Voices from the Days of Slavery

About this Collection

The recordings of former slaves in Voices from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories come from several collections held in the American Folklife Center's Archive of Folk Culture. They were made by various interviewers working in nine Southern states between 1932 and 1975.

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). In addition, the FWP hired unemployed writers and other professionals to collect more than 2,300 other interviews with ex-slaves in written form, which are found in the American Memory collection Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938. The contextual and interpretive material accompanying those interviews online are often equally useful for understanding the recordings in this presentation.

Another ten recordings resulted from Linguistic Atlas (external link) projects and are part of a 1,300-disc collection donated to the Library by the American Dialect Society in 1985. 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, who had recently been appointed honorary curator of the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Song, 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) with support from a Rosenwald scholarship and the Library of Congress. In 1941, as part of a joint venture between the Library of Congress and Fisk University, Charles S. Johnson, Lewis W. Jones, John W. Work, and Alan and Elizabeth Lomax conducted interviews in Mississippi. Hermond Norwood, a Library of Congress engineer at the time, 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).

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 for this collection were made from aluminum, acetate-coated aluminum, or acetate-coated glass, and ranged in size from ten to sixteen inches.

Efforts were made to collect biographical information about the interviewees and interviewers. Unfortunately, with few exceptions, only a small amount of information was found about the former slaves. A book and numerous newspaper and magazine articles were written about Charlie Smith, who lived to be 137. Fountain Hughes was interviewed by the Towson, Maryland, Jeffersonian in 1952 when he was 101. Transcripts of WPA interviews with Samuel Polite and Dave White and with Billy McCrea's brother are available, as are photographs and field notes related to several former slaves. However, for most of the ex-slaves, it is their interviews that provide the most complete information about them. Far more information is available about the people who conducted the interviews; summaries are found in Biographies of the Interviewers.

The recordings in this online collection provide an opportunity for linguists to examine the development of Black English and the transformation of language over time. Transcriptions of recordings received from the American Dialect Society are available for the first time in this presentation as are transcriptions of several other previously published interviews, including those made for the book The Emergence of Black English-Text and Commentary, edited by Guy Baily, Natalie Maynor, and Patricia Cukor-Avila (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1991) and appear with slight modifications in this presentation. American Folklife Center staff from the Library of Congress transcribed the remaining recordings. Adhering to the accepted practice for professional folklore scholarship, the transcripts, for the most part, are presented in standard English. However, as the audio tracks attest, the speakers all render their stories in a variety of dialects that reflect their heritage. Recordings that suffer from poor audio quality have gaps in their transcriptions, but even in those cases, the transcriptions are a useful tool for following and understanding the interviews.

Twenty-eight songs (or song fragments) are included in the recordings. Many of the songs are difficult to identify because folk melodies and lyrics tend to change over time. Song titles, when known or surmised, and the recordings in which they are included are noted in the Song Title List.