Former Slaves Interviewed in the 1930s talk about Slavery in the USA

"You can't hold a man down without staying down with him." — Booker T. Washington


Bob Lemmons, Carrizo Springs, Tex. in 1936. Lemmons was born a slave south of San Antonio around 1850. He came to Carrizo Springs during the Civil War with white cattlemen seeking a new range. Pic: Dorothea Lang

In 1999 ABC released a documentary based on a compiled a series of recordings made in the 1930s and 1940s by John Henry Faulk, recordings he had made of former slaves telling their stories. These priceless recordings had languished and gathered dust on the shelves of the Library of Congress since 1941.


John Henry Faulk: "I remember sitting out on a wagon tongue with this old black man - completely illiterate - down here near Navasota a plantation there and I was telling him what a different kind of white man I was. I really … I really a getting, come educated on blacks and their problems, except we called 'em coloured folks. I said, 'You know, you might not realise it but I'm not like the coloured - the white folks you run into down here. I believe in giving you the right to go to school, to good schools. Now, I know you don't want to go with white people - I don't believe in going overboard on this thing - but I believe coloured people ought to be given good schools. And I believe you ought to be given the right to go into whatever you qualify to go into, and I believe you ought to be given the right to vote.'

John Henry Faulkner

And uh, I remember him looking at me, very sadly and kind of sweetly, and condescendingly and saying, 'You know, you still got the disease, honey. I know you think you're cured, but you're not cured. You talking now you sitting there talking and I know it's nice and I know you a good man. Talking about giving me this, and giving me that right. You talking about giving me something that I was born with just like you was born with it. You can't give me the right to be a human being. I was born with that right. Now you can keep me from having that if you've got all the policemen and all the jobs on your side, you can deprive me of it, but you can't give it to me, cause I was born with it just like you was.'


My God it had a profound effect on me. I was furious with him. You try to be kind to these people, you see. 'You give them an inch and they'll take an ell.' But the more I reflected on it, the more profound the effect. I realised this was where it really was. You couldn't give them something that they were born with just like I was born with. Entitled to it the same way I was entitled with it."


A section of the documentary can be watched below.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862, freeing the district’s 3,100 slaves. The legislation was hint of slavery’s coming death in the United States — only 8 1/2 months later Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation.

“Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is–’tis he who has endured,” John Little, a fugitive slave who had escaped to Canada said in reflection of the realities of slavery in 1855.

From 1936-1938 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery were recorded and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves were collected. The first-person stories and photographs were assembled in 1941 into a 17-volume collection that is available online today courtesy of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Divisions of the Library of Congress.


Here’s a look at some of the photographs from “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938” and portraits of former slaves taken by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration.

Sarah Gudger, photograph between 1936 and 1938. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Orelia Alexia Franks, Beaumont, Tex., in 1937. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Martin Jackson, San Antonio, Tex., in 1937. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Mary Crane , 82, in Mitchell, Ind. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Willis Winn, near Marshall, Tex. in 1939. Winn sits with a hornthat slaves were called with. (Lee, Russell Lee/ Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Andrew Moody and wife Tildy in Orange, Tex. in 1937. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Mammy Prater, said to be 115, who inspired ” Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater” by Dionne Brand. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The Rev. Bill Green, in San Antonio, Tex., in 1937. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Clara Brim, in Beaumont, Tex., in 1937. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Patsy Moses, in Waco, Tex., in 1937. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Henry Robinson, photographed between 1937 and 1938. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Of course it's absolutely worth remembering modern slavery DOES exist, and it should make you mad as hell. A21 is a great organisation fighting it.