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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Emancipation

Slave family, Beaufort, SC, 1862
"in slavery I has no worryment, but I takes da freedom"
The Institution

- "What do I think of slavery?," selections from the WPA narratives, 1930 (PDF)

"I felt like it be Heaven here on earth to git freedom . . ."
Green Cumby

"I think slavery was a good thing. I never suffered for nothin'."
Perry Sheppard

"Was I glad when dat was over? Wouldn' you be?"
Adeline Cunningham

"Here's the idea, freedom is worth it all."
Moses Mitchell

In the mid 1930s—over seventy years after the end of slavery—more than two thousand formerly enslaved persons were interviewed through the WPA Federal Writers' Project. Toward the end of the interviews, many were asked their opinions of Abraham Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, "young people today," and finally, the institution of slavery itself. "Now that slavery is ended," the interviewers were guided to ask, "what do you think of it?" The responses were wide-ranging, from "it was hell" to "those were good days," depending on the former slaves' experiences, the level of candor they permitted themselves, their economic and physical conditions during the Great Depression, and other factors perhaps too intangible to name. The interviewees' proximity to the site of their enslavement may have influenced their replies; some lived only a few miles down the road from their former slaveholders. Some differentiate the memories of their own enslavement from their judgment of slavery as an institution. Study the variety of responses in the compilation presented here from fifty-five of the WPA narratives. Compare this commentary with others on slavery in this Toolbox, especially in ENSLAVEMENT: Runaways, COMMUNITY: Canada, IDENTITY: Slave and EMANCIPATION: Civil War I: Slaves and Emancipation, 1864-1865. (7 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Describe the range of opinions expressed by former slaves interviewed in the 1930s. What factors account for their differing evaluations of "slavery times?"
  2. What opinions appear repeatedly in the statements?
  3. What statements surprise you, if any? Why?
  4. As much time has passed between these interviews and today (2009) as had passed between the end of slavery and the interviews. How does this fact influence a historian's analysis of the interviews?
  5. What are the positive and negative aspects of the seventy-year spread?
  6. Identify a statement in the excerpts that closely matches your personal concept of "freedom." Write a letter to the interviewee, or a brief essay for a modern audience, on the experiences that lead you to select this concept of "freedom."
  7. Read the entire narrative of one of the fifty-five former slaves included in this compilation. (See Supplemental Links below.) What would you want to say to him or her? What questions would you pose?
  8. Consider the former slaves who prefer freedom over enslavement, even though their slaveholders were not cruel. (These include Margrett Nillin, George Kye, Tom Robinson, William Henry Towns, Ferebe Rogers, and Green Cumby.) What factors weigh most in their position?
  9. Consider the former slaves who say freedom has brought them more hardship then enslavement. (These include Mary Anderson, Jane Johnson, Ezra Adams, and Sallie Paul.) What factors weigh most in their position?
  10. How do Allen Manning, William Walters, Oliver Bell, Stephen McCray, Robert Falls, and Katie Rowe explain the opinions of those (#9) who say their lives as slaves were better than their lives as free persons?
  11. Write a dialogue among three formerly enslaved persons—one each from questions 8, 9, and 10. How will you conclude the dialogue?
  12. Write an overview of these fifty-five statements. Begin with one of the quotations below to set the tone for your essay (or choose another from the compilation).

    - "It was de fourth day of June in 1865 I begins to live . . ." Katie Rowe
    - "I'm my own boss, get up when I want, go to bed the same way." Mattie Logan
    - "Folks dat ain' never been free don' rightly know de feel of bein' free. Dey don' know de meanin' of it . . ." James Lucas
    - "It's all hard, slavery and freedom, both bad when you can't eat." Andrew Boone
    - "Dis livin' on liberty is lak young folks livin' on love after they gits married. It just don't work." Ezra Adams
    - "I allus had de good marster. He sho' was good to us, but you knows dat ain't de same as bein' free." Green Cumby
    - "If I had my life to live over, I would die fighting rather than be a slave again." Robert Falls
    - "Here's the idea, freedom is worth it all." Moses Mitchell

Framing Questions
  • How did enslaved African Americans construct communities over time? What were their principal characteristics?
  •  What obstacles did slaves confront in constructing communities?
  •  How did white Americans respond to the collective behavior of African Americans?
  •  How was autonomy exercised through community by antebellum African Americans?

WPA narratives: 7

Supplemental Sites

WPA Slave Narratives, Library of Congress An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, WPA Slave Narratives.
- "we shore cussed ole marster out": Charlie Crump, enslaved in North Carolina, photographed at his home near Cary, North Carolina, between 1936 and 1938.
- "I don't want no more slavery . . . 'cause hit was terrible": Sara Colquitt, enslaved in Virginia and Alabama, photographed at her home in Opelika, Alabama, September 1937.
- "'twarn't so hard as now": James Boyd, enslaved in Indian Territory [Oklahoma] and Texas , photographed at his home near Waco, Texas, September 1937.
- "in slavery I has no worryment, but I takes de freedom": Margrett Nillin, enslaved in Texas, photographed at her home in Fort Worth, Texas, between 1936 and 1938.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. Buying Freedom   2. Death as Freedom   3. Abolition
4. Liberia   5. Civil War I: Slaves   6. Civil War II: Soldiers
7. Emancipation, 1864-1865   8. The Institution

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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