Caroline Vaughn Wright, freedwoman, property owner, and WPA Slave Narrative interviewee, was born into slavery near Jones Creek in East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana, in approximately 1853. Her 1937 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 her memories of material culture, foodways, division of labor, daily enslaved life, and emancipation.
According to her interview, Caroline was one of fourteen children born to Robert and Rosanna Vaughn. She and her family were owned by Notley James Warren Wortham, a physician and planter, and his wife Maria Elizabeth (Woodward) Wortham. In the 1850s N. J. W. Wortham, whom Caroline called Warren, lived in Clifton in East Feliciana Parish, while his brother, Robert, managed the family’s plantation and enslaved labor, which included the Vaughn family, in East Baton Rouge Parish. Robert leased Caroline and her family for two years to J. Hays White, who owned a sugar plantation near the Mississippi River. In her interview she described the plantation’s slave cabins, beds, and crops. In the late 1850s she and her family were “put on [the] block and valued,” but not sold. Caroline, as a six-year-old enslaved girl, was appraised at $1,500 and given to Wortham’s daughter, Ann Mariah Wortham, whom Caroline called “Muriel.” She and her sisters then worked as houseslaves, and her brothers and father worked as field laborers. In her interview, Caroline recalled the happier moments of enslaved life, particularly religious services, Christmas, and learning the alphabet from Muriel Wortham.
Caroline’s memory of being “put on [the] block” was likely tied to various legal proceedings between Maria and N. J. W. Wortham. Before or about the time Caroline was born, Wortham’s wife, Maria, sued for legal separation in October 1852. The case went to the Louisiana Supreme Court on appeal in 1856. Although Caroline referred to N. J. W. Wortham’s wife as Annie, she likely remembered Wortham’s mother, Annie, the only White woman listed on the plantation in the 1860 census. By 1860 Maria Wortham had been declared non compos mentis and committed to the Louisiana state insane asylum. That year N. J. W. Wortham, the couple’s children, and nineteen enslaved people lived in McLennan County, Texas.
During the Civil War, which Caroline called “Lincoln’s war,” Robert Wortham moved approximately twenty-nine enslaved people, including the Vaughn family, to McLennan County, Texas, as Union Troops advanced in lower Louisiana. Starting on December 25, 1861, Caroline and her family made the trek to Texas in ox wagons and on mules and arrived in March 1862. In the interview she recalled seeing a ghost or haunt (spelled “haint” in the transcript) and crossing the Brazos River on a ferryboat during the trip. On the Wortham’s property, near the Bosque River, the enslaved families lived in two-room cabins made of cedar posts. Women had gardens and spun their own cloth. She described the dresses they wore in summer, in winter, and on Sundays. She also remembered working “from sun to sun,” but having plenty to eat, including rabbit, hog meat, cornbread, butter, beef, and fish.
Caroline Vaughn and her family were freed when she was about twelve years old. Her youngest sister, Louisiana, was born free during Reconstruction. According to Louisiana, the family remained in McLennan County after emancipation, although they moved east of the Brazos River to a freedom colony named Chapel Hill, a few miles outside of Waco (see FREEDMEN'S SETTLEMENTS). There Caroline met William Wright, a Kentucky native who moved to Texas after emancipation. They married on December 23, 1869, in a ceremony marriage officiated by Stephen Cobb, the first ordained African American minister in the city. She wore a dress with blue ribbons. The couple rented a farm, and by 1910 they owned a farm in the Chapel Hill area.
By 1920 Caroline and William Wright had moved from their farm and into the city of Waco. By 1932 they lived in a home they purchased at 59 Grant Ave., which sat between Baylor University and the Brazos River, near Waco Creek, in Waco. At the time of her interview, Caroline and William were married for seventy-five years, had twelve children, and raised nine into adulthood: Amelia, Early, Savannah, Lydia, Nannie, Raymond, Robert, Horace, and Ransome Wright. Many of their children remained in Texas. Their son Early, who had cerebral palsy, lived with them. Lydia lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from as early as 1911 until her death in 1956 and likely witnessed the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. In the 1920 census, Lydia worked as a domestic and lived a block off of North Greenwood Street and northeast of the brick plant in Tulsa’s Greenwood District. They also had fourteen grandchildren, one of whom was noted reverend Maceo DuBois Pembroke, senior pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church and civil rights activist in south Chicago. He was cofounder of Black Methodists for Church Renewal and the namesake of the Maceo D. Pembroke Institute for Ministerial Recruitment at the Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. Caroline’s husband may have preached as well. His death certificate noted he was a minister. William Wright died at about 110 years old on December 31, 1939, and Caroline Wright died on August 10, 1951. Both were buried at Chalk Bluff Cemetery, now called Zion Hill Cemetery, in Chalk Bluff, McLennan County, where their son Robert lived. In 1967 William and Caroline Wright’s former home at 59 Grant Avenue was condemned by Waco’s Urban Renewal Agency, which printed in the Waco News Tribune a notification of seizure under eminent domain for “slum removal” directed to any of the Wright’s heirs.