"Tisn't he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is -- 'tis he who has endured," said one of the former slaves interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Progress Administration. They're undoubtedly sentiments shared by the more than 2,300 other men and women born into slavery, whose first-person accounts were collected for the project some 70 years after they'd been set free.
Compiled in 17 states between 1936 and 1938 and housed in a seventeen-volume collection at the Library of Congress, the project, entitled "Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves," offers a sobering look at life after slavery, including 500 black-and-white photographs and words, many of which are written phonetically, that describe slave life and the respondents' own reactions to bondage.
"We were never allowed to go to town and it was not until after I ran away that I knew that they sold anything but slaves, tobacco, and whiskey," said John W. Fields, a Civil War-era slave who went on to work as a domestic in Lafayette, Indiana.
"Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us," Fields said, describing he and fellow slaves' great desire to learn how to read and write. "We knew we could run away, but what then?"
Tempie Cummins recalls white children's attempts to teach her how to read, but says she wasn't able to learn much since work demands were so great.
The accounts, which range from startling descriptions of cruelty to almost nostalgic views of plantation life, are said to have been collected with a sense of urgency during the project's two-year run, before the surviving former slaves passed away.
At the time of their interviews, many reported being well into their 80s and 90s, some were even past 100.