Slave narratives taken nearly 70 years after emancipation proclaimation

In the 1920s and 1930s, an interest in slave  narratives was rekindled, and as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the  Work Progress Administration, more than 2,000 first-person accounts of slavery  were collected, as well as 500 black and white photographs.

The collection was compiled in 17 states  between 1936 and 1938. Many of the former slaves interviewed were well into  their 80s and 90s – some were even past 100.

One former slave, Sarah Gudger, claimed she  was 121. She told the federal writer: ‘Yo’ know de sta’s don’ shine as bgright  as dey did back den. I wonah wy dey don’. Dey jes’ don’ shine as bright.’ Many  of the collected accounts are written phonetically, giving further insight to  their linguistics, mannerisms, and characters.

Born into slavery
Born into slavery

Born into slavery: Between 1936 and 1938, the Federal  Writers’ Project of the Work Progress Administration photographed former slaves  and collected their stories

Born into slavery
Born into slavery

I am weary let me rest: By the time their accounts were  taken, many former slaves were well into their 80s and 90s

Born into slavery
Born into slavery

Town and country: They offered extraordinary insight  into slave life

They provide powerful insight into a part of  America’s history that is no longer in living memory – it exists instead in  the Library of Congress.  One slave said in 1855: ‘Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell  you what slavery is – ‘tis he who has endured.’

Another man, John W. Fields, 89, said: ‘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. Our ignorance was  the greatest hold the South had on us. We knew we could run away, but what then?  An offender guilty of this crime was subjected to very harsh punishment.

While there are many reasons as to why these  testimonials were collected, one reason was simply the passing of time- by the  1930s, surviving former slaves were old men and women.

The time in which to capture their  testimonies was running out, thus putting a sense of urgency to the project.  Many of the accounts are deeply troubling, and are powerful reminders of  America’s seedy past.

Born into slavery
Born into slavery

We shall overcome: One former slave said: ‘Tisn’t he who  has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is – ‘tis he who has  endured’

v
Born into slavery

First person accounts: More than 2,000 stories were  collected by the WPA

Born into slavery
Born into slavery

Passing of time: While there are many reasons as to why  these testimonials were collected, one reason was simply the passing of  time

Born into slavery
v

Government project: By the 1930s, surviving former  slaves were old men and women; the time in which to capture their testimonies  was running out, thus putting a sense of urgency to the project

v
Born into slavery
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