February 2020

“No’m, I aint tellin’ no lies. It de gospel truf”: Historical Memory and the Slave Narrative Collection

by Sarah Whitwell

How the past is remembered is as much a subject of historical inquiry as what transpired in the past. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Americans faced a daunting task: how to make sense of slavery – a legal institution that at its height reduced more than four million African-Americans to chattel. To admit that slavery was a vile institution was to undermine the virtues of the antebellum South. A great number of ex-Confederates did not believe that they had fought for an unworthy cause, nor did they believe that the newly freed Black population was capable of survival outside of slavery.[i] This nostalgic interpretation, which positioned slavery as a benevolent institution, found a receptive audience in the South. Black men and women, however, were unwilling to allow white Southerners to define how slavery would be remembered.[ii] This article explores how Black men and women reclaimed their power by testifying about slavery. Unwilling to be silenced, Black men and women related their experiences of slavery despite widespread efforts to silence or manipulate their testimony. In doing so, they worked to process their trauma, integrate their experiences into the historical record, and discursively resist white supremacy.[iii]

It is no longer sufficient to understand the past as a fixed entity that can be retrieved intact through acts of memory. Rather than viewing memory as a passive process of recalling lived experiences as objective truths, historians have begun to view memory as an active ordering of the past. The primary function of memory is not to preserve the past, but to adapt it so as to manipulate the present and future.[iv] Indeed, as John R. Gillis, David W. Blight, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, and James Horton, among others, have argued, historical memory does not reflect an objective record of the past, but a highly contested construction subject to constant evolution.[v]

In the midst of the Great Depression, the Federal Writer’s Project undertook an ambitious assignment to interview formerly enslaved people in seventeen states. The Slave Narrative Collection, which includes more than two thousand interviews, became a site of contestation where white Southerners and African-Americans struggled over the creation of historical memory.[vi]

In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, those who supported the abolition of slavery aspired to shape how the peculiar institution would be remembered. For them, slavery was a great evil. Harriet Beecher Stowe, writing in 1865, expressed a belief that Americans might recognize Nat Turner as a great prophet.[vii] By the late nineteenth century, however, after attempts to reconstruct the nation on the basis of equality collapsed, the memory of slavery changed. White Southerners, convinced of the justice of their cause, reinscribed slavery as a benevolent institution. The violence of the postbellum period, they argued, contrasted with the imagined tranquility of the antebellum period.[viii] From this ideology emerged a version of memory in which enslaved labourers happily served indulgent masters.

The nostalgic interpretation of slavery undermined the experiences of those who survived the institution. But the decline of slave narratives after the Civil War severely limited the avenues through which Black men and women could testify about the horrors of slavery. As a result, the opponents of slavery could rarely be heard outside the Black community.[ix] It was only when the first generation of free-born African Americans became adults that scholars began to worry that the slave experience would be lost. 

The Slave Narrative Collection originated when three states – Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina – recorded interviews with formerly enslaved people as part of a larger project to gather the experiences of ordinary Americans.[x] These interviews were undertaken spontaneously, as preliminary plans for the Federal Writers’ Project did not include provisions for gathering the recollections of formerly enslaved people. Once completed, however, their value was undeniable. As a result, the pilot project became a far more ambitious southern regional project designed to systematically interview the formerly enslaved population. On 22 April 1937, fieldworkers in seventeen states received a standard questionnaire to help facilitate the collection of additional slave narratives. The questionnaire explored biographical information, personal recollections of slavery, and attitudes towards prominent white and Black men.[xi]

Since the first interviews coincided with the 75th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, white interviewers and Black informants became embroiled in a conflict over how slavery, and consequently the Confederacy, was to be commemorated. The interviews collected would represent the nation’s official memory of slavery and, therefore, had to be carefully constructed.[xii] The remainder of this article will consider a number of narratives that highlight the struggle between white Southerners and African-Americans. As numerous historians have acknowledged, the circumstances of the interviews shaped the narratives being told. For example, the presence of white interviewers might compel elderly Black men and women to relate positive recollections of slavery. Occasionally informants were interviewed by the children or family friends of their former masters. Ben Leitner, interviewed by W. W. Dixon in South Carolina, acknowledged that he had known the interviewer since childhood.[xiii] In an effort to placate their interviewers, some informants might palliate the horrors of slavery.[xiv]

Every recorded interview had two authors: the informant and the interviewer. Yet the role of the interviewers is often obscured. Since the narratives gathered by the Federal Writers’ Project are presented as verbatim testimony, the interviewers often appear absent. The editors of the Federal Writers’ Project frequently removed comments by interviewers that might lead the reader to think about the narrative as an interview between two individuals.[xv] They wanted the narratives to appear as objective and authentic articulations of the slave experience, rather than as subjective accounts of interactions between white Southerners and formerly enslaved people.[xvi]

Interviews with Susan Hamlin and Susan Hamilton offer rare insight into the role of the interviewers. This is because Susan Hamlin and Susan Hamilton were actually the same person interviewed twice by two different interviewers. Jessie A. Butler, a white interviewer with the Federal Writers’ Project, sat down with Susan Hamlin at 17 Henrietta Street, Charleston, South Carolina. In 1861, Hamlin worked as a nanny. According to the terms of her contract, she received seven dollars a month which she gave directly to her master – Mr. Fuller. While many African Americans, after emancipation, believed that the hallmark of freedom was to retain the rewards of their labor, Hamlin proclaimed this arrangement to be entirely fair: “: “Course it been fair. I belong to him and he got to get something to take care of me.” Hamlin did not express any belief that she was entitled to the wages she earned as a nanny. Moreover, she offered high praise for her former master. Her master, Hamlin argued, “just git his slaves so he could be good to dem.” Hamlin acknowledged that some masters could be wicked, but she insisted that her master had been a good man. Hamlin, like many formerly enslaved people, never moved away from the area where she lived during slavery and regularly returned to her former household on St. Phillips Street. In speaking to Butler, Hamlin recalled many joyous days.[xvii]

Augustus Ladson, a Black interviewer with the Federal Writers’ Project, sat down with Susan Hamilton at 17 Henrietta Street, Charleston, South Carolina. Hamilton, like Hamlin, worked as a nanny in exchange for seven dollars a month; she belonged to Mr. Fuller; and she lived on St. Phillips Street during slavery. Hamilton, however, did not wax nostalgic about slavery. Instead, she described the brutal conditions that enslaved people were forced to endure. Whenever an enslaved person was whipped, for example, those present were forced to watch. Hamilton witnessed “women hung frum de ceilin’ of buildin’s an’ whipped” until “dere wusn’t breath in de body.” Hamilton also recalled the psychological trauma of being treated as chattel. Regarding the sale of enslaved people, she revealed: “All time, night an’ day, you could hear men an’ women screamin’ to de tip of dere voice as either ma, pa, sister, or brother wus taken without any warnin’ and sell.” Hamilton unequivocally condemned the peculiar institution, describing slavery as a “terribly bad” experience in which enslaved men and women lacked the power to confront their masters.[xviii]

If Susan Hamlin and Susan Hamilton were the same person, as their identical biographical information suggests, then the differences in their interviews must be attributed to the interviewer. Jessie A. Butler, like the majority of interviewers employed by the Federal Writers’ Project, was white. When she interviewed Hamlin, the Black woman believed she had come from the welfare office. Butler made no effort to correct this assumption and hid her true purpose: to record Hamlin’s experience of slavery. Hamlin, like many formerly enslaved people, was elderly, unable to work, and dependent on charity. If Butler appeared to be from the welfare office, it is likely that Hamlin would have attempted to ingratiate herself. Moreover, Butler was not subtle in her questioning. She explicitly asked Hamlin to make moral judgements about the actions of slaveholders. When asking if slavery was fair, she commented, “If you were fed and clothed by him, shouldn’t he be paid for your work?”[xix] It is not surprising, then, that Hamlin recalled slavery fondly, as this was the memory that Butler attempted to manipulate.

The presence of white interviewers had the power to distort and limit the testimony of African Americans. Fearing the repercussions of speaking out against white Southerners, many claimed to remember very little or, like Hamlin, presented a rose‑colored interpretation of the past. Martin Jackson, an enslaved man from Texas, described how enslaved people might withhold testimony. Many would shut the door before they agreed to “tell the truth about their days of slavery.” According to Jackson, “When the door is open, they tell how kind their masters were and how rosy it all was.” This was because many enslaved people were harshly disciplined and feared saying anything uncomplimentary about their former masters. Jackson, however, acknowledged that the life of the average enslaved person was “far from rosy.”[xx]

But Hamilton’s interview reveals that Black men and women wanted to record their experiences. They wanted to share the abuses they endured during slavery. As with Hamlin, the tone of Hamilton’s interview can be largely explained by the role of the interviewer as author. Indeed, Susan Hamilton was interviewed by Augustus Ladson, one of seven African American interviewers identified by the Library of Congress.[xxi] In a culture where Black people were expected to address white people respectfully, it is doubtful that Hamilton would have articulated such consistently anti-white content to a white interviewer.[xxii] Where Hamlin refrained from criticizing white Southerners in her interview with Butler, Hamilton felt free to speak critically.

The Federal Writers’ Project often employed writers who had little experience with the art and science of interviewing. Few interviewers addressed cues indicating a tendency towards ingratiation, or corrected assumptions that interviewers represented the welfare office. The lack of discipline among interviewers also resulted in a more sinister tendency: the outright denial of the testimony. Lula Cottonham Walker, for example, described the various reasons that an enslaved person might be whipped: running away, praying, singing, laziness, and disobedience. Her interviewer, however, recommended that the editor omit the account of whipping for praying and singing, calling it preposterous.[xxiii]

Other interviews were subject to similar rejections. Dora Brewer, an enslaved woman from Mississippi, witnessed an enslaved woman being severely beaten. The interviewer, perhaps trying to counterbalance this description of violence, inquired if enslaved people were ever allowed to frolic. Brewer, however, firmly stated that enslaved people “were never allowed any freedom whatsoever.” She related a narrative of great cruelty. Yet the interviewer concluded with a patronizing comment: “It is unfortunate that in some instances the negroes were not treated kindly. However, this was seldom true.”[xxiv] In this way, the interviewer rejected Brewer’s memory and attempted to invalidate her experience.

In Georgia, Reverend W. B. Allen condemned the treatment of enslaved people. For example, he described the lingering horrors of the interstate slave trade. Black men and women would be driven long distances “until they fell from exhaustion.” Those who could not keep up “were literally slashed to ribbons.” On the plantation, enslaved people were forced to work from dawn until dusk. Those who objected were whipped. Particularly cruel slaveholders might even rub salt and red pepper into the wounds, causing the victim to go into convulsions.[xxv]

The interviewer, J. R. Jones, faithfully recorded Allen’s testimony. However, he felt compelled to include a lengthy diatribe dismissing Allen’s references to physical abuse: “The Reverend’s stories of the cruelties of slave drivers, it is here suggested, should be discounted.” According to Jones, irrespective of moral turpitude, no intelligent person would ever drive their “valuable personal property” to the point of exhaustion because this would risk depreciating the value. He further argued that Allen had “grossly exaggerated” his descriptions of the punishments inflicted on enslaved people. The horrific descriptions of whipping, particularly the use of salt and pepper as a method of torture, were “not confirmed by any other local antebellum Negroes or Whites interviewed.”[xxvi] While it is possible that Jones did not record any similar instances of physical abuse in the interviews he conducted, formerly enslaved men and women from a number of states described the same kinds of violence.[xxvii] More likely, then, the interviewer was attempting to mitigate descriptions of violence that might undermine a nostalgic view of the antebellum South.

Given the influence of multiple actors in creating the narratives, it may seem as if Black men and women lacked agency; their recollections were frequently called into question. Catherine A. Stewart, however, contended that understanding the narratives as a dialogue between interviewers and informants is vital for recovering the authorship and agency of African Americans.[xxviii]


Gudger was forced to toil in the fields without rest while her masters relaxed. As if anticipating that her testimony might be challenged, Gudger insisted upon her truthfulness: “Lawdy, honey, yo’ caint know whut a time I had … No’m, I aint tellin’ no lies. It de gospel truf.”[xxix]

In the instructions issued by the federal office, interviewers were instructed to record “the details of the interview … as accurately as possible in the language of the original statements.”[xxx] Interviewers were also not supposed to take sides, nor were they supposed to censor any material collected, regardless of the content.[xxxi] Gudger’s interview suggests an awareness that white interviewers might challenge or otherwise modify their testimony. Black men and women found immense power in testifying and asserted their agency by demanding that interviewers record the truth.

The Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writer’s Project provided a forum where Black men and women could share their experiences of slavery.[xxxii] We should recognize the decision to testify as an act of resistance. Even when the white Southerners involved in the project tried to undermine, mitigate, or otherwise silence the testimony of African Americans, thousands persisted to help shape the historical memory of slavery. As a result, we have access to a diverse collection of narratives that captures how Black men and women understood their enslavement. However, it is also important that we not condemn those who remained silent or who offered a rosy view of slavery. To testify meant relinquishing, to some extent, ownership over their experiences. It created a space for white Southerners to change the narrative and exert their influence. For this reason, we might also read silences in the record as moments of agency.

Sarah Whitwell is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at McMaster University. Her SSHRC-funded research explores how Black men and women resisted racialized violence in the late antebellum and postemancipation South. As part of her research, with the support of the Lewis and Ruth Sherman Centre for Digital Scholarship, she is developing a relational database containing information on incidents of racialized violence – the victims and perpetrators, geographic locations, forms of violence, and methods of resistance. Her work in the field of digital scholarship can be found here.

Further Reading

[i] On the Lost Cause, see Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan, eds. The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010).

[ii] I use nostalgia to refer to the romanticization of the past. According to David Lowenthal, nostalgia is rooted in a belief that what is old is good. Many people remember the past with affection, and this includes moments that might not have been particularly pleasant; even traumatic memories can evoke nostalgia. Therefore, nostalgia can be understood as “memory with the pain removed.” Moreover, nostalgia is fueled by a mistrust of the future. For white southerners, defeat in the Civil War threatened to undermine southern institutions and culture. The past, in which slavery was integral to the southern way of life, offered a safe haven where elite whites oppressed large populations of African Americans. A nostalgic view of slavery, then, reaffirmed white southern identity, which had been damaged by the recent turmoil of the Civil War. On nostalgia, see David Lowenthal, The Past Is Foreign Country (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 4-13.

[iii] W. Fitzhugh Brundage uses the term ‘discursive insubordination’ to describe a variety of verbal confrontations. We can understand testimony as a variation of discursive insubordination, as those who spoke against slavery were not merely giving statements, but resisting violence discursively. See W. Fitzhugh Brundage, “The Roar on the Other Side of Silence: Black Resistance and White Violence in the American South, 1880-1940,” in Under Sentence of Death: Lynching in the South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 273-274. See also Kidada Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me: African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I (New York: New York University Press, 2012)

[iv] David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 196 and 210.  

[v] David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001); W. Fitzhugh Brundage, The Southern Past: A Clash of Race and Memory (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2005), and James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, eds. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (New York: The New Press, 2006).

[vi] George P. Rawick, ed. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1972 and 1977). All references to the Slave Narrative Collection of the Federal Writers’ Project have been taken from this collection unless otherwise stated. References to these volumes will include volume number, part number, and page number(s). Either supplemental series will be distinguished by the notation S1 or S2 in front of the citation. While much of the collection is available online via the Library of Congress, the supplementary series has never been digitized.

[vii] Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Chimney-Corner, ed. Christopher Crowfield (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1868), 295-296. On Nat Turner’s Rebellion, see Kenneth S. Greenberg, Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[viii]Ulrich Bonnell Phillips, American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime (New York. D. Appleton and Company, 1929). With the publication of American Negro Slavery, Phillips became a leading authority on slavery. His interpretation of slavery aligned with the racial assumptions held by white Southerners, and enabled Phillips to undermine assumptions regarding antislavery. Phillips minimized the brutality of slavery, extolled its civilizing functions, and reasserted the notion that slaves were submissive. The overall effect was the verification of plantation nostalgia.

[ix] In the antebellum period, slave narratives served two purposes: to expose the suffering caused by slavery, and to build a sympathetic picture of slaves. More engaging than sermons or essays, slave narratives had the ability to expose the national problem of slavery by condemning the institution. After the Civil War, slave narratives occupied a different place in American culture. No longer necessary to rally Americans to the abolitionist cause, the popularity and public presence of slave narratives declined markedly. On the history of slave narratives, see Mitch Kachun, “Slave Narratives and Historical Memory” in The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative, ed. John Ernest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 21-35.

[x] Federal Writers’ Project, Introduction to Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves, Manuscript/Mixed Material, From Library of Congress, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project Administrative Files, https://memory.loc.gov/mss/mesn/001/001.pdf (accessed 18 August 2017). 

[xi] Henry G. Alsberg, Director to State Directors of the Federal Writers’ Project, 30 July 1937, Manuscript/Mixed Material, From Library of Congress, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project Administrative Files, https://memory.loc.gov/mss/mesn/001/001.pdf (accessed 28 January 2020).

[xii] Catherine A. Stewart, Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 5. Some interviewers, for example, were members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization that sought to uphold plantation nostalgia in an effort to vindicate the Confederate cause.

[xiii] 3.3: 100.

[xiv] For a detailed examination of these problems, please see the following: John Blassingame, “Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems,” The Journal of Southern History 41, no. 4 (November 1975), 473-492; Norman R. Yetman, “The Background of the Slave Narrative Collection,” American Quarterly 19, no. 3 (1967), 534; Norman R. Yetman, “Ex-Slave Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery,” American Quarterly 36, no. 2 (1984), 181-210; Norman R. Yetman, “An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives,” Library of Congress, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snintro00.html; Donald M. Jacobs, “Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives as Source Materials: Slave Labor as Agricultural Labor,” Agricultural History, 57, no. 2 (1983), 223-227; and George P. Rawick, From Sunup to Sundown: The Making of the Slave Community, v. 1 of The American Slave, xvii-xviii.

[xv] The interview of Isaac Stier represents a rare example of a narrative that includes a list of the interviewer’s questions. S1-10.5: 2048-2059.

[xvi] Sharon Ann Musher, “‘The Way the Almighty Wants It’: Crafting Memory of Ex-Slaves in the Slave Narrative Collection,” American Quarterly 53, no. 1 (March 2001): 18.

[xvii] 14.2: 226-232.

[xviii] 14.2: 233-236.

[xix] 14.2: 236.

[xx]  4.2: 189; and S2-5.4: 1904.

[xxi] Norman R. Yetman, “Appendix II: Race of Interviewers,” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/articles-and-essays/introduction-to-the-wpa-slave-narratives/appendix-race-of-interviewers/ (accessed 1 February 2020).

[xxii] For example, Hamilton describes how an enslaved woman, upset over the sale of her daughter, called her master a “damn white, pale-faced bastard.” 14.2: 236.

[xxiii] S1-1.1: 434.

[xxiv] S1-6.1: 201-203.

[xxv] S1-3.1: 4-7.

[xxvi] S1-3.1: 10-11.

[xxvii] See, for example, S1-4.2: 350; 2.1: 162; S2-3.2: 891; S2-3.2: 799; S2-4.3: 1121-1122; 5.3: 209-210; S2-2.1: 25; 2‑6.5: 2338; and 13.3: 202.

[xxviii] Stewart, Long Past Slavery, 201.

[xxix] 14.1: 351.

[xxx] Federal Writers’ Project, Supplementary Instructions to #9-E to the American Guide Manual, Manuscript/Mixed Material, From Library of Congress, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Administrative Files, xxii, https://memory.loc.gov/mss/mesn/001/001.pdf (Accessed 28 January 2020).

[xxxi] Ibid., xx.

[xxxii] Other popular forums included the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and the Abandoned Lands and the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States.

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