Last Word: First-Person Accounts of American Slavery

Family History
13 August 2014

American Slavery
[Photo credit: Library of Congress]
During the Depression, when the U.S. government was trying to put to work one person in every family that had an unemployed breadwinner, some remarkable things were done. Between 1935 and 1943, the Works Project Administration (WPA) hired almost 8 million unemployed people across the country to build new roads, bridges, schools, botanical gardens, zoos, and the like and to work on projects having to do with art, music, and theater.

And they did another incredible thing: Between 1936 and 1938, they hired WPA writers to interview people who had lived in slavery. These writers documented more than 2,300 first-person accounts of what live under slavery had been like. WPA workers also took black-and-white photos of about 500 of the people interviewed.

It’s often very difficult to trace a black American family’s history to earlier than 1870 because that’s the first U.S. census that identified all African-Americans by name. These interviews, though (which actually started in 1929 at two universities before the WPA became involved), can help. The interviews with former slaves at Ancestry are searchable and generally include the person’s parents’ names, their spouse and children, where they lived, and the names of former owners. Most paint vivid, detailed pictures of what life was like on the plantations. You can imagine how moving it would be to find an ancestor in this collection who told of his or her family and how they grew up and lived.

There are details about birth:

From James Lucas, born October 11, 1833, former slave of Jefferson Davis, Natchez, Adams County, Mississippi

“My young Marster give me my age when he heired de prope’ty of his uncle, Marse W. B. Withers. He was a-goin’ through de papers an’ aburnin’ some of ’em when he foun’ de one ’bout me. Den he says, ‘Jim, dissen’s ’bout you. It gives yo’ birthday.’

“I recollec’ a heap ’bout slav’ry-times, but I’s all by myse’f now. All o’ my friend’s has lef’ me. Even Marse Fleming has passed on. He was a little boy when I was a grown man.

“I was born in a cotton fiel’ in cotton pickin’ time, an’ de wimmins fixed my mammy up so she didn’ hardly lose no time at all. My mammy sho’ was healthy. Her name was Silvey an’ her mammy come over to dis country in a big ship. Somebody give her the name o’ Betty, but twant her right name. Folks couldn’ un’erstan’ a word she say. It was some sort o’ gibberish dey called gulluh-talk, an’ it soun’ dat funny. My pappy was Bill Lucas.

“When I was a little chap I used to wear coarse lowell-cloth shirts on de week-a-days. Dey was long an’ had big collars. When de seams ripped de hide would show through.”

And about having a mind of one’s own:

Minnie Davis, age 78, born Green County, Georgia, interviewed at 237 Billups Street, Athens, Georgia

“The Crawford children were caught teaching my mother to read and write, but they were made to stop. Mother was quick to learn and she never gave up. She would steal the newspapers and read up about the war, and she kept the other slaves posted as to how the war was progressing. She knew when the war was over, almost as soon as Marse John did.

“I don’t recall any certain reason why the slaves were punished; they needed it, I’m sure of that. Some folks need to be punished now. Miss Sue, as we called her, whipped the slaves for misbehavior. I remember one time there was quite a commotion. The town marshal came to our house to whip my mother. It had been told that she had been writing letters, asking people to buy whiskey from her, but Marse John wouldn’t let the marshal touch her. There was a jail, but I don’t recall that any of Marse John’s slaves were ever put in there. I was told that his slaves were, as a rule, well behaved and that they gave him no trouble.

“We went to church and Sunday School at the First Presbyterian Church, where the slaves were allowed to sit in the gallery. I recall that Dr. Hoyt used to pray that the Lord would drive the Yankees back. He said that ‘Niggers were born to be slaves.’ My mother said that all the time he was praying out loud like that, she was praying to herself: ‘Oh, Lord, please send the Yankees on and let them set us free.'”

And there are bits about local customs and traditions:

Charley Williams, born 1856 in New London, Union County, Arkansas, interviewed Nov. 30, 1936

“…Ah’ve hearn tell uv hants, but nevah have seed no hants. One uv mah friens what lived on the Hammonds place at Hillsboro could see em. His name wuz Elliott. One time me an Elliott wuz drivin along an Elliott said: “Charley, somebody got hole uv mah horse.” Sho nuff dat horse led right off inter de woods an comminced to buckin so Elliott and his hoss both saw de haint but ah couldn’ see hit. Yo know some people jes caint see em.

‘What am dat up dar in dat picture frame? Why dat am plaits of har (hair). Hits uv mah kin and friend’s. When we would move way off dey would cut off a plait and give hit tuh us tuh membah dem by. Mos’ uv dem is daid now but ah still membahs dem and ah kin name evah plait now.”

And looking back:

Mrs. Mattie Logan, 79 years old, Route 5, West Tulsa, Oklahoma

“This is a mighty fitting time to be telling about the slave days, for I’m just finished up celebrating my seventy-nine years of being around and the first part of my life was spent on the old John B. Lewis plantation down in old Mississippi.

“Yes, sir! my birthday is just over. September 1 it was and the year was 1858. Borned on the John B. Lewis plantation just ten mile south of Jackson in the Mississippi country. Rankin County it was. My mother’s name was Lucinda, and father’s name was Levi Miles. My mother was part Indian, for her mother was a half-blood Cherokee Indian from Virginia.

“I’m pretty old and can’t work hard anymore, but I manage to get along. I’m glad to be free and I don’t believe I could stand them slavery days now at all. I’m my own boss, get up when I want, go to bed the same way. Nobody to say this or that about what I do. Yes, I’m glad to be free!”

Some other Ancestry resources about formerly enslaved people include:

—Leslie Lang

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