The Voices and Faces
by lyle e. davis
Those of us who scribble for a living are sometimes able
to do great things. One such feat was
accomplished as a result of the Federal Writer’s Project, 1936-1938. More than 2300 first-person accounts of
slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves were
collected. It all took place in the
1930s but the impact is just as strong today as it must have been then. Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the
Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 was a Project of the Works Progress
Administration (WPA) and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the
seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former
Read now, and listen to the heartbeat of an earlier America.
"In most of us
colored folks was the great desire to [be] able to read and write. We took
advantage of every opportunity to educate ourselves. The greater part of the
plantation owners were very harsh if we were caught trying to learn or write.
It was the law that if a white man was caught trying to educate a negro slave, he was liable to
prosecution entailing a fine of fifty dollars and a jail sentence. 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 punisment.” Date
of Interview: September 17, 1937
John W. Fields, 2120 North Twentieth Street, Lafayette, Indiana, now employed as a domestic by
Judge Burnett is a typical example of a fine colored gentlemen, despite his
lowly birth and adverse circumstances, has labored and economized until he has
acquired a respected place in his home community . . .
Those whose voices are included in the collection ranged
in age from one to fifty at the time of emancipation in 1865, which meant that
more than two-thirds were over eighty when they were interviewed. Almost all
had experienced slavery within the states of the Confederacy and still lived
there. They represented all the major slave occupations. Moreover, the size of
the slave units on which respondents reported living varied considerably, from
plantations with over a thousand slaves to situations in which the informant
was his or her owner's only slave. The treatment these individuals reported ran
the gamut from the most harsh, impersonal, and exploitative to work and living
conditions and environments that were intimate and benevolent. In fact, except
that most of the informants were relatively young when they experienced slavery
(older slaves had died long before these interviews were undertaken), all the
major categories of the slave population appear to be well represented in the
• • • • •
"I was born March 23, 1850 in Kentucky, somewhere near Louisville. I am goin' on 88 years right now. (1937). I was brought to Missouri
when I was six months old, along with my mama, who was a slave owned by a man
named Shaw, who had allotted her to a man named Jimmie Graves, who came to
Missouri to live with his daughter Emily Graves Crowdes. I always lived with
The matter of allotment was confusing to the interviewer
and Aunt Sally endeavored to explain.
Allotted? Yes'm. I'm goin' to explain that, " she replied. "You see
there was slave traders in those days, jes' like you got horse and mule an'
auto traders now. They bought and sold slaves and hired 'em out. Yes'm, rented
'em out. Allotted means somethin' like hired out. But the slave never got no
wages. That all went to the master. The man they was allotted to paid the
"I was never
sold. My mama was sold only once, but she was hired out many times. Yes'm when
a slave was allotted, somebody made a down payment and gave a mortgage for the
rest. A chattel mortgage . . ."
made a lot of grief for the slaves," Aunt Sally asserted. "We left my
papa in Kentucky, 'cause he was allotted to another man. My papa never knew where my
mama went, an' my mama never knew where papa went." Aunt Sally paused a
moment, then went on bitterly. "They never wanted mama to know, 'cause
they knowed she would never marry so long she knew where he was. Our master
wanted her to marry again and raise more children to be slaves. They never
wanted mama to know where papa was, an' she never did," sighed Aunt Sally.
Childhood and girlhood memories are vivid to Sarah
Frances Shaw Graves, an 87 year old Negro woman whose indomitable courage and
steadfast purpose overcame obstacles and made possible the ownership of the 120
acre farm near Skidmore, on R. F. D. #4, where she lives with her bachelor son,
Arza Alexander Graves.
At the time of this interview, Sarah still bore scars
from lashes she received as a slave.
• • • • •
I 'membahs de time
when mah mammy wah alive, I wah a small chile, afoah dey tuck huh t' Rims
Crick. All us chillens wah playin' in de ya'd one night. Jes' arunnin' an'
aplayin' lak chillun will. All a sudden mammy cum to de do' all a'sited.
"Cum in heah dis minnit," she say.
"Jes look up
at what is ahappenin'," and bless yo' life, honey, da sta's wah fallin'
jes' lak rain.* Mammy wah tebble skeered, but we chillen wa'nt afeard, no, we
wa'nt afeard. But mammy she say evah time a sta' fall, somebuddy gonna die.
Look lak lotta folks gonna die f'om de looks ob dem sta's. Ebbathin' wah jes'
as bright as day. Yo' cudda pick a pin up. Yo' know de sta's don' shine as
dey did back den. I
wondah wy dey don'. Dey jes' don' shine as bright. Wa'nt long afoah dey took
mah mammy away, and I wah lef' alone.
*(One of the most spectacular meteoric showers on record,
visible all over North America, occurred in 1833.)
Investigation of the almost incredible claim of Aunt
Sarah Gudger, ex-slave living in Asheville, that she was born on Sept.
disclosed the above listed factual information corroborating her statements.
Charley Williams, Age
When de day begin
to crack de whole plantation break out wid all kinds of noises, and you could
tell what going on by de kind of noise you hear. Come de daybreak you hear de
guinea fowls start potracking down at the edge of de woods lot, and den de
roosters all start up 'round de barn and de ducks finally wake up and jine in.
You can smell de sow belly frying down at the cabins in de "row," to
go wid de hoecake and de buttermilk.
Den purty soon de
wind rise a little, and you can hear a old bell donging way on some plantation
a mile or two off, and den more bells at other places and maybe a horn, and
purty soon younder go old Master's old ram horn wid a long toot and den some
short toots, and here come de overseer down de row of cabins, hollering right
and left, and picking de ham out'n his teeth wid a long shiny goose quill pick.
Bells and horns!
Bells for dis and horns for dat! All we knowed was go and come by de bells and
Iffen I could see
better out'n my old eyes, and I had me something to work with and de feebleness
in my back and head would let me 'lone, I would have me plenty to eat in de
kitchen all de time, and plenty tobaccy in my pipe, too, bless God!..”
"I's bo'n in
yonder southeast Texas and I don' know what month or de year for sho', but 'twas more dan
100 years ago. My mammy and pappy was bo'n in Africa, dats what dey's tol' me. Dey
was owned by Marster Bob Houston and him had de ranch down dere, whar dey have
"When I's old
'nough to set on de hoss, dey learned me to ride, tendin' hosses. 'Cause I's
good hoss rider, dey uses me all de time gwine after hosses. I goes with dem to
Mexico. We crosses de river lots of times. I 'members once when we was a
drivin' 'bout 200 hosses north'ards. Dey was a bad hail storm comes into de
face of de herd and dat herd turns and starts de other way. Dere was five of us
riders and we had to keep dem hosses from scatterment. I was de leader and do
you know what happens to dis nigger if my hoss stumbles? Right dere's whar I'd
still be! Marster give me a new saddle for savin' de hosses.
chillun tries teach me to read and write but I didn' larn much, 'cause I allus
workin'. Mother was workin' in the house, and she cooked too. She say she used
to hide in the chimney corner and listen to what the white folks say. When
freedom was 'clared, marster wouldn' tell 'em, but mother she hear him tellin'
mistus that the slaves was free but they didn' know it and he's not gwineter
tell 'em till he makes another crop or two. When mother hear that she say she
slip out the chimney corner and crack her heels together four times and shouts,
'I's free, I's free.' Then she runs to the field, 'gainst marster's will and
tol' all the other slaves and they quit work. Then she run away and in the
night she slip into a big ravine near the house and have them bring me to her.
Marster, he come out with his gun and shot at mother but she run down the
ravine and gits away with me.
wasn't 'fraid of nothin'. He am light cullud from de white blood, and he runs
away sev'ral times. Dere am big woods all round and we sees lots of
run-awayers. One old fellow name John been a run-awayer for four years and de
patterrollers* tries all dey tricks,but dey can't cotch him. Dey wants him bad,
'cause it 'spire other slaves to run away if he stays a-loose. Dey sots de trap
for him. Dey knows he like good eats, so dey 'ranges for a quiltin' and gives
chitlin's and lye hominey. John comes and am inside when de patterrollers rides
up to de door. Everybody gits quiet and John stands near de door, and when dey
starts to come in he grabs de shovel full of hot ashes and throws dem into de
patterrollers faces. He gits through and runs off, hollerin', 'Bird in de air!'
"One woman name Rhodie runs off for long
spell. De hounds won't hunt her. She steals hot light bread** when dey puts it
in de window to cool, and lives on dat. She told my mammy how to keep de hounds
from followin' you is to take black pepper and put it in you socks and run
without you shoes. It make de hounds sneeze.
"One day I's
in de woods and meets de nigger runawayer. He comes to de cabin and mammy makes
him a bacon and egg sandwich and we never seed him again. Maybe he done got
clear to Mexico, where a lot of de slaves runs to.
*"Patterrollers" (patrollers) were white men
who served on local patrols organized throughout the South to control the
movement of slaves outside their home plantations. Patrollers policed their
neighborhoods by challenging any slave whom they suspected of being away from
home to produce a written "pass," or authorization, from his or her
master. Slaves found without a pass were subject to arrests, beatings, or other
forms of violence, some of which led to death.
**"Light bread" is leavened bread made with
wheat flour. Where the rest of the country simply says bread, Southerners often
say light bread or, less commonly, loaf bread, to refer to bread made of wheat
flour and leavened with yeast. Contrary to what Northerners might think, light
bread is not a synonym for white bread. "Light" refers not to the
color of the bread but to the yeast that "lightens" it, so light bread
can be whole wheat or white. Light bread or loaf bread contrasts instead with
pone or cornpone, bread made with corn meal and usually unleavened. Source: American Heritage Dictionary of the
English Language, Fourth Edition (New York: Houghton Mifflin,
we went to church some place. We allus liked to go any place. A white preacher
allus told us to 'bey our masters and work hard and sing and when we die we go
to Heaven. Marse Tom didn't mind us singin' in our cabins at night, but we better
not let him cotch us prayin'.
niggers jus' got to pray. Half they life am in prayin'. Some nigger take turn
'bout to watch and see if Marse Tom anyways 'bout, then they circle
theyselves on the floor in the cabin and pray. They git to moanin' low and
gentle, 'Some day, some day, some day, this yoke gwine be lifted offen our
been dead long time now. I 'lieve he's in hell. Seem like that where he 'long.
He was a terrible mean man and had a indiff'ent, mean wife. But he had the
fines', sweetes' chillun the Lawd ever let live and breathe on this earth.
They's so kind and sorrowin' over us slaves.
chillun used to read us li'l things out of papers and books. We'd look at them
papers and books like they somethin' mighty curious, but we better not let
Marse Tom or his wife know it!
"My mammy done
told me the reason her and my paw's name am Moore was 'cause afore
they 'longed to Marse Tom Waller they 'longed to Marse Moore, but he done sold
them off ...
• • • • •
Editor’s Note: The Slave Narrative Collection provides a
unique and virtually unsurpassed collective portrait of a historical
Compiled in seventeen states during the years 1936-38,
the collection from which these extracts were drawn consists of more than two
thusand interviews with former slaves, most of them first-person accounts of
slave life and the respondents' own reactions to bondage.
The interviews afforded aged ex-slaves an unparalleled opportunity to give
their personal accounts of life under
the "peculiar institution," to describe in their own words what it felt like to be a
slave in the United States.
The Slave Narrative Collection in the Manuscript Division
at the Library of Congress consists of narrative texts derived from oral
interviews. The narratives usually involve some attempt by the interviewers to
reproduce in writing the spoken language of the people they interviewed, in
accordance with instructions from the project's headquarters, the national
office of the Federal Writers' Project in Washington, D.C.
The interviewers were writers, not professionals trained
in the phonetic transcription of speech. And the instructions they received
were not altogether clear. "I recommend that truth to idiom be paramount,
and exact truth to pronunciation secondary," wrote the project's editor,
John Lomax, in one letter to interviewers in sixteen states. Yet he also urged
that "words that definitely have a notably different pronunciation from
the usual should be recorded as heard," evidently assumingthat "the
usual" was self-evident.
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