From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909, offers primary source materials depicting African Americans in the nineteenth century in representations ranging from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to humor on the minstrel stage, and abolitionist tracts in pamphlets and newspapers. Former-slave narratives provide an opportunity to analyze issues of authorship, while congressional speeches provide a look at the impact of contention in politics.
Some abolitionist tracts offered accounts of the hardships of slavery straight from the pens of former slaves. A search on narrative yields six pamphlets that are attributed to former slaves. As the preface to the “Narrative of Henry Watson” notes, the intention of this account was to “present a faithful record of a few only of the transactions I have been eye-witness of, hoping that a perusal of them might add something to the already abundant testimony of the horrors of the slave system,” (page 4).
Despite the guarantee of providing eyewitness testimony, a review of Watson’s tale and other pamphlets such as “Life of James Mars, a Slave Born and Sold in Connecticut” and “Narrative of the Life of J.D. Green, a Runaway Slave,” hint that abolitionists may have revised these tales for dramatic effect. For example, J.D. Green’s explanation of how he felt when his mother was sold off the plantation includes the following reflection:
Oh! how dreadful it is to be black! Why was I born black? It would have been better had I not been born at all. Only yesterday, my mother was sold to go to, not one of us knows where, and I am left alone, and I have no hope of seeing her again. At this moment a raven alighted on a tree over my head, and I cried, "Oh, Raven! if I had wings like you, I would soon find my mother and be happy again."
A search for the term, slave narrative, across the American Memory site provides examples of other accounts from collections such as Voices from the Days of Slavery, The African-American Experience in Ohio, First-Person Narratives of the American South, The Nineteenth Century in Print, and Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project. Documents such as Jesse Davis’s narrative were transcribed by field workers in Federal Writers’ Project who made an effort to preserve the narrator’s dialect and phrasing: “Dere was my young misses, Miss Lizzie and Miss Lennie. My mammy name Sarah, just lak old mistress name Sarah. Her b’long to marster and mistress but my pappy no b’long to them. Him b’long to de big bugs, de Davis family,” (page 264).
- What aspects of slavery do the former slave narratives in this collection discuss?
- What is the purpose of including a description of the raven in J.D. Green’s narrative?
- Are there any parts of slavery that are excluded from the accounts in these pamphlets?
- What is the tone of these pamphlets?
- How do they compare to publications from abolitionist groups such as the American Anti-Slavery Society?
- Who do you think was the intended audience for these pamphlets?
- Do you think that former slaves wrote these pamphlets?
- How do these pamphlets compare to slave narratives in other American Memory collections?