A Man’s Worth

Wes Brady was born worth something.

A portrait of Wes Brady, oil on canvas, 16X20,
Wes Brady, oil on canvas, 16X20.

When he entered the world in 1849, an enslaved male was worth some $100,000 in today's money. That is how much his labor would profit his slaveholder. Brady's mother was worth even more, being of childbearing age.

Brady is one of seven children in one of several African American families enslaved on a large farm outside of Marshall, Texas. Add the labor of millions of other enslaved Americans and you get a scale of how much wealth families like the Jeems, who owned the farm, extracted from free work. Bondage, brutality and intimidation were tools of the trade.

John Jeems, the family patriarch, reportedly reveled in hearing an unsuspecting slave tell him of his nasty reputation as a slaveholder. The Jeems' plantation was a mean place to work.

"Some of the white folks may want to put me back in slavery if I tells how we was used in slavery time," Brady told an interviewer in 1937. "But you ask me for the truth and I is going to tell what I seen and what I know is the gospel.

"The overseer was straddle his big horse at three o'clock in the morning, rousting the hands off to the field. He got them all lined up and then come back to the house for breakfast. The rows was a mile long and no matter how much grass was in them, if you left one sprig on your row they beat you nearly to death."

His words, in thick dialect, are recorded in the 1930s Slave narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States. Part of the federal Work Progress Administration, writers and photographers traveled the country to record the stories of enslaved Americans still living some 70 years after emancipation. Brady's accounts are blunt.

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