I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The first-person accounts of people who had been slaves in America were the result of a federal project in the mid-1930s. The 17-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves was published in 1941 and is lodged in the Library of Congress. More than 2,300 former slaves gave accounts of the living conditions they endured during a dark chapter of U.S. history.
The interviewees were all elderly and most were living under Jim Crow laws that still oppressed people of colour.
There has been some recent grumbling that the testimony given is tainted. Rebecca Onion on Slate comments that “a deep power imbalance often complicated the relationship between white interviewers and black interviewees. In the most extreme situations, interviewers were descendants of the same families that had held interviewees as slaves. And in the Jim Crow South, the presence of any white interviewer could make the informants rightfully nervous.”
That said, the Slave Narrative Collection gave ex-slaves the opportunity to express themselves about what the life of a slave was like.
The content is raw and, if Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas had read even a small portion of it, he might not have claimed, as he did in July 2020, that the Founding Fathers viewed slavery as a “necessary evil.”
Cotton also might have refrained from introducing a bill opposing the 1619 Project, which aims to educate students in the U.S. about the impact of slavery and the contribution of African Americans to the “national narrative.”
Slave Living Conditions
Slaves could scarcely do anything without the permission of their owners. Marriage had to be approved by the master who would sometimes deny the request and order slaves to marry someone else. Visiting family on another plantation required a permit. And, there was no guarantee that families could stay together.
Julia Brown was 13 when the Civil War ended. She was interviewed in Atlanta, Georgia in 1936. Her recollections were written down in the dialect of slaves, as many in the Narratives were:
“Ah belonged to the Nash fambly—three ole maid sisters. My mama belonged to the Nashes and my papa belonged to General Burns; he wuz a officer in the war. There wuz six of us chilluns, Lucy, Malvina, Johnnie, Callie, Joe, and me. We didn’t stay together long, as we wuz give out to different people . . .
“My mama died the year of surrender. Ah didn’t fare well after her death, Ah had sicha hard time. Ah wuz give to the Mitchell fambly and they done every cruel thing they could to me.
“Ah slept on the flo’ nine years, winter and summer, sick or well. Ah never wore anything but a cotton dress, a shimmy and draws. That ‘oman didn’t care what happened to the n*****s. Sometimes, she would take us to church. We’d walk to the church house. Ah never went nowhere else. That ‘oman took delight in sellin’ slaves. She’d lash us with a cowhide whip. Ah had to shift fur mahself.”
Us didn’ have stick of furniture in de house, no bed, no chair, no nothin’. Us cut saplings boughs for bed, with green moss over ‘em. Us was happy, though. Us climb trees and play. It was hard sometime to git things to eat so far in de woods and us eat mos’ everything what run or crawl or fly outdoors. Us eat many rattlesnake and them’s fine eatin’. We shoot de snake and skin him and cut him in li’l dices. Den us stew him slow with lots of brown gravy.”
Virginia Newman, Beaumont, Texas.
George Morris in The Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) wrote that “most slaves lived in simple, dirt-floor cabins, wore homespun clothing and were forced to work hard—especially field slaves. They would rise well before dawn, eat, feed and milk cows, then report to the fields so they could begin work as soon as it was light enough to see.”
De n*****s didn’t have no furniture much in dere houses, maybe de bedstead nail up to de side de house, and some old seats and benches. De rations was meat and meal and syrup ‘lasses. Dey give ‘em de shirt to wear, made out of lowers. Dat what dey make de cotton sack out of. De growed people has shoes, but de chillen has no need.”
Horace Overstreet, Harrison County, Texas
Punishment of Slaves
Owners and their overseers had total control over the lives of slaves; they could whip them without mercy and have no fear of suffering any consequences.
Transgressions such as being lazy, or leaving a plantation without permission were likely to bring on a whipping.
Or, whippings were handed out for no reason except to instill fear in the slaves and make them obedient.
Celestia Avery was one of 11 children born to her parents in Troupe County, La Grange, Georgia. The family was owned by Mr. & Mrs. Peter Heard. She was interviewed in May 1937 when she was 75 years old. She told of how her grandmother Sylvia, who was pregnant, was saying her customary morning prayers:
“The master heard her and became so angry he came to her cabin seized and pulled her clothes from her body and tied her to a young sapling. He whipped her so brutally that her body was raw all over. When darkness fell her husband cut her down from the tree, during the day he was afraid to go near her. Rather than go back to the cabin she crawled on her knees to the woods and her husband brought grease for her to grease her raw body.”
When asked if she (Mary Ferguson) had ever been whipped when a slave, ‘Aunt’ Mary replied, “Yes, and thank God fur it, fur ole Miss taught me to be hones’ an’ not to steal.” She admitted that being whipped for stealing made her an honest woman.
Josh Horn in Livingston, Alabama told the story of catching a runaway slave called Guinea Jim:
“Well, dey took Jim outer dar, and Mr. Beesley whipped him a little and told him: ‘Jim, you put up a pretty good fight and I’s gwine to give you a start for a run wid de dogs . . .’
“Dey caught Jim and bit him right smart. You see dey had to let em bite him a little to satisfy de dogs. Jim could have made it, ‘cept he was all hot and wore out.”
My mother was a house servant in Missouri and Mississippi. Never done no hard work till she came here (Arkansas). When they brought her here they tried to make a field hand out of her. She hadn’t been used to chopping cotton. When she didn’t chop it fast as the others did, they would beat her . . . In them days, they’d whip anybody. They’d tie you to the bed or have somebody hold you down on the floor and whip you till the blood ran.”
Mary Estes Peters, Little Rock, Arkansas
This, of course, is only a tiny sampling of the 2,300 first-person accounts of the conditions of slavery contained in the slave narrative documents, and a minuscule fraction of the 3.9 million African Americans who were slaves in the United States in 1860.
Of the estimated 12.5 million Africans abducted and taken to the New World, only 388,000 were shipped to North America. So, the vast majority of slaves in the United States were born, lived, and died there without ever having a chance to tell their own stories. It's as if they never existed.
- John B. Cade Sr. at Southern University, Louisiana, in the late 1920s, sent students out to collect the testimony of still-living slaves. George Morris of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, writes that “Part of Cade’s motivation was to counter white historians’ suggestions that slaves had not minded their status, [Angela V.] Proctor (university archivist and digital librarian) said. Few narratives in Southern’s collection support the idea that slavery was a benign institution.”
- Jon Hubbard, Republican member in the Arkansas House of Representatives wrote in 2012 that “[T]he institution of slavery that the black race has long believed to be an abomination upon its people may actually have been a blessing in disguise.”
- Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Arizona Trent Franks said in 2010 that “far more of the African-American community is being devastated by the policies of today than were being devastated by policies of slavery.”
- Republican member of the Arkansas House of Representatives Loy Mauch said in 2012 “If slavery were so God-awful, why didn’t Jesus or Paul condemn it, why was it in the Constitution and why wasn’t there a war before 1861?”
- Is the Greatest Collection of Slave Narratives Tainted by Racism?” Rebecca Onion, Slate, July 6, 2016.
- The Project Gutenberg EBook of Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery.
- “Whipping of Slaves.” Schoolhistory.co.uk, undated.
- “Unspeakable Cruelty: Former Slaves Tell their Stories in Narratives Southern University Put Online.” George Morris, The Advocate, July 1, 2017.
- “Ten Conservatives who Have Praised Slavery.” Mark Howard, Salon, October 12, 2012.
- “Bill by Sen. Tom Cotton Targets Curriculum on Slavery.” Frank E. Lockwood, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, July 26, 2020.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on June 18, 2020:
I agree. Some of the recent, peaceful protests may help.
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on June 18, 2020:
Patty. It seems there's a long way yet to go.
Patty Inglish MS from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation on June 18, 2020:
Thanks for this history! When I taught social studies, I was fortunate to have as guest speakers a Holocaust Survivor and a senior lady whose father had been a slave and mother a Native American. We must never lose these histories.
My own mother had been "pickled" as a part-Native American that people thought was black -- In Southern Ohio, she'd often been whipped and salt rubbed into the wounds. I remember in 1963 in the Carolinas and Virginia on a short trip that people in restaurants gave her dirty looks, thinking my father had married a black woman. Rude and sad.