A voice from the past can make long-ago events seem like they happened yesterday.
At the end of the Civil War, over four million enslaved Americans gained their freedom. Today, we can still hear 26 of them speak to us in their own words, with their own voices.
In the middle of the 20th century, African Americans who had endured life under slavery told their stories in personal interviews, or oral histories, that were recorded and are now available on the Web site of the Library of Congress.
Fountain Hughes of Baltimore was interviewed in 1949, when he was 101 years old, 84 years after emancipation. Even at the distance of many decades, Hughes provides vivid details of the brutality the slave regime and the daily struggles of enslaved people.
By analyzing this primary source, students can think critically about what can be learned from a person’s own account of historical events, and about the differences between oral histories and other ways of exploring history.
Teachers can have students:
- Listen to the interview with Fountain Hughes, particularly the sections describing slavery and the period following emancipation.
- Read the transcript of the interview. How does listening to Fountain Hughes tell his story have a different impact from reading it?
- Speculate about the point of view and the purpose of the people involved in making this recording.
- What do you think Fountain Hughes hoped to accomplish by telling his story?
- What do you think the interviewer hoped to accomplish by making the recording?
- Do you feel they accomplished their goals?
You can use the Library’s primary source analysis tool and teacher guides to help students analyze these primary sources in further depth.
For more background information and more interviews:
Get the printable version, which includes copies of the Library’s primary source analysis tools and guides.
Let everyone know what questions your students ask after listening to the Fountain Hughes interview, or in the other stories of former slaves, by posting it in the comments.