United States, Slave Narratives (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2013. It is an excerpt from their course Research: African American Ancestors  by Michael Hait, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Some escaped slaves, like Frederick Douglass, published their own autobiographies. These memoirs may identify their former owners by name, though others hide their owner’s identity, perhaps fearing that they would be returned to bondage.

During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration sponsored the Federal Writers Project, to provide work for unemployed writers. As part of this project, writers collected stories from around the country, including a large collection of narratives from surviving former slaves.

Most of the people interviewed were quite elderly—in their seventies and older. But the stories they weave are a sweeping portrait of many different kinds of slave owners, from the relatively kind and generous to the brutal and vicious. Most of the former slaves named their old masters, and often recounted other details of their lives. Many of these details can be verified with other records, but the narratives serve as the only source for quite a bit of information. And the benefit of reading the “stories” behind the raw facts provided by other records is priceless.

You should not only look for one of your own direct ancestors, but also other former slaves from the same geographic area. Their stories will provide you with a context for the lives of your own ancestors. You may even find that your ancestor was mentioned in someone else’s tale.

The narratives themselves vary widely in style and quality. Some of those interviewed were talkative, some more tight-lipped. The writers themselves ranged from those providing a mere summary of the story to those repeating the conversation verbatim, including reproducing the accents and slang terms.

The entire collection of these narratives is available free online as part of the Library of Congress’s American Memory Collection. This website also provides photographs of some of these former slaves, and even audio recordings of some of them speaking. Even if you do not find any of your ancestors included among those interviewed or mentioned, you should still go through and read some of these narratives, as it will give you an unswerving look at life under the chains of bondage.

Unaffiliated with this collection, there are also other collections of narratives held at various universities and historical societies across the country. You should look into the special collections and manuscript collections of these institutions that lie in or near your area of interest. You would be surprised at what you can find!

Slave Narrative - Delia Garlic

Delia Garlic29G.jpg

Delia Garlic (Montgomery, Alabama), “Dem Days Wuz Hell,” interview by Margaret Fowler; WPA Slave Narrative Project, Alabama Narratives, Volume I, page 129; digital images, “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938,” Library of Congress: American Memory


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: African American Ancestors offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.