Hear the Voices of Americans Born in Slavery: The Library of Congress Features 23 Audio Interviews with Formerly Enslaved People (1932–75)

“Dur­ing the last three decades of legal slav­ery in Amer­i­ca,” writes Lucin­da MacK­ethan at the Nation­al Human­i­ties Cen­ter, “African Amer­i­can writ­ers per­fect­ed one of the nation’s first tru­ly indige­nous gen­res of writ­ten lit­er­a­ture: the North Amer­i­can slave nar­ra­tive.” These heav­i­ly medi­at­ed mem­oirs were the only real first­hand accounts of slav­ery most Amer­i­cans out­side the South encoun­tered. Their authors were urged by abo­li­tion­ist pub­lish­ers to adopt con­ven­tions of the sen­ti­men­tal nov­el, and to fea­ture showy intro­duc­tions by white edi­tors to val­i­date their authen­tic­i­ty.

Fugi­tive slave nar­ra­tives did not nec­es­sar­i­ly give white Amer­i­cans new infor­ma­tion about slavery’s wrongs, but they served as “proof” that enslaved peo­ple were, in fact, peo­ple, with feel­ings and intel­lects and aspi­ra­tions just like theirs. Ex-enslaved writ­ers like Fred­er­ick Dou­glass and Har­ri­et Jacobs sen­sa­tion­al­ized read­ers with sto­ries of the phys­i­cal and sex­u­al vio­lence of slav­ery, and their sto­ries became abo­li­tion­ists’ most potent weapon. The form suc­ceed­ed as much on dra­mat­ic effect as on its doc­u­men­tary val­ue.

Dou­glas and Jacobs were excep­tion­al in that they had learned to read and write and escaped their ter­ri­ble con­di­tions through strength of will, inge­nu­ity, the kind­ness­es of oth­ers, and sheer luck. Most were not so for­tu­nate. But we now have access to many more first­hand accounts—thanks to the work of the Fed­er­al Writ­ers Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Admin­is­tra­tion and oth­ers, who record­ed thou­sands of inter­views with for­mer­ly enslaved peo­ple liv­ing well into the 20th cen­tu­ry, all from the first gen­er­a­tion to out­live slav­ery.

Ted Kop­pel debuted some clips of those record­ings to his Night­line audi­ence in the 1999 episode above. “They are haunt­ing voic­es,” he says, then pref­aces the tape with “brace your­selves for a minor mir­a­cle.” What is mirac­u­lous about the fact that peo­ple who were born in slav­ery lived into the age of audio record­ing? Per­haps one rea­son it seems so is that we are con­di­tioned to think of legal enslave­ment and its effects as reced­ing fur­ther back in time than they actu­al­ly do. In the 1930s, the FWP filed tran­scripts of over 2,300 inter­views and 500 black-and-white pho­tographs of peo­ple born into slav­ery.

Also, in the 30s, eth­nol­o­gists like Zora Neale Hurston and the Lomax­es began record­ing audio inter­views with for­mer­ly enslaved peo­ple like Foun­tain Hugh­es, fur­ther up, born in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia. Record­ed in 1949, he is fear­ful­ly reluc­tant to talk about his expe­ri­ence but vocal about it nonethe­less: ““You was­n’t no more than a dog to some of them in them days. You was­n’t treat­ed as good as they treat dogs now. But still I did­n’t like to talk about it. Because it makes, makes peo­ple feel bad you know. Uh, I, I could say a whole lot I don’t like to say. And I won’t say a whole lot more.”

The Library of Con­gress puts the 23 sur­viv­ing record­ings in con­text:

The record­ings of for­mer slaves in Voic­es Remem­ber­ing Slav­ery: Freed Peo­ple Tell Their Sto­ries took place between 1932 and 1975 in nine states. Twen­ty-three inter­vie­wees dis­cuss how they felt about slav­ery, slave­hold­ers, coer­cion of slaves, their fam­i­lies, and free­dom. Sev­er­al indi­vid­u­als sing songs, many of which were learned dur­ing the time of their enslave­ment. It is impor­tant to note that all of the inter­vie­wees spoke six­ty or more years after the end of their enslave­ment, and it is their full lives that are reflect­ed in these record­ings. The indi­vid­u­als doc­u­ment­ed in this pre­sen­ta­tion have much to say about liv­ing as African Amer­i­cans from the 1870s to the 1930s, and beyond.

Only sev­en of these voic­es have been matched with pho­tographs. Many of these mean and women were inter­viewed else­where, but on the whole, lit­tle bio­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion about them exists. The final inter­vie­wee, Char­lie Smith, record­ed in 1975, was the sub­ject of a book and numer­ous mag­a­zine arti­cles. He died four years lat­er at 137 years old. Hear all of the audio inter­views with for­mer­ly enslaved peo­ple at the Library of Congress’s Voic­es Remem­ber­ing Slav­ery project and find resources for teach­ers here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Names of 1.8 Mil­lion Eman­ci­pat­ed Slaves Are Now Search­able in the World’s Largest Genealog­i­cal Data­base, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans Find Lost Ances­tors

What the Text­books Don’t Tell Us About The Atlantic Slave Trade: An Ani­mat­ed Video Fills In His­tor­i­cal Gaps

The Atlantic Slave Trade Visu­al­ized in Two Min­utes: 10 Mil­lion Lives, 20,000 Voy­ages, Over 315 Years

The “Slave Bible” Removed Key Bib­li­cal Pas­sages In Order to Legit­imize Slav­ery & Dis­cour­age a Slave Rebel­lion (1807)

1.5 Mil­lion Slav­ery Era Doc­u­ments Will Be Dig­i­tized, Help­ing African Amer­i­cans to Learn About Their Lost Ances­tors

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Daniel Thaler says:

    WHY? What isn’t known already? What is the point of going back over it over and over again? Like the ENDLESS Anne Frank and Hola­coust sto­ries, they have become mean­ing­less from super over­ex­po­sure. Very ter­ri­ble times. We got it. We lost well over 1 mil­lion sol­diers in the Civ­il War and in WWII in Europe. Some­thing need­ed to be done, and it was done. So let it be done.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Exact­ly whom do you mean by “we”? You are aware that this is an edu­ca­tion­al web­site, aren’t you? These archival mate­ri­als are *not* wide­ly known and are very much of inter­est to stu­dents, teach­ers, librar­i­ans, and schol­ars. These are impor­tant pri­ma­ry sources of Amer­i­can his­to­ry. That’s true whether or not they are upset­ting for you.

  • tomás macamhloaibh says:

    Thanks for shar­ing these voic­es. They were lost to me and now they are not.

    His­to­ry is not a tale of good and evil but of ordi­nary peo­ple who can both do good and evil often for the shal­low­est and most stu­pid of rea­sons. To enslave a per­son because of the pig­ment of their skin — what were they think­ing? For the pig­ment of some­one’s skin!

    Silence and stud­ied igno­rance, seem­ing­ly so innocu­ous, are as harm­ful. To for­get and to ignore and to jus­ti­fy often pre­pares the ground­work for the next inequities to emerge.

    We live in such times.

  • kim says:

    Why does this upset you so?

  • Don Estif says:

    “To enslave a per­son because of the pig­ment of their skin – what were they think­ing?” They weren’t enslaved because of the col­or of their skin but instead for finan­cial rea­sons. Slave own­ers were think­ing of how best to make mon­ey. Inden­tured servi­tude had ini­tial­ly been the more expe­di­ent form of slave labor but result­ed in a fair­ly reg­u­lar turnover of that labor force. The large plan­ta­tions in the south and the Caribbean islands relied more on African slaves, in part to sta­bi­lize the size­able labor force required, and main­ly because African slaves were less cost­ly than inden­tured ser­vants and remained indef­i­nite­ly.
    Slaves from Africa were, almost always, sold to traders by West African tribes, most com­mon­ly the Ashan­ti tribe. Even though the Ashan­ti and oth­er tribes are black, they were think­ing of mon­ey and not pig­ment of the slaves skin.

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