Mary Askew Thompson, freedwoman and WPA Slave Narrative interviewee, was born into slavery during the early 1850s to Viney Askew and Wesley Jones in Dayton, Marengo County, Alabama. Her interview from 1937 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, division of labor, holidays, medical care, material culture, emancipation, daily life, and physical violence by enslavers. Due to the scarcity of historical records on enslaved and recently freed African Americans, much of what historians know about Mary Askew Thompson’s life comes from her WPA interview.
According to Mary’s interview, her father, Wesley Jones, was held as property by someone named Jones, and Mary and her mother were held by Green Askew in Denton, Marengo County, Alabama. She likely meant Dayton, Alabama (instead of Denton), where merchant Miles Green Askew and his brother, Hilliard J. Askew, lived. They were the only Askews in the county. In 1850 Miles Green Askew held four people in slavery. In 1860 he owned, along with his store, six enslaved people, twenty-five acres of improved land, and a small number of livestock. His brother, however, held sixty-two enslaved people who worked 450 acres of improved land to grow cotton and corn. Since the Askew brothers lived near to each other, Mary may have worked for both, and her memories likely described Hilliard Askew’s plantation.
Mary’s life in slavery revolved around agricultural labor, her enslaved community, and the harsh conditions she often witnessed or experienced. She remembered that her mother cooked for Green Askew and his family, and Mary, her mother, and the rest of the enslaved community lived in a cabins near Askew’s “big house.” They tended the fields until sundown after which the enslaved women cooked for their families at night. They celebrated Christmas and the days after the summer harvest in early July, when they did not have to work, with special foods for these occasions. She recalled that occasionally poor Whites gave an enslaved person a small amount money such as a quarter. Those in her enslaved community often made several herbal remedies for chills and fever, as well as infant colic, and sometimes Askew sent for a doctor. In the interview, she stated that Green Askew sexually assaulted female slaves, which sometimes resulted in enslaved children fathered by their master. Mary described the physical abuse she received as well as those she witnessed. She recalled slave auctions and stated that some “slaves was fattened like hawgs and den marched to town and ‘round and auctioned off like cattle,” while others were sold because of their behavior, including those who had escaped and been recaptured. One woman was sold after she accidentally killed a slaveowner’s infant.
In 1865, after the Civil War, Mary Askew, then fifteen years old, was emancipated. She remained on Green Askew’s property for eight months; then she “hired out” and earned ten dollars a month. She told the interviewer that she decided to work instead of going to school because the amount she made was significant at the time. She never learned to read and write.
On July 13, 1866, Mary Askew married General Terrell in a ceremony conducted by a White Methodist minister in Dayton, Alabama. The couple eventually changed their surname to Thompson. They had eight children together. Based on the children’s birth years and birth places, the Thompsons likely moved to Texas sometime in the mid-1870s, and, as explained in her interview, they farmed along the Brazos River.
By 1880 Mary Thompson had moved to Austin, Texas, where she worked as a housekeeper. She lived with Horace Foster, who worked as a laborer, and her daughters—thirteen-year-old Nancy Thompson and seven-year-old Lucy Thompson—and the couple’s one-year-old son, Howard Foster. Their home was located between the Capitol building and the University of Texas. Mary stated in her WPA interview that her husband, General Thompson, died before she moved in with Foster; however, the 1880 census listed her as divorced. She remained with Foster for eight years and then she left him because of his gambling habit and his refusal to marry her.
Mary Thompson likely spent the remainder of her life in Austin. In the 1900 census she lived at 702 East 9th Street. She was the head of her household and worked as a laundress. Three of her adult children, Minnie Hyer, Lucy Thompson (spelled Thomson) and Howard Foster, as well as a granddaughter and a boarder also lived in the home. Minnie worked as a seamstress, Lucy was a teacher, and Howard worked as a waiter in a hotel. By 1910 Mary Thompson worked as an office chambermaid and still lived in the same home. Two granddaughters, Marie Foster and Mary Davis, and the latter’s husband, Roy Davis, also lived in the home. Thompson continued to care for various family members and cleaned offices for income in 1920. Circumstances changed by 1930. Then in her eighties, Thompson lived alone and earned wages as a helper in a private home. On June 11, 1937, a member of the Federal Writers’ Project of the United States Works Progress Administration interviewed Thompson in Austin for the WPA Slave Narrative Project. Information about Mary Thompson’s death or burial has not been found.