What’s it like to be raised by an ex-slave?
Ask Frank Luster. The Oklahoma City resident was born 89 years ago as the grandson of emancipated slave Bert Luster. After the death of Frank’s birth father ” who was the former slave’s biological son ” Bert took in the boy to take the hardship off his mother.
“(Bert) taught me and raised me “everything I know,” said Frank Luster, who joined his grandfather at age 3 in OKC.
Bert Luster was mentioned in Oklahoma Gazette’s Feb. 24, 2010, cover story titled “Ex-slaves” during Black History Month. Following publication, Luster’s great-great-great grandson, state Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, contacted the Gazette to share their emancipated relative’s history.
Another contemporary was 104-year-old Edmond resident Vernita Jones, a granddaughter of the former slave.
Did Luster speak much of slavery?
“No, he didn’t because he was kind of like a teenager,” Jones said. “He didn’t talk about it much. He was about 13 when they freed the slaves in 1865.”
Luster’s slave narrative was published in “The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives,” a 1996 University of Oklahoma Press book edited by T. Lindsay Baker and Julie P. Baker. The 85-year-old ex-slave told his firsthand account to African-American field worker Bertha P. Tipton on June 7, 1937, from his home at 512 N. Lindsay in OKC.
The Oklahoma Writers’ Project’s reporters were part of the Federal Writers’ Project that operated under the Works Progress Administration umbrella.
According to Luster’s narrative, he was born in 1853 in Tennessee. While his father served Master Luster, his mother belonged to the Astern family (also spelled “Asterns” in the text). Luster moved with his mother to Texas with her slave owner.
“Dem white folks was good to us,” Luster said in the narrative. Luster said the slaves at his farm received good health care.
“Dey would give us ice water when we got sick,” Luster told Tipton. “You see we put up ice in saw dust in winter and when a slave got sick dey give him ice water, sometimes sage tea and chicken gruel.”
After Luster’s master was driven off his plantation, he moved with his mother to Greenville, Texas.
“I sho’ did hate when the Yanks come ’cause our white folks was good to us, and jest take us right along to church with ’em,” said Luster, who hid in a cornfield when the Northern soldiers came to remove Astern from the farm. “We didn’t work on Sad’days or Christmas.
“Dose Yanks treated old master and mistress so mean. Dey took all his hams, chickens, and drove his cattle out of the pasture.”
What kind of education did Luster receive after the Civil War?
“(Bert) told me he went to school one day,” Frank Luster said. “He learned all his reading and writing from the Bible.”
The black school was later burned down in Texas.
“They didn’t condone black education,” Frank said.
In his narrative, Luster said his stepfather was trying to preach and was beaten half to death by the Ku Klux Klan.
“My first two teachers was two white men, and dem Klans shot in de hotel what dey lived in, but dey had school for us niggers jest de same,” Luster said in his narrative. “After dat, dose Klans got so bad Uncle Sam sent soldiers down dere to keep peace.”
The ex-slave left Greenville, Texas, with aspirations to acquire property in the 1889 Land Run, Jones said.
“What was left wasn’t worth trying to apply for it,” Jones said.
Luster later returned and bought land in Oklahoma with hopes of educating his children. As a year-old child, Jones was taken by her mother and father to Bert’s farm northwest of Arcadia. Jones said the freed slave had another job importing dates and other produce in Guthrie before moving to OKC.
In 1911, Jones moved from the farm to OKC with the family, she said. Luster, who had seven kids, worked at the state Capitol and sold a lot of real estate.
“(Bert) always had a car,” said great-great-granddaughter Rozalyn Luster-Washington of Oklahoma City.
“He couldn’t keep it any longer than two years,” Jones added.
According to the narrative, Luster worked as an Oklahoma State Board of Agriculture clerk. Frank Luster said his grandfather worked as a custodian at the state Capitol. Jones said he was religious and “tight with his money.” The ex-slave died in May of 1941 and was buried in a family cemetery near Arcadia, Frank Luster said.
The Luster family learned of the narrative in the 1990s when Espenola Turner, Bert’s great-great granddaughter, ordered the OU Press book, which fortified unconfirmed fragments of the family’s oral history.
However, Turner said her mother, Thelma Luster-Townsend, expressed concern about the accuracy of Luster’s dialect in the narrative. Some of the verbatim quotes from the narratives contained misspellings and offensive subject matter.
“She said he didn’t talk like that with the dialect they used in the writing,” Turner said.
According to “The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives” book, the national project office provided guidance on reporting to promote literary consistency, meaning words like “this” became “dis” and “that” was spelled “dat,” regardless of whether the subject spoke in dialect English.
Is that how Luster really talked?
“If it was to his advantage, he’d talk like that,” Frank Luster said of his grandfather. “He knew how to get around. He was a very smart person. He could change when he needed to.”
Regardless, Luster-Washington said she feels fortunate to have discovered her relative’s narrative.
“We didn’t learn about this until after the fact,” said Luster-Washington, a retired professor of physical education at Langston University. “This really helps us validate our history. Most African-Americans can’t trace things back.”
Shelton learned of his great-great-great grandfather’s slave narrative sitting at his late grandmother’s table. Shelton said he’s grown proud learning his family’s history, which formed a foundation for his own character.
“I think this is real Oklahoma history, and these are stories that go untold,” he said. “From being the great-great-great grandson of a custodian of the House of Representatives to being a member of the House of Representatives.”
And how would Frank Luster’s grandfather have felt having a legislator in the family?
“It would be one of the proudest moments of his life,” Frank said.
“He’d eat that up,” Jones added. “Rob Collins
photo from left, top row Rozalyn Luster-Washington, Sandra Shelton, Frank Luster, state Rep. Mike Shelton, D-Oklahoma City, bottom row Espenola Turner, Vernita Jones and Jayson Washington. photo/Mark Hancock