Slave Narratives: A People in Their Own Words

To alleviate the financial pressures of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a New Deal and put into place a public works system called Works Progress Administration (WPA). This system provided Americans, regardless of color or origin; millions of jobs in many fields. As part of the Arts program, Roosevelt ordered an historical documentation of America, listing its people, its infrastructure, cities and towns; and so employed a litany of writers nationwide under the Federal Writers’ Project. From 1936 to 1938; those writers gave voice to over 2,000 elderly slaves who spoke of the atrocities bestowed upon them during times of slavery. In 1941, the interviews were compiled into a work called Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.

These recordings, also known as the American Slave Narratives, were now documented as historical fact. America stood up and listened to these previously unheard voices. It marked an end to slavery, opened up a civil rights movement -- and acknowledged African-Americans as a people who helped build the foundations of the country. Available in seventeen volumes, the narratives recollect accounts of families torn apart -- shocking evidence of grandparents, husbands, wives and children sold to property owners in differing parts of the country, never to see each other again. Squalid living conditions, starvation, deprivation of education, beatings, child labor, rapes, and murders were also uncovered. The writers were a mixture of races, and their job was to record all accounts word verbatim.

The American Slave Narratives can be attributed to some of the freedoms felt by African-Americans today. Although the suffering of their ancestors is still raw and weighs heavily on their hearts, the change it has effected for them as a people has been positive. Now equality, education, freedom of speech; and the ability to rise to positions of power are opportunities that all Americans can hold dear as a nation. Forever having the utmost faith that change would one day come about, for them, and for future generations; the courage of victims of slavery forms the heartbeat of America.

Following is a list of resources on the American Slave Narratives. Included are images, interviews and articles.