History on Tape

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History on Tape

Megan Buskey

Listening to interviews with ex-slaves.

Read Time:
1m 49sec


Four million slaves were freed during the Civil War, but audio testimonies of only 26 former slaves have survived to this day, with a meager 10 accompanied by photographs of the people interviewed. That these few accounts exist at all is largely due to the Works Progress Administration, which hired unemployed folklorists, historians, and writers to interview 2,000 former slaves scattered across America between 1936 and 1938. The Library of Congress has excerpts of seven of the audio interviews on its website as part of its American Memory Project.  (A more complete compilation is available here, and HBO dramatized the interviews in the 2003 documentary film, Unchained Memories.)

You’ve heard stories like this before, but not told with all the gnarly, sweet, and revealing elements of the human voice. Former slave Charlie Smith claims that he was born in West Africa and lured onto a slave traders’ ship as a child with the promise that the ship contained a tree that bore fritters. Fountain Hughes, a 101-year-old man whose grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson, recalls that he and his family were “turned out like a bunch of cattle” after emancipation, and resorted to hiring themselves back to their former overlords for $1 a day.
The revelatory oral tradition of American slaves also makes appearances on the recordings. Eighty-nine-year-old Billy McCrea belts out “Blow Cornie Blow,” a ditty he remembers singing with other slaves as they lugged salt from shipping vessels to a warehouse, and Bob Ledbetter performs a few “field hollers”—rich, extemporaneous tunes sung in a system of call and response in the sweltering cotton fields. 
As Christopher Clausen described in “America’s Changeable Civil War” in the Spring ’10 issue, and in a subsequent post on the WQ’s blog, the meaning of the Civil War continues to be a source of acrimonious public discussion and startling folly almost 150 years after Appomattox. The voices of the people whose lives and freedoms were directly shaped by the war are an excellent reminder of the conflict’s most important consequences.
Photo credit: Isom Moseley, October 1939, from the Library of Congress