African American slave stories are not something we like to
remember. The heart-wrenching and disturbing acts of slavery are a stain that
won’t soon go away. However, in reading the stories of these formerly enslaved
men and women, you will find amazing courage, faithfulness, a love of family, strength
through adversity, and much more.
Begins to Preserve African American Slave Stories
Under the establishment of the New Deal in
1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted a series of projects and
programs in hope of stabilizing the economy and providing jobs to citizens. One
such program was the Works
Progress Administration, better known as the WPA. Under the WPA was the WPA
Arts Projects, which included the Writer’s Project. The purpose of the Writer’s
Project was to collect stories of America’s past, including interviews. The project
later expanded to include narratives from formerly enslaved men and women in
the United States.
African American Slave Stories: From Their Own Mouths
Interviews were conducted in several states. You can see a
full list of the states that participated and how many interviews were
collected from each on the Library
of Congress Website.
True to their language, the transcribed interviews reflect
the dialect and style of speech of their subjects. Stories include the sadness,
the triumphs, the escapes, the occasional happy memory, and a great deal of
family history information.
African American Slave Stories Include Family History
In the interview transcript pictured above, William Moore of
Dallas, Texas, shared the reason his last name was Moore. This example is just
the beginning of the valuable information you will find shared in these African
Many times, the people being interviewed shared these kinds
- When they were born.
- Where they were born.
- Parents’, siblings’, and spouses’ names.
- Their escape or freedom story.
- What they were doing at the time of the
- Where they were living at the time of the
Christmas Time: A Portion of the Cinte Lewis Narrative
Though the majority of these narratives share the horrors of
living an enslaved life, some interviewees shared happy family memories.
San Jacinte Lewis, called Cinte, related the following story
regarding Christmastime while being enslaved:
Christmas time old marse [master] sometimes give us two-bits and lots of extra
eats. Iffen it come Monday, we has de [the] week off. But we has to watch the
eats, cause [slaves whose] marsters [masters] don’t give ’em no Christmas sneak
over and eat it all up. Sometimes we have dances, and I’d play de fiddle for
white folks and cullud [colored] folks both. I’d play, ‘Young Girl, Old Girl,’
‘High Heel Shoes,’ and ‘Calice Stockings.’” (Read San Jacinte Lewis’ full
The full collection of African American interviews created
by the WPA is deeply moving and may help you piece together your family tree.
Finding Slave Stories Online
Search engines such as Google Books are always great places
to search for historical information, especially about your ancestors. By using
search terms such as enslaved African Americans
who escaped, it’s possible to find books that can give you more information
on formerly enslaved men and women who escaped from slaveholders in America to
freedom in Canada. One such book is A
North-side View of Slavery: The Refugee: Or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves
in Canada, by Benjamin Drew. It was published in 1856 and gives a firsthand
account of many daring stories of escape.
One account included in the book is the story
of James Adams. James made his escape
from Virginia on August 12, 1824, and arrived in St. Catharines, Canada, on
September 13, 1824. Frequently, he had to trust strangers, even though there
was a bounty on him, to help him navigate the trip.
Stories of Your Enslaved Ancestors
It’s heartbreaking to read stories of the abuse enslaved people went through, especially if those people are your own ancestors. However, their stories are important pieces of both national and family history and can help you connect with even more of your ancestors. If you find the slavery stories of ancestors, you can add them to their sources on FamilySearch. If you have family stories not included in other records, try adding them to the ancestor’s Memories on FamilySearch. By recording the stories of your ancestors, you can provide insight and inspiration for generations to come.
Source: New on FamilySearch