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HIST 72/172: The Civil War Era (Gudgeirsson)

An online research guide designed to help students in Hist 172 find resources for their research paper


Slave Narratives: An Overview


A free man "cannot see things in the same light with the slave, because he does not, and cannot, look from the same point from which the slave does," argued Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) in his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (2003, p. 254).

Removed from the experience of slavery and incapable of ever looking at the world from the point of view of the enslaved, scholars of American history have relied on slave testimony, such as slave narratives, to represent the experience and impact of slavery.

Written and dictated by American slaves, slave narratives recount the bondmen and bondwomen's struggles from slavery to freedom. These firsthand accounts discuss a wide range of topics, including, but not limited to, life under slavery, relations among slaves, interactions with white masters and overseers, abolitionism, rebellion, and resistance. Although there are several slave narratives from as early as the mid-eighteenth century and some that extend into the early decades of the twentieth century, this literary genre reached the peak of its popularity in the mid-nineteenth century. Slave narratives had a dual purpose: exposing the abominations of bondage and persuading a removed readership to actively oppose the institution of slavery.

(Excerpt from Dubcovsky, Alejandra. "Slave Narratives: An Overview." Gale Library of Daily Life: Slavery in America, edited by Orville Vernon Burton, vol. 2, Gale, 2008, pp. 195-197. Gale eBooks, Accessed 11 Mar. 2021.

Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories

This is one of the many remarkable digital collections of the Library of Congress. To quote the collection itself:

"The recordings of former slaves in Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories took place between 1932 and 1975 in nine states. Twenty-three interviewees discuss how they felt about slavery, slaveholders, coercion of slaves, their families, and freedom. Several individuals sing songs, many of which were learned during the time of their enslavement. It is important to note that all of the interviewees spoke sixty or more years after the end of their enslavement, and it is their full lives that are reflected in these recordings. The individuals documented in this presentation have much to say about living as African Americans from the 1870s to the 1930s, and beyond."

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938

Another truly amazing digital collection of the Library of Congress. Read about it:

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.  These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA).  At the conclusion of the Slave Narrative project, a set of edited transcripts was assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. In 2000-2001, with major support from the Citigroup Foundation, the Library digitized the narratives from the microfilm edition and scanned from the originals 500 photographs, including more than 200 that had never been microfilmed or made publicly available.  

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