Testimony from Slaves

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During the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project was set up in the United States; among its aims was an effort to interview as many surviving ex-slaves as possible.

“The Slave Narrative Collection” is a remarkable document that contains the stories of more than 2,000 slaves. Today, it is held in the Rare Books Division of the U.S. Library of Congress.

New Deal Plan to Record Oral History

Some of the ex-slaves had survived, against all the odds, well past 100 years of age. So, when U.S. President Franklyn D. Roosevelt set up the Federal Writers’ Project in 1936 there were still some people left alive who could describe their own experiences. The project was closed down in 1940.

Some of the writers involved in the project went on to carve out distinguished literary careers for themselves – Studs Terkel, Frank Yerby, Saul Below, and Margaret Walker were just of few of the contributors. The aim of the project was to record local histories and the memories of older Americans.

There are a couple of books with excerpts from the original interviews with ex-slaves. One is “Lay My Burden Down” by Benjamin A. Botkin (1986), and another is “Voices from Slavery” edited by Norman R. Yetman (1999).

Memories of Slave Mistreatment

When she was 89 years old Lucretia Alexander was interviewed in Little Rock, Arkansas. Like her mother she was born into slavery in Mississippi.

“I’ve seen some brutish doin’s…The overseer would be a man named Elijah at our house. He was just a poor white man. He had a whip they called the ‘Blacksnake.’

“I remember one time they caught a man named George Tinsley. They put the dogs on him and they bit him and tore all his clothes off of him.

“Then they put him in the stocks. The stocks was a big piece of timber with hinges in it. It had a hole in it for your head. They would lift it up and put your head in it. There was holes for your head, hands, and feet in it. Then they would shut it up and they would lay the whip on you and you couldn’t do nothing but wiggle and holler…”

Abram Harris talked about a scheme to keep slaves in ignorance: “Iffen a [slave] was to be found what could write…they would chop his forefinger off that hand what he write with.” Frank Bell told an even more gruesome story: “When I’m about 17 I marries a gal while Master on drunk spell. Master he run her off, and I slips off at night to see her, but he finds it out. He takes a big, long knife and cuts her head plumb off, and ties a great, heavy weight to her and makes me throw her in the river. Then he puts me in chains and every night he come give me a whippin’ for a long time.”

Despite these hideous conditions, George Fitzhugh thought slaves had a pretty good deal. Fitzhugh (1806-1881) was a social theorist and defender of the practice of slavery. He wrote about this in his 1854 book “Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society.” It was his opinion that the slave “was happy as a human can be.”