Life Under the "Peculiar Institution": Selections from the Slave Narrative Collection



Life Under the "Peculiar Institution": Selections from the Slave Narrative Collection

This edition

"Life Under the 'Peculiar Institution': Selections from the Slave Narrative Collection". Ed. Norman R. Yetman. New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1970. xi+368 pp.

Other editions, reprints, and translations

● Repr. Robert W. Krieger, 1976.

● Repr. as "Voices from Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives." Mineola, NY: Dover, 1999. 448 pp. With new preface and an additional chapter, "Ex-slave interviews and the historiography of slavery," originally published in 1984 in "American Quarterly."

Online access

● Internet Archive (Life Under the "Peculiar Institution")
● Google Books (limited preview only) of "Voices from Slavery" (1999)

Table of contents

Acknowledgments (v)
List of Narratives (ix)
Introduction (1)
Narratives (7)
● Adams, Isaac (8)
● Alexander, Lucretia (11)
● Anderson, Mary (15)
● Armstrong, Mary (18)
● Bell, Frank (21)
● Bell, Mary A. (23)
● Bell, Virginia (25)
● Blackwell, Boston (27)
● Blont, David (30)
● Boone, Andrew (33)
● Bost, W. L. (35)
● Branch, Jacob (39)
● Branch, William (42)
● Brown, John (44)
● Brown, Julia (46)
● Cape, James (50)
● Carruthers, Richard (52)
● Cheatam, Henry (55)
● Clifton, Peter (57)
● Colquitt, Martha (60)
● Cross, Cheney (66)
● Darling, Katie (69)
● Davenport, Charles (71)
● Davis, D. (76)
● Davis, Lucinda (81)
● Davis, William (88)
● Davison, Elige (91)
● Dawson, Anthony (93)
● Debro, Sarah (98)
● Dunn, Lucy Ann (101)
● Dunwoody, William L. (103)
● Easter, Esther (107)
● Evans, Anne Ulrich (109)
● Ezell, Lorenzo (111)
● Falls, Robert (116)
● Faucette, Lindsey (119)
● Fayman, M. S. (121)
● Finnely, John (123)
● Franks, Dora (127)
● Freeman, Mittie (130)
● Garlic, Delia (133)
● Glenn, Robert (135)
● Goodman, Andrew (140)
● Grandberry, Mary Ella (143)
● Green, Elijah (147)
● Gudger, Sarah (150)
● Hancock, Fil (154)
● Harris, Abram (159)
● Herndon, Tempie (163)
● Hines, Marriah (166)
● Homer, Bill (168)
● Hutson, William (170)
● Jackson, Martin (173)
● Jackson, Silas (175)
● Johnson, Benjamin (178)
● Johnson, Henry (181)
● Johnson, Nellie (185)
● Johnson, Prince (188)
● Jones, Richard (191)
● Kilgore, Sam (195)
● King, Silvia (198)
● Kye, George (201)
● Lewis, Henry (204)
● Lindsay, Mary (207)
● Love, Kizian (212)
● Lucas, James (217)
● Marion, Andy (221)
● Merritt, Susan (224)
● Moore, Fannie (226)
● Moss, Andrew (231)
● Nealey, Wylie (234)
● Necaise, Henri (237)
● Patterson, Delicia (239)
● Petty, John (242)
● Quinn, Doc (244)
● Richardson, Chaney (246)
● Robertson, Betty (249)
● Robinson, Harriett (251)
● Robinson, Tom (254)
● Rogers, Ferebe (256)
● Rogers, George (259)
● Sewell, Alice (261)
● Shepherd, Robert (264)
● Sheppard, Morris (269)
● Simms, Bill (275)
● Simpson, Jane (278)
● Smith, Gus (280)
● Smith, Jordon (287)
● Snow, Susan (290)
● Sorrell, Ria (294)
● Sparks, Elizabeth (296)
● Thomas, Louis (300)
● Tims, J. T. (301)
● White, John (306)
● White, Mingo (310)
● Williams, Lizzie (315)
● ------- , Willis (319)
● Wilson, Lulu (322)
● Wilson, Sarah (325)
● Winn, Willis (330)
● Young, Clara C. (334)
● Young, Litt (336)
The Background of the Slave Narrative Collection (339)
Appendix I: Narratives in the Slave Narrative Collection by State (357)
Appendix II: Race of Interviewers (358)
Index of Proper Names (359)
Subject Index (363)

[The "List of Narratives" in "Voices of Slavery" (1999) is missing the name of Sarah Debro (p. 98), though her account appears in the body of the text.]

About the anthology

● "Selections from the 19 volumes of transcriptions of slave narratives prepared by the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938, and deposited in the Library of Congress, where they were assembled under the title: Slave narratives, a folk history of slavery in the United States from interviews with former slaves" (Smithsonian Libraries and Archives). Yetman has selected 102 narratives from the more than 2,000 accounts compiled from 17 states in these materials.
● Yetman tells us that, "Only minor editing, designed to improve readability and continuity, has been employed. This has included an attempt to achieve some uniformity of dialect spelling, which varied greatly among the 300 interviewers. At no point, however, have the metaphors or patterns of speech themselves been changed. Since the primary objective of the Federal Writers' Project in interviewing the former slave was to gain information concerning his perspective of slave life and his reactions to emancipation, I have likewise eliminated those comments, usually very brief, that concerned the informant's situation when interviewed. Such editorial omissions were minor, however. Each narrative has been reprinted substantially intact" (5). [It seems to me regrettable to have made these omissions: little space was saved, according to Yetman himself, but a person's current circumstances might well have some influence on how they reflect on the past and it would be worth knowing something about this, when it is available.]
● The narratives included here were selected in terms of a number of criteria: (1) the 20 narratives that had previously been published in their entirety (in Botkin's "Lay My Burden Down" [1945]) were excluded; (2) only narratives by persons who were at least 13 years old in 1865 were considered; (3) only narratives that were at least 3 typescript pages in length were considered (5-6). These criteria left about 300 narratives. Yetman then made subjective judgments about "readability and interest; detail of content; continuity of narrative; prominence of personal experience, as contrasted to mere description of slave life" (6). Because the quality of materials produced depended very much on "the caliber of the Federal Writers and their dedication to the task of interviewing the former slaves," examples from a few states ("most notably Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Texas") are "disproportionately represented" (6).
● The selected narratives were then presented in alphabetical order by the name of the informant, to avoid imposing any categorization of the material by the editor (6).

Anthology editor(s)' discourse

● Most of the over 6,000 accounts ("commentaries, autobiographies, narratives, and interviews") produced by ex-slaves appeared during the antebellum period, but about one-third of them--over 2,000 accounts--were recorded as part of the Federal Writers' Project Slave Narrative Collection in 1936-38. "The Collection constitutes an illuminating source of data about ante-bellum Southern life, about the institution of slavery, and, most importantly, about the reactions and perspectives of those who had been enslaved" (1).
● The Slave Narrative Collection: "Almost all had experienced slavery within the states of the Confederacy and still resided there. The major categories of slave occupations were all adequately represented. The slave holdings of an ex-slave's owner varied considerably, ranging from over a thousand slaves to situations in which the informant was the only slave owned by the master. The treatment these individuals received ran the gamut from the most harsh, impersonal and exploitative to the extremely indulgent, intimate and benevolent. Except for the fact that the informants were relatively young when they experienced slavery and that older slaves had died before these interviews were undertaken, all the major categories of the slave population appear to have been well represented in the collection" (2). The age distribution of the informants, in terms of their age in 1865 at the time of emancipation: age 1-5: 16% of informants; age 6-10: 27%; age 11-15: 24%; age 16-20: 16%; age 21-30: 13%; over 30: 3%--thus, 67% of the informants were 15 years of age or younger in 1865 (2). While the range of informants might not be entirely representative--and there are wide variations in the number of informants from different states, ranging from 3 in Kansas to over 600 in Arkansas--this body of narratives avoids the biases that characterize the slave narratives produced in the antebellum period: viz., "the disproportionate number of runaways, individuals who had purchased their freedom or had been freed, young males, craftsmen, and individuals from the border states" (2-3). Two biases that are evident in the accounts comprising the Slave Narratives Collection are, first, that most of the informants were urban dwellers (whereas the 1930 Census shows that most aged blacks lived in rural areas) and the ratio of male informants is unnaturally high (1.43)--even though the ratio of men to women among Blacks who are 85 years old or older is only .74 (3n.4).
● In the three decades since the Slave Narrative Collection was assembled, it has largely been neglected by historians, for a number of reasons, difficulty of access (in the Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress); its large bulk ("more than 10,000 unnumbered pages"); and the view that such personal reminiscences about circumstances from seventy years ago (or more) are unreliable (3).
● Yetman argues, however, that "a blanket indictment of the narratives is as unjustified as their indiscriminate or uncritical use" (4); "the utility of the narratives cannot be determined a priori, but only in the context of the objectives of the researcher": for instance, "As new questions--especially those concerning the effects of the institution of slavery upon the psyche of the enslaved--are raised, these highly personal and subjective accounts assume a new significance and become an appropriate, even essential, source of data" (4).
● Apart from their historical value, these narratives also significant as literary or cultural documents: "the recording of the recollections of these aged Black people has preserved an important component of the oral tradition of Black Americans. In these interviews folk speech, idiom, and vernacular storytelling are fused with folk images, symbols, and myths to convey a sense of the experiential significance and reality of life in bondage" (4).
● Botkin's "Lay My Burden Down" (1945) is also based on the Slave Narrative Collection, but "represents only a small sample of its contents. Less then twenty of the more than 2,000 narratives are printed in their entirety" (4).
● "Since my primary objective has been to make the contents of the Collection more accessible, any narratives previously reprinted in their entirety or substantially so, were not included" (5).

Reviews and notices of anthology

● Joyner, Charles W. "Journal of American Folklore" 84.334 (1971): 453-55. JSTOR.
Most accounts of slavery have relied on the records and texts produced by the slaveholders; since slaves were deliberately and systematically kept illiterate and lacked means to produce and preserve documentary accounts of their experiences or their lives, only a limited range of records from the point of view of enslaved persons exist (454). There are, indeed, "several thousand ante-bellum slave narratives, mostly the autobiographies of runaways" but these "are troublesome sources, marred both by their frankly propagandistic purpose and by the narrowness of their sample of the slave population. The slave who was able, against tremendous odds, both to make himself literate and to escape was too remarkable an individual to typify the experience of the millions who could do neither. Furthermore, despite the intension of these runaways, as authors of antislavery tracts, to portray slavery in an unfavorable light, most of them had actually experienced slavery at its most lenient--enjoying, as house servants, relatively favored positions within the system. Few of them really knew slavery in its harshest aspects. Despite their concern to depict the evils of slavery at its worst, they more often merely exaggerated the evils of slavery at its best" (454).
"Such other sources as the trial testimony of slaves--'The Trial Record of Denmark Vesey' (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), for example--or dictated reminiscences--the widely-anthologized 'Confessions of Nat Turner,'--are even more dubious, since both informants and collectors in such situations had important axes to grind" (454).
Despite the existence of the "great Slave Narrative Collection compiled in 1937-38 by the Federal Writers' Project," it has "never really received the scholarly attention it deserves, principally because its great unindexed bulk (over 10,000 pages) has been virtually inaccessible in the noncirculating Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress" (453). "The Slave Narrative Collection is not without its difficulties. Three-quarters of a century had elapsed since the informants had been slaves. Only 3 percent of them were over thirty in 1865; two-thirds of them were under fifteen. Any slave over twenty at the time of emancipation would have been over 90 at the time of the interview. Folklorists have // often shown how variation creeps into song and tale texts of an individual informant over a period of time. How reliable are the memories of aged men [and women] three-quarters of a century removed from their subjects? Furthermore, since most of the collectors were white, there remains the problem of the informants telling the interviewers what they thought the interviewers wanted to hear. Nevertheless, the hazards of using the slave narratives are insignificant compared with the hazards of trying to understand slavery without them" (454-55).
Norman Yetman "seeks to make the Slave Narrative Collection more widely available. He by no means duplicates 'Lay My Burden Down' [Benjamin A. Botkin's pioneering "folk history" of slavery based on this collection of material and published in 1945] either in content or organization. In contrast to Botkin's impressionistic montage of selected excerpts from the collection, Yetman facilitates systematic analysis of variables in slave life by printing 102 narratives in their entirety. . . . Nearly twenty narratives which Botkin had printed in full were excluded, as well as all those of informants still preadolescent at the time of Emancipation and those whose narratives comprised fewer than three typewritten pages. Of the nearly three hundred narratives not eliminated in this fashion, Yetman subjectively chose those he believed most interesting, detailed, and personal. He has chosen well" (455).
"Yetman's indexes and an appendix indicating the race of the interviewers will be helpful for comparative study and analysis. His volume is further enhanced by a sensitive photo essay of ex-slaves and an essay on the background of the Slave Narrative Collection previously published in 'American Quarterly', 19 (1967), 534-53" (455).
● Barron, Milton L. "Social Forces" 50.1 (1971): 138-39.
"Over two-thirds of the Yetman selections were provided by people who were over eighty years old when interviewed. . . . [but they] had been relatively young when they experienced slavery" (139); "older slaves never had a chance to be included [in the Federal Writers' Project collections], having died before the interviews were conducted in the 1930s" (139).
Of the interviewers whose race could be determined by Yetman, "22 were white and only 8 were black, and one cannot avoid considering the possibility that the former inhibited their respondents more than did the latter" (139).
"The photo essay of former slaves (mainly from the Cook Collection of Richmond's Valentine Museum) and the author's detailed background account of the Slave Narrative Collection enrich the narratives themselves. Especially useful is the subject index derived from a painstaking content analysis of the topics covered in the 102 narratives" (139).
● Howard, Victor B. "Pennsylvania History" 39.1 (1972): 148-50.
"Until after World War II few historians made use of the massive resources of ante-Bellum slave testimonies or ex-slave recollections. They stood with U. B. Phillips who doubted their authenticity. In recent years, however, Kenneth Stampp, Willie Lee Rose, Charles H. Nicolas, Jr., and others have found rich insights to an understanding of the institution of slavery by following the lead of a fugitive slave who in 1855 informed the journalist, Benjamin Drew: 'Tisn't he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is,--'tis he who has endured.' . . . In a sense the narratives are childhood recollections of slavery, as well as folk traditions of the institution. They are, however, largely the memories of slave life under a wartime economy since few were old enough to recall the pre-Civil War days. The degree of self-sufficiency of the plantation economy as related in the narratives, for example, was greater during the war than a decade earlier" (149).
"As unemployed white-collar workers, the interviewers who collected the material . . . were untrained in the techniques of collecting information and interviewing, and their lack of knowledge and their prejudice is sometimes reflected in the uneven quality of the selections. The informant himself was sometimes guilty of flattery and exaggeration and often appeared to tell what he thought the interviewer wanted to hear. The fact that some expressed the opinion that the Negro was better off under the system of slavery than as a freeman indicates the immense weight of tradition and the influence of romanticism in the Negro's common stock of tradition as well as in Southern white society. The interviewers were almost entirely [sic] southern whites, a characteristic which is also reflected in Yetman's selections since twenty-two of his narratives were written by white interviewers, eight by black, and seventy-two could not be identified" (149).
"In comparison with other similar collections, 'Life Under the "Peculiar Institution"' gives a milder and less cruel picture of slavery than Benjamin Drew's 'The Refugee: A North-side View of Slavery' (1855), an abolitionist project in which one-hundred and thirteen fugitive slaves were interviewed in Canada. Yetman's selections also depict slavery as more romantic and glamorous than 'Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Accounts of Negro Ex-Slaves,' the Fisk University project directed by Charles S. Johnson and Ophelia Settle Egypt in 1929-1930. Since the Johnson-Egypt project was not handicapped by a color bar, their study also revealed considerably more evidence of racial mixtures on the plantation than is evident in Yetman's selections" (150).
● Boney, F. N. "Georgia Review" 25.4 (Winter 1971): 521-22.
An "excellent work," offering a "skillful, fascinating selection of materials from the Federal Writers' project of the Works Progress Administration to interview former slaves in the 1930's" (521).
"Slavery from the black perspective comes alive again in all of its complexity and inconsistency. Nowhere is the bewildering diversity of the Old South more apparent than in the recollections of these old timers who, like most antebellum Southerners of every hue, were hearty individualists. Their narratives tell of bondsmen who ran the gamut from Uncle Tom and Sambo to hard-nosed rebel and whites as dissimilar as saints and sadists" (521-22).
"Out of the confusion of real life slavery certain themes recur frequently. Slavery was harsh and restrictive. Whether the master was kind or not, the common lot was long, grinding hours of labor--'from see to can't.' Food and clothing and housing were plain at best. Patrollers treated unauthorized wanderers roughly. The whip was almost always the main enforcer of law and order. Whites usually made positive efforts to keep blacks uneducated and ignorant. Black family life was unstable--the usual marriage ceremony was 'jumping the broom'--and any slave was liable to sudden sale, to being 'put in master's pocket.' When religious training was provided, the emphasis was on obedience to those in command. Indian masters were usually more lenient and humane than white ones. The Civil War and especially the coming of the Yankees brought many changes. At the end of the war the master usually gathered his 'people' together and simply informed them 'You are as free as I am,' but emancipation created many problems, and the Ku Klux Klan intimidated many freedmen" (522).
"This book will appeal to many people. The general reader will find it a fascinating introduction to the strange world of American slavery. The advanced student will encounter a fine new source of information not only on the Old South but also on the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the scholar may well discover a whole new perspective for his own specialized research. Almost everyone would benefit from reading this collection of short narratives. Read'em and weep--and laugh and experience a whole range of human feelings" (522).
● "Book Notes." "Florida Historical Quarterly" 49.3 (Jan. 1971): 315.
"The Florida narratives, some of which are included in this book, were undertaken by Dr. Carita Doggett Corse, state director of the Florida Writers Project. Under her direction [a]n active black unit was set up in 1936 which included among others the noted novelist-anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston. A substantial number of former slaves were interviewed, and some of these were used in the compilation of the 'Florida Guide.' A projected volume entitled 'The Negro in Florida' was supposed to include these narratives, but the project was never completed. In Florida, sixty-seven former slaves were interviewed. 'Life Under The "Peculiar Institution"' is published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, and it sells for $3.95" (315).
● "Book Reviews and Notes." "Georgia Historical Quarterly" 55.1 (1971): 154-55.
This brief notice describes the "about 2,300 narratives of interviews with former slaves with former slaves, ranging in ages (as far as they could be guessed) from 80 to 135 years. More than three hundred interviewers participated in the Project, the great majority being Whites as it was difficult to find any competent Negroes for the work" (154). It notes the complications of these long-after recollections as documentation of the past: "But regardless of 'contradictions and exaggerations, [and] fancy and flattery,' the narratives afford extremely interesting reading. . . Professor Yetman has given proper background and explanations but he has not attempted to check any of the narratives against documentary evidence such as census records and county official archives" (155).
● Reed, John Shelton. "A Final Note on Slavery." Review of "Life under the 'Peculiar Institution.'" "Phylon" 34.2 (1973): 218-19.
From the accounts presented here, "the general reader can begin to piece together for himself an answer to the question of what it was like to be a slave. Those with strong preconceptions will not be happy with this evidence, for the picture is one of great variety--in situation and in response. The question whether slaves were content--which many contemporary controversialists viewed as crucial--seems not to be answerable in general. There are slaves here who see their masters as sadistic tyrants, and others who see them as benevolent Christian autocrats; there is seething resentment and genuine devotion; docile compliance alternates with foot-dragging and sabotage" (218).
"When slaves report satisfaction with their situation, the basis for this satisfaction is worth examining. Most often, it seems, slaves assessed their well-being by comparing their lot with that of slaves on nearby establishments" (218).
Yetman helpfully provides information about the racial identity of the interviewers, where this is available: "If, as students of public opinion polling have demonstrated, white interviewers still lead black respondents to distort their reported attitudes, one can imagine the effects on ex-slaves in the South in the 1930's. One should be rightly skeptical of a report like the one (quoted in 'Lay My Burden Down') which concluded: '. . . all in all, white folks, then was the really happy days for us niggers.' The camouflage taken on in slavery times was apparently still functioning two-thirds of a century after emancipation" (218).

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