Stories of Slavery, From Those Who Survived ItHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, African American history, WPA, Federal Writers Project, Slave Narratives
On a rainy thursday afternoon in November, I stepped inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. On past visits, I’d always encountered crowds of tourists and school groups, a space bursting with movement and sound. But on this day, the museum was nearly empty. It seemed to echo with all the people who had been there but were no longer. For the few of us inside, social distancing was dictated by blue circles scattered on the floor.
I made my way down to the bottom level, which documents the history of slavery in America. Masks were mandatory, and something about the pieces of cloth covering everyone’s mouths seemed to amplify the silence and solemnity of what surrounded us.
I walked past the statue of Thomas Jefferson standing among bricks bearing the names of people he’d enslaved, past a cabin that enslaved people had slept in, and past the stone auction block upon which enslaved people had been sold and separated from their families.
Toward the end of a long corridor was a dimly lit room with sepia-toned photos on the walls. Photos of enslaved people holding their own children, or their enslaver’s children. Photos of fresh wounds on the backs of those who’d been beaten. Photos of people bent over fields of cotton that hid their faces.
But what was most striking about the room was the voices running through it. The words of people who had survived slavery were running on a six-minute loop. Their voices floated through the air like ghosts.
“My father was not allowed to see my mother but two nights a week,” said a woman in the voice of Mary A. Bell. “Dat was Wednesday and Saturday. So he often came home all bloody from his beatings.”
“I had to wok evva day,” said a woman in the voice of Elvira Boles. “I’d leave mah baby cryin’ in the yard, and I’d be cryin’, but I couldn’t stay.”
“My mudder word in de field,” said Harrison Beckett. “Sometimes she come in 9 or 10 ’clock at night. She be all wore out an’ it be so dark she too tired to cook lots of times, but she hafter git some food so we could eat it. Us all ’round de table like dat was like a feast.”
When I’d first encountered these floating voices years before, I was fascinated by how ordinary their stories were. These were not tales of daring escapes like those of Henry “Box” Brown, who in 1849 contorted his body into a wooden crate for 27 hours as it was delivered from the slave state of Virginia to abolitionists in Pennsylvania—mailing himself to freedom. Nor were they the stories of Frederick Douglass, who as a teenager, in 1833, fought his white slave breaker with such force that the man never hit Douglass again. Nor were they the stories of Harriet Jacobs, who, in an attempt to escape the physical and sexual abuses of slavery, hid in an attic for seven years.
Brown became a global celebrity who turned his escape routine into a one-man show that traveled throughout the United States and England. Douglass and Jacobs wrote autobiographies that became best sellers, and that today are staples in classrooms around the world. Theirs are the stories I learned as a child, and there’s great value in teaching kids stories of resistance, of Black people not being passive recipients of violence. But I remember how, after reading them, I found myself wondering why every enslaved person didn’t just escape like these famous figures did. The memory of that thought now fills me with shame.
The stories swirling about the room weren’t famous accounts of extraordinary people; rather, they were the words of all-but-forgotten individuals who bore witness to the quotidian brutality of chattel slavery. These stories were the result of the Federal Writers’ Project—a New Deal program that was tasked with collecting the oral histories of thousands of Americans. From 1936 to 1938, interviewers from the FWP gathered the firsthand accounts of more than 2,300 formerly enslaved people in at least 17 states. The members of the last generation of people to experience slavery were reaching the end of their lives, and so there was an urgency to record their recollections. In scale and ambition, the project was unlike any that had come before it. The Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave narratives produced tens of thousands of pages of interviews and hundreds of photographs—the largest, and perhaps the most important, archive of testimony from formerly enslaved people in history.