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Born in Slavery: Portraits and Narratives of Formerly Enslaved People

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Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. One way to commemorate this anniversary might be to explore the online collection Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. More than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of formerly enslaved people are available online. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA).

This photograph of Mollie Williams drew my attention:

Mollie Williams, age 84. Photo, ca. 1937.
Mollie Williams, age 84. Photo, ca. 1937.

The portrait comes from a part of the slave narratives collection that is now cared for in the Prints & Photographs Division. The group of 225 photos is one component of the surviving, multi-media record of the project. The majority of the photographs are with the narratives in the Library’s Manuscript Division. All of the photographs have been digitized and can be viewed together in the Born in Slavery site.

There is a second photograph of Mollie Williams in the Manuscript Division:

Mollie Williams, Age 84. Photo, ca. 1937.
Mollie Williams, Age 84. Photo, ca. 1937.

Both portraits offer a compelling visual record, particularly when seen in connection with Mollie Williams’s interview transcript.

Scholars who have studied the interviews and the interviewers point out problematic aspects of the documentation effort that make them as much products of the 1930s interviewers as the individuals with whom they spoke (see “A Note on the Language of the Narratives“), but Mollie Williams’s talents as a storyteller and singer come through in the account of her life in the household of slave owner George Newsome, near Utica, Mississippi. What is also apparent is that the end of the Civil War and emancipation did not necessarily go hand-in-hand in the lives of many African Americans. When the war ended, Mollie Williams continued to live with Margurite, George Newsome’s wife, at times hiding from her own mother, who apparently didn’t have a permanent place to live. But Mollie’s mother returned more than once for her, ultimately prevailing when she came bearing a letter from the “Free Man’s Board” (likely the Freedmen’s Bureau, a part of the War Department that was charged with providing relief and addressing social dislocations in the aftermath of the Civil War).

Mollie Williams’s interview and photographic portraits together convey a sense of strength and fortitude during many challenges she faced in her lifetime.  At the end of her interview, she noted that she and her mother continued to move from place to place until Mollie married. She had three children, but not one of them was still alive at the time she recorded the interview.

Learn More:

  • Read the interview with Mollie Williams in the Mississippi Narratives section of Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves (pp. 157-164 of the transcript).
  • Find out more about the project and how it was carried out by exploring articles featured in Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938.
  • View the combined set of digitized photographs from the Prints & Photographs Division and the Manuscript Division.
  • Not many audio recordings exist that would enable researchers to verify the content of the transcripts of the interviews. But about the same time that Federal Writers Project authors were collecting narratives, folklorists such as Alan Lomax, John and Ruby Lomax, and others were making recordings of formerly enslaved individuals, often as part of general collecting expeditions. Listen to recorded narratives in Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories, which includes three recordings related to the Federal Writers’ Project project.

Comments (7)

  1. I am so grateful this history is made available. It is more important than ever, that we face our shared history with truth and courage.

  2. This is Wonderful & Priceless information!

  3. So important that this history and their stories have been preserved. We all need to learn the truth about slavery and oppression in our country. So glad this archive exists.

  4. Xander – Beautifully said.

  5. This is an amazing website!! This information is a sad and very real part of our past that should be treasured, preserved and most importantly studied in every school curriculum. God’s peace to the people who worked day and half the night. I couldn’t have done it!! They have my admiration and respect!!

  6. Though incredibly heartbreaking; this is a piece of our past that must never be forgotten…but treasured and preserved for future generations!! ❤️

  7. I am reading the series of historical fiction books by Ginny Dye called “The Bregdan Chronicles”. I have learned more about our American history through these books than I ever knew. It is important for us to understand the way our country developed and the role that oppressed blacks, indigenous people and immigrants have played in its development. I am grateful for the various ways that our history is being preserved.

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