SLAVE NARRATIVES AND PLATATION DAYSVIRGINIA L. CLOSE
THE PRESIDENCY OF Franklin Roosevelt evoked strong opinion, the extremes, usually, rather than the middle. Numerous agencies were created -- C.C.C., W.P.A., N.R.A., R.E.A., A.A.A., for example. Among them were those marked by accomplishments whose value we still see.In Special Collections there is an index to the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine compiled by students whose employment was funded by the N.Y.A. (National Youth Administration). The genealogical records gathered by Dr. Gilman Frost from tombstones and a variety of printed and manuscript sources were transcribed by student help with the support of the same agency. The series of volumes on the states produced by the Federal Writers' Project include many written by persons who later became well-known authors and whose original volumes are better than later editions. An accomplishment of another sort also belongs to the Federal Writers' Project.This is the Slave Narrative Collection now in the Library of Congress. The work of collecting the material occurred during the years 1936 to 1938.
The collection comprises narratives recorded in seventeen states:Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Available to us are two sets of these narratives:one, a microfiche edition reproducing the 1941 typescript of Slave Narratives: a Folk History of Slavery in the United states from interviews with Former Slaves; the other is in printed form and was published in 1972, With a supplement appearing in 1977.1
The work of organizing and preparing the materials for deposit in the Library of Congress followed the collecting of the narratives; working with the project were two well-known persons in the field of folklore and folk literature, Benjamin A. Botkin and John A. Lomax. Narratives for Louisiana are not included; the introductory text with the microfiche collection notes this lack and expresses the hope that supplementary material could be issued. However, Louisiana never was included in the project and was the only southern state not part of it.2
Botkin, in his prefatory statement to the microfiche, notes:
Set beside the work of formal historians, social scientists, and novelists, slave autobiographies, and contemporary records of abolitionists and planters, these life histories, taken down as far as possible in the narrators' words, constitute an invaluable body of unconscious evidence or indirect source material, which scholars and writers dealing with the South, especially social psychologists and cultural anthropologists, cannot afford to reckon without. For the first and the last time, a large number of surviving slaves (many of whom have since died) have been permitted to tell their own story, in their own way. In spite of obvious limitations-bias and fallibility of both informants and interviewers, the use of leading questions, unskilled techniques, and insufficient controls and checks-this saga must remain the most authentic and colorful source of our knowledge of the lives and thoughts of thousands of slaves, of their attitudes toward one another, toward their masters, mistresses, and overseers, toward poor whites, North and South, the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, religion, education, and virtually every phase of Negro life in the South. 3
Other prefatory material includes the text of the questions asked, suggestions for the interviewers, and a discussion of the dialect usage in the interviews and how to record them.
Over the years selections from the narratives have been published in book form and in journals. In 1972 all Of the interviews were published under the general title The American Slave:A Composite Autobiography in nineteen separate volumes. This printed set includes more material than the microfiche collection does. In addition to the volumes in which material is grouped by state, the first volume is about slavery. Entitled From Sundown to Sunup The Making of the Black Community, it is in two parts, The Sociology of Slavery in the United States, and The Sociology of European and American Racism. The volume should be examined. Reprinted in it, also, is the prefatory material found in the above-mentioned microfiche set and, additionally, a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Volume 18 is entitled Unwritten History of Slavery:Autobiographical Accounts of Negro Ex-Slaves. Volume 9 is called God Struck Me Dead:Religious Conversion Experiences and Autobiographies of Negro Ex-Slaves. Both these volumes reprint interviews collected in the 1920's by Fisk University.
In 1977 twelve supplementary volumes appeared, adding material to some of the states included in the 1972 Set. These narratives had been found scattered in different locations around the country. The introduction in Volume 1 of the supplementary series tells interestingly of the search where evidence revealed that narratives existed but locations were not known. The use of the narratives by scholars is also discussed. It should be read. The supplementary series also adds eight new states to the coverage: Colorado, the District of Columbia, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York (one person), Oregon, Rhode Island (one person), and Washington. Further enhancing these sets is a two-volume index with three sections:an alphabetical slave identification file listing some 3500 ex-slaves who were interviewed, a name index by state, and a subject index where the topics go from Abolitionism, Africa, and African Survivals to Work Skills, Black (Specific) and Younger Generation, Black Attitudes Toward (1930's).
Readers who are interested in studying the slave narratives will find writings by Norman R. Yetman helpful. His article,'The Background of the Slave Narrative Collection,' appeared in the American Quarterly while his book, Voices from Slavery, appeared in 1970. A small volume entitled Slave Life in America:A Historiography and Selected Bibliography by James s. Olson will also be useful. 4
During the course of the past year several other microcopy collections have been acquired. One of these covers the records of pre-Civil War southern plantations, while the other is devoted to slave statutes in the South. 5
A first thought might be to see if the papers for a particular plantation could be related to any of the slave narratives. This could be done, perhaps, but not easily. Of the plantation records we have Series F, which includes the deep South, South Carolina and Georgia. Accompanying the film is a reel guide where the focus is on the specific plantations and their owners. The guide gives an historical sketch, interesting in itself, for each plantation collection. These records usually encompass several generations of a family so that the inclusions are quite diverse. Names of slaves, sometimes with surnames and sometimes with only a given name, can be found in the sketches but short of looking at the manuscripts, which do contain slave lists and names, the relating of names in the narratives with names in the plantation records is difficult. With the slave narratives the individual is the focus, but not the plantation (although that information is provided with each narrative.)
With the plantation records one is looking at the original manuscript materials with their variety of handwriting. Interestingly there is information in these records not related to the South. So, for example, the description of the John Knight papers notes:
The death of his father-in-law, William M. Meall, in 1847 coincided with a decline in the already poor health of Knight, sending him on a pilgrimage to spas including Chester Springs and Bedford Springs in Pennsylvania and protracted sojourns at the water cure in Brattleboro, Vermont.6
Clement Claiborne Clay 'retired to Brattleboro, Vermont, for a cure at the "hydropathic place",....'7 One finds through the plantation papers references to well-known persons in public life, correspondence with relatives in the North, travels, business ventures, and politics -- everything that made up life at that time. These papers can be used for much more than studies of the various aspects of slavery. Here is a part of the description of the Henry Watson, Jr., papers (Greensboro, Alabama, and East Windsor, Connecticut).
Rich letters detail the increasing politicization of the times in the late 1850's and 1860's ....Letters of 1861 depict economic conditions, North and South, and communications between Henry Watson, Jr., in Northampton, Massachusetts, and various persons in Alabama. In the face of advice to return to Alabama, Watson embarked on a tour of Europe between 1861 and 1865. Correspondents advised him of plantation matters, impressment receipts, and a contract for the hire of freedmen....
Papers among the Bills, Receipts, and Indentures in this collection are also very rich. Details regarding the Ohio Land Company and sheep raising in East Windsor, Connecticut, are present up to 1837. In 1839-1860 items include overseers' agreements, purchases, and lease agreements for slaves, cotton receipts, and inventories. A remarkable series of accounts, 1838-1847, detail the activities of Bob Patton, a slave, and his blacksmith's shop. An inventory of 1848 lists the articles of the children of Henry Watson,Jr., including books, furniture, and other items. Medical bills and day labor receipts of 1854 are very detailed. An 1860 document entitled Plantation Receipts and Expenditures is an annual summary of gross income, yearly expenses, net income, weight of cotton picked, and number of bales weighing 500 pounds. This recapitulation of net income from 845 through 860 revealed an average yearly profit ofl $3,909.19 A slave list of 1865 shows the familial relations and birth dates of individuals and contains dates of death up to 1884 An 1866 inventory and estimate of the value of his property is quite detailed. 8
The historical sketches in the reel guide indicate where there have been books published by or about individuals mentioned in the records and where there have been studies using any of these plantation records as source material. So, for example, the sketch of the Henry Watson Jr. papers says:
The eleventh volume [of the bound volumes filmed] is a very valuable record of Henry Watson,Jr's, slave force detailing ages, births, deaths, and family groupings. It is especially valuable in that it indicates both male and female parents of slaves born on the plantation. c.f. Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (New York:Pantheon, 1976) for an accomplished interpretation of this record book. 9
One might also note the possibilities for studying the role of women in southern society and on the plantation. See, for example, references to Virginia (Tunstall) Clay in the Clement Claiborne Clay papers. The guide refers to her as a 'truly remarkable woman-a plantation mistress, a social matron in pre-Civil War Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, ultimately a prominent suffragette--and indefatigable correspondent.... Letters to Virginia (Tunstall) Clay are very rich in social matters, women's concerns, and reactions to issues presented by her male correspondents.'10
The other recently acquired collection is titled State Slavery Statutes and is in microfiche format and accompanied by a 565-page guide. The introductory remarks identify the collection as 'The Statute Laws of the Slave South, 1789-1865.'11 As with the plantation records and the printed version of the slave narratives, the introductory material provided in the guide is interesting and helpful not only for guidance in using the index but for what the scholar who wrote that introductory material says about his subject This collection includes the annual statutes; in the past, scholars relied on compilations of statutes or codes because collections of annual state statutes were not easily available to them. Paul Finkelman, who prepared the introduction, writes:
In this project we have attempted to find and publish every statute passed in the fifteen slave states that dealt with slavery, free blacks, and the broader issue of race. We have included free blacks in this series because questions of slavery were often indistinguishable from questions of race. Often legislation affected both slaves and free blacks. We have also included some laws which were directed solely at whites, but which indirectly affected slaves and free blacks. To find every statute we have examined every page of every annual statute book for the southern slave states from 1789 to 1865.12
Finkelman goes on to explain the complete extent of coverage of material that could be, in any way, relevant to the statutes. The index itself is informative. It is arranged, first of all, by state and then chronologically by year with the state category. With the statute lists are detailed tables of contents so that the user sees immediately what is being described. Following the contents is a listing of the descriptors or topics under which the material enumerated is to be found in the subject section of the guide. The state-statute record is followed by an index of subjects, names, and geographic locations. The names include those of any person affected by a statute. Likewise, names of all Cities, Towns, Counties and 'other relevant locations' are included in the indexing.' 13 This explains why the names of both New Hampshire and Vermont appear in the index. In one case, for example, the Virginia statutes of 1846 refer to both northern states when resolutions requested 'the governor to return certain resolutions' to those states.14
This collection of statutory material, the plantation records, and the slave narratives make a combined great resource available to local researchers. One other resource might be mentioned as contributing to the general subject of slavery, the North and South, and plantation life in the pre-Civil War days. This is the availability in microform of the books listed in Ellis M. Coulter's Travels in the Confederate States, a Bibliography.15 All of these collections join the many other resources that have been acquired over the years:autobiographies of slaves and southerners, volumes of history, documents, newspapers, and other publications that a large library would purchase over time.
1.Type-Written Records Pepared by the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938, Assembled by the Library of Congress Project, Works Projects Administration, For the District of Columbia.(Washington, 1941; microfiche edition, New York:Andronicus Pub. Co., [I970?]; The American Slave:A Composite Autobiography[edited by] George P. Rawick. 19 v. (Westport, Conn.:Greenwood Pub. Co., ); The American Slave:A Composite Autobiography:Supplement, Series 1. George P. Rawick, gen. ed.; Jan Hillegas, Ken Lawrence, eds. I2 v. (Westport, Conn.:Greenwood Pub. Co., ).
2.Some Louisiana narrative material was incorporated into the Louisiana Writers' Program, Gumbo Ya-Ya (Boston:Houghton Mifflin, 1945). In Volume 1 of the Supplement (p. x) there is the information that 'The Louisiana materials have been collected and are now being edited by Dr. Margaret Fisher of Louisiana State University and are slated for in dependent publication in the near future.' Reference to a published edition has not been seen. See also Footnote 63 (p. 553) of Norman R. Yetman's article on the slave narrative collection in the American Quarterly 9 (1967).
3.Introductory material with the narratives, pp. viii-ix
4. 19 (1967):534-553; Voices from Slavery (New York:Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 970) James Stuart Olson,Slave Life in America (Lanham:University Press of America, 1938
5. Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution Through the Civil War. Series F. Selections from the Manuscript Department, Duke University Library. With reel guide. (Frederick, Md.:University Publications of America, 1986); State Slavery Statutes .With reel guide. (Frederick, Md.:University Publications of America, 1989).
12. p. ix.
15. (Norman:University of Oklahoma Press, 1948). A number of these volumes exist in paper copies in the stacks.
Last Updated: 4/19/17