Oral History Fills Gaps Where Records Are Missing

African American Monument, Columbia, South Carolina

Oral history resources may not document a specific ancestor, but you can find out more about an ancestor’s life and values from those who lived nearby.

Studying oral histories provide a great insight into what life was like for ancestors. Some periods of history are difficult to document. Oral histories provide valuable information even when historical documentation exists.

Dates, places, and events are important and more interesting when coupled with a personal account or testimony of an ancestor or his contemporary. Most researchers are understandably more focused on finding facts about one specific person and are discouraged when they cannot. Recorded oral history resources can teach important lessons which vital statistics cannot.

Slave Narratives

Slave narratives are a vital piece of oral history which illustrate African American’s rich heritage while telling about individuals who built a legacy while shackled. Through the Works Progress Administration, federal employees collected and preserved the oral history of former slaves.

Many of the volumes of slave narratives are available to read or download free online. Two pages of links to the volumes have been added to African American Resources: Slave Narratives. Some of the language and vocabulary used by former slaves might seem startling at first, however, by focusing on what these families accomplished, the following insights begin to surface:

1. The majority of slaves were kept from educational and economic advancement and lived in the most degrading situations without the freedom to make choices that are often taken for granted today. No matter how difficult times were then, they clung to hope, faith, and dreams which fueled them.

2. Generations later, slave descendants are realizing their ancestor’s hopes and dreams. No matter how harsh these days seem, they cannot compare to one day of being enslaved. To a slave, freedom is a fire that will not die. When that freedom was granted, the former slave lived each day working toward accomplishing the things for which he could only dream about while in bondage.

Other values former slaves had are also revealed in slave narratives:

  1. Family
  2. Church worship
  3. Work
  4. Community service
  5. Land ownership

Share the Legacy

Would former slaves be able to look upon their descendants and see these core values manifest in their lives today? Today’s youth will find an increased desire to carry their legacy forward as slave narratives are shared with them.

Search through the slave narratives for the local area where your ancestor lived, and you may discover narratives about people with the same surname. Information also can be gleaned about the places frequented by former slaves such as stores and churches. Often the name of slave owners are mentioned. Wills, census records, and estate records documenting slave owners can be identified for the first time.

Extract the information which helps you to understand more about your slave ancestor. Use the narratives to teach your family about the progress that was made which was achieved through the hard work and diligence of those who came before them.