Sunday, June 23, 2013

Slave Narratives

Between 1936 and 1938, the Works Projects Administration (WPA) interviewed over 2000 former slaves and compiled the narrative accounts into collections by state. There are 17 states represented.  If you want some insight into what life was like for a slave you should read these.  Over the years the accuracy of some of the narratives have been called into question but these accounts are still a very valuable source of first hand knowledge of life during the time just before the Civil War. 

If you research black lines these narratives are invaluable if the person being interviewed happens to be one of your family members.  In most cases the person named their mother and father as well as siblings.  Some will even state that the slave owner was their father.  If this is the case DNA testing would be the next step.  They detail when they were bought and when they were sold and how the family was broken up.  What is interesting to me is several of the ones I read stated that the interviewee felt that they were better off as a slave than after the war.  They would recount that as a slave they had plenty to eat, a place to live and clothes to wear.  After the war they were turned out with nothing.  It is so sad to know that they felt this way, especially when they also recount the mistreatment.

If you have family on the other side of the equation, you will find the names of slave owners, their wives, children and their associates.  You will gain some insight into their personalities and read descriptions of the farms/plantations. 

You can read all of the narratives on the Library of Congress website.  You can see a list of the states along with links to the individual narratives HERE.  You can also download each state’s collection of narratives as free Kindle books from Amazon.com.  This is how I have been reading them.  An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives by Norman R. Yetman will give you some background information.  When I read narrative #7 from the Mississippi collection I immediately recognized the slave owner’s name.  I am sure there will be more familiar names before I finish reading these.


Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

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