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The 10 Million Names Project released rare audio recordings of formerly enslaved people cautiously recounting their lives before the abolishment of slavery decades ago.

The non-profit organization debuted the records to ABC News, where historians Dr. Kendra Field, a Tufts University History professor, and Harvard professor Dr. Vincent Brown expound on the events surrounding the audio recordings, including how some people conducting the interviews were slave masters’ offsprings. 

The first audio presented was of a former enslaved man, George Johnson, explaining how he got his name to an interviewer in 1941 in Mound Bayou, Mississippi.

“I got my name from President eff Davis, the President of the Southern Confederacy (an abolition opponent),” Johnson said. “He owned my grandfather and my father. My grandfather was a blacksmith. And my father learned how to write a little bit in Richmond, Virginia, before he brought him down there.”

The unnamed interviewer asked if the enslavers worked them “reasonable,” and Johnson confirmed before telling a story of a boy getting whipped for not working at the same pace as the other men.

“You know, Master Joe give Master Jeff another boy (enslaved kid) and…the boy was chopping cotton,” Johnson said. “Boy didn’t keep up with the gang, you understand? He come to whoop the boy. The boy wouldn’t keep up, you understand…The boy went to the house where Master Jeff work, and he asked him, ‘What’s the trouble, son?’ Say ‘Mr. So-on-so whoop me because I won’t keep up with the gang.”

These recordings were reportedly used for federal and independent projects. Dr. Field said they were rare and that only a handful of audio recordings existed.

At 114 years old, Celia Black, a former enslaved woman, shared her experience in 1974 in Tyler, Texas. Asked if she picked cotton after being born into slavery, Black confirmed that she never got away from picking the asset.

“Oh, I didn’t do nothing but work in the field. Worked in the field, goodness,” Black said. “Me and my husband would go out west and pick cotton…every year. We wouldn’t miss a year going out there picking cotton.”

One jaw-dropper to some is that Black’s interview happened three years before Roots, starring LeVar Burton, aired. Many people alive in the ’70s may have been incognizant of the fact that they were still walking the earth with people who experienced one of the most traumatic and tragic events in history.

According to Dr. Brown, Black and Johnson shared their experiences but most likely weren’t forthcoming with details on the dark truths of slavery due to some of the interviewers being children of enslavers. They didn’t want to do or say anything to jeopardize their freedom. 

Black was asked if the slaves had some form of entertainment. Although the enslaved people danced, Black said she stopped.

“I try my best to serve my master,” she said. “I’m trying my best to serve my heavenly Father.”

Ms. Black lived when Abraham Lincoln was president and when Richard Nixon resigned.

“Oh, man, you remember Abraham Lincoln? The president? They gave him a good name…they (everybody) thought Abraham was the best President there was,” she said.

 Curtis Royal of Rhode Island is Celia Black’s great-grandson, who used to hear stories constantly of her childhood as a slave. But it was hard for him to fathom how she and the other slaves had to work in harsh conditions, like extreme heat.

The 10 Million Names Project has an ancestry database available to the public. People can search for their family history or contribute to the project by adding information and documents from their family history.


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