Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

America's 'Slave Narratives' should shock us

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
February 17, 2013 -- Updated 1337 GMT (2137 HKT)
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
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1952 GMT (0352 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT