During my research and due to my interest in black history, I discovered the Federal Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) slave narrative collection about 15 years ago.
During “The Great Depression” of the 1930s, President Roosevelt created the WPA in order to put educated Americans, especially in the arts, back into the workforce due to the extreme unemployment and economic conditions faced by Americans during this era.
Luckily, the WPA took an interest in recording the lives of black Americans who were former slaves. The year 1935 marked seventy years since the end of the Civil War. Those persons interviewed by WPA workers were primarily in their 80s and 90s. Some were centenarians (aged 100 or above). Two individuals who lived in Toledo and who attended Third Baptist Church were interviewed – Julia King and Hannah Davidson. Both of their interviews provide a wealth of information about slavery, escaping slavery, and black history in Toledo.
Mrs. Julia King was approximately 80 years old when she was interviewed in 1937. She was the wife of Toledo’s first black police officer – Albert King picture below.
At the time of her interview, Mrs. King lived at 731 Oakwood Ave. A search on googlemaps shows that her house has been demolished as an empty lot is now at that address.
She spoke of how both of her biological daughters died, one as an infant and one at 13 years of age. Black children in Toledo had high mortality rates in the late 1800s and early 1900s. During the time of the interview, Mrs. King lived with her adopted daughter Elizabeth KING KIMBREW (KIMBROUGH).
In her interview she spoke of how she was the first black “colored juvenile officer” in the city of Toledo. She worked in this position for 20 years. The first 3 years she did it on a volunteer basis and was not paid for her work.
Mrs. King’s maiden name was Julia WARD. She was born in Louisville, Kentucky to Samuel and Matilda WARD. She had a sister named Mary WARD who was about 1.5 years older than she was. Her parents were slaves in Kentucky. Her father ran away via the Underground Railroad to Canada and left her mother, herself, and her sister in Kentucky.
Later, Mrs. King’s mother also decided to run away and join Samuel in freedom. Mrs. King spoke of how her mother was happy that on the day that she planned to run away, Matilda’s mistress decided not to take Mary to the market with her. The mistress usually had Mary accompany her to the market. Matilda was prepared to run away and leave Mary behind, but due to the mistresses decision, she took both Julia and Mary to freedom.
They made it all the way to Detroit via boat and then went up to Windsor to meet Mrs. King’s father, who had been working there as a cook. They eventually settled in Detroit and she spent her childhood there prior to moving to Toledo.
In her narrative, Mrs. King also relates lots of information about the conditions faced by slaves on their plantation and about a song her mother sang to her. The WPA had a specific list of questions that they were supposed to ask their interviewees and one was to ask them to sing a song from their childhood. During the 1930s there was a large interest in black folk music for anthropological study and the interviews reflect this interest.
Mrs. King mentioned that she was a member of Third Baptist church and was drawn to the church due to them having a requirement of an “immersing baptism.” She also mentioned that she was involved with national colored women’s clubs and had met Booker T. Washington and his wife and had heard a reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poems in Toledo. Dunbar lived in Toledo for about a year while he was ill with tuberculosis, an extremely common disease in the late 19th and early 20th century. He would eventually succomb to the condition as did many of my own family members.
I loved Mrs. King’s interview. Mostly due to the wealth information obtained from her recount of the escape from slavery, a topic which is now a heavy focus for historical research. I also loved that she seemed to come alive to me, mostly due to my favorite quote from her interiew when she was asked about Frederick Douglass (as mentioned a man I thoroughly love)
“The only thing I had against Frederick Douglas was that he married a white woman.” LOL! I thought it hilarious that she exhibited the same feelings many people have about interracial marriages even today amongst older black women.
That said, Mrs. King seemed like a formidable woman. She had been through a lot and it is amazing to me that she went to the same church that my family attended. I had read Mrs. King’s interview prior to my step great-grandmother passing away and asked her if she knew Mrs. King and Mrs. Davidson, another former slave interviewed in Toledo. She said she knew of them at church and had seen both but didn’t know them personally since they were older members and she was just a young woman during this time period. It is fascinating to me that she knew actual slaves and I knew her. She only recently died in 2008. This goes to show that we are not as far removed from slavery as we think we are.
GENEALOGICAL INFORMATION ABOUT JULIA WARD KING AND FAMILY
A review of records from www.familysearch.org showed the following in regards to Mrs. King’s listed family members from her narrative:
Mary WARD born appx 1856 in Kentucky, died in Detroit, MI in 1891 – listed parents were Samuel and Matilda WARD (Michigan Deaths 1800-1995)
Julia KING born appx 1856 in Kentucky, died in Toledo, OH in 1938 (one year after interviewed – they made it in time!) – listed parents were Samuel WARD and Matilda MACALVIN, listed spouse Albert KING (Ohio Deaths 1908-1953) buried at Forrest Cemetery
Albert McKinney KING born 1/21/1851 in Toronto, Canada, died in Toledo, OH 1934
Samuel WARD born appx 1830, died in Detroit, MI 1890 (Michigan Deaths 1867-1897)
Matilda WARD born 8/3/1844, died in Toledo, OH 1916 lived at 731 Oakwood Ave, buried at Forrest Cemetery (Ohio Deaths 1840-2001)
Marriage record of Betty(Elizabeth) KING KIMBROUGH (spelled KIMBREW in the narrative) married on 8/12/1935 to Samuel KIMBROUGH both were divorced at time of marriage and this was the second marriage for both parties
Marriage record of Elizabeth KING married on 9/14/1928 to John LYTLE. This was the first marriage of both parties. Elizabeth KING listed as 21 years of age at date of marriage.
Marriage record of Albert KING and Julia WARD married on 10/20/1875 in Toledo, Ohio