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Voices of Slavery

A story told in the words of the person who experienced it is often the most powerful version of that tale. Those who suffered under the great injustice known as slavery convey their experiences as only they can in a new presentation from American Memory called “Voices from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories.”

Marion Post Wolcott, “Old Man Moseley, Now Blind, Gees Bend, Alabama, 1939 Peggy Kehoe, “Charlie Smith on His 134th Birthday,” 1976

Approximately 4 million Americans enslaved in the United States were freed at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. The stories of a few thousand have been passed on to future generations through word of mouth, diaries, letters, records or written transcripts of interviews. But only 23 audio-recorded interviews of identifiable ex-slaves have been found.

Isom Moseley (left), says during his interview that “it was a, a year before the folks knowed that, uh, they was free.” Charlie Smith tells how he nearly was killed on the trip from Africa: “Throw him overboard!” I was in cuffs. “Throw him overboard, let the damn whale swallow him like he done Jonah.”

Of the 23 ex-slaves who were recorded, photographs of only seven of them are available. In “Faces and Voices from the Presentation” you can put a face with a name and interview. The age of one interviewee is unknown; others claim to be over 100.

“Voices from the Days of Slavery” complements other American Memory collections, most notably, “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938,” which 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 of the Works Progress Administration and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the 17-volume “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.”

American Memory, the Library’s Web site of more than 8.5 million items, is rich with material relating to African American history and culture. Some collections worth exploring are: "African American Perspectives: pamphlets from the Daniel A.P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907," "The African American Experience in Ohio: Selections from the Ohio Historical Society," “From Slavery to Freedom” The African American Pamphlet Collection, 1824-1909," "African American Sheet Music, 1850-1920,” “African American Odyssey," and "The Frederick Douglass Papers."

A. Marion Post Wolcott, “Old Man Moseley, Now Blind, Gees Bend, Alabama, 1939. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction information: Reproduction No.: LC-USF33-030363-M5 DLC (b&w film nitrate neg.); Call No.: LC-USF33- 030363-M5

B. Peggy Kehoe, “Charlie Smith on His 134th Birthday,” 1976. Photograph courtesy of The Polk County Democrat, Bartow, Fla. Reproduction information: Not in Library of Congress collections.

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