There are so many gaps in the documentation of slaves in the US that it’s hard to piece together the lives of many African American ancestors, but luckily the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Progress Administration had the foresight to gather the stories of the last people who were born into slavery and who died free men and women.
Housed in the Library of Congress is a 17-volume collection of this history in “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.” Compiled in more than 17 states between 1936 and 1938, this collection tells the first-person account of more than 2,300 men and women who were born into slavery some 70 years after they’d been set free.
“We were never allowed to go to town and it was not until after I ran away that I knew that they sold anything but slaves, tobacco, and whiskey,” reads the account of John W. Fields, a Civil War-era slave who went on to work as a domestic in Lafayette, IN.
“Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us,” he said. “We knew we could run away, but what then?”
Beyond these narratives, the collection also holds roughly 500 black-and-white photos that offer a unique look at the physical post-slavery life of these African Americans. The Huffington Post reports that the oral recollections range “from startling descriptions of cruelty to almost nostalgic views of plantation life.” Most of the participants in the project were well into their 80s and 90s at the time of the interviews and their stories were said to have been collected with a sense of urgency over the two-year span to capture as many first-person accounts as possible before they passed.
Check out a slideshow of some of the photos here and tell us what you think.
Brande Victorian is a blogger and culture writer in New York City. Follower her on Twitter at @be_vic.
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