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Slave narratives an insightful collection

book1This remarkable collection of interviews with African-Americans in North Carolina who were once slaves is a fascinating discovery. Conducted by the Federal Writers Project in the 1930’s, the participating writers and researchers interviewed ex-slaves wherever they found them. All of the participants are elderly and many of them were living out their final years in “county homes.” These “slave narratives” are filled with surprises. More than 2,000 former slaves participated in this program, and of this number, 176 were North Carolinians.

The total collection — 10,000 pages of oral history — was deposited in the Library of Congress, and there, with the exception of scholarly research projects, they languished until Belinda Humence found them and was immediately struck by this lost world that suddenly came alive in these narratives. There are marvelous descriptions of food, clothing and social events that has been lost except for the details in these interviews.  

Hurmence left the language alone. Except for errors that were made for the interviewers, she let the former slaves speak for themselves. The result is a world that pulses with danger, cruelty and, strangely enough, joy.

Perhaps the greatest surprise is the fact many of these African-Americans remember their “marsters” with affection. Indeed, a handful of formers slaves recall an existence that resembled an earthly Eden where every need was met and every day was joyful. How can that be? Apparently, there were several plantations on the North Carolina coast that resembled independent townships. The slaves ate with their white masters and lived in compact, comfortable homes. Many noted that they never witnessed a whipping or saw a slave auction where families were divided.

However, the violence and brutality that we now associate with slavery is also present. Josephine Smith, who was interviewed in Raleigh, remembers the day that she stood on the auction block in Richmond. She said, “The worst thing I ever seed was a slave woman who had been separated from her three-week-old baby” and was being marched to New Orleans. The woman was chained with 20 or 30 other slaves. She had no food and when Josephine passed, she begged for water. “She died there on the side of the road. And they buried her right there, cussing because they had lost money on her.” There are accounts of beatings so brutal that the victims did not survive. “Sometimes, they give you 39 lashes and sometimes they give you 100. You usually don’t survive 100 lashes.”

Mattie Curtis recalls a preacher who tied her mother over a barrel and beat her bloody. “He had the barrel carried into the house so he could witness the beating in the parlor.” The beatings were carried out on Sunday. Mattie also remembers that after the war was over, preachers from up North showed up and “married” many slaves, and “I seed my Mammy and Pappy married.” Mattie remembers that she gave birth to 19 children, all of which were scattered throughout the region to work on other plantations.

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Many of the slaves remember historically significant events, such as the arrival of Wheeler’s Calvary, a Confederate unit that left a wake of death and destruction that was worse than the Yankees. Sarah Debro remembers that Wheeler’s Calvary murdered three of her uncles. She also recalls the “the patty rollers,” who came at night and terrified slaves who were out “without a pass.” 

However, one of Sarah’s quotes regarding slavery and African-Americans is especially noteworthy:

   My folks don’t want to talk about slavery. Theys shame niggers ever was slaves.  But while for most colored folks, freedom is the best, they’s still some niggers that ought to be slaves now. These niggers has done clean forgot the Lord; those that’s always cutting and fighting and going in white folks houses at night, they ought to be slaves. They ought to have an old marse with a whip to make them come when he say come and go when he say go, till they learn to live right.

Sarah’s opinions are reflected in other narratives in which the elderly ex-slaves express their disappointment with the younger generation, and ruefully note that “we need the patty rollers back.”

In addition to the numerous accounts of hardship, all of the narratives mention the fact that they were denied an education and were told repeatedly to stay away from books and guns. Although they could not own property, many mention that they were allowed to have large gardens.

It is interesting to note that many of the ex-slaves in these narratives found a way to acquire property after the war, and a large number developed a covert system of farming ... they worked at night, saved money and bought land.

These “slave narratives” contain some remarkable information about lost and obscure practices such as an intricate explanation of about the spinning of flax as related by Parker Poole, a 91-year-old man. “Most white people had flax clothes,” he said. There is also a detailed description of how ice was “harvested” in the winter and buried in pits that were 10 feet deep. The Marster’s whiskey was also stored with the ice. Betty Cofer says, “I never saw a match until I was a grown woman. We made our fire with flint and punk.”

My favorite passage in this collection is the story told by Bob Jones who was interviewed in 1937 in Raleigh. He recalls that when “young Marse Joe” went off to the war, he only came home twice. Once when his Daddy died and once when he came home dead.  

“I don’t remember where he was killed, but he had been dead so long, he had turned dark. Sambo said to me, ‘I thought that I would turn white when I went to heaven, but it appears to me that the white folkes are going to turn black.’”

This is a marvelous collection and I sincerely hope that Blair Publishers will publish more “Slave Narratives” in the future.

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