Voices from the Days of Slavery.
January 19, 2004 2:07 PM   Subscribe

Voices from the Days of Slavery. A collection of audio recordings made between 1932 and 1975 of African Americans known to have once been slaves. Hear Isom Moseley describe how he used to make soap, and express his opinion of the "white folks" who owned and ran the plantation where he was held. Wallace Quarterman describes his experience as a freed man in Georgia, and recounts the violent atmosphere of the Reconstruction South. Aunt Phoebe Boyd describes the demands of agricultural work. Even more narratives are available as transcripts from the companion exhibit, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 (linked to previously on Metafilter here), though some of these were unfortunately edited selectively.
posted by profwhat (15 comments total)
Real Audio and MP3, in case anyone was wondering.
posted by tiamat at 2:53 PM on January 19, 2004

I was listening to some of these over the weekend--amazing stuff here (and I wish there were more oral histories on the web)
posted by amberglow at 2:55 PM on January 19, 2004

Not sure what is meant when you say edited selectively...all editing usually does this...note how large thefull content of holding at Lib of Conress...if any of this is to appear in book form, it will be both edited and selective.
posted by Postroad at 2:58 PM on January 19, 2004

I've long wondered why histories of slavery oversimplify the "institution". There are lots of elements to slavery and plantations that while not particularly controversial, are mysteriously omitted for the most part in popular histories.
It is unfair to those who suffered from it that much of their story has been omitted this way.

Some examples:

1) How slavery was practiced had two distinct periods: pre- and post-cotton gin. Before its invention, slavery was restricted to the upper classes (a $1000 slave being equal today to $1M), and over half of slaves were domestic servants instead of field hands. It was heavily legally and socially regulated (usually corporal punishment could only be given by a law officer.)
After the cotton gin, most anyone could grow enough cotton one season to afford a slave and double their output the next. Being reduced to a bourgeois economic activity made slavery a lot worse, much more widespread and far more profitable. It also made slaves the object of hate by the lower classes, much like "illegal aliens" are derided today--as "job thieves". Lastly, instead of being under the legal umbrella of wealthy, connected masters, slaves lived in an uncertain legal situation.

2) Agricultural slavery was very seasonal. The rest of the year, slaves were occupied with many and varied duties, from woodcutting for the enormous energy needs of the plantation, to hauling water and any number of equally laborious tasks. A plantation was a "farm", and what that implies. Depicting slaves solely as cotton workers is not accurate.

3) Generally the worst punishment a slave was threatened with was being "sold down the river", the delta being where the cane plantations were located. Cane is a very difficult and unpleasant crop to work, so only the "worst" slaves were punished this way.

4) Before arriving in the US, the "worst", uncooperative and violent slaves were culled out and sent to Haiti. Under French administration, Haiti was a death camp, slaves being worked or starved to death.

5) The slave trade was only part of a complex economic "triangle" which began in New England. Codfish were shipped to South Carolina. Rice was shipped from there to the West Indies. From there, Molasses was sent to New England to be distilled into rum. The rum was shipped to Dahomey Africa to purchase slaves, then the slaves were sold in South Carolina, Havana and New Orleans for cash.
Much of the financial coordinations for the trading cycle, and its profits, were made in New England.

There is so much more to this story.
posted by kablam at 4:52 PM on January 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

these are selected oral histories of people who were owned by other people, kablam--they don't have to show the whole story, just tell their own story. what are you trying to say?
posted by amberglow at 5:45 PM on January 19, 2004

Nothing to criticize them, amberglow, certainly, just the curiosity of the teaching of such a complex subject while omitting broad parts of it.
To explain further, slavery, or indentured servitude, existed from colonial days. It *should* properly be distinguished from Africans-brought-to-the-US slavery, just as much as the slavery-in-Africa institution existing for a thousand years previously (and still today) should.
That being said, black slavery in the US existed for so many years and as such an elaborate thing that it is almost a parallel world to conventional US history for that period--yet intertwined.
It evolved and changed, it was always an issue, from Liberia to the Mason-Dixon line. Its corrupt economy was as interconnected with legitimate enterprise as is the drug trade today. It had vocal opponents, apologists, and philosophers for years. It was a national and international issue.

But the way it's taught today in some ways makes it seem to have just arisen shortly before the Civil War.

There were "new slaves", fresh from Africa, at the same time there were second and third generation slaves and freedmen. There were "pure" blacks, mulattos, quadroons and octoroons, each with unique experiences.

Even regionally, throughout the South, the situation, lives and cultures of slaves were radically different.

After the war, not all slaves became sharecroppers, either. Ex-slaves moved all over the US, strongly influencing westward expansion and industrialism in the northeast. So while sharecroppers in many cases lived almost like slaves, others became cowboys, soldiers, businessmen, workers, etc., at the same time.

Previously, I mentioned plantations, but even they are not clear cut, insofar as design or operations. Very few original designs remain, and things like water towers, mills, drying and storage, smoking and cold houses became obsolete and were removed. But such things had a great effect on the lives of slaves and their owners.

Urban slavery was widespread, but what is popularly known of it? Or of institutions like the Octoroon Ball (which is still celebrated in New Orleans)? Cities and towns throughout the US becoming segregated communities with almost parallel social systems?

So, I applaud this presentation, yet return to the paradox of how slavery is taught today. February is Black History month. An entire month each year to learn. So why not teach as much of the whole story as they can?
posted by kablam at 7:43 PM on January 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

I think schools are trying, kablam...but telling the whole story would wipe away all of those myths of the US that people seem to love so much--this country was really built on slave labor.
posted by amberglow at 7:49 PM on January 19, 2004

Thanks, profwhat--I'll have to devote some time to this.

My Folks Don't Want Me to Talk About Slavery is a brief collection from the Federal Writers' Project. It's edited for school use, but still quite a nice resource if you don't want to tackle the massiveness of the full records.

Slavery was a bad thing, and freedom, of the kind we got, with nothing to live on, was bad. Two snakes full of poison. One lying with his head pointing north, the other with his head pointing south. Their names was slavery and freedom. The snake called slavery lay with his head pointed south, and the snake called freedom lay with his head pointed north. Both bit the nigger, and they was both bad.
--Patsy Mitchner, 1937
posted by hippugeek at 8:01 PM on January 19, 2004

*This is very good!*
posted by Slimemonster at 9:30 PM on January 19, 2004

I also recommend Litwack's Been in the Storm so long. The book was an eye-opener for me as it relies almost entirely on first-hand accounts and presents a much more complex picture of slavery than i had ever encountered from other sources.
posted by vacapinta at 11:47 PM on January 19, 2004

kabalm thanks for the history listen, a lot of interesting stuff there. can you recommend some books?
posted by chaz at 11:52 PM on January 19, 2004

[this is good]
posted by plep at 12:03 AM on January 20, 2004

chaz: I have yet to read a really good *survey* of slavery in the US, though it would be a magnificent and valuable work. It would also be incredibly controversial.

amberglow pointed out correctly that the US was founded on slavery. That's true, but the word "slavery" means so much that it could just as well be the word "money."

Slavery was almost as individualized as the slaves and their masters themselves. Take for example the slave who memorized the blueprints for Washington, D.C., and was able to re-create them from memory after the architect stormed out, leaving the founding fathers in the lurch. Very early on in the history of the country, a slave is held in very high esteem. But he is still a slave.

Long before the Civil War, many ex-slaves living in the North were successful professionals, more removed from blacks in the South by class and wealth than by race.

Much of the grotesqueness of slavery in its latter years, beyond the slave trade, that is, once the slaves had been sold here, goes hand and glove with, of all things industrialism. Industrialism changed everything, and often for the worse.

One effort, the book "Time on the Cross" (check out the reviews); a crude effort done in the mid 1970s, ignited a huge firestorm of criticism with an economic analysis of slavery. Its biggest bombshell was that the lives of northern immigrant factory workers were "worse" than the lives of slaves in the South. True or False? That is debatable. (N.B.: "better" can still be miserable.)

As an aside, the book resulted in one of the all time great foot-in-mouth remarks, by the black historian John Hope Franklin, who said, "It's not true, and even if it is, it shouldn't have been published."

Which really puts into perspective how difficult such an undertaking would be.

A truly evil book, a philosophical advocacy of slavery *and* socialism, is "Cannibals All: Or, Slaves Without Masters", by George Fitzhugh.
His is a passionate defense of slavery, not just as a social good, but as SO good that it should be extended to 9/10ths of humanity.

A truly unique perspective into *one* of the twisted mindsets of slavery apologists. And there were many, especially the "helping poor heathens to learn Christ", and "the bible says it's okay" filth.

But slavery influenced everything. Even in the West, Mexico and some native American tribes were terrified of the thought of slavery being forced on them. Events in Texas and the "Pueblo Revolt" in New Mexico, for example.
Mexicans saw slavery as far worse than "peonage", the hereditary debt slavery of the Spanish, and would fight to the death to stop it.

It goes on and on. But a survey *could* be done. And once the tidal wave was over, everyone would profit from it.
posted by kablam at 10:14 AM on January 20, 2004

Take for example the slave who memorized the blueprints for Washington, D.C., and was able to re-create them from memory after the architect stormed out, leaving the founding fathers in the lurch.
Just for accuracy's sake: Benjamin Banneker was never enslaved.
posted by tyro urge at 11:32 AM on January 21, 2004

Thanks for the correction. I just couldn't remember the details on Mr. Banneker, so was mentioning him from (flawed) memory. An extraordinary individual in early America, and how different his life from those of slaves still to come for many years--yet still linked.
posted by kablam at 12:18 PM on January 21, 2004

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