How Slavery Documents Offer a Direct Look at Life in Bondage

Memoirs, narratives and recollections shed light on slavery in the United States

Primary slavery documents, such as memoirs and narratives, offer readers a direct look at life in bondage. Through their autobiographies, escaped slaves like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs provide reminiscences of their agonizing times as slaves. And the Works Progress Administration, one of President Roosevelt's New Deal programs, hired writers to take the oral histories of former slaves during the 1930s. This meant that decades after slavery was abolished in the United States, firsthand accounts of the practice would live on. These important documents contribute to the historical record and give unparalleled insight into the everyday experiences of slaves. A list of memoirs and oral histories about slavery available to read online follows.

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Frederick Douglass (1817-95), American activist and orator
Frederick Douglass (1817-95), American activist and orator. Getty Images/FPG

Frederick Douglass was a slave-turned-abolitionist who achieved fame in the mid-1800s. An excellent speech-giver, he moved Northerners to oppose slavery. Douglass' powerful narrative about his time in bondage reveals the particular struggles of slaves, such as learning to read (though it was strictly forbidden) and the constant uncertainty and threat of being sold away without a moment's notice.

Douglass' memoir, which includes a description of his youth, stands out by illuminating how a child might react upon realizing the meaning of slavery. "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself" appeared in print in 1845 and, along with Douglass's personal appearances, helped galvanize the abolition movement in the North.

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Harriet Ann Jacobs
Harriet Ann Jacobs. Google Images/vc.bridgew.edu

Harriet Jacobs' narrative of her time spent in slavery shows the particular burden placed on enslaved women. Jacobs (writing under the pseudonym Linda Brent) describes being threatened by rape as well as her agony over having her children mired in slavery. Torn apart from her children repeatedly, Jacobs' tale is one of survival.

The start of the Civil War overshadowed the publication of "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" in 1861, but it remains a significant primary document for understanding the history of slavery and its impact on African-American women.

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Portraits of African-American former slaves taken 70 years after abolition
Portrait of an African-American former slave taken 70 years after abolition. Google Images/nydailynews.com

As part of the New Deal, President Franklin Roosevelt established the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which hired the unemployed to construct roads, build schools and engage in arts projects. The Federal Writers' Project, in particular, offered work for unemployed teachers, historians, writers and librarians.

The Federal Writers' Project sought out more than 2,000 slaves across 17 states, taking down their testimony and photographing them when possible. These interviews do have limitations. For example, interviewees described events from 50 years earlier. Their memories may not have been completely accurate. Also, former slaves may have been reluctant to state their true feelings and beliefs to their predominantly white interviewers. Still, this remarkable collection adds greatly to our understanding of slavery and its impact.

Wrapping Up

Primary slavery documents offer the public a glimpse of what slavery was like from the people who lived through it. Anyone who's interested in learning more about what life in bondage was like would do well to consult the memoirs, narratives and oral histories of former slaves.