From 1936 to 1938 some 2,300 former slaves were recorded by writers and journalists who worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Most of those who were recorded were children during the Civil War. On the recordings which have been cleaned up thanks to modern technology, the former slaves relate stories of their everyday life and how they related to their white masters.
They provide first-hand accounts of their lives on on plantations, in cities, and on small farms. Through them we can understand their lives as slaves. Although each recording only gives us a microscopic view of one life, the collected accounts give us a broad view of slavery in America.
By way of an introduction, here is a video from Nightline that was recorded in 1999. The video gives us an overview of the recordings and a sampling of the former slaves memories of their lives under slavery.
Isom Moseley, another former slave, tells about his life as a slave. At the time of the recording Moseley was about 101. Moseley talks about knowing when he was free.
“Well now, they tell me it was a, a year before the folks knowed that, uh, they was free. And when they found out they was free, they worked on shares, they tell me. Worked on shares, didn’t rent no land, they worked on shares. Now you know I was a boy, I’m about explaining to the best of my understanding. They say they worked on shares. I think they said it was, was it fourth, or third I think. They got the third, I think they say, what they made,??? after surrender.”
Fountain Hughes was recorded by his nephew in June 1949. Mr. Hughes was born in Charlottesville, Virginia (where I live) in about 1848. In this first audio Hughes tells us that his grandfather was owned by Thomas Jefferson. He also gives his nephew Herman Norwood advice on not borrowing money. Hughes tells us about the pass system for slaves. His observation that their owners sold them like any other possession is startling to modern Americans. The recording was made in Baltimore, Maryland. The longer version is here.
“You wasn’t no more than a dog to some of them in them days. You wasn’t treated as good as they treat dogs now. But still I didn’t like to talk about it. Because it makes, makes people feel bad you know. Uh, I, I could say a whole lot I don’t like to say. And I won’t say a whole lot more.”
Uncle Billy McCrea was a former slave who lived in Jasper, Texas at the time of his interview. In this quote he talks about meeting “Yankee” soldiers in his town.
“And I remember and the Yankees stop here, and the Yankees stop right here on the courthouse square. I was a good size boy then. And then what they call Freedman Bureau, you hear tell of it ain’t you? And they prosecuting people you know, what they do, you know, and all like that, and I mean just as hard as they could. I’ve seen two mens they had they were punishing for what they do.”
This link will take you to a page that has an annotated index of the former slaves with a brief biographical description of who they were, where they lived and the slave occupations. Many of them remained a short distance from the plantation or farm where they were enslaved.