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Slave Narratives: a Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves Texas Narratives, Part 1

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The Works Projects Administration was a government agency set up by President Roosevelt’s New Deal to help put people to work during the Great Depression.

301 pages, Kindle Edition

First published February 16, 2010

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Work Projects Administration

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Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
Profile Image for John.
821 reviews141 followers
August 2, 2017
This is a little known gem of a book. Have you considered that there were former slaves alive and receiving pensions during the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt? It seems unfathomable, in many ways, but this book is a true treasure because of the way it captures the life stories of so many former slaves.

It is absolutely fascinating to read these first-hand accounts of what it was like to live as a slave in the antebellum South. Most were mistreated, of course, but many were treated well, and surprisingly, many actually had easier lives prior to abolition. Many slave masters actually treated their slaves humanely, and offered a measure of dignity to their slaves.

Slavery is a broad word that can scarcely describe the experiences of those who lived it. Many loved their masters, many respected them, many desired freedom, while others not. But it is true, that most did not. Most slaves were seen as sub-human, and valued only as property. For this reason, most were well fed, but of course, there were many that were not.

Those that owned slaves, were part of a system that is incomprehensible to modern Americans. For example, many slave masters treated slave women as objects of sexual gratification, and when they bore their own children as a result, they were sold away as property. This utterly bizarre practice was not isolated to just one slave account, but many. It was clearly not uncommon. How could they at the same time believe these women, and their own children to be sub-human and unworthy of human dignity?

Naturally, the kind of person that would sell their own child as a slave, would have no reluctance in selling children away from mothers, wives away from husbands, etc. This again, was an all too common practice. Not only that, but it was not uncommon to have free blacks kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Then there are the experiences of abuse and whipping almost universally shared--slaves were brutally whipped, then their wounds salted. Slaves were hunted down at night by "patterrollers" men who roamed the night watching from traveling slaves, whose sole function seemed to be preventing blacks from being able to have a measure of liberty at night, to visit friends or even spouses on other plantations, prayer meetings, parties, etc.

The book doesn't just describe the days of slavery, though, as the oldest of the former slaves were around 20, by the end of the civil war, and many were children. So the stories extend to the late 1930s, when the narratives were transcribed by writers from the Works Project Administration. The former slaves lived most of their lives as free men and women. Many of them outlived most, if not all of their children. They served in various capacities as farmers, laborers, mothers, soldiers, and so on.

The perspectives on freedom were fascinating. Many had been praying for years, for their freedom, and were grateful to get it. Many saw the manner in which they received their freedom as a sort of curse--for they were wholly unprepared for freedom. They had no ability to function autonomously--they had been trained and conditioned for slavery--not freedom. They couldn't read, write, nor did they have any capital with which to work with. They had to get by with little, and be satisfied with little. Many were able to continue working for their previous masters, but all too often, they left and found little else to do as a trade.

One of the questions this book left me with, yet to answer, is couldn't an economy in which slaves sold for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, be able to pay their slaves as free laborers, not slaves? It almost seems malicious--as though the slave owners would rather treat their slaves inhumanly, than with the dignity they deserve as people made in the image of God. It was as though the culture was so polluted, so wicked, as to prefer bondage for the blacks and limiting wealth and capital to the white classes.

Other highlights included hearing about daily life--what they wore, what they ate, what they did. Most wore little--just simple clothes, or rags, made on the plantation. Most ate pork, corn, and garden vegetables. Possum was a nearly universal favorite. The former slaves in this book did a variety of tasks from picking cotton, to tending house, taking care of livestock, and so on.

I have little positive to say about FDR, his administration, or his legacy. But I will acknowledge that this book, which was produced by the Works Project Administration during the Great Depression is a national treasure. This is an outstanding work that must be preserved and hold a place in the nation's literary canon. Do not miss this book.

Profile Image for Nick.
691 reviews181 followers
September 11, 2017
This is one of the most surprising books ive read in years.

What is surprising to me about this is: The slaves interviewed give generally slightly positive views of their slave masters, and sometimes of slavery in general, and a slightly negative view of the Union, and of Lincoln. It isn’t universal, and opinions are kind of scattered all over the map. But the average opinion is certainly not what you would expect it to be. On average, they seem to remember slavery in a way which is much less horrific than the standard pop-cultural view of it. That is an inescapable conclusion which any honest reader of these interviews has to be hit by. Just let me give 2 examples of rather extreme but by no means isolated cases. Theres are very broad statements, but many such statements talk about plantation life, the war, and reconstruction in *detail* but to the same connotative end:

"I believe we was all happy as slaves because we[Pg 7] had the best of kere (care). I don't believe none of us was sold off because I never heard tell of it. I have always served nice folks an' never 'sociated with any other kind. I brought up Mis ——'s chil'ren an' now she gives me a life intrust in this place I lives in. I hav'nt never to say really wanted for anything."

"Slavery was a good thing by all niggers who happened to have good marsters. De owners wus to blame for slavery gettin' such a bad reputation. Some of 'em jus' done a little too much an' sich caused de war an' give de niggers freedom. Slavery wus good for some an' bad for others."

Other passages talk about how the union army basically pillaged the area very badly, how they were poorer after the war, how they stayed with their masters in the post war period, etc etc etc.

Now there are a bunch of different possible reasons for this.

Some kind of stockholm syndrome. Brainwashing. Nostalgia. False consciousness. An ego defence to being subjugated into someone else's quasi-feudal arrangement. Other psychologizations.
But it could also be that they aren’t bullshitting entirely, and that slavery was not as bad as we think it was, and that reconstruction was worse than we think it was? Or at least that slaves were fairly divided or ambivolent about these topics?

Both are probably true to some extent. But to what extent for each category?

Let me just flag here it seems weird that I feel this immediate impulse to psychologize the slaves. To try and find an excuse, a justification about why what they are plainly saying in the interviews isn’t exactly true. Slavery HAS to be the worst thing in the world—— sooooo much worse than wage labor in northern factories, right? So much worse than indentured Indian laborers in Trinidad, right? The Civil War was good for slaves, right? Because it liberated them and they were better off afterwards… right? Those are the views I came into the book with, and am now questioning. Its just 1 book, and its not quantative. But it is reason to give pause.

When the slaves themselves throw up obstacles to the narrative we’ve been culturally transmitted, do we listen to their actual voice— a rare time when the subaltern voice of a slave actually surfaces? Do we take their lived experience seriously? Or do we just explain it away as “false consciousness” or some sort of inauthentic expression of a slave mentality? Unless your theory is that we are getting a systematically biased perspective from these slaves because of the WPA interview or selection process. Which--- well let me know if thats the case.

The fact that document this exists and I didnt really know about this main surprising aspect of it bothers me. I feel like I was kind of sheltered from this kind of source material during my education. This makes me feel like my education was both a) a ripoff, and b) giving away material to white nationalist conspiracy theorists by hiding it and not openly incorporating it into the mainstream theory/narrative. Then again, I didnt take very in depth classes on the civil war so maybe this comes up and I just didnt get to it.

(Maybe im exaggerating the extent to which slave opinion was the opposite of how you would expect it to be. My memory may be flawed. But at the absolute least, the spread of opinion on slavery, the union, their masters, etc, was extremely wide. Much wider than you would naturally expect. That was shocking, and stood out so obviously from anything ive ever read before about the civil war. And yet *even the other reviewers* on Goodreads seem to mostly ignore this fact in their reviews. ????????????????? )
February 2, 2014
Must-Read History

I am so glad the WPA put the effort into making this book. It is a different take on a story told & retold. These are the real people, and their daily lives in and after slavery. You get to know them and empathize with each story. No two are exactly alike. This should be required reading for every class on American History.
Profile Image for Derek Davis.
Author 4 books29 followers
February 1, 2018
This is one volume of a massive project carried out by the WPA in 1936-38. This one covers Texas slaves with last names from A partially through D. The whole project was a careful and stunning endeavor. I’m just posting a few quick observations.

Thoughtful, caring transcriptions, scrupulous attempt to present accurate pronunciation. Reflect standardized questions (“where were you born, what were your early memories, what was your housing like, what did you eat, how were you treated?” etc.), though only the responses are included, as continuing narrative. Were these machine recorded? Not mentioned.
Somewhat standardized colloquial spelling – but very different grammatical constructions on different plantations – or different areas the slaves came from originally?
Many white families moved from Louisiana, Alabama, Virginia, etc., because Texas was still a young state (fully absorbed in 1845)
Narrators in their 80s and 90s, many were "house slaves," may be why they survived
Blacks so dehumanized that they often call their masters "good" even if occasionally whipped, “taken care of” but not recognized as human, or if so recognized, no sense that another human cannot be owned
Children often sold off from their parents
Master had the right, often exercised, to beat a slave or put him/her in chains
Wide range of treatment, from gentleness and fondness to stunning severity; common punishment among sadistic overseers: whipped till blistered, blisters broken, salt and red pepper rubbed in wounds
Many worked from sunup to sundown; for some, Sundays off, dancing and singing on Saturday nights; others worked 7 days
In some areas, a slave needed a pass to visit another plantation; patrollers (“patterrollers”) on lookout for those out without permission; other areas, allowed to visit without supervision
Women owners often portrayed as far nastier than men
Slave women often nurse for both white and "cullud" children
Several slaves stolen from free (often Native American) parents and sold
When freedom came, most stayed with masters, now paid; the “better” former masters gave their slaves land and some supplies; in many cases, ex-slaves worse off materially after emancipation
Some turns of phrase too similar to be coincidental – at emancipation, almost all report master saying, "You are as free as I am”; was this wording passed around by Union decree?
Log houses and huts standard for both slaves and masters: slave huts had no floors, slept on husk, grass, moss mattress
Most slaves had no shoes; clothes made of homespun, slave woman often seamstress for master and slaves
10 or more children in many families (black or white)
Many slaves well fed on self-sustaining farms, elsewhere almost starved; killed plentiful wild game – turkeys, rabbits, possums, raccoons, maverick cattle
Learning to read/write: some slaves encouraged, some had fingers cut off for learning
Some masters let slaves go to church, others lashed them for it; some went to service with whites
Profile Image for Missy.
564 reviews28 followers
May 23, 2021
If you can understand and read heavy Negro dialect, then you will enjoy this book. It took me a few chapters to get into the groove and read fluidly. I personally believe this to be one of the most important history books of all time. You hear directly from the survivors of slavery, themselves, of where they came from, their experiences as a slave, and what they did following freedom, without the fluff or the lies or the changing of history. This volume consists of interviews of all persons who were brought to Texas as slaves from the east coast in and around 1858, at the cusp of the Civil War. Interviews were performed just in time, as all the ex-slaves were now very old, from about 86 years to over 100 years old.
2019 52-Bookmark Reading Challenge -
#18/52 - Book about history
Profile Image for Tracy.
925 reviews7 followers
June 27, 2020
Another set of narratives from people who were born into slavery, then freed. These are from Texans. Personal narratives are so interesting to read, and these are very short, and filled with interesting memories. Many of these slaves were taken to Texas because their owners thought they could keep them longer in Texas. Lots of the stories include memories of their journey to Texas from Virginia or Louisiana. The interviewers obviously asked everyone the same questions, and there is a question in this batch about ghosts, which was fun. Another question was about beatings, or whippings. Every single one of these talks about the method and frequency of beatings. It is upsetting to hear it calmly discussed.
67 reviews1 follower
May 27, 2018

I was happy to see that African Americans were included in the WPA, among them taking oral histories. It is hard to know who the interviewer was in the case of this book however, and the positive spin on white owners might be due to the race of the interviewer, hard to say.

Elderly folks also tend to emphasize the good things in the past because it makes them feel better, so the effect of age could influence the story as well.

Am reading a second book with many more subjects, looking forward to comparing the two.
Profile Image for Laine.
224 reviews3 followers
December 29, 2021
Everything we never knew about the deep south during the final years of slavery thru reformation and up to the 1930s as told by those who lived it. It is obvious. the questions asked by the white folk assigned to interview elderly blacks about their experiences under slavery were of limited supply and based on white expectations. Nevertheless answers are surprisingly frank and open so many new thoughts on rarely mentioned chapters of US history. An important read.
Profile Image for A.C..
137 reviews6 followers
May 7, 2017
Fascinating and heartbreaking

This should be required reading for all students. The stories, in people's own words, are incredible. I don't believe that any book ABOUT slavery, can tell the story as well as it has been told here by the people who survived it. Highly recommend.
14 reviews
January 27, 2018
This entire series of books is fascinating to read. I'll read each one till I finish the series. I recommend them highly.
18 reviews
January 24, 2020
Interesting perspective

Gives you an idea of how former slaves felt about their former owners and the way they felt that times were "better" in a way before the civil war
Profile Image for Rebecca Wetzler.
Author 1 book4 followers
June 12, 2021
Time Capsule

Excellent time capsule of the end of slavery. Both the cruelty of some , and caring of others. Well worth the read.
34 reviews
January 25, 2016
I was awed by the resilience of these elderly former slaves who came through so many hard times -- slavery, and war, and then building new lives from very little. Their stories were dramatic and fascinating, rich with details about Southern life before and after the Civil War. The photographs of them are beautiful.

That said, the interviews, collected in Texas in 1937, can be emotionally hard to take. I thought I knew a lot about slavery, but I kept running into details that shocked me. For instance, all the people who mention funerals say their owners didn't allow them; dead slaves were dumped with no ceremony into unmarked pits. Many pre-teen slaves wore just a long shirt; some masters kept even adults in this humiliating garment with no underwear.

Also, many interviewees display what I can only call a slave mentality that was excruciating to read. I take this as evidence of how hard it was for former slaves to hold onto a sense of dignity and self-respect. I wouldn't presume to judge people in their circumstances. But it's still painful when people discuss how many "head" of "n*****s" their masters owned. Or when one man brags of how his master valued him as breeding stock, and reminisces about the entertaining patter of the auctioneers who sold human beings.

One fact that stood out was that despite Southerners' rhetoric about Negro inferiority, owners weren't racially persnickety about whom they enslaved. One former slave's parents were a Serbian and an East Indian who'd been captured overseas and shipped to Louisiana for sale. There were a couple of stories about Indians who were kidnapped and sold. And of course, some slaves were three-quarters or more white, and related to the masters.

What I saw connecting the interviewees' varied experiences of slavery was the way their lives were shaped by whoever happened to own them. A few masters beat their slaves rarely if at all; many were out-of-control sadists. Different masters had different policies on whether slaves could attend church, marry, dance, have their own gardens, visit other plantations, or learn to read. The masters decided what the slaves ate, where they lived, when they worked, and whether parents could know their children. When freedom came, most masters offered wages to any freed people who would stay to bring in the crops. But one threw a day-long party and gave livestock to everyone who wanted to leave; another warned all his former workers to be gone by next morning. Most of the interviewees were children during slavery, but few of them spoke of decisions that their parents made. The masters controlled everything.
Profile Image for E.
833 reviews34 followers
June 28, 2020
I found the variety of experiences of enslaved people both surprising and very educational. I feel that while a sometimes uncomfortable read, this collection should be read by everyone living in America, to better understand our past. I hope to find more accounts like this one to read.
5 reviews1 follower
February 23, 2016
Real history

History from the mouths of the former slaves. Reality without censorship. Excellent insight into the good as well as the horrors of slavery.
Profile Image for Susan.
Author 139 books76 followers
November 13, 2018
This is part of a series of interviews the United States government (under the WPA) conducted with former slaves in Texas during The Great Depression. It’s interesting to read the former slaves’ recollections and events they experienced or overhead during the slave years, and their general thoughts on the current world and society.

103 reviews1 follower
December 9, 2018
Very interesting interviews of very old people who were once enslaved. These are very sincere, full of detail, by fascinating people who one would love to get to know.
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