Love in the Ex-Slave Narratives

(The following is a guest post by Sabrina Thomas, a research specialist with the Library of Congress’s Digital Reference Team.)

Bill and Ellen Thomas, Ages 88 and 81, between 1936 and 1938. WPA Slave Narrative Project, Federal Writer's Project. Manuscript Division.

Bill and Ellen Thomas, Ages 88 and 81. Between 1936 and 1938. Manuscript Division.

Finding stories of love within the narratives of ex-slaves shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, for the millions of men, women and children who endured atrocities and injustices under the institution of slavery, the only bond that offered any hope of liberation – if not of the body, then of the soul – was the bond of love.

Examples of love in its many manifestations – spiritual, brotherly, paternal and, yes, romantic – can be found in the Library’s digital collection Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. A digital collaboration between the Library’s Manuscript Division and Prints and Photographs Division, “Born in Slavery” contains more than 2,300 first person accounts of slavery and 500 photographs of former slaves.

The “Born in Slavery” collection offers a variety of ways to search for content. From its list of collection items, researchers can search the full-text of narratives by name of narrator, informant or keyword through the top search box (when conducting the search, be sure “This Collection” is the selected search option).

In addition, users can use the “Refine your results” options at the left of a results page to browse for results by a number of criteria, including location and subject. A list of narratives by state is also available, as well as the option from the About page to search the collection by volume.

I began my own search for love stories with the collection by typing “love story” into the search box and clicking the search button. Thirty-four records were returned, sorted by relevance. Most of the 33 records returned for manuscripts included a link to the volume of the collection that includes matching pages, as well as a link under “Resource” to view individual pages within the volume that include full-text matches on the keywords “love story.” I decided to click on the “View 8 Results” link in the first group of records on the list, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 11, North Carolina, Part 1, Adams-Hunter.

View 8 Results

Click on “View XX Results” to view pages within a slave narratives’ volume that include full-text (OCR) matches on your search terms.

Two stories are listed first: “Aunt Lucy’s Love Story” and “Aunt Barbara’s Love Story.” While all of the matching items contain a story shared with the interviewer about love, I found that the stories told by Aunt Lucy and Aunt Barbara contain the most details, especially Aunt Lucy’s.

With a translation of the vernacular, here is an excerpt from a 1937 interview with former slave Lucy Ann Dunn that is a timeless celebration of romance, love and commitment.

An interview with Lucy Ann Dunn, 90 years old, 220 Cannon Street, Raleigh, NC  (Ex-Slave Narratives, North Carolina, Volume 16, Part 1)

It was in the little Baptist church at Neuse where I first saw Jim Dunn and I fell in love with him then, I guess.  He said that he loved me then too.  But it was three Sundays before he asked to see me home.

We walked a mile home in front of my mother.  I was so happy, it felt like one half (½) mile to my home.  We ate cornbread and turnips for dinner and night came before he went home.  My mother would not let me walk him to the gate.  I knew.  So, I just sat on the porch and said good night.

He came every Sunday for a year and finally proposed.  I told my mother that I thought I should be allowed to walk to the gate with Jim.  She said alright, only if she sat on the porch to watch.  That Sunday night, I did walk with Jim to the gate and stood under honeysuckle that smelled so sweet.  I heard the big ole bullfrogs a-croakin’ by the river and the whipper-willis a –hollerin’ in the woods.  There was a big yellow moon, and I guess Jim did love me.  Anyhow, he said so and asked me to marry him and he squeezed my hand.

I told him that I’d think it over; and I did and the next Sunday, I told him that I would have him.  He had not kissed me yet.  But the next Sunday he asked my mother for me.  She said that she would have to have a talk with me and let him know.  Well, all that week she talked to me telling me how serious getting married is and that it lasts a powerful long time.  I told her that I knew that.  But, that I was ready to try it and that I intended to make a go of it anyhow.

On Sunday night, my mother told Jim that he could have my hand in marriage. You should have seen that black boy grin!  He came to me without a word and picked me up out of the chair and right there in the moon light, he kissed me right before my mother who was crying.

The next Sunday we were married in the Baptist church at Neuse.  I had a new white dress, though times were hard.

We lived together for fifty-five years and we always loved each other.

The old lady with her long white hair bowed her head and sobbed for a moment, and then she began again unsteadily.

We had eight children, but only four of them are living now.  Those living are James, Sidney, Helen and Florence, who was named for Florence Nightingale.

I can’t be here so much longer now because I am getting too old and feeble and I want to go to Jim anyhow.

The old woman wiped her eyes, I think of him all of the time.  It seems like we’re young again when I smell honeysuckle and see a yellow moon.

What treasures do you stumble upon while searching the “Born in Slavery” collection? Let us know in the comments below.

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