Slave Narratives

Yesterday I posted a reference to Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project from 1936 to 1938. I, because I am well informed by internet stats, know that not many read the article…. yes history for some is boring………… and for others, you might  think that funding for a project such as this might be unconstitutional…. you would be wrong… the arts are open to the United States government and this is, my friends, an art form of living history and I find it not only interesting but informative. During my college years I was fortunate to know the sons and daughters of individuals just like the ones in the stories. These were the stories of good people under a stress we might never understand. I would like to share these with you.

The narrative excerpts presented here are a small sample of the wealth of stories available in this online collection. Some narratives contain startling descriptions of cruelty while others convey an almost nostalgic view of plantation life. These narratives provide an invaluable first-person account of slavery and the individuals it affected. Although the African Americans who lived under slavery are no longer with us, their experiences remain due to these interviews recorded in the late 1930s by the Federal Writers’ Project.

John W. Fields, Age 89

John W. Fields

Interviewer: Cecil C. MillerDate of Interview: September 17, 1937 Narrative Begins: 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…

“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 wiskey. 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.”

View page images

Sarah Frances Shaw Graves, Age 87

Image, Source:

Sarah Frances Shaw Graves, Age 87

Skidmore Nodaway County, Missouri

NOTES

Narrative Begins: 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…

“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 Emily Crowdes.”The matter of allotment was confusing to the interviewer and Aunt Sally endeavored to explain.

“Yes’m. 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 master.”

“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. . . .”

“Allotments 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.

View page images

Sarah Gudger, Age 121

Image, Source:

Sarah Gudger

Asheville, North Carolina

NOTES

Interviewer: Marjorie Jones

Narrative Begins: Investigation of the almost incredible claim of Aunt Sarah Gudger, ex-slave living in Asheville, that she was born on Sept. 15, 1816, discloses some factual information corroborating her statements…

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 bright 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.)

View page images

Read More

%d bloggers like this: