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[Detail] Bill and Ellen Thomas, Ages 88 and 81

Historical Comprehension: Considering Historical Context

The context in which the interviews in Born in Slavery took place—the Great Depression—is   important in interpreting the interviews. A number of narratives depict a tranquil life on the plantation in stark contrast with the poverty and suffering during the Great Depression.  During an interview, Henry Cheatam, reminiscing about the “good ol’ days,” remarked,

. . . Fact is, I believe I druther be alivin’ back dere dan today ‘caze us at least had plenty somp’n t’eat an’ nothin’ to worry about.  An’ as for beatin’; dey beats folks now iffen dey don’t do raght, so what’s de difference? 

From “I heard Lincoln set us free,” image 70

Jerry Hinton concurred.  He told the interviewer:

I think slavery was good because I was treated all right.  I think I am ‘bout as much a slave now as ever. . . .

‘Bout half the folks both black an’ white is slaves an’ don’t know it.  When I was a slave I had nothin’ on me, no responsibility on any of us, only to work.  Didn’t have no taxes to pay, neber had to think whur de next meal wus comin’ from. 
Dis country is in a bad fix.  Looks like sumptin got to be done someway or people, a lot of ‘em, are goin’ to parish to death.  Times are hard, an’ dey is getting’ worse.

From “Jerry Hinton,” image 431

Phillip Evans, however, disagreed.  The 85-year-old from Winnsboro, South Carolina, blamed the suffering of his family during the Depression on President Hoover “and his crowd” and praised President Roosevelt’s New Deal.

. . . A proud family, brought low by Mr. Hoover and his crowd.  Had to sell our land.  ‘Spect us would have starved, as us too proud to beg.  Thank god, Mr. Roosevelt come ‘long.  Him never ask whether us democrat or ‘publican nor was us black or white; him just clothe our nakedness and ease de pains of hunger, and goin’ further, us goin’ to be took care of in our old age.  Oh, how I love dat man; though they do say him got enemies.

From “Phillip Evans. Ex-slave 85 years old,” image 35

Consider what you know about the social, political, and economic conditions in the late 1930s. How might conducting the interviews during the Great Depression influence some interview subjects’ accounts? Do you think their views of slavery would have been different in the early 1870s? Around 1900?  During World War I? Why or why not? What, if anything, does your analysis of the context in which the interviews were conducted suggest about the questions that should be asked when using oral histories as historical sources?

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