The Slave Interviews comprise over 2,000 interviews of former slaves that were made in (primarily) the 1930s.
An Underutilized Source
Mostly gathered by the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program, these interviews comprise one of the richest sources about enslaved people.
I should mention that black sociologists Charles S. Johnson and Ophelia Settle Egypt at Fisk University, and John B. Cade at Southern University did the first interviews of this kind in the late 1920s. Their work predated these national-level interviews.
More genealogists should revisit this source, which now is easily accessible in digitized form at the Library of Congress’ website.
Slave interviews have weaknesses that we should understand. For example, white people did most of the interviews. In the South especially, where behavior and speech could lead to a lynching, this may have kept former slaves from being entirely truthful.
They were also mostly elderly and many were children during slavery, so memory could be a barrier. And in the depths of the Depression, interviewees may have had a rosier view of slavery than those who were adults when it ended. The Library of Congress’ website has excellent background articles you should read about this source.
Even still, they remain powerful testimony by those who lived through slavery.
I believe so strongly in this source that I began a new blog called Slave Narratives Uncovered. In it, I explore the genealogy of selected interviewees. I’ve seen no extensive effort to unpack the family histories of these amazing individuals.
Although I don’t plan to post there quite as frequently as here, take a look when you can. My hope is that this can be authored by myself and others, so if there are any experienced genealogists who are interested in contributing to this project, please email me through the ‘Contact Me’ link above.
Ways to Use Slave Interviews
Most researchers look for their ancestors in the interviews, and finding none, they move on. But as I always emphasize in Reclaiming Kin, we should always broaden our gaze to the community. Our ancestors lives can only make sense when we put them in context; when we place them properly in the time and place they lived.
The interviews help us understand the experiences of our ancestors and add the much-needed social history to our research. I have spent many hours reading these narratives for the stories they tell.
Reading through narratives from your research county (and nearby counties) can reveal the similarities and also differences in slavery at the state and local levels. When you read through narratives from Mississippi, they are different in some ways from those in, say Maryland.
For example, in Maryland, several people spoke of the dreaded nine-ninety-nine, a specialized whip that had a ball on the end. This type of whipping, as Dennis Sims described, “was usually a flogging until [we] fell over unconscious or begged for mercy.”
Another idea for excavating these records is to download the PDF files for each state, which are available at the LOC website. Then you can do a search and find (Control-F for Windows users) and search for various topics: places, slaveholders, topics such as abuse.
Reading locally relevant interviews can reveal practices such as:
–if passes were often provided to see nearby relatives,
–if the masters often oversaw wedding ceremonies,
–what folklore, songs, and mourning practices were common,
–if slaves were allowed small patches for gardens, and
–what holidays the slaves were allowed.
It is only when you read through multiple narratives that you are able to get a better sense of the experiences in that state.
Library of Congress Website
There are several important links at the LOC website for these records that I want to highlight so you won’t miss them. There’s an index of how many interviews exist for each state. Each state project was independently run and there were huge differences. For example, Arkansas has a whopping 677 interviews while Virginia submitted only 15.
Many of the state interviews later were published into various state collections, and the references bibliography at the LOC site is very thorough. It also includes links to other websites that may have more collections.
One of the big weaknesses in these records is that only a few states used black interviewers. It has been shown that the widespread use of white interviewers influenced how fully and truthfully respondents answered questions about slavery. In fact, some of the white interviewers were reportedly descended from the slaveholding families that owned the person they were interviewing!
Because of this, I appreciate that LOC provides the states and names of the black interviewers that were used.
I also like that they post some of the interviews that included photographs and recordings. You can listen to the interviews at this page.
A Big Surprise
Recently, I had a thrilling discovery when I decided to read through some of the narratives I’d saved many years ago. One narrative was that of Edward Bradley, who was interviewed in 1936 while living in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. I previously discussed how I used this same narrative in my writing, since this was one of the only interviewees who lived in Hardin County, Tennessee.
Last year, I blogged about how a census misreading led me to miss an entire branch of my BARNES family. Maggie Barnes married in Hardin County, TN, and by 1910 she and her family were living in Arkansas. Her descendants never returned to Tennessee to live, but I was able to make contact with several of her descendants.
Maggie was a first cousin to my great-great-grandfather Doss Harbour:
They joyfully shared that they were just as excited as I was to have found lost family. They provided some oral history and I shared my research on the family’s Tennessee past.
Maggie Barnes husband was…Edward Bradley! I almost fell out of my chair when I realized this.
It took me awhile to realize it was the same person. The reason is somewhat embarrassing but I’ll tell you anyway;) Most records of Maggie’s husband record him “Ed” Bradley and not Edward. DUH.
In the rich narrative, Edward names his parents and describes his life in Hardin County. His migration to Arkansas and the various jobs he held over the decades were also covered. He named his parents, including his mother’s surname in slavery:
“My mother was named Mary Bradley and my father was named Hilliard Bradley…They originated in Alabama and was sold there, and they was free when they came to Tennessee… Bradley was the last man owne’d em…of course, my mother wasn’t a Bradley fore she married. She was a Murphy.”
I found Hilliard and his wife Mary in Hardin County, TN, 1870, as he stated:
Using the birthplaces of Charles and Edward, we can more closely guesstimate that Hilliard’s migration into Tennessee occurred between 1866-1868. This is in line with other African-Americans and other branches of my family there.
I’ve done research in the Freedmen’s Bureau records of Alabama. My working theory for why so many freedmen left Alabama is that the level of overall violence during Reconstruction in many Alabama counties.
Edward provides details on his life in farming and his pride in educating his family. Here’s one more passage:
“I went from Hardin County, Tennessee to Blytheville, Arkansas by land. Drove a team and two cows. I think we were on the road four days. My wife went by train. You know that was too wearisome for her to go by land.”
“I had been runnin’ a five-horse crop in Tennessee and I carried three boys that used to work with me…I’ve educated four of my brothers and sisters after my father died and four of my wife’s brothers and sisters, one adopted son and my own six children–fifteen in all.”
He seems to have done better economically than many black men of the era, but it was indeed a hard life.
What’s interesting is that if you do the math, Edward technically was born after slavery. I wonder why he was chosen as an interviewee? Whatever the reason, I’m thankful!
A Useful Resource
There is a wonderful book I highly recommend you use alongside these interviews. It’s called “A Comprehensive Name Index for The American Slave,” compiled by Howard E. Potts:
I am so thankful for authors like Potts; he spent over 2,000 hours creating this book.
Former slaves’ interviews went into the state volumes where they currently lived. But, that may not have been the place where they lived as slaves. This book indexes the interviews by the county and state where they were enslaved.
For example, I’d like to read interviews of former slaves from Colbert County, Alabama since that is where a branch of my family resided. Using Potts’ County index, there are two interviews in the Arkansas collection, one in Mississippi, and one in Georgia.
This book also indexes by Master. If you have already discovered the name of the slaveholder, you will want to examine those interviews. You may be able to find the interview of someone who was enslaved with your ancestor. There is also an index by Interviewer, if that interests you.
Few sources give us a firsthand look at the lives of the enslaved. Whatever their weaknesses, I have always preferred sources such as these interviews, and the published slave narratives. In them, we find joy and sorrow, humor and anger, destitution and desperation, pride and defiance, pain and love.
I hope you enjoyed this post, and in the comments, let me know if you found information useful to your research in this incredible resource.
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.