Approximately four million Americans enslaved in the United States were freed at the conclusion of the American Civil War. The stories of a few thousand have been passed on to future generations through word of mouth, diaries, letters, records, or written transcripts of interviews. Only twenty-six audio-recorded interviews of ex-slaves have been found. This collection captures the stories of former slaves in their own words and voices.
These interviews, conducted between 1932 and 1975, capture the recollections of twenty-three identifiable people born between 1823 and the early 1860s and known to have been former slaves. Several of the people interviewed were centenarians, the oldest believed he was 130 at the time of the interview. The recordings were made in nine Southern states and provide an important glimpse of what life was like for slaves and freedmen. The former slaves discuss how they felt about slavery, slaveholders, how slaves were coerced, their families, and, of course, freedom. It is important to keep in mind, however, that all of those interviewed spoke sixty or more years after the end of their enslavement, and it is their full lives, rather than their lives during slavery, that are reflected in their words. They have much to say about living as African Americans from the 1870s to the 1930s, and beyond. As part of their testimony, several of the ex-slaves sing songs, many of which were learned during the time of their enslavement.
Unlike written interviews, which sometimes represented collectors' interpretations rather than verbatim transcripts, these recordings present the actual interview and thereby provide the unique experience of hearing the ex-slaves' voices with their own inflections and various regional dialects.
Most interviews were made using direct-to-disc recorders. Powered by batteries, they engraved tracks into the coating of the discs with a stylus and provided playback capability immediately after recording. Their size and weight made them cumbersome in the field and difficult to transport to interview locations. The discs were made from aluminum, acetate-coated aluminum, or acetate-coated glass, and ranged in size from ten to sixteen inches.
Also of interest are the interviewers who include Zora Neale Hurston, John Henry Faulk, John, Ruby and Alan Lomax and Robert Sonkin
These recordings were collected from several collections held in the American Folklife Center's Archive of Folk Culture. Three of the recordings were made for the Commonwealth of Virginia between 1937 and 1940 by Roscoe E. Lewis in affiliation with the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Another ten recordings resulted from the Linguistic Atlas projects.Five of these interviews were recorded by Lorenzo Dow Turner in 1932 and 1933 in the Gullah areas of South Carolina and Georgia. The remainder were recorded by Archibald A. Hill and Guy S. Lowman in Virginia from 1934 to 1935.
The remaining thirteen recordings were made by a number of different fieldworkers. The earliest came from a 1935 recording expedition to Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas by Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle. Their goal was to collect stories, other oral traditions, and music from African Americans in these areas. In 1940, John A. Lomax and his wife Ruby T. Lomax conducted interviews in Texas. These were followed by recordings made in 1941 by Robert Sonkin(in Alabama, and by John H. Faulk in Texas.
In 1941 Charles S. Johnson, Lewis W. Jones, John W. Work, and Alan and Elizabeth Lomax conducted interviews in Mississippi. Hermond Norwood recorded an interview in 1949 in Maryland. The most recent interviews were conducted by Elmer E. Sparks in 1974 in Texas and 1975 in Florida.
Subjects mentioned in the interviews include: African American churches, African American cowboys, religion, social conditions, songs and music, St. Simons Island, Civil War, cotton, Jefferson Davis, gullahs, St. Helena Island, Abraham Lincoln, plantation life, plowing, race relations, reconstruction, abuse of slaves, and emancipation.
All recordings have transcripts Surface noise, clicks and pops, and distortions are inherent in the original recordings.