Lately I have been reading a lot of published slave narratives. These are not to be confused with the WPA slave narratives from the 1930s that many of us are familiar with. I am referring to slave narratives that were written and published from the mid 1800’s through the mid 1900s by slaves and former slaves, many of which who had fled slavery. These are books that were were popular during that timeframe, especially as a part of the burgeoning anti-slavery movement. We probably know about the most popular, like Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery and Frederick Douglass’ autobiography. But I think we forget—I know I did—that this is primary information out of the mouths of slaves, and also that there were hundreds more like this published. The University of North Carolina has a wonderful online collection entitled “North American Slave Narratives.” It is apart of the collection entitled “Documenting the American South.” In the Slave Narratives, they have collected and displayed all the known existing slave narratives, including pamphlets and articles through 1920. I had seen this collection many times over the years, but never really dove in and explored. The other day I started reading them, and got so engrossed in them I stayed for 3 hours! They are very detailed, and I realized that these could be a terrific resource for part of the write-up of my family.
My Prather family was from Montgomery County, MD (they are shown above in the picture on this blog). I have mentioned here before that I am focusing on writing up the various lines of my research, fully and properly sourced, and getting them out to the relevant repositories. So, I went to UNC’s collection and found the story of a man named Josiah Henson who was enslaved in Montgomery County.
His claim to fame is that he is credited as being the prototype for the lead character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s infamous book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Josiah escaped from slavery and later became an abolitionist and a minister. I was able to utilize the following descriptions from his narrative, published in 1849, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself” :
[My master was] coarse and vulgar in his habits, unprincipled and cruel in his general deportment, and especially addicted to the vice of licentiousness. His slaves had little opportunity for relaxation from wearying labor, were supplied with the scantiest means of sustaining their toil by necessary food, and had no security for personal rights… The principal food of those upon my master’s plantation consisted of corn meal, and salt herrings; to which was added in summer a little buttermilk, and the few vegetables which each might raise for himself and his family, on the little piece of ground which was assigned to him for the purpose, called a truck patch. The meals were two, daily… The only dress was of tow cloth, which for the young, and often even for those who had passed the period of childhood, consisted of a single garment, something like a shirt, but longer, reaching to the ankles and the older, a pair of pantaloons, or a gown, according to the sex; while some kind of round jacket, or overcoat, might be added in winter, a wool hat once in two or three years, for the males, and a pair of coarse shoes once a year. Our lodging was in log huts, of a single small room, with no other floor than the trodden earth, in which ten or a dozen persons–men, women, and children–might sleep, but which could not protect them from dampness and cold, nor permit the existence of the common decencies of life. There were neither beds, nor furniture of any description–a blanket being the only addition to the dress of the day for protection from the chillness of the air or the earth. In these hovels were we penned at night, and fed by day; here were the children born, and the sick–neglected. Such were the provisions for the daily toil of the slave.
Doesn’t this first-hand account make the experiences of my ancestors come alive just a little bit more?
I almost cannot believe I have not made better use of this resource in the past 13 years. When you have some time, peruse the UNC website and just read through some of the pages of the various narratives. Perhaps you can find someone who grew up in your ancestor’s state, or better yet, their same county.
UNC’s entire collection is extraordinarily valuable, and a separate collection that I found useful was the one entitled “First Person Narratives of the American South”. This collection encompasses all Southerners, white and black, and I found some of the diaries of slaveowners and their wives to be very eye-opening. For example, Elizabeth Pringle, daughter of a prominent South Carolina planter had a book published about her life growing up on a southern rice plantation called A Woman Rice Planter. Here’s a tip for this collection: Browse by subject, and under the heading African-Americans, you’ll find a sorting of the narratives by state.) Other standouts in the online UNC DocSouth collections include:
I am always on the lookout for ways to enrich the story of my ancestor’s lives, as well as educate myself on the topic even further. These narratives were strong and rich reading, even as they relayed horrific realities. Kudos to UNC, and I hope to get there to do research one day, as I’ve heard their library/archives is one of the best in the South.