The nature and effect of the enslavement of people of African descent in the United States constitute one of the most controversial subjects in the study of American history. Throughout much of the twentieth century, American historians have debated, sometimes quite heatedly, various interpretations of slavery in the United States. Many of the viewpoints of the scholars, however, have failed to consider seriously and systematically the documentary records of the slaves in their research. Nearly every social class involved in the history of American Negro slavery has had its views and opinions on slavery examined, but until quite recently the testimony of the victims of slavery has been neglected by historians.
For many years historians overlooked or underestimated the significance of slave narratives, because they dismissed the slave testimonies as unreliable sources for historical research. The result was an over-reliance on sources sympathetic to slavery. A classic example of such a work was Ulrich B. Phillips’
American Negro Slavery
(1918), one of the most influential studies of American slave history. These studies usually projected a distorted picture of slavery and a generally racist assessment of the character and ability of the slaves. The myth of plantation slavery as a benevolent, paternalistic and civilizing institution and the myth of the contented slave—a charming, childlike, comical but ignorant and unreliable creature—were the typical textbook conceptions of American slavery and American slaves held by students of American history for many generations. In more recent years, however, the world of the slaves has been more seriously examined by American historians from the viewpoint of the slaves.
The most significant sources for the study of American Negro slavery in the antebellum South are the nineteenth-century slave narratives—autobiographies written or dictated to others by former slaves, fugitive or manumitted. The slave narratives reveal the day-to-day life of the slaves, their values, ideas hopes, aspirations and fears. The slave narratives are most important in that they are the major sources the student of history can resort to gain access to the mind and the private life of the slaves. Frequently inspired or assisted by abolitionist editors who planned to use these testimonies for propaganda purposes, most of the slave narratives were the genuine expressions of the experiences, thoughts and feelings of human beings held in chattel slavery.
Any study of the thoughts and experiences of American slaves would not be complete without some examination of the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration—a massive collection of twentieth-century records of nineteenth-century memories of slavery. The Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration was created in 1935 to provide jobs for unemployed writers, research workers, and other qualified educated persons during the depression. Beginning in 1936, the Federal Writers’ Project undertook a major project to collect and preserve the testimony of the surviving former slaves in the United States. From 1936 to 1938, the WPA interviewers recorded the testimonies of over 2300 former slaves in seventeen states. This project was extremely important because the stories of most of these aged blacks would have been lost forever had it not been for the Federal Writers’ Project. Because of the large number of former slaves interviewed, the Slave Narrative Collection represents a broad cross section of the slave population, one that is much more diverse than the nineteenth-century slave narratives. This remarkable collection of personal narratives provides an invaluable source of historical information to supplement the antebellum slave narratives.