This article was published online on February 9, 2021.
On a rainy Thursday afternoon in November, I stepped inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. On past visits, I’d always encountered crowds of tourists and school groups, a space bursting with movement and sound. But on this day, the museum was nearly empty. It seemed to echo with all the people who had been there but were no longer. For the few of us inside, social distancing was dictated by blue circles scattered on the floor.
But what was most striking about the room was the voices running through it. The words of people who had survived slavery were running on a six-minute loop. Their voices floated through the air like ghosts.
“My father was not allowed to see my mother but two nights a week,” said a woman in the voice of Mary A. Bell. “Dat was Wednesday and Saturday. So he often came home all bloody from his beatings.”
“I had to wok evva day,” said a woman in the voice of Elvira Boles. “I’d leave mah baby cryin’ in the yard, and I’d be cryin’, but I couldn’t stay.”
“My mudder word in de field,” said Harrison Beckett. “Sometimes she come in 9 or 10 ’clock at night. She be all wore out an’ it be so dark she too tired to cook lots of times, but she hafter git some food so we could eat it. Us all ’round de table like dat was like a feast.”
Brown became a global celebrity who turned his escape routine into a one-man show that traveled throughout the United States and England. Douglass and Jacobs wrote autobiographies that became best sellers, and that today are staples in classrooms around the world. Theirs are the stories I learned as a child, and there’s great value in teaching kids stories of resistance, of Black people not being passive recipients of violence. But I remember how, after reading them, I found myself wondering why every enslaved person didn’t just escape like these famous figures did. The memory of that thought now fills me with shame.
The stories swirling about the room weren’t famous accounts of extraordinary people; rather, they were the words of all-but-forgotten individuals who bore witness to the quotidian brutality of chattel slavery. These stories were the result of the Federal Writers’ Project—a New Deal program that was tasked with collecting the oral histories of thousands of Americans. From 1936 to 1938, interviewers from the FWP gathered the firsthand accounts of more than 2,300 formerly enslaved people in at least 17 states. The members of the last generation of people to experience slavery were reaching the end of their lives, and so there was an urgency to record their recollections. In scale and ambition, the project was unlike any that had come before it. The Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave narratives produced tens of thousands of pages of interviews and hundreds of photographs—the largest, and perhaps the most important, archive of testimony from formerly enslaved people in history.
While many of these narratives vividly portray the horror of slavery—of families separated, of backs beaten, of bones crushed—embedded within them are stories of enslaved people dancing together on Saturday evenings as respite from their work; of people falling in love, creating pockets of time to see each other when the threat of violence momentarily ceased; of children skipping rocks in a creek or playing hide-and-seek amid towering oak trees, finding moments when the movement of their bodies was not governed by anything other than their own sense of wonder. These small moments—the sort that freedom allows us to take for granted—have stayed with me.
For many black americans, there is a limit to how far back we can trace our lineage. The sociologist Orlando Patterson calls it natal alienation: the idea that we have been stripped of social and cultural ties to a homeland we cannot identify. I have listened to friends discuss the specific village in Italy their ancestors came from, or the specific town in the hills of Scotland. No such precision is possible for Black Americans who are the descendants of enslaved people. Even after our ancestors were forcibly brought to the shores of the New World, few records documented their existence. The first census to include all Black Americans by name was conducted in 1870, five years after slavery ended. Trying to recover our lineage can be a process of chasing history through a cloud of smoke. We search for what often cannot be found. We mourn for all we do not know.
For years, the collections had been largely ignored. As Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller note in Remembering Slavery, an edited volume of selected narratives, historians throughout the mid‑20th century came up with a range of reasons not to take them seriously. Some argued that because the people who were interviewed, in the 1930s, had been children when slavery ended, their memories were unreliable. Others claimed that the narratives couldn’t be trusted because they weren’t an adequate statistical sample: Those who were interviewed represented approximately 2 percent of the formerly enslaved population still alive in 1930.
The Black Lives Matter movement has further pushed historians to revisit these stories. The past several years—and particularly the months since last summer’s racial-justice protests—have prompted many people to question what we’ve been taught, to see our shared past with new eyes. The FWP narratives afford us the opportunity to understand how slavery shaped this country through the stories of those who survived it.
My mammy Martha an’ me we ’longed ter Mister Joshua Long in Martin County, an’ my paw, Henry, ’longed ter Squire Ben Sykes in Tyrrell County. Squire Sykes lived in what wus called Gum Neck, an’ he owned a hundert slaves or more an’ a whole passel of lan’.
Noah lewis had been doing genealogical research for years, trying to learn as much as possible about his family history, when he discovered that his great-great-grandfather, a man named William Sykes, had been interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave-narrative collection. He wanted to see the original documents himself, so he traveled from his home in Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to visit the Library of Congress.
“It was an amazing experience,” he told me. “I had never seen photographs of him before … That was just mind-blowing all by itself.”
In the black-and-white photograph of William Sykes that accompanies his narrative, he is 78 years old and facing the camera, his eyes hidden behind a pair of dark glasses. He has a white mustache that stretches over his mouth and a long goatee that hangs from his chin. He appears to be furrowing his brow.
“He kind of reminds me of my older brother, Jimmy,” Lewis said.
Lewis had read books that detailed the physical and psychological violence of slavery; he had seen photos of enslaved people and understood the brutal conditions in which they worked. But there was something different about reading the narrative of his direct ancestor—someone from his own family who, only a few generations earlier, had been in chains.
In his narrative, William Sykes describes being a child in North Carolina and seeing the soldiers of the Union Army make their way into Confederate territory. Sykes’s enslaver, fearful for his own life and worried that the Union soldiers might confiscate his human property, escaped with his enslaved workers into the mountains.
While we wus dar one day, an’ while Mr. Jim Moore, de Jedge’s daddy am in town de missus axes my cousin Jane ter do de washin’.
Jane says dat she has got ter do her own washin’ an dat she’ll wash fer de missus termorrer. De missus says “you ain’t free yit, I wants you ter know.”
“I knows dat I’s not but I is ‘gwine ter be free’ ”, Jane says.
De missus ain’t said a word den, but late Sadday night Mr. Jim he comes back from town an’ she tells him ’bout hit.
Mr. Jim am some mad an’ he takes Jane out on Sunday mornin’ an’ he beats her till de blood runs down her back.
Sykes was a child; the detail of blood running down Jane’s back stayed with him the rest of his life.
But not everyone feels the way Lewis does. Six years ago, he attended a family reunion in New Jersey and decided to share what he’d discovered. Standing in front of about 30 people in folding chairs in a relative’s backyard, Lewis read Sykes’s words. Some of those present were old enough to have known Sykes when they were children—and some felt deeply hurt, and embarrassed, by parts of what Sykes was portrayed as having said.
For example, some sections of his narrative implied that life under slavery was good:
I knows dat Mister Long an’ Mis’ Catherine wus good ter us an’ I ’members dat de food an’ de clothes wus good an’ dat dar wus a heap o’ fun on holidays. Most o’ de holidays wus celebrated by eatin’ candy, drinkin’ wine an’ brandy. Dar wus a heap o’ dancin’ ter de music of banjoes an’ han’ slappin’. We had co’n shuckin’s, an’ prayer meetin’s, an’ sociables an’ singin’s. I went swimmin’ in de crick, went wid old Joe Brown, a-possum huntin’, an’ coon huntin’, an’ I sometimes went a-fishin’.
Read one way, these sorts of details might be seen as softening the horrors of slavery, making the gruesome nature of the institution more palatable to readers who aren’t prepared to come to grips with what this country has done. Read another way, though, they might reveal the humanity of those who were enslaved, and show that despite circumstances predicated on their physical and psychological exploitation, they were still able to laugh, play, celebrate, and find joy.
We ain’t wucked none in slavery days ter what we done atter de war, an’ I wisht dat de good ole slave days wus back.
Dar’s one thing, we ole niggers wus raised right an’ de young niggers ain’t. Iffen I had my say-so dey’d burn down de nigger schools, gibe dem pickanninies a good spankin’ an’ put ’em in de patch ter wuck, ain’t no nigger got no business wid no edgercation nohow.
After Lewis finished, some of his relatives told him that he shouldn’t have read the narrative to them. They felt that Sykes’s words reflected poorly on them as a family and on Black people in general. But they didn’t just blame Sykes; they blamed the white person who’d interviewed him, who they believe must have manipulated Sykes or changed his words. “A typical example of white people trying to make us look ignorant,” they told him.
This issue of manipulation in the interviews is something historians have had to wrestle with. The narratives were rarely verbatim transcriptions. Many interviewers altered their subjects’ dialect to make it seem more “authentically” Black. As Catherine Stewart writes in her book, “FWP decisions about how to depict [dialect] on the page reveal more about how the black vernacular was used to represent black identity than about the actual speech patterns of ex-slave informants.” And historians have worried that in a violent, segregated society, when white interviewers showed up on a Black person’s doorstep, the formerly enslaved might have told the interviewers what they thought they wanted to hear, rather than what had actually happened.
When Stephanie Jones-Rogers, a historian at UC Berkeley and the author of They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, showed early portions of her book to friends, some questioned why she hadn’t changed the language of the interviews. They worried that the narratives portrayed formerly enslaved people as uneducated and illiterate. “There may have been some manipulation,” Jones-Rogers told me, and that should be accounted for and taken seriously. Still, she felt that changing the language would risk changing the specific meaning behind how these individuals wanted to tell their story. And it would ignore the fact that, unfortunately, many of them were, by nature of circumstance, uneducated and illiterate—a reflection of the way the insidious legacy of slavery had continued to shape their lives.
Daina Ramey Berry, the chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin, told me that there is no source a historian can use that isn’t compromised by bias in some way, and the notion that we should ignore the narratives because of their imperfections would mean applying a standard to them that is not applied across the board. “The big excuses that people have as to why they push back against them is that they’ll say, ‘Well, they’re biased,’ ” she said. “And I’m always like, ‘I don’t understand why you can read a plantation owner’s letters, or his journal—or her journal—and not even question that.’ ”
Lewis understood his relatives’ concerns. Still, he couldn’t help but feel disappointed that they didn’t appreciate how remarkable it was that this narrative existed at all. For Lewis, it was a piece of history, a piece of them. It was like finding treasure—even if the jewels aren’t cut as cleanly as you’d like, they’re still worth something.
Lewis’s interest in history would ultimately change the course of his life. As he was doing his genealogical research, he went all the way back to the American Revolution, trying to discover whether he had relatives who had been enslaved in the British colonies. He came across the book Black Genealogy, by the historian Charles L. Blockson. There, Lewis encountered the story of a man named Edward “Ned” Hector, a Black soldier who fought in the Revolutionary War, one of thousands of Black people to fight on the side of the Americans. During the Battle of Brandywine, in September 1777, Hector and his regiment were under attack and ordered to abandon their guns and retreat for safety. Hector, however, seized as many abandoned guns as he could, threw them in his wagon, and warded off British soldiers to salvage the only equipment his company had left.
Learning about Hector was transformative for Lewis. He thought this history of Black contributions to the American project should be taught in his children’s classrooms—but not just through books or lectures. The history had to be brought to life. It had to be made real. “So I figured it would be a much better way of getting across to the kids about Hector if I came as Hector,” he said.
In a video of one performance, he’s dressed in a blue wool jacket—typical of those worn by American soldiers during the Revolutionary War—and a matching tricornered hat with a large red feather. In his hands, the musket he holds is not simply a musket, but an instrument that helps him transport the audience back more than two centuries. It becomes a paddle, rising and falling in front of his chest as he tells the story of Black soldiers helping other American troops cross a river during battle. He places it just below his chin as if it were a microphone amplifying his story, or a light meant to illuminate his face in the darkness.
The horn to git up blowed ’bout four o’clock and if we didn’t fall out right now, the overseer was in after us. He tied us up every which way and whip us, and at night he walk the quarters to keep us from runnin’ ’round. On Sunday mornin’ the overseer come ’round to each nigger cabin with a big sack of shorts and give us ’nough to make bread for one day. I used to steal some chickens, ’cause we didn’t have ’nough to eat, and I don’ think I done wrong, ’cause the place was full of ’em.
In the photograph accompanying the interview of Carter J. Johnson, he stands in front of a wooden cabin in the town of Tatum, Texas. He wears denim overalls and a collared shirt. His head is cocked, his brow furrowed. On the porch behind him is a woman in a patterned dress.
Janice Crawford had never seen a photo of her mother’s father. When she saw this picture, she told me, it was listed under the name Carter J. Jackson, but Crawford couldn’t find a Carter Jackson in the census records for that area. She recognized some of the names he mentioned in his narrative from her genealogical research, and showed the photo to her mother, who immediately recognized her father. Carter J. Jackson was in fact Carter J. Johnson. The interviewer must have made a mistake.
Crawford’s mother was born to two unwed parents. They lived nearby, but the man she called Papa, the man she always thought of as her father, was Carter Johnson. Johnson, a deacon in the local church, and his wife, Sally Gray Johnson (whom Crawford called Big Mama, and who is the woman on the porch in the photo), took her in and raised her as their own. Crawford never knew her grandfather—he died nine years before she was born—but his presence was still in the air as she grew up.
Crawford’s mother didn’t have a photograph of her father, and it meant a great deal to Crawford to be able to give her one. “It was very emotional to me,” she said.
Johnson says that in 1863—the year President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—Rogers brought 42 of his enslaved workers to Texas, where the proclamation was not being enforced. There, they continued to be enslaved by Rogers for four years after the war ended.
What Johnson describes was not uncommon. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, enslavers throughout the Confederacy continued to hold Black people in bondage for the rest of the war. And even after General Robert E. Lee surrendered, on April 9, 1865, effectively signaling that the Confederacy had lost the war, many enslavers in Texas and other states did not share this news with their human property. In the narratives, formerly enslaved people recount how the end of their bondage did not correspond with military edicts or federal legislation. Rather, emancipation was a long, inconsistent process that delayed the moments when people first tasted freedom.
I had seven brothers call Frank and Benjamin and Richardson and Anderson and Miles, Emanuel and Gill, and three sisters call Milanda, Evaline and Sallie, but I don’t know if any of ’em are livin’ now.
Then, toward the end, he speaks about the last time he saw his mother:
Me and four of her chillen standin’ by when mammy’s sold for $500.00. Cryin’ didn’t stop ’em from sellin’ our mammy ’way from us.
“The fact that his mother and several of his siblings were sold away, and he was standing there watching this happen,” Crawford said, her voice cracking. “That’s just—that’s just heartbreaking.”
I asked Crawford about the first line of Johnson’s narrative, a line striking in how direct it is:
If you’s wants to know ’bout slavery time, it was Hell.
“Well, you know, it’s just kind of gut-wrenching, isn’t it?” she said. “It was hell. And that’s the word. When my mother saw that word she just kind of jumped. Because she said she’d never heard him curse. And to her, he wasn’t talking about heaven and hell, in the way that, you know, a preacher or minister might. And it was jarring to her.”
I wondered what Crawford had been hoping to get from these exchanges. Did she want an apology? A relationship? Something else?
She told me she’d been looking for information about her family, trying to recover names of ancestors that had never entered the public record. The man promised to send her some documents from his family members but never did. More important, she added, “I was hoping that they’re acknowledging our humanity. And that just like he is interested in and proud of his ancestry, so am I.”
“I would like to say that I’m an observer, and that I can be emotionally detached,” she said, but “it just brings tears to my eyes, how they were treated.” One of the things that left Crawford most unsettled was that the Rogers family back then had claimed to espouse the principles of Christianity. “The people that enslaved my ancestors were ministers, pastors, preachers.”
For Crawford, reading Johnson’s words was the entry point into an entire world of ex-slave narratives. “They really weren’t fed well. They weren’t housed well. They were just required to work from sunup to sundown. They were whipped,” she told me. “It is horrendous. But still, in all, I feel so blessed to have found that document.”
My mammy said dat slavery wuz a whole lot wusser ’fore I could ’member. She tol’ me how some of de slaves had dere babies in de fiel’s lak de cows done, an’ she said dat ’fore de babies wuz borned dey tied de mammy down on her face if’en dey had ter whup her ter keep from ruinin’ de baby.
Lucy brown didn’t know her age when she was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project on May 20, 1937, in Durham, North Carolina. She had no birth certificate, no sense of what year she’d come into this world. Brown’s testimony is shorter than many of the others, in part because she was so young—perhaps only 6 or 7—as slavery entered its final days.
“I wuz jist a little thing when de war wuz over,” she said.
We belonged to John Neal of Person County. I doan know who my pappy wuz, but my mammy wuz named Rosseta an’ her mammy’s name ’fore her wuz Rosseta. I had one sister named Jenny an’ one brother named Ben.
The narrative is a mix of small memories she carried with her from her early childhood and memories that had been passed on to her from her mother.
Gregory Freeland, like both Lewis and Crawford, came across the narrative of his great-great-grandmother while researching his family history. He was raised just outside Durham, where he lived with his mother and his great-grandmother—Lucy’s daughter. He found the narrative only after she had died.
The GI Bill paid for him to go to college, and covered most of graduate school, where he studied political science. For the past 30 years, he’s been a professor at California Lutheran University, where he teaches courses on race, politics, and the civil-rights movement—subjects he feels are urgent and necessary for students at this college with a tiny Black population.
“My students,” he said, “they can’t fathom that life was like that.”
Freeland grew up in the same town where his great-great-grandmother had settled after the Civil War. Known then as Hickstown—named for a white landowner, Hawkins Hicks—the community had begun as an agricultural settlement for the formerly enslaved on the western edge of Durham. Over the course of several decades, it became a self-reliant Black community where the formerly enslaved, their children, and their children’s children all lived together. This history is reflected in Lucy Brown’s narrative:
I can’t tell yo’ my age but I will tell yo’ dat eber’body what lives in dis block am either my chile or gran’chile. I can’t tell yo’ prexackly how many dar is o’ ’em, but I will tell you dat my younges’ chile’s baby am fourteen years old, an’ dat she’s got fourteen youngun’s, one a year jist lak I had till I had sixteen.
As nearby duke university grew, so too did Hickstown, which became known as Crest Street. Residents served as food-service workers, housekeepers, maintenance staff. By the 1970s, the community had more than 200 households, and more than 60 percent of residents worked for the university, according to the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. This included Freeland’s mother, who walked every day from the dirt roads surrounding their home to the paved streets near Duke. And though many of the jobs available did not pay much, it was a tight-knit community of people deeply invested in one another, and in the history of the community their ancestors had built.
Crest Street came under threat in the 1970s with the planned expansion of the East-West Expressway, which would slice directly through the center of this century-old Black community. The residents decided to fight the plan. They hired a team of lawyers and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, citing Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination “under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In 1980, the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled that the highway project could not move forward as proposed, because it would disproportionately affect Black residents.
Representatives from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and members of the Crest Street community began meeting to see if they could come to an agreement. Crest Street residents invited officials to visit their homes, so that they could see what the construction project would have demolished. Ultimately, a compromise was reached in which the residents would all move to an area that was adjacent to their original neighborhood, keeping the community largely intact.
Listening to Freeland tell this story, I thought about how remarkable it was that in this same place where formerly enslaved people had built a community for themselves after generations of bondage, Black people once again had to defend themselves against a government that was attempting to take away a sort of freedom.
For Freeland, stories of towns like Crest Street, and the activists who kept the community together, are just as essential to document as the stories of his formerly enslaved great-great-grandmother. “I’d like to interview people who lived through the segregationist era,” he told me. “And I’d like to interview those people who participated in making change—Black people who are maybe my age, who grew up in this kind of community—before we pass on.”
“Who is going to remember,” he said, “if nobody’s there to tell it?”
Freeland is right. There are other stories of the Black experience that should be collected—and soon. Recently, I’ve become convinced of the need for a large-scale effort to document the lives of people who lived through America’s southern apartheid; who left the land their families had lived on for generations to make the Great Migration to the North and West; who were told they were second-class citizens and then lived to see a person who looked like them ascend to the highest office in the land. Their stories exist in our living rooms, on our front porches, and on the lips of people we know and love. But too many of these stories remain untold, in many cases because no one has asked.
What would a new Federal Writers’ Project look like? How could we take the best of what the narratives of the 1930s did and build on them, while avoiding the project’s mistakes?
When I raised the idea with the historians I interviewed, their voices lit up with energy as they imagined what such a project might look like.
“Historians would definitely need to be in charge,” Stephanie Jones-Rogers told me. Specifically, Black scholars should lead the project. “There’s a way in which to not only center the Black experience, but also to privilege Black intellect, Black brilliance,” she said. “It would be a project like none we’ve ever seen.”
Daina Ramey Berry thought family members should conduct the interviews. “Almost like a StoryCorps on NPR,” she said, “because I think you’re going to get a more authentic story about what life was like.” Berry thought that even well-intentioned strangers might re-create some of the same dynamics in place in the 1930s. She worried about the implications, again, of having federal workers going into older Black folks’ homes and asking them deeply personal questions about what may have been a traumatic time in their lives.
Catherine Stewart believes that there would be important benefits to having such a project led by the federal government: “Funding, first and foremost, at a level other agencies and nonprofit organizations simply don’t have.” She added that the federal government already has the infrastructure this sort of project would require—in places like the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Library of Congress. The government also has the ability to ensure that the public has access to it.
When I began reading the Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave narratives, I thought about my own grandparents. I thought about my grandfather, and how his grandfather had been born into bondage. About my grandmother, and how the grandparents who raised her had been born just after abolition. About how, in the scope of human history, slavery was just a few moments ago. I thought, too, of everything my grandmother and grandfather have seen—born in 1939 Jim Crow Florida and 1930 Jim Crow Mississippi, respectively, and now living through the gravest pandemic in a century and watching their great-grandchildren, my children, grow up over FaceTime.
About a year ago, I decided to interview them. I spoke with them each individually, an audio recorder sitting on the table between us, and listened as they told me stories about their lives that I had never heard. My grandfather and his siblings hid in the back room under a bed while white supremacists rode on horseback through their community to intimidate Black residents. As my grandmother walked to school on the red-dirt roads of northern Florida, white children passing by on school buses would lower their windows and throw food at her and the other Black children. For as much time as I’d spent with them, these were the sorts of stories I hadn’t heard before. The sorts of stories that are not always told in large groups at Thanksgiving while you’re trying to prevent your toddler from throwing mac and cheese across the room.
My children will, in a few decades, be living in a world in which no one who experienced the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will still be alive. What happens to those people’s stories if they are not collected? What happens to our understanding of that history if we have not thoroughly documented it?
Some of this work is already being done—by the Southern Oral History Program and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, for instance—but not on a scale commensurate with what the Federal Writers’ Project did. That requires financial and political investment. It requires an understanding of how important such a project is.
Imagine if the government were to create a new Federal Writers’ Project. One committed to collecting, documenting, and sharing the stories of Black people who lived through Jim Crow, of Japanese Americans who lived through internment, of Holocaust refugees who resettled in America, of veterans who fought in World War II and the Vietnam War. And stories like those of the people in Freeland’s great-great-grandmother’s town, who fought to keep their community together when the state wanted to split it apart. There are millions of people who experienced extraordinary moments in American history, and who won’t be around much longer to tell us about them. Some of these moments are ones we should be proud of, and some should fill us with shame. But we have so much to learn from their stories, and we have a narrowing window of time in which to collect them.
I keep thinking of something Freeland told me, and how his words speak to both the stakes and the possibility of this moment.
“We survived,” he said. “And I’m still around.”
This article appears in the March 2021 print edition with the headline “We Mourn for All We Do Not Know.”