Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938, contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves collected as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be ll-encompassing.
- The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
Related Collections and Exhibits
These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.
- From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1824-1909
- The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship
- American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940
- First-Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920
- Voices from the Days of Slavery
Recommended additional sources of information.
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.
Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 presents transcriptions of more than 2,000 interviews with former slaves conducted during the Great Depression, along with 500 photographs of former slaves. From 1936-1938, the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), under the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA), sent out-of-work writers to collect the life stories of ordinary people. Writers in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia focused on interviewing people who had once been held in slavery. John A. Lomax, a folklore expert who worked with the FWP, found these narratives intriguing. Consequently, by 1937, the FWP directed other states to conduct interviews with former slaves.
In all, the collection includes narratives from former slaves conducted in 17 states—10 of the 11 states that formed the Confederacy, the Border States, and Kansas, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Indiana. Federal field workers were instructed on what kinds of questions to ask and how to capture the interviewees' dialects. The interviewees had ranged in age from 1 to 50 at the time of emancipation, and several of the interviewees were well over 100 years old at the time of the interviews. The diverse stories recorded in this WPA collection of personal reminiscences add a new dimension to the study of slavery. The individual accounts, drawn from the memory of the elderly, reveal differing experiences; taken together, they help broaden perspectives of slavery. As in all cases of oral history, these remembrances must be examined with a filter that sifts through nostalgia and fleeting memory.
Some narratives contain startling descriptions of cruelty while others convey a nostalgic view of plantation life. While these narratives provide an invaluable first-person account of slavery and the individuals it affected, the interviews must be viewed in the context of the time in which they were collected. White southerners conducted most of the interviews with former slaves. Some responses may have been framed to reveal what the interviewer wished to hear. Others may have been colored by the Depression-era poverty in which the subjects were living at the time of the interviews. Narratives were not rejected or revised because of questions about their authenticity. Therefore, readers must critically review stories that may have been either embellished or influenced by fading memory. A series of short essays laying out the strengths and limitations of the narratives, "An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives" by Norman Yetman, provides useful background for a serious study of the narratives. Teachers should be aware that, throughout the narratives, interviewees use derogatory terms in reference to themselves—one of the legacies of the dehumanization of slavery and a reflection of prevalent racial attitudes of the day. In some cases, narratives include agonizing descriptions of brutal punishments and the murder of slaves while others relate instances of forced sexual relations with plantation owners and overseers.
Many of the interviewers attempted to transcribe the dialect in which interviewees spoke. The accuracy of this transcription is impossible to judge; many interviewers were white, and whites in the 1930s often held stereotypes about black speech. In addition, the interviewers were not experts in speech transcription. Whether accurate or not, dialect can be challenging to read. Students may find it useful to read passages aloud and to read for overall meaning rather than focusing on particular words. As they gain practice, reading the dialect will become easier.
The Slave Trade and Slave Auctions
Some of the interviews in the collection mention family members who were brought to the United States in the Atlantic slave trade. Read the interview given by 87 year-old John Brown of West Tulsa, Oklahoma, as he recounts the enslavement of his grandmother in West Africa. In what ways does the narrative support historical accounts of the slave trade? Compare this account with that given by Richard Jones. How are the two accounts similar? How do they differ? Overall, do the two accounts support each other's accuracy or call that accuracy into question? Explain your answer.
A number of the interviews describe the trauma of being sold at auction. Will Ann Rogers relates a story told by her mother about what happened when she was auctioned in Richmond, Virginia:
. . . When they sold her, her mother fainted or drapped dead, she never knowed which. She wanted to go see her mother lying over there on the ground and the man what bought her wouldn't let her. He just took her on. Drove her off like cattle, I recken. The man what bought her was Ephram Hester. That the last she ever knowed of any of her folks. She say he mated 'em like stock. . .
Read recollections of slave auctions in the interviews with the former slaves listed below. What data about the sale of slaves can you gather from these stories? What inferences can be drawn from these stories?
The Experience of Slavery
A number of the narratives depict slavery as a benign institution or, in some cases, even benevolent. Often a narrative, such as the interview provided by Gus Smith, portrayed a tranquil life on a particular plantation with a benevolent master while contrasting it with the life for slaves on an adjoining plantation owned by a cruel master:
. . . My master let us come and go pretty much as we pleased. In fact we had much more freedom dan de most of de slaves had in those days. He let us go to other places to work when we had nothing to do at home and we kept our money we earned, and spent it to suit ourselves. We had it so much better den other slaves dat our neighbors would not let their slaves associate with us, for fear we would put devilment in their heads, for we had too much freedom. . . .
Our closest neighbors was de Thorntons. Ol’ man Thornton did not allow his slaves to go no place. He was a rough man, a low heavy set fellow, weighed about one hundred and sixty pounds. He was mean to his slaves. He whupped dem all de time. I’ve seen their clothes sticking to their backs, from blood and scabs, being cut up with de cowhide. He just whupped dem because he could.
Sarah Ford described life on Kit Patton’s Texas plantation as relatively benign. She relates that, on Patton’s death, the slaves were turned over to his brother, Charles Patton, who owned an adjoining plantation. There, the slaves were subjected to harsh treatment from a black overseer:
I guess Massa Charles what taken us when Massa Kit die, was ‘bout de same as all white folks what owned slaves, some good and some bad. We has plenty to eat—more’n I has now—and plenty clothes and shoes. But de overseer was Uncle Big Jake, what’s black like de rest of us, but he so mean I ‘spect de devil done made him overseer down below long time ago. Dat de bad part of Massa Charles, ‘cause he lets Uncle Jake whip the slaves so much dat some like my papa what had spirit was all de time runnin’ ‘way. And even does your stomach be full, and does you have plenty clothes, dat bullwhip on your bare hide make you forgit do good part, and da’t de truth.
One account expressed regret that slavery had ended. In the interview an elderly woman explained that the beatings she and her husband received made her a better person:
. . . Mah ole man has stripes on his back now wha he wuz whipped an ah wuz whipped too but hit hoped me up till now. Coase hit did. Hit keeps me fun goin aroun here telling lies an stealin yo chickens.
- Why might former slaves have spoken nostalgically about slavery?
- Why might so many of the former slaves interviewed have reported that their own life was relatively easy but conditions on nearby plantations were harsh?
- Read the two sections of the introduction to the collection dealing with bias in the interviews: “The Limitations of the Slave Narrative Collection: Problems of Memory” and “The Limitations of the Slave Narrative Collection: Race and Representativeness.” How do these essays shed light on the positive responses given by some ex-slaves?
In contrast to those interviewees who described humane circumstances, many interviewees recalled extremely trying circumstances under slavery. Mingo White was separated from his family as a child, sold to a slave-owner in Alabama. His interview reveals a longing to be free and the premonition that freedom would soon be forthcoming. He described the beating of a slave who was caught praying for freedom.
. . . Somehow or yuther us had a instinct dat we was goin’ to be free. In de event when de day’s wuk was done de slaves would be foun’ lock in dere cabins prayin’ for de Lawd to free dem lack he did the chillum of Is’ael. Iffen dey didn’ lock up, de Marsa or de driver would of heard ‘em an’ whupped ‘em. De slaves had a way of puttin’ a wash pot in de do’ of de cabin to keep de soun’ in de house. I ’members once ol’ Ned White was caught prayin’. De drivers took him nex’ day an’ carried him to de pegs, what was fo’ stakes drove in de groun’. Ned was made to pull off ever’thing but his pants an’ lay on his stomach ‘tween de pegs whilst somebody stropped his legs an’ arms to de pegs. Den dey whupped him ‘twell de blood run from him lack he was a hog. Dey made all de han’s come an’ see it, an’ dey said us’d git de same thang if us was cotched. Dey don’t ‘low a man to whup a horse lack dey whupped us in dem days.
White was not the only interview subject who described whippings:
. . . Ben Heard was a right mean man. They was all mean ‘long about then. Heard whipped his slaves a lot. Sometimes he would say they wouldn’t obey. Sometimes he would say they sassed him. Sometimes he would say they wouldn’t work. He would tie them and stake them out and whip them with a leather whip of some kind. He would put five hundred licks on them before he would quit. He would buy the whip he whipped them with out of the store. After he whipped them, they would put their rags on and go on about their business. There wouldn’t be no such thing as medical attention. What did he care. He would whip the women the same as he would the men.
Interviewees described grueling work schedules. Amanda McDaniel recalled working even as a child:
Our folks had to get up at four o’clock every morning and feed the stock first. By the time it was light enough to see they had to be in the fields where they hoed the cotton and the corn as well as the other crops. Between ten and eleven o’clock everybody left the field and went to the house where they worked until it was too dark to see. My first job was to take breakfast to those working in the fields. I used buckets for this. Besides this I had to drive the cows to and from the pasture. The rest of the day was spent in taking care of Mrs. Hale’s young children. After a few years of this I was sent to the fields where I planted peas, corn, etc. I also had to pick cotton when that time came . . .
John W. Fields, who was separated from his family as a child, described similar hard work and a deprivation described by many others as well—being prevented from learning to read:
My life prior to that time was filled with heart-aches and despair. We arose from four to five o’clock in the morning and parents and children were given hard work, lasting until nightfall gaves us our respite. After a meager supper, we generally talked until we get sleepy, we had to go to bed. Some of us would read, if we were lucky enough to know how.
In most of us colored folks was the great desire to able to read and write. We took advantage of every opportunity to educate ourselves. The greater part of the plantation owners were very harsh if we were caught trying to learn or write. . . Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us.
List the hardships and abuses mentioned by former slaves in the excerpts above. Search or browse the collection to find additional evidence related to each of these hardships. Also look for evidence of any additional types of inhumane treatment of slaves. Collect quotations from the narratives that you think are especially effective in conveying what it was like to be a slave. Use the quotes as support in an essay on the experience of slavery, to create a spoken word performance, or a text collage.
Resistance to Slavery
Several forms of resistance to slavery are noted in the Born in Slavery collection. Nat Turner’s insurrection in 1831 is referenced in an interview given by Fannie Berry in February 1937.
A number of the narratives mention both abortive and successful escapes from Southern plantations. Read several of the narratives listed below, all of which recount escapes from slavery or actions that slaves believed slaveholders took to prevent escapes:
Conduct a full-text search using Harriet Tubman as your search term to find other former slaves who discussed this courageous woman.
- What difficulties faced slaves who tried to escape? What does this suggest about their desire for freedom?
- What strategies did the former slaves think the slaveholders were using to prevent them from running away? Do you think these strategies would be effective? Why or why not?
- How do you think slaves learned about the work of Harriet Tubman? Remember that most could not read, so they could not read letters or newspapers.
Slaves also defied plantation owners by holding forbidden prayer services. Harriet Cheatam, born in 1843 in Gallatin, Tennessee, is one of many who described using pots to muffle sounds from clandestine prayer meetings:
We often had prayer meeting out in the quarters, and to keep the folks in the “big house” from hearing us, we would take pots, turn them down, put something under them, that let the sound go in the pots, put them in a row by the door, then our voices would not go out, and we could sing and pray to our heart’s content.
From “Folklore,” image 53
Interviewees from different regions of the South told similar stories of using upturned pots to keep overseers from hearing prayers or discussions in slave cabins (see, for example, the interview with Kitty Hill of North Carolina). What can you infer from the existence of this type of day-to-day resistance?
The Civil War
A few of the narratives mention John Brown and the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. Drucilla Martin, age 102, recalled accompanying her mistress to Harpers Ferry to witness the hanging. A fading memory may have accounted for discrepancies in the account. Conduct research to determine what aspects of the event Martin remembered incorrectly. To what extent do discrepancies in her recollection of the event invalidate the account?
A number of enslaved men escaped and served with Union forces during the Civil War. Thomas Cole, about 16 years old, escaped from a plantation in Alabama and headed north, where he came upon some Union soldiers in Tennessee. He was put to work as a military laborer and later joined the army. Cole describes action at the battles of Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Missionary Ridge. Cole was over 90 years old when he was interviewed in Texas.
- Use specific references to people and places mentioned in the interview to assist in determining the accuracy of the story Thomas Cole related about his experiences serving with the Union Army in 1863. How accurate do you judge Cole’s account to be?
- How did Cole describe his experiences serving with the Union Army?
- Why did General George Thomas accuse Cole of being a coward? What was Cole’s defense?
George Kye, a slave on Abraham Stover’s Arkansas plantation, served with the Confederate army as a substitute for his master:
When the War come along I was a grown man, and I went off to serve because old Master was too old to go, but he had to send somebody anyways. I served as George Stover, but every time the sergeant would call “Abe Stover,” I would answer “Here.”
During the war, slaves were bombarded with pro-Confederate propaganda. Read the interview with William M. Adams in which he recounted the efforts of white preachers to indoctrinate the slaves.
Jus’ fore de war, a white preacher he come to us slaves and says: “Do you wan’t to keep you homes whar you git all to eat, and raise your chillen, or do you wan’t to be free to roam roun’, without a home, like de wil’ animals? If you wan’ to keep you homes you better pray fer de South to win. All dey wan’s to pray for de South to win, raise the hand.” We all raised our hands ‘cause we was skeered not to, but we sho’ didn’ wan’ de South to win.
Katie Rowe, interviewed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, told of Union forces in Northern Arkansas following the battle of Pea Ridge (1862). Slaves on the plantation further south were warned that the remnants of the Union soldiers would never set them free.
Dem Yankees ain’t gwine git dis fur, but iffen dey to you all ain’t gwine git free by ‘em, ‘cause I qwine free you befo’ dat. When dey git here dey going find you already free, ‘cause I gwine line you up on the bank of Bois d’Arc Creek and free you wid my shotgun! Anybody miss just one lick wid de hoe, or one step in de line, or one clap of dat bell, or one toot of he horn, and he gwine be free and talking to de devil long befo’ he ever see a pair of blue britches.
Lorenza Ezell described General Sherman’s march through South Carolina and took some pleasure in describing how “old massa run off and stay in de woods.” In the interview Ezell gave the words to “…a funny song us made up ‘bout his runnin’ off in de woods.”
White folks, have you seed old massa
Up de road, with he mustache on?
He pick up he hat and he leave real sudden
And I ‘lieve he’s up and gone.
Old massa run away
And us darkies stay at home.
It mus’ be now dat Kingdom’s comin’
And de year of Jubilee.
He look up de river and he seed dat smoke
Where de Lincoln gunboats lay.
He big ‘nuff and he old ‘nuff and he orter know better,
But he gone and run away.
Not dat overseer want to give trouble
And trot us ‘round a spell,
But we lock him up in de smokehouse cellar,
With de key done throwed in de well.
- From Katie Rowe’s account, what hope did enslaved people have of gaining their freedom once Union forces arrived?
- What does the song recounted by Lorenza Ezell reveal about Sherman’s march through South Carolina? What features of the song tell you it is told from the perspective of the slaves?
- List ways in which the Civil War affected the lives of enslaved people in the South. What emotions do you think the slaves felt as a result of these experiences? What emotions do you think they experienced when they heard they had been given their freedom? Conduct research within the collection to determine whether your hypothesis is correct.
Reconstruction and Beyond
During the Civil War, many slaves escaped plantations and sought refuge with the Union army. Once the war ended, African Americans throughout the states that had remained at war after January 1, 1863, were set free. Northern reformers referred to as “Carpetbaggers” moved south to serve with the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency responsible for providing relief and educational services to the newly freed slaves. Schools for African American children were established, staffed mainly by Northern white teachers. Duncan Gaines recalled reactions to the availability of school:
Duncan was 12 years of age when freedom was declared and remembers the hectic times which followed. He and other slave children attended schools provided by the Freedmen’Aid and other social organizations fostered by Northerners. Most of the instructors were whites sent to the South for that purpose.
. . . All of the children secured enough learning to enable them to read and write, which was regarded as very unusual in those days. Slaves had been taught that their brain was inferior to the whites who owned them and for this reason, many parents refused to send their children to school, thinking it a waste of time and that too much learning might cause some injury to the brain of their supposedly weak-minded children.
Simon Phillips reported that carpetbaggers directed the freedmen to divide the plantation lands that they had previously worked. Ellis Ken Kannon recalled that many believed that the federal government would soon allot each family 40 acres of land and a mule, but Kannon did not know anyone who actually received this allotment.
Many interviews revealed negative attitudes toward Carpetbaggers. Henri Necaise remarked:
It was dem Carpetbaggers dat ‘stroyed de country. Dey went an’ turned us loose, jus’ lak a passel o’ cattle, an’ didn’ show us nothin’ or giv’ us nothin’. Dey was acres an’ acres o’ lan’ not in use, an’ lots o’ timber in dis country. Dey should-a give each one o’ us a little farm an’ let us git out timber an’ build houses. Dey ought to put a white Marster over us, to show us an’ make us work, only let us be free ‘stead o’ slaves. I think dat could-a been better’n turnin’ us lak dey done.
Gabe Hines told of a Carpetbagger who caused trouble and was driven out of town by the Ku Klux Klan.
- What efforts were made to assist the freedmen after the Civil War?
- In what ways did the experiences of slavery continue to affect the freedmen?
- What may account for some freedmen’s hostility to Carpetbaggers? Do you think this hostility was justified? Why or why not?
A considerable number of interviews refer to the Ku Klux Klan. Henry Garry and Francis Bridges both told similar stories of how an army of ghosts would ride up to a well and drink an abundance of water, often remarking it was the first water they had consumed since a particular battle or “since returning from hell.” They would then release the water from a false stomach so that it appeared that water was flowing through bullet holes. This elaborate scheme was designed to frighten and intimidate. Sam Kilgore told of burning and looting by the Klan, and Maria Sutton Clemments recalled Klan activity in Georgia, remarking, “It was heap worse in Georgia after freedom than it was fore.”
Both Felix Street and John Hunter described individual and group efforts to repulse Klan attacks. “Aunt Hannah” Irwin, a former slave on the Bennett Plantation near Louisville, Alabama, revealed a different attitude about the Klan: she saw the Klan as maintaining order and keeping “unruly” blacks in line. When asked if she was afraid of the Ku Klux Klan, “Aunt Hannah” responded:
Naw’m, I warn’t afeered of no Ku Klux. At fu’st I though dat dey was ghosties and den I wuz afeered of ‘em, but atter I found out dat Massa Bennett wuz one of dem things, I wuz always proud of ‘em.
Use Ku Klux Klan in a full-text search to find references to the activities of the Klan during Reconstruction. Research the activities of the Klan during Reconstruction and the effectiveness of the Ku Klux Klan Acts of 1870 and 1871.
- Why was the Ku Klux Klan organized?
- What methods did the Klan use to enforce its racial policy?
- What strategies were used to try to control the Ku Klux Klan, both legally and extra-legally?
- Why were sections of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1870 declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court?
After the war, a number of former slaves stayed on plantations and worked the land under a share crop arrangement. Isaac Adams recalled that about half of the freedmen on the Sack plantation in Louisiana stayed on after the war, working sections of the land and paying rent out of their shares of the produce. Henry Lee described his mother’s original sharecropping agreement, which provided them with one-half of their crop. The contract was later changed so that the family’s share was reduced to one-third. Even with the reduction, Lee remarks, “things went on very well till the commissary came about.” Sharecroppers bought the supplies they needed through a commissary, a store where the landowner set prices for goods. Many of the interviews reveal the difficult times during Reconstruction. Liney Chambers described life in the post-Civil War era as worse than the Depression.
Ellis Jefson worked as a nurse in Memphis in 1882 during the yellow fever epidemic and described conditions in the city and whites fleeing the city during the crisis. He also discussed outbreaks of violence in Helena, Arkansas, in 1875, when black elected officials were driven from office: “The Republican party would ‘lect them and the Democratic party roust them out of office.” He concluded the interview with a criticism of African Americans, saying, “They will never progress till they become more harmonious in spirit with the desires of the white people in the home land of the white man.”
A number of former slaves discussed voting and politics. Paul Jenkins described his father’s political career following the Civil War while George Benson reflected on the meaning of the vote:
I voted ever since I got to be a man grown. That is – as long as I could vote. You know – got so now they won’t let you vote. I don’t think a person is free unless he can vote, do you? The way this thing is goin’, I don’t think the white man wants the colored man to have as much as the white man.
Conduct a full-text keyword search to locate other recollections of voting. Then consider the following questions:
- How do the experiences recounted in the interviews reflect the history of voting for African Americans?
- What array of attitudes toward voting did you find in the interviews? In what ways are these attitudes similar to and different from public attitudes about voting today?
- What is your assessment of Ellis Jefson’s criticism of some African Americans? Do you think it reinforced Jim Crowism in late nineteenth-century America? Why or why not?
- Construct an argument supporting George Benson’s belief that a person isn’t free unless he can vote. How could the argument be applied to contemporary situations in the world?
Chronological Thinking: Making and Interpreting Timelines of Narrators' Lives
Walter Rimm began his interview by saying, “You wants to know ‘bout slavery? Well I’s had a deal happen ‘sides dat…” Because the people interviewed by the FWP workers had all lived long lives, spanning the years from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930s, they had all experienced a great deal more than just their years in slavery. Their lives were shaped by the times and circumstances in which they lived (including laws, customs, and racial attitudes), their own decisions, and historical events occurring on the national and world stages. Read the life story of Mandy Morrow, making notes on some of the important events in her life as you read.
On a sheet of paper, draw a line down the center of the sheet. Mark the top of the line with Morrow’s birthdate (you may have to estimate this date from information in the interview). Mark the bottom of the line with the date of the interview. Mark off decades between the two dates. The timeline should be to scale: that is, each decade should be represented by the same length on the line.
On the right side of the line, write some of the events that you have studied in history class; for example, show the Civil War from 1861-1865. Next, add the important events in Morrow’s life on the left side of the line. You will have to estimate when some events occurred based on information in the interview and your knowledge of history.
How does the timeline of Mandy Morrow’s life show the impact of world or national events on the individual’s life? How does it reflect the time and circumstances in which she lived? How was her life shaped by her own decisions?
Read one or more additional narratives and make timelines of the narrators’ lives. To what extent do narratives reflect similar experiences? Different experiences? What may account for the differences? From the narratives, what can you infer about how racial attitudes changed or remained the same over time?
Historical Comprehension: Considering Historical Context
The context in which the interviews in Born in Slavery took place—the Great Depression—is important in interpreting the interviews. A number of narratives depict a tranquil life on the plantation in stark contrast with the poverty and suffering during the Great Depression. During an interview, Henry Cheatam, reminiscing about the “good ol’ days,” remarked,
. . . Fact is, I believe I druther be alivin’ back dere dan today ‘caze us at least had plenty somp’n t’eat an’ nothin’ to worry about. An’ as for beatin’; dey beats folks now iffen dey don’t do raght, so what’s de difference?
Jerry Hinton concurred. He told the interviewer:
I think slavery was good because I was treated all right. I think I am ‘bout as much a slave now as ever. . . .
‘Bout half the folks both black an’ white is slaves an’ don’t know it. When I was a slave I had nothin’ on me, no responsibility on any of us, only to work. Didn’t have no taxes to pay, neber had to think whur de next meal wus comin’ from.
Dis country is in a bad fix. Looks like sumptin got to be done someway or people, a lot of ‘em, are goin’ to parish to death. Times are hard, an’ dey is getting’ worse.
Phillip Evans, however, disagreed. The 85-year-old from Winnsboro, South Carolina, blamed the suffering of his family during the Depression on President Hoover “and his crowd” and praised President Roosevelt’s New Deal.
. . . A proud family, brought low by Mr. Hoover and his crowd. Had to sell our land. ‘Spect us would have starved, as us too proud to beg. Thank god, Mr. Roosevelt come ‘long. Him never ask whether us democrat or ‘publican nor was us black or white; him just clothe our nakedness and ease de pains of hunger, and goin’ further, us goin’ to be took care of in our old age. Oh, how I love dat man; though they do say him got enemies.
Consider what you know about the social, political, and economic conditions in the late 1930s. How might conducting the interviews during the Great Depression influence some interview subjects’ accounts? Do you think their views of slavery would have been different in the early 1870s? Around 1900? During World War I? Why or why not? What, if anything, does your analysis of the context in which the interviews were conducted suggest about the questions that should be asked when using oral histories as historical sources?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Assessing Credibility
A unique interview in the collection is the Tony Morgan interview conducted on October 1, 1884, by a fellow slave, Jim Thomas. Thomas recounted this conversation to a FWP worker in 1937. “Uncle Tony” Morgan was 105 years old at the time of the interview and claimed to have known both George Washington and Andrew Jackson. Morgan stated that he accompanied General Jackson in his excursion to Spanish Pensacola in 1814:
Uncle Tony explained that he accompanied General Jackson when the war-loving Tennessean marched from Mobile against Pensacola in 1814. He said he was serving as a wagoner, and remembered distinctly that the British surrendered on November 6. He recalled that, during the battle, Jackson was standing talking with a group of officers when an enemy shell exploded near him.
“Move away. General,” the old Negro recounted one of the officers as saying, “they’ll kill you!”
And Jackson replied in a characteristic manner: “Damn ‘em—I’ll have ‘em all in hell tomorrow!”
- What historic events did Tony Morgan report witnessing in the excerpt above? Does the story about General Andrew Jackson seem believable given other sources you have read about Jackson? Was Morgan’s recollection of the day the British surrendered accurate?
- To what other historic events was Morgan reportedly a witness? How might you check the accuracy of these recollections?
- Jim Thomas appeared to have a sharp recollection of a conversation that took place more than 40 years previously. Why might Thomas’s recollection be so strong? Is there any way you can check the accuracy of Thomas’s recollections?
- The FWP interviewer, Francois L. Diard, presented his account in the third person, which presents additional challenges in interpreting the information. The reader cannot tell who used certain words or phrases—Diard, Thomas, or Morgan. Find an example in the excerpt above. How does this ambiguity make interpreting the interview more challenging?
Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Comparing Contradictory Stories
The collection includes a number of contradictory stories of reactions to Union forces when they marched onto plantations. Alice Baugh and Lewis Evans, for example, related sympathy for Southerners and described looting and pillaging by unruly Union soldiers. Others, such as 88-year-old Katie Rowe, told a different story.
Conduct a full-text search using the keywords Yankees or Union army to locate interviews in which people reported on the response to Union soldiers. Read several accounts providing different perspectives. Look for factors that may have influenced the way in which enslaved people responded to the Union army. What factors may account for the different perspectives expressed in these narratives? If you were to write an article about enslaved people’s responses to the Union army’s advance through the South, how would you use these different perspectives?
Historical Research: Formulating Historical Questions
An interesting historical source can answer questions, but it can also raise them. Examine Jonathan Thornton’s Oath of Amnesty shown below. Where was the oath sworn? When was it sworn? What did the oath require? What inferences might you make from your analysis of this document? What questions does examining the document raise? For example, looking at the document might raise the question of what benefits Thornton would expect to receive by signing the document. Research the Oath of Amnesty to find the answers to your questions.
Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision Making: Considering Land Redistribution
Near the end of the Civil War, word spread throughout the South that freedmen would receive 40 acres of land and a mule. Read the Casper Rumple interview, in which he describes the reaction of former slaves when they heard the news. Research the Special Field Order issued by General Sherman that gave rise to this rumor, as well as the arguments regarding land redistribution that were made when such a provision was included in the first Freedmen’s Bureau Act proposed in Congress. Would a grant of “40 acres and a mule” have produced positive or negative results? Explain. What would be the arguments for and against such a policy? How is this historical question still reflected in issues being discussed today?
Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision Making: The Individual as Historical Decision-Maker
Slaves had much less control over their own lives than free people. This does not mean, however, that they were unable to make any important decisions. In fact, enslaved peoples were historical decision-makers, just as free people were. One of the decisions slaves made was whether and/or how to resist the power of the slaveholder. Learning to read was an example of such resistance.
The following appears in the Statute Laws of Georgia for 1845 concerning educating negroes, under Section II, Minor Offences. “Punishment for teaching slaves or free persons of color to read. If any slave, negro, or free person of color, or any white person, shall teach any other slave, negro or free person of color, to read or write either written or printed characters, the said free person of color or slave shall be punished by fine and whipping, or fine or whipping, at the direction of the court.”
According to some interviewees, slaveholders punished slaves who learned to read even more harshly:
. . . ‘Ole Marse’ wuz sho hard about that. He said ‘Niggers’was made by de good Lord to work, and onct when my Uncle stole a book and was a trying to learn how to read and write, Marse Jasper had the white doctor take off my Uncle’s fo’ finger right down to de ‘fust jint’. Marster said he fixed dat darky as a sign fo de res uv ‘em!
Slaves who learned to read and write faced possible punishments, yet some chose learning. Make a T-chart showing the pros and cons of a slave’s learning to read and write. In similar circumstances, would you take the risk to learn to read and write? Explain your answer.
Dialects and Idiom
John Lomax, a Federal Writers Project official in Washington, provided guidelines for interviewers in capturing the speech of the ex-slaves being interviewed:
Simplicity in recording the dialect is to be desired in order to hold the interest and attention of the readers. It seems to me that readers are repelled by pages sprinkled with misspellings, commas and apostrophes. The value of exact phonetic transcription is, of course, a great one. But few artists attempt this completely. Thomas Nelson Page was meticulous in his dialect; Joel Chandler Harris less meticulous but in my opinion even more accurate... Present day readers are less ready for the overstress of phonetic spelling than in the days of local color...
Truth to idiom is more important, I believe, than truth to pronunciation. Erskine Caldwell in his stories of Georgia, Ruth Suckow in stories of Iowa, and Zora Neale Hurston in stories of Florida Negroes get a truth to the manner of speaking without excessive misspellings. In order to make this volume of slave narratives more appealing and less difficult for the average reader, I recommend that truth to idiom be paramount, and exact truth to pronunciation secondary...
I would like to recommend that the stories be told in the language of the ex-slave, without excessive editorializing and “artistic” introductions on the part of the interviewer. The contrast between the directness of the ex-slave speech and the roundabout and at times pompous comments of the interviewer is frequently glaring.
- Which appears to have been of most importance to Lomax—accuracy in capturing the speech of the ex-slaves or the readers’ response? Give evidence to support your answer.
- Use a dictionary or other reference to find definitions of the terms dialect and idiom. What are the similarities between these two terms? The differences? Based on these definitions, do you think Lomax’s directions might have been confusing to the interviewers?
- Who are the specific people referenced in Lomax’s letter? Choose one of these writers and find out more about their use of dialect and idiom. How did it serve their literary purposes? Was it controversial in any way? How did readers respond?
Read “A Note on the Language of the Narratives.” Then read all or parts of the interviews with the following people:
Describe how each of the interviewers handled the issue of the interviewee’s language. Which do you think would be most in line with the directions provided by John Lomax? Which would be most likely to reflect “preconceptions and stereotypes”? Can you determine if any of the interviewers were African American? How might that influence your reading of the interview?
From one of the narratives listed above, choose a paragraph in which the interviewer attempted to capture the former slave’s dialect. Closely study the language in the paragraph. What pronunciations are characteristic of the dialect as represented by the interviewer? What vocabulary is unfamiliar or unusual? What aspects of the language seem most important in terms of conveying the speaker’s thoughts and feelings?
Folk Remedies and Beliefs
The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress defines folklife as “The everyday and intimate creativity that all of us share and pass on to the next generation,” providing a list of forms that folklife takes, from songs to crafts, childhood games, fairy stories, and religious, medical, magical, and social beliefs. Louise Oliphant, a Georgia interviewer, compiled a list of what she designated “folk remedies and superstition” culled from interviews with ex-slaves in the city of Augusta. Read this compilation and consider the following questions:
- Identify several folk remedies—medicines or treatments for pain or disease that are not based in medical science but in people’s everyday experiences. Be sure to find at least one remedy for hiccoughs (hiccups) and one remedy involving tea. How do you think these remedies came to be part of the ex-slaves’ folk wisdom? What do you notice about the materials used in the remedies? Are any of the remedies similar to remedies used today? What inferences can you draw from any similarities?
- What is a superstition? Identify several entries in Oliphant’s collection that you would classify as superstitions. What makes these items superstitions (or magical beliefs)? Can you think of similar superstitions held by people you know? What inferences can you draw from any similarities?
According to the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, “Folklife reflects and shapes our relationship with the world and others who inhabit that world.” How would the beliefs expressed in the Oliphant compilation “reflect and shape” people’s relationship with the world and with other people? Do you think your own beliefs reflect and shape the ways that you interact with the world?
Folklife: Folk Songs
Folk songs are songs that originate from ordinary people, rather than trained musicians. Especially in our country’s earlier years, they were passed from person to person orally, rather than being written down. Often, many different sets of lyrics would be written for a popular melody. Both Civil War songs below were recalled by former slaves interviewed by the FWP; both were sung to Irish melodies:
Jeff Davis is our President
And Lincoln is a fool;
Jeff Davis rides a fine white horse
While Lincoln rides a mule.
Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights,
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag
That bears a Single Star!
From “[Interview with Word, Sam],” image 235. This song was sung to the tune “Bonnie Blue Flag,” which was based on an Irish melody, “The Irish Jaunting Car.”
In eighteen hundred and sixty-one
Football (?) sez I;
In eighteen hundred and sixty-one
That’s the year the war begun
We’ll all drink stone blind,
Johnny, come fill up the bowl.
In eighteen hundred and sixty-two
Football (?) sez I;
In eighteen hundred and sixty-two
That’s the year we put ‘em through
We’ll all drink stone blind,
Johnny, come fill up the bowl.
In eighteen hundred and sixty-three
Football (?) sez I;
In eighteen hundred and sixty-three
That’s the year we didn’t agree
We’ll all drink stone blind,
Johnny, come fill up the bowl.
In eighteen hundred and sixty-four
Football(?) sez I;
In eighteen hundred and sixty-four
We’ll all go home and fight no more
We’ll all drink stone blind,
Johnny, come fill up the bowl.
In eighteen hundred and sixty-five
Football (?) sez I;
in eighteen hundred and sixty-five
We’ll have the Rebels dead or alive
We’ll all drink stone blind,
Johnny, come fill up the bowl.
From “Songs of Civil War Days,” image 186. This song was sung to an Irish drinking melody, “Johnny Fill Up the Bowl,” which was also the tune used for the Civil War song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Where the interviewer has written “Football (?)” the correct wording was probably “For bowls,” a toast from the original drinking song.
- Which song above was pro-Confederacy? How can you tell? Which was pro-Union? How can you tell? What functions do you think partisan folk songs serve in wartime?
- Why did the transcriber suspect that the word “football” was incorrect in the song? What do you think bowls meant in the original song?
- Find another version of one of the songs above. Why do you think there are often many different versions of the same folk song? How important is this aspect of folk music?
Why do you think people who create folk songs use already-existing melodies? What advantages would this have? What disadvantages?
In a letter sent on April 14, 1937, the associate director of the Federal Writers Project, George Cronyn, asked state project directors to provide portraits of the ex-slaves being interviewed by FWP workers:
We would like to have portraits wherever they can be secured, but we urge your photographers to make the studies as simple, natural, and “unposed” as possible. Let the background, cabin or whatnot, be the normal setting – in short just the picture a visitor would expect to find by “dropping in” on one of these old-timers.
- Why might it have been extremely difficult for the interviewers to take “natural” or “unposed” photographs?
- Why do you think the FWP wanted such photographs, rather than more formal portraits?
- Which of the two portraits shown above is more “natural.” What characteristics make it appear more natural (even though it was posed)? Examine several portraits from the collection by browsing the photographs by subject. Choose the portrait that you think comes closest to being “natural” or “unposed.” Do you respond differently to this portrait than to ones in which the subject looks stiff, posed, or uncomfortable? Explain your answer.
Look at several newspapers and magazines. Do the photographs that accompany interviews look natural or posed? Why might a photographer or editor choose a formal portrait? An informal portrait?
Choosing a Title
Choosing a title for a book or story is an important part of the writing task. A title serves two functions: it draws the reader into the book or story and it informs readers what the book or story is about. Some of the ways writers draw readers through the title are using wit, juxtaposing unusual ideas, or selecting a meaningful phrase or quote from the book as the title. Often, a good title raises some questions in the readers’ mind. A 1945 book featuring narratives from the collection was titled Lay My Burden Down, which was also the title of a spiritual sung by slaves. Another book that drew on the narratives was titled From Sundown to Sunup. What questions does this title raise in your mind?
Sometimes an interesting title may not be particularly informative. Often, more information is provided through a subtitle, presented after the main title. Consider the title of this collection, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938. The first part of the title draws the reader in, raising the questions of who was born in slavery and whether they lived in slavery as well. The second part of the title is descriptive, telling the reader what is in the collection.
Read the narrative of Tempie Cummins. Imagine that you were working on a book that would include this narrative. What title would you give the narrative? Why do you think this would be a good title? Would you need a subtitle? If so, what subtitle would you give the narrative?