt Cheyney ran from the plantation. When the overseer and his slave-hunting dogs found her, he commanded them to attack her and they tore off her breasts. Aunt Cheyney recovered but was permanently disfigured.
Reynolds never ran away herself. Still, she faced physical violence when someone else fled bondage. Kilpatrick had rented her and a boy named Turner to a man named Kidd. When Turner left and did not return, Kidd accused Reynolds of knowing about Turner’s plan. He punished her by stripping her, tying her to a tree, and beating her so severely that she passed out. Kilpatrick’s daughter Sarah learned about the beating and brought Reynolds back to the Kilpatrick plantation.
In 1861, at the age of fourteen, Reynolds married with a wedding ritual commonly referred to as jumping the broom and officiated by the slave owner. Kilpatrick and his wife held a broom across the doorway to their home. Reynolds, adorned with a small wreath on her head, and her husband stood outside the home, then stepped across the broom to the inside. After emancipation, she and her husband went to a preacher to formalize the marriage. Although she did not name her husband, this marriage likely served as the reason for her name change to Mary Reynolds.
In September 1863 Reynolds and the rest of the slave community saw Kilpatrick leave on a Union gunboat on the Black River adjacent to the plantation. As soon as he left, Federal soldiers marched through the Kilpatrick plantation, which meant Reynolds was emancipated. Although many left with the soldiers, Reynolds and her family decided to stay until the Kilpatricks returned. The following day, Reynolds watched several of Kilpatrick’s former slaves show the soldiers the underground cellar where their former owners had hidden supplies and valuables, which were then seized.
By 1864 Reynolds had moved with the Kilpatricks from Concordia Parish, Louisiana, to Tennessee Colony in Anderson County, Texas, before settling in Navasota, Grimes County, Texas, by 1869. Reynolds’s mother, Sallie Vaughn, moved to Galveston to live with her brother, Louis Carter. There she died soon after arriving. Whether or not Reynolds’s sisters moved to Texas is unclear.
Reynolds and her husband might have lived around Navasota for some years. They farmed, and she did housework and cooked. By 1910 Reynolds was a widow. She lived in Dallas, where she worked as a laundress for a private residence. At some point, while living in Dallas, Reynolds worked for seven years as a cook for a white family. She moved into the Dallas City-County Convalescent Home during the early 1930s, probably because her eyesight began to fail her. By the time she gave her WPA interview, she had been blind for five years. In 1937 Reynolds shared her memories of slavery with a member of the Federal Writer’s Project for the WPA Slave Narrative Project. After learning about her experience, Willing Workers Club, an auxiliary of the all-white Dallas Sunshine Club, led by Mrs. E. W. Hein, roasted potatoes in the home’s yard for Reynolds to fulfill her nostalgic craving. Reynolds noted she also craved a wheelchair to sun herself on the home’s front porch. The next year, the same organization held a women’s possum hunt to cook for her to celebrate her birthday. She continued to live at the Convalescent Home in 1940 and presumably lived there until her death. The date of her death is unknown.