Works Progress Administration
Federal Writers’ Project
1500 Eye St. N.W.
Supplementary Instructions #9-E To The American Guide Manual
Folklore Stories From Ex-Slaves
Note: In some states it may be possible to locate only a very few ex-slaves, but an attempt should be made in every state. Interesting ex-slave data has recently been reported from Rhode Island, for instance.
April 22, 1937
Stories From Ex-Slaves
The main purpose of these detailed and homely questions is to get the Negro interested in talking about the days of slavery. If he will talk freely, he should be encouraged to say what he pleases without reference to the questions. It should be remembered that the Federal Writers’ Project is not interested in taking sides on any question. The worker should not censor any material collected, regardless of its nature.
It will not be necessary, indeed it will probably be a mistake, to ask every person all of the questions. Any incidents or facts he can recall should be written down as nearly as possible just as he says them, but do not use dialect spelling so complicated that it may confuse the reader.
A second visit, a few days after the first one, is important, so that the worker may gather all the worthwhile recollections that the first talk has aroused.
- Where and when were you born?
- Give the names of your father and mother. Where did they come from? Give names of your brothers and sisters. Tell about your life with them and describe your home and the “quarters.” Describe the beds and where you slept. Do you remember anything about your grandparents or any stories told you about them?
- What work did you do in slavery days? Did you ever earn any money? How? What did you buy with this money?
- What did you eat and how was it cooked? Any possums? Rabbits? Fish? What food did you like best? Did the slaves have their own gardens?
- What clothing did you wear in hot weather? Cold weather? On Sundays? Any shoes? Describe your wedding clothes.
- Tell about your master, mistress, their children, the house they lived in, the overseer or driver, poor white neighbors.
- How many acres in the plantation? How many slaves on it? How and at what time did the overseer wake up the slaves? Did they work hard and late at night? How and for what causes were the slaves punished? Tell what you saw. Tell some of the stories you heard.
- Was there a jail for slaves? Did you ever see any slaves sold or auctioned off? How did groups of slaves travel? Did you ever see slaves in chains?
- Did the white folks help you to learn to read and write?
- Did the slaves have a church on your plantation? Did they read the Bible? Who was your favorite preacher? Your favorite spirituals? Tell about the baptizing; baptizing songs. Funerals and funeral songs.
- Did the slaves ever run away to the North? Why? What did you hear about patrollers? How did slaves carry news from one plantation to another? Did you hear of trouble between the blacks and whites?
- What did the slaves do when they went to their quarters after the day’s work was done on the plantation? Did they work on Saturday afternoons? What did they do Saturday nights? Sundays? Christmas morning? New Year’s Day? Any other holidays? Cornshucking? Cotton Picking? Dances? When some of the white master’s family married or died? A wedding or death among the slaves?
- What games did you play as a child? Can you give the words or sing any of the play songs or ring games of the children? Riddles? Charms? Stories about “Raw Head and Bloody Bones” or other “hants” of ghosts? Stories about animals? What do you think of voodoo? Can you give the words or sing any lullabies? Work songs? Plantation hollers? Can you tell a funny story you have heard or something funny that happened to you? Tell about the ghosts you have seen.
- When slaves became sick who looked after them? What medicines did tho doctors give them? What medicine (herbs, leaves, or roots) did the slaves use for sickness? What charms did they wear and to keep off what diseases?
- What do you remember about the war that brought your freedom? What happened on the day news came that you were free? What did your master say and do? When the Yankees came what did they do and say?
- Tell what work you did and how you lived the first year after the war and what you saw or heard about the KuKlux Klan and the Nightriders. Any school then for Negroes? Any land?
- Whom did you marry? Describe the wedding. How many children and grandchildren have you and what are they doing?
- What do you think of Abraham Lincoln? Jefferson Davis? Booker Washington? Any other prominent white man or Negro you have known or heard of?
- Now that slavery is ended what do you think of it? Tell why you joined a church and why you think all people should be religious.
- Was the overseer “poor white trash”? What were some of his rules?
The details of the interview should be reported as accurately as possible in the language of the original statements. An example of material collected through one of the interviews with ex-slaves is attached herewith. Although this material was collected before the standard questionnaire had been prepared, it represents an excellent method of reporting an interview. More information might have been obtained however, if a comprehensive questionnaire had been used.
Sample Interview From Georgia
Ex-slave, 78 years.
“Dey says I wuz jes fo’ years ole when de war wuz over, but I sho’ does member dat day dem Yankee sojers come down de road. Mary and Willie Durham wuz my mammy and pappy, en dey belong ter Marse Spence Durham at Watkinsville in slav’ry times.”
“When word cum dat de Yankee sojers wuz on de way, Marse Spence en his sons wuz ‘way at de war. Miss Betsey tole my pappy ter take en hide de hosses down in de swamp. My mammy help Miss Betsey sew up de silver in de cotton bed ticks. Dem Yankee sojers nebber did find our whitefolks’ hosses and deir silver.”
“Miss Marzee, she wuz Marse Spence en Miss Betsey’s daughter. She wuz playin’ on de pianny when de Yankee sojers come down de road. Two sojers cum in de house en ax her fer ter play er tune dat dey liked. I fergits de name er dey tune. Miss Marzee gits up fum de pianny en she low dat she ain’ gwine play no tune for’ no Yankee mens. Den de sojers takes her out en set her up on top er de high gate post in front er de big house, en mek her set dar twel de whole regiment pass by. She set dar en cry, but she sho’ ain’ nebber played no tune for dem Yankee mens!”
“De Yankee sojers tuk all de blankets offen de beds. Dey stole all de meat dey want fum de smokehouse. Dey bash in de top er de syrup barrels en den turn de barrels upside down.”
“Marse Spence gave me ter Miss Marzee fer ter be her own maid, but slav’ry time ended fo’ I wuz big ‘nough ter be much good ter ‘er.”
“Us had lots better times dem days dan now. Whatter dese niggers know ’bout corn shuckin’s, en log rollin’s, en house raisin’s? Marse Spence used ter let his niggers have candy pullin’s in syrup mekkin’ time, en de way us wud dance in de moonlight wuz sompin’ dese niggers nowadays doan know nuffin’ ’bout.”
“All de white folks love ter see plenty er healthy, strong black chillun comin’ long, en dey wuz watchful ter see dat ‘omans had good keer when dey chilluns vuz bawned. Dey let dese ‘omans do easy, light wuk towards de last ‘fo’ de chilluns is bawned, en den atterwuds dey doan do nuffin much twel dey is well en strong ergin. Folks tell ’bout some plantations whar de ‘omans ud run back home fum de fiel’ en hev day baby, en den be back in do fiel’ swingin’ er hoe fo’ right dat same day, but dey woan nuffin lak dat ’round Watkinsville.”
“When er scritch owl holler et night us put en iron in de fire quick, en den us turn all de shoes up side down on de flo’, en turn de pockets wrong side out on call de close, kaze effan we diden’ do dem things quick, sompin’ moughty bad wuz sho’ ter happen. Mos’ en lakly, somebuddy gwint’er be daid in dat house fo’ long, if us woan quick ’bout fixin’. Whut us do in summer time, ’bout fire at night fer de scritch owl? Us jes’ onkivver de coals in de fire place. Us diden’ hev no matches en us bank de fire wid ashes evvy night all de year ‘roun’. Effen de fire go out, kaze some nigger git keerless ’bout it, den somebuddy gotter go off ter de next plantation sometime ter git live coals. Some er de mens could wuk de flints right good, but dat wuz er hard job. Dey jes rub dem flint rocks tergedder right fas’ en let de sparks day makes drap down on er piece er punk wood, en dey gits er fire dat way effen dey is lucky.”
“Dem days nobuddy bring er axe in de house on his shoulder. Dat was er sho’ sign er bad luck. En nebber lay no broom crost de bed. One time er likely pair er black folks git married, en somebuddy give ‘em er new broom. De ‘oman she proud uv her nice, spankin’ new broom en she lay hit on de bed fer de weddin’ crowd ter see it, wid de udder things been give ‘em. Fo’ thee years go by her man wuz beatin’ ‘er, en not long atter dat she go plum stark crazy. She oughter ter know better’n ter lay dat broom on her bed. It sho’ done brung her bad luck. Dey sent her off ter de crazy folks place, en she died dar.”