This publication contains excerpts and entire autobiographies with historical insights that were dictated by thousands of former American slaves during interviews. Writers working for the United States federal government transcribed the narratives, which subsequently were stored in about six archival repositories throughout the United States. The former slaves ranged from their early seventies to well over one hundred years of age.
The majority of these interviews occurred during the 1930s, a time of great economic depression in the United States. This depression affected everyone, especially America’s poorest citizens, among whom were some of these formerly enslaved people. For many of those who had been treated humanely, remembrances of youthful days resurfaced with desires to return to a period when food was plentiful. Those who had been abused knew that life during an acute depression was far superior to even the best conditions during enslavement.
DONAVILLE BROUSSARD: I don’t know if it has been better after the War. I don’t mean that slavery was better than freedom. I mean that times were better.
Remember that discrimination and violent persecution against blacks were flourishing openly during the time of these interviews. The varying attitudes that were directed towards these freed people by the interviewers — who were male and female, black and white — also affected the former slaves’ responses. (Most of the interviewers were white women.) Some of the ex-slaves feared that slavery would return. Nevertheless, they were as candid as they dared to be and told significant amounts of details about their lives in bondage.
CATO CARTER: Everything that I tell is the truth, but there’s plenty that I can’t tell.
As instructed, many interviewers followed the supplied questionnaire and queried the elders about a long list of topics, including questions about their masters’, parents’, and siblings’ names that provide great genealogical references for their descendants. Others ignored the questionnaire and let the ex-slaves have free-flow conversations about any subject that they desired to describe.
Enclosed [in brackets] are bits of information that I’ve provided to explain portions of the text. Enclosed (in parenthesis) are the interviewers’ comments. My comments to you are in bold italics. Even though the narratives were dictated in their entirety, the interviewers enclosed certain passages in quotation marks when the ex-slaves sang songs or recalled the words of conversations that were held during slavery, I used two methods: When I translated the quotes, I used italics. When I decided to leave the quotes exactly as they were, the original quotation marks were unchanged.
I am so pleased to present these true stories. Through them, society is able to learn details about a very significant part of American history that shaped the United States.
Blessings to you,