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American Folklife Center



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Ex-Slave Narratives

In the 1930s, researchers working in the South for the Federal Writers' Project sought out and interviewed former slaves and documented their words in writing. The interviewers spoke with hundreds of elderly people about their experiences of slavery. These accounts of day-to-day life give voice to the individual men and women who suffered and endured during a dark and troubling period of American history. At about the same time, folklorists such as Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, Alan Lomax, John and Ruby Lomax, and John Henry Faulk were making recordings of former slaves, often as part of general collecting expeditions. The bulk of the Federal Writers' Project Collection transcriptions of interviews and photographs are in the Manuscript Division. The Folklife Center has about six hours of sound recordings, which are particularly moving for having captured the voices of the speakers. A recent publication provides a sampling of both the interviews and the sound recordings, along with a valuable introduction on the historical background and meaning of the collection: see Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk about Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation, edited by Ira Berlin et al. (New York: The New Press, 1998). In addition, the Folklife Center is making these materials available online.

In one recording, made in Hempstead, Texas, by John Henry Faulk in 1941, Laura Smalley, a former slave on a Brazos Bottom plantation, describes a cruel beating inflicted upon a woman as a punishment:

But they taken that ol' woman, poor ol' woman, carried her in the peach orchard, an' whipped her. An' you know, jus' tied her han' this-a-way, you know, 'roun' the peach orchard tree. I can member that just as well, look like to me I can, and 'roun' the tree an' whipped her. You know she couldn' do nothing but jus' kick her feet, you know, jus' kick her feet. But the, they, they jus' had her clothes off down to her wais', you know. They didn' have her plum naked, but they had her clothes down to her waist. An' every now an' then they'd whip her, you know, an' then snuff the pipe out on her you know, jus' snuff pipe out on her. (AFS 5496 A and B).

To read other slave narratives online, see Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938.

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