The lives of slaves -- in their own words

You don't know what to expect from the voices. Anger? Hatred? Regret? Bewilderment?

Then they speak, and the voices from the past are unsettling. They aren't those of actors in Roots pretending to be slaves, but those of actual slaves, all dead now, but all reflecting on when they and every member of their families were held in bondage in the United States.


Fountain Hughes, who was interviewed in Baltimore in 1949 at the age of 101, proclaims: "I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. My grandfather belong to Thomas Jefferson."

Hughes is just one of 25 former slaves whose recollections are available through an extraordinary project by the Library of Congress.


The collection -- Voices From the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories -- is available on the library's Web site (

What emerges is a myriad of tales, some disturbing, some amusing, some reflecting on life as a slave, some discussing life after emancipation.

Alice Gaston, interviewed in Gee's Bend, Ala., in 1941, recalls the instructions given her as fear of approaching Northern troops gripped the South during the Civil War: "I can remember when my missus used to run in the garden from the Yankees and tell us if they come, don't tell them where they at. ... They all come and they told me, don't get scared now and tell them where they is."

Joe McDonald, interviewed in Livingston, Ala., in 1940, recounts the day when his masters rejoiced in how they had raised him.

" 'When we are dead and in heaven,' they said, 'we wants to raise you as an intelligent [colored]. We wants you to have good friends like we have got. Say, you'll never be scratched by good rich, sensible white folks because they can tell who you are by your raising and your compliments. That show that you been raised,' he said, 'not by the colored but by the white.' "

Sarah Garner, interviewed somewhere in Virginia in 1935, remembers how the slaves on the plantation always tried to complete their chores, or risk becoming victims to the whip.

They "moved fast ... because if you didn't do, he was at liberty to whip us," she says.

Asked if she was ever whipped, Garner replies: "Yes, he did. ... There was ... six rows from the end of that house out yonder," she says. "Six rows of them for me to work a day, but I was just 14 years old. ... If I couldn't get it done, why, he whop me."


The presentation was developed by the library's American Folklife Center's Archive of Folk Culture. It required a year and at least 15 people to complete the project, said Michael Taft, head of the archive of folk culture.

The recordings were made beginning in 1932. Three were recorded by educator and sociologist Roscoe E. Lewis, working with the Federal Writers Project.

Nine recordings were commissioned by Linguistic Atlas and are part of 1,300-disc collection donated to the library by the American Dialect Society.

The other interviews were recorded by a variety of people, including educator and activist Mary Elizabeth Barnicle, and John H. Faulk, folklorist and radio and television personality. They were made mostly using direct-to-disc recorders, and the quality of them varies greatly. For that reason, the library offers transcriptions of the interviews as well.

But the impact of the collection comes from hearing the voices.

"We have a lot of ex-slave narratives. Most are taken from dictation," says Taft "... But very little in the way of audio, of actually hearing the voices. It's one thing to read accounts of slavery, it's quite another to hear the voice, to hear the people who lived through it."


The former slaves tell their stories in the dialect of the day, and while some voices are faint, most are clear and strong.

Surprisingly, they often talk of slavery in almost matter-of-fact tones.

The passage of time may explain the lack of bitterness, Taft says.

"Remember," he says, "these were old people, often in their 90s when they were interviewed. It may reflect the kind of perspective you gain on your own life as you get older. ... Had you interviewed them the day after emancipation, it might have been quite different."

The stories of the former slaves are gripping, nonetheless. Not all of them are limited to the issue of slavery. They also reveal the influence music had on them and their values.

Fountain Hughes, for instance, can be heard lecturing young people against unbridled consumption.


"Don't want everything somebody else has got," he says. "Whatever you get, if it's yours, be satisfied. And don't spend your money till you get it. So many people get in debt. ... I never bought nothing on time in my life."

The pride of those interviewed is often unmistakable.

Aunt Harriet Smith, interviewed in Hempstead, Texas, in 1941, declares: "I plowed, I plowed oxen myself. ... I can plow and lay off a corn row as good as any man."

Another common theme is the importance of faith.

Susanna Rebecca Wright, interviewed in Oldhams, Va., in 1935, seems to sum up what ultimately was most important:

"Do as he [the Lord] say do," she says. "Lord comes, see everything grind up. Better to get your soul right."