The Library of Congress releases early 20th-century recordings of interviews with formerly enslaved African-Americans.
As the Civil War came to its conclusion and slavery was abolished, approximately four million men and women were released from their bonds. These people started from scratch and built new lives for themselves and their families, but unfortunately much of their history went undocumented.
Not all was lost, however, as the Library of Congress has salvaged recordings of interviews with 26 former slaves. These interviews offer invaluable insight into the lives and minds of these men who were once seen as little more than property. The descriptions of the purchasing of human lives are quite chilling, but when they spoke of their lives since then — their families, the joys they’ve found in freedom — we found ourselves awestruck by their perseverance.
The Library of Congress has 7 of the interviews on their website, available to listen to or read the transcripts.
Fountain Hughes was 101 years old when he was interviewed and after he went on at length about the importance of saving money rather than falling into debt, he spoke of what life was like after he was freed, with no where to go. He also talked about what life was like as a slave:
Colored people didn’t have no beds when they was slaves. We always slept on the floor, pallet here, and a pallet there. Just like, uh, lot of, uh, wild people, we didn’t, we didn’t know nothing. Didn’t allow you to look at no book. And then there was some free born colored people, why they had a little education, but there was very few of them, where we was.
Isom Moseley was just a boy when abolition took effect. He spoke about how many of those who were freed did not know it until a year later and about how he was treated by the government since being freed:
“Well now, they tell me it was a, a year before the folks knowed that, uh, they was free. And when they found out they was free, they worked on shares, they tell me. Worked on shares, didn’t rent no land, they worked on shares. Now you know I was a boy, I’m about explaining to the best of my understanding. They say they worked on shares. I think they said it was, was it fourth, or third I think. They got the third, I think they say, what they made, after surrender …
“They give me clothes, something to eat, and giving me five dollars a month. They treating me all right. I don’t find a bit of fault on it. Yeah, I got, I don’t have to buy no clothes at all. Well I buy, they give me five dollars a month, I buy my uh, uh, flour. Well they give me some flour some time, and some sugar and coff …, coffee, I’m a coffee drinker, and tobacco. I have that to buy, but clothes, things I don’t buy that.”