Photo Essay - Slave Narratives

Phillis Wheatley, Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Phillis Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral—the first book to be published by an African American woman—laid the foundation for slaves writing about slavery in the United States. In her poetry, Wheatley spoke out against slavery from her position as a slave. At a time when a slave's ability to read and write could be met with severe punishment, the written word took on a unique importance. In subsequent years the slave narrative allowed slaves to record personal experiences and chronicle the history of slavery. Slaves were also able to use the genre to critique slavery, and voices were heard from inside an oppressed population that would not have been heard otherwise. In 1834, fifty years after Wheatley's death, Margaretta Matilda Odell published the work Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley. This memoir paired Wheatley's poetry with a biography of her life and was reprinted three times within four years to meet public demand.

A Fugitive SlaveCourtesy of the Library of Congress

This 1848 narrative written by the fugitive slave Henry Watson was one of about seventy slave narratives published before the Civil War. During and after the Civil War, slave narratives became extremely popular and nearly one hundred were published before the turn of the century. Abolitionists often used the narratives as primary source material documenting why slavery should be abolished as many narratives gave frank and disturbing details about torture, slave auctions, and abhorrent living conditions. Narratives by fugitive slaves were especially popular, although there were different opinions on whether or not they should detail how to escape. Frederick Douglass, the most famous ex-slave author, was a vocal proponent against fugitive slaves detailing their escapes in writing. As soon as an escape technique became public knowledge, it ceased to be a viable option.

Courtesy of New York Public Library

With an abundance of slave narratives available the more original the story was, the wider the potential audience. Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup (1853) gained great popularity in part due to Northup's exceptional tale. Northup was born free in New York state in 1808. When he was thirty-three, Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He spent the next twelve years as a slave in Louisiana. A year after he was rescued from enslavement, Northup published the account of his time as a slave and the narrative was an immediate success. Since 1999 the residents of Saratoga Springs, New York have celebrated Solomon Northup Day every July 24th in his honor.

The Fugitive's Song, 1845.Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Frederick Douglass' autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was so popular that in addition to its wide readership it also inspired music. This sheet music cover for the 1845 piece "The Fugitive's Song" depicts Frederick Douglass in 1938 as he fled from Maryland to the free state of Massachusetts. The cover reads that the song was "composed and respectfully dedicated, in token of confident esteem to Frederick Douglass. A graduate from the peculiar institution. For his fearless advocacy, signal ability and wonderful success in behalf of his brothers in bonds. (and to the fugitives from slavery in the) free states & Canadas by their friend Jesse Hutchinson Junr." Douglass' memoir of his experience as part of the "peculiar institution"—a popular way to describe the system of slavery in his day—is still one of the most widely read slave narratives.

The resurrection of Henry Box Brown at Philadelphia, who escaped from Richmond, Va. in a box 3 feet long 2 1/2 ft. deep and 2 ft wide, c. 1850Courtesy of Library of Congress

The story of Henry Box Brown's escape from slavery became legendary as soon as it occurred. It was in 1849 that Brown had himself express mailed from Richmond, Virginia to the American Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in a box the size of a large suitcase. The first account of Brown's ordeal was written with help from the abolitionist Charles Stearns. The authenticity of this first piece, Narrative of Henry Box Brown who Escaped from Slavery Enclosed in a Box 3 Feet Long and 2 Wide Written from a Statement of Facts Made by Himself. With Remarks upon the Remedy for Slavery, was widely doubted, in part because of Stearns' editorial remarks and overly dramatic prose. In response Brown published a second narrative of his escape in 1851 entitled Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown Written by Himself. Slave narratives often were marketed as "written by himself" or "written by herself" in response to public suspicion about the authenticity of the narratives.

Cover page of Harriet Ann Jacobs'

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is the first known narrative to be written by a female slave. Like authors of numerous slave narratives, Harriet A. Jacobs wrote her memoir with the help of a white abolitionist. In her 1891 narrative Jacobs describes the specificities of the harassment she received as a female slave at the hands of her master. Her narrative was often dismissed as being too "melodramatic" because of her exploration of the complicated feelings around her own sexuality and sexual abuse. Today Jacobs' narrative is particularly important to the African American literary canon as a precursor to works by authors such as Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison who explore the particulars of black women's experiences.

Booker T. Washington, c. 1903.Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With emancipation, how people recounted their time as slaves changed dramatically, as did the conventions of the slave narrative. Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery (1901) is a prime example of the shift from discussing slavery as an institution to discussing the still rampant racism and inequality. He, like others, used the autobiographical and linear style of the slave narrative to describe his experiences but his message shifted to one of how African Americans had successfully emerged from slavery and how they could find strength in that struggle.

Ex-slave Adeline Cunningham, c. 1937. Part of the U.S. Works Progress Administration, Federal Writers' Project slave narratives collectionsCourtesy of the Library of Congress

As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Federal Writers' Project (FWP), thousands of oral histories were recorded through the FWP's Office of Negro Affairs as part of its slave narrative project. In the late 1930s, over seventy years after emancipation, there were still thousands of former enslaved people living in the United States but they were aging rapidly. The slave narrative project came under intense scrutiny for suspect behavior—the oral histories were not recorded correctly, the majority of the interviewers were white, and there were charges that racist interviewers were changing and omitting parts of stories. Despite serious flaws in the project, the material collected (including the photograph above of former slave Adeline Cunningham) has been the major source of material for the study of slavery in the United States.