In the past we have advised you to take advantage of holiday gatherings and the summer-reunion season to collect information from your relatives about family history. Get your kin talking, pull out a digital voice recorder, and before you know it, you will have begun a collection of oral histories that will provide a gold mine of genealogy information for you and for future generations.
It’s too bad we can’t debrief our slave ancestors in the same way, to know what life was like for them in bondage. As Professor Gates has written before, only a couple hundred book-length narratives by slaves and former slaves have been published; voices of the vast majority of enslaved Africans are lost to us. However, there are a few slave narrative collections that can aid our attempts to know our own antebellum ancestors better, whether their own words were recorded, or not.
The Federal Writers Project
The Federal Writers Project is a collection of written works, photographs and documents created by the Works Progress Administration to employ writers during the Great Depression. As a part of this larger project, more than 2,300 firsthand accounts by enslaved African Americans were collected, as well as more than 500 photographs of former slaves. Today the Library of Congress holds this collection of documents, titled “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.”
Most of the interviews, stories and written accounts created by the writers were compiled into a 17-volume set. Each volume is dedicated to a single state included in the project. The states in this collection are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. The Library of Congress has made the entire “Born in Slavery” collection available online in both pdf and txt files. A more detailed explanation of the history of the project can be found in the article “An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives.”
How the FWP Collection Can Aid Family History Research
There are several ways in which this collection might help you find more information about the lives of your ancestors. For instance, you can search the collection to see if one of your ancestors was interviewed for the project. Although this is a large collection of narratives, it still tells the stories of only a small fraction of those who were enslaved.
Don’t be discouraged if you can’t find your ancestor; there are still other ways that this collection may be useful for your research. For instance, these narratives still may include recollections of slaves who worked on the same farm or plantation as your ancestors. If you already know where your ancestors worked or the name of the person by whom they were enslaved, you can do a search of the entire text of the collection to see if there were stories from other people who were slaves in the same location. Narratives of slaves who were living in the same county as your ancestors can be useful, too, since they can reveal what slavery was like in a certain region.
If you are unable to find stories from slaves in the plantation or region where your ancestors were living, this collection may still have value to your research. There are few documents that capture the details of everyday lives of enslaved African Americans, especially in their own words. So while it may not give you an exact account of your ancestors’ lives, it can help inform you of what others in their situations experienced.
There are two ways to do a text search of the online edition of this collection. One way is to search by descriptive information, such as narrator name, title or subject. This is a targeted search and will only return results recorded in those fields. This type of search is useful for looking up your ancestors by name to see if their stories are included in the collection. The descriptive search box is the top box on the search page.
You can also do a full-text search using the bottom box on the search page. Any words you type into this box will search all of the text in this collection and return all possible results. The results are ranked with the ones at the top most likely to be useful and with less likely matches at the bottom of the page. You can then click on a link and it will bring you to a pdf image of the page. The words you searched for are not highlighted in the document, so you will have to read the entire page to find what you are looking for.
Here is a quick example of how this type of search may be useful: Let’s say you suspect that your ancestor was enslaved at the Collier Plantation in Florence, Ala., because she was living near there in the 1870 U.S. census. You would then type in the words “Collier Florence Alabama” into the Search Full Text Box on the search page.
The top result returned for this search was the slave narrative of Jenny Greer, who was born on the Collier Plantation in Florence. Her parents were Nelson and Jane Collier, and the owners of the plantation were James and Jeanette Collier. Even if you are unable to find a direct connection between your ancestor and Jenny Greer of the Collier Plantation, you now know the names of the owners in the late 19th century and the experience of one person who was enslaved on the plantation.
If you are unable to find any useful records by doing text searches, from the main search page you can also browse the records by narrator, state, volume and subjects of photographs. Browsing by narrator brings you to a list of the individuals interviewed by name. Browsing by state lists all narratives and photographs of subjects in a particular state.
You can also browse all photographs by subject, which is typically the name of the person who is captured in each photo. If you browse by narrator or photograph subject, you are first taken to an index where you only see a few names listed alphabetically; these are the first names on each index page. Once you click one of the names, the index will be expanded to include all of the names in the range you selected.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Because most of these narratives were recorded in the 1930s, many of the former slaves were advanced in age, and at least two-thirds of those who told their stories were older than 80. The collection contains stories of people who were quite young in 1865, so their stories would tell more about the life of the former slave after emancipation than what life was like in bondage. Despite this problem, the collection still has value for the researcher and genealogists alike, since it can give you an idea of the slaves’ experiences in their own words. It also provides some genealogical information about those who gave their narratives, which might not be found in any other standard genealogical documents.
There are also some technical limitations to searching these records. The text from these documents is searchable because they were processed using a technology called object character recognition, or OCR. This automated process takes the digital copies of the typed narratives and tries to determine what each letter on the page is so that words and phrases can be searchable online. Although this technology is useful, it is not always accurate, and sometimes words are not translated from the typed document to digital characters correctly.
In addition, depending on the writer, the narrative may be written in a way that attempts to capture the interviewee’s dialect. These documents also include some phonetically spelled words. For example, in the narrative of Nely Gray of Arkansas, the document reads “I member seein’ the Rebels ridin’” instead of “I remember seeing the Rebels riding.” This can make doing text searches more challenging, since the spelling may vary depending on how the narrator interprets the words.
The North American Slave Narratives
In addition to the Federal Writers Project, there are other compilations of the biographies and narratives of the lives of those who were once enslaved. The University of North Carolina has a compilation of “North American Slave Narratives” as a part of its “Documenting the American South” collection. This collection is focused primarily on the religious lives of those who were enslaved; however, it does contain details of the slaves’ daily lives and genealogical information. This collection can be browsed by name or by photograph subject.
Again, even if you are unable to find a document concerning your direct ancestor, search this collection for people who were near where your ancestor lived and for information about slave owners. You might also want to consider contacting a local library or historical society near where your ancestors lived to see if there are any collections of autobiographies or slave narratives, which might give you more information about your family.
Oral histories and firsthand accounts of your ancestors’ lives can enrich your own genealogical research. Since there are few records that document the lives of enslaved African Americans, the interviews from the Federal Writers Project are particularly valuable. Even if these narratives don’t relate directly to your ancestors, they can still shed some light on what their daily lives could have been like.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.
This answer was provided in consultation with Kristin Britanik, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today.