Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

America's 'Slave Narratives' should shock us

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 8:37 AM EST, Sun February 17, 2013
An elderly woman, who was born a slave, photographed in 1941 in a farm near Greensboro, Alabama.
An elderly woman, who was born a slave, photographed in 1941 in a farm near Greensboro, Alabama.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • During Great Depression, writers project interviewed former slaves
  • Bob Greene says the stories in the "Slave Narratives" are shocking to read
  • They tell of families torn apart, of people deprived of their basic freedoms

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- "I was owned by Johnson Bell and born in New Orleans, in Louisiana."

Those words were spoken by a man named Frank Bell.

He said that according "to the bill of sale, I'm 86 years old."

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

His words, and those of thousands of other American citizens, were transcribed in the 1930s, at the depth of the Great Depression. As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's efforts to restart the economy, the Works Progress Administration was founded, and one arm of the WPA was something called the Federal Writers' Project.

Men and women were hired by the government to work on various assignments documenting American history and American life.

One of those assignments, vast in scope, came to be known as the Slave Narratives.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



"If a woman was a good breeder she brought a good price on the auction block," said Hattie Rogers, a North Carolina resident, when she was interviewed in 1937. "The slave buyers would come around and jab them in the stomach and look them over and if they thought they would have children fast they brought a good price."

We are in the midst of Black History Month. The slave years in the United States were not only black history, they were American history -- the ugliest and most indefensible chapter.

I had long heard of the Slave Narratives, but had never read them. The original interviews comprised 17 bound volumes in the Library of Congress, filled with the firsthand accounts of more than 2,000 former slaves, and hundreds of photographs.

The interviewers were sent to 17 states, and that is how the printed conversations are bound and arranged. I have been reading two volumes -- covering interviews done in North Carolina and in Texas.

1865: Lincoln talks of 'sin of slavery'

What is so shattering is the matter-of-fact tone of what the former slaves said. The United States was well into the 20th century by the time the interviews were conducted; automobiles had come to the nation, as had radio and motion pictures and air travel. The country, in many ways, was beginning to resemble the nation we live in now.

Yet residing in America's cities and towns were men and women who recalled being sold at auction, of seeing brothers and sisters led away in chains, of having -- in their words -- "good owners" or "cruel masters." Survivors of a time when, in many states, it was perfectly lawful for human beings to own other human beings, and to buy and sell them.

Mary Armstrong, 91 and living in Houston when she was interviewed, said the person who owned her family was "so mean he never would sell the man and woman and (children) to the same one. He'd sell the man here and the woman there and if (there were children) he'd sell them someplace else."

Charity Riddick, 80, interviewed in North Carolina, had a similar memory. "I belonged to Madison Pace in slavery time," she said. She had a brother whose first name was Washington, she said, but he was "sold away." Their mother "cried a lot about it."

The former slaves who were still alive in the 1930s were, of course, the youngest of those who were enslaved before emancipation. Many of them were relating childhood or adolescent memories, while others were passing on what their parents related to them.

There were many, however, who were old enough to have vivid firsthand recollections of specific instances. Stearlin Arnwine, who was 94 and living near Jacksonville, Texas, when he was interviewed, said he would see slaves on the auction block, stripped to the waist for inspection by potential buyers. Women and their children, he said, would be crying and begging "not to be separated," but it did no good: "They had to go."

As anguishing as are the stories recounted by the former slaves, troubling in a different way was the methodology many of the interviewers chose in committing the stories to written form. Most of the writers were white; in the 1930s, apparently it was still considered acceptable to use crudely rendered dialect in recreating on paper the speech patterns of African-Americans. That is how some of the writers transcribed the interviews, and in many cases it comes off as something close to mockery, whether or not it was intended that way.

The power of the stories overrides everything else. The quiet starkness of the telling:

"My father was a slave, A.H. Stewart, belonging to James Arch Stewart, a slave owner, whose plantation was in Wake County," said Sam T. Stewart, 84, interviewed in North Carolina in June 1937. "When I was two years old James Arch Stewart sold my father to speculators, and he was shipped to Mississippi. I was too young to know my father."

You can read from the volumes for hours at a time, and when you are finished for the evening you can look around you and try to comprehend that all of this was taking place in the same nation where we live today.

Alex Woods, of Raleigh, North Carolina, born on May 15, 1858, said that as a boy he saw slaves being marched on their way to the auction block, each person chained to the one next to him, and, as he witnessed this, being "afraid my mother and father would be sold away from me."

Story after story after story. Henry H. Buttler, 87, living in Fort Worth in the 1930s but born a slave in Virginia:

"The plantation consisted of about 30 acres, with about 30 slaves, though this number varied and sometimes reached 50. Mr. Sullivan owned my mother and her children, but my father was owned by Mr. John Rector, whose place was adjacent to ours."

And, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that this must no longer be permitted to go on, millions of Americans said that he was dead wrong.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT