Amazing Photographs Of Former Slaves Taken Seventy Years After The Emancipation Proclamation

In the 1920s and 1930s, an interest in slave narratives was rekindled, and as part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Progress Administration, more than 2,000 first-person accounts of slavery were collected, as well as 500 black and white photographs. 

The collection was compiled in 17 states between 1936 and 1938. Many of the former slaves interviewed were well into their 80s and 90s – some were even past 100. 

One former slave, Sarah Gudger, claimed she was 121. She told the federal writer: ‘Yo’ know de sta’s don’ shine as bgright as dey did back den. I wonah wy dey don’. Dey jes’ don’ shine as bright.’ Many of the collected accounts are written phonetically, giving further insight to their linguistics, mannerisms, and characters.

Born into slavery
Born into slavery

Born into slavery: Between 1936 and 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Progress Administration photographed former slaves and collected their stories


Born into slavery
Born into slavery

I am weary let me rest: By the time their accounts were taken, many former slaves were well into their 80s and 90s


Born into slavery
Born into slavery

Town and country: They offered extraordinary insight into slave life

They provide powerful insight into a part of America’s history that is no longer in living memory – it exists instead in the Library of Congress. One slave said in 1855: ‘Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is – ‘tis he who has endured.’

Another man, John W. Fields, 89, said: ‘We were never allowed to go to town and it was not until after I ran away that I knew that they sold anything but slaves, tobacco, and whiskey. Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us. We knew we could run away, but what then? An offender guilty of this crime was subjected to very harsh punishment.’

 While there are many reasons as to why these testimonials were collected, one reason was simply the passing of time- by the 1930s, surviving former slaves were old men and women.

The time in which to capture their testimonies was running out, thus putting a sense of urgency to the project. Many of the accounts are deeply troubling, and are powerful reminders of America’s seedy past.

Born into slavery
Born into slavery

We shall overcome: One former slave said: ‘Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is – ‘tis he who has endured’


Born into slavery

First person accounts: More than 2,000 stories were collected by the WPA


Born into slavery
Born into slavery

Passing of time: While there are many reasons as to why these testimonials were collected, one reason was simply the passing of time


Born into slavery

Government project: By the 1930s, surviving former slaves were old men and women; the time in which to capture their testimonies was running out, thus putting a sense of urgency to the project


Born into slavery


Born into slavery
Born into slavery
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There are 157 comments for this article
  1. Curtis Kojo Morrow at 4:42 pm

    Viewing these photos remind me of my grandfather, and some of his teaching..

    About Broken Spirits; Or To Break Their (the then slaves) Spirits.

    According to my grandfather (born 1849 & made his transition 1951) beatings was ordered my the slave masters & overseers, as part of breaking slaves spirits, particular doing childhood, even if the parent didn’t approve. In fact, any white person could order such punishment. remember grandpa telling us that he never witness whites beating their children, no matter what devilment they might do. Now, in my senior years after travels that took me to many difference countries, I can say that I’ve never witness any parent “beating” their children. When I say beating, I mean doing so with Sticks, Belts, Ironing Cords, whips or switches from trees.
    After slavery, many freed Negros, (before recognizing their identity as African-Americans) choose to continue such practices, that is until recent, child abusing laws came into being.

  2. Peter A. Treadwell at 6:10 pm

    My great-grandfather was a slave the first 21 years of his life, my father spent a lot of time with him the first thirteen years of his life around him. My father was born only 50 years after it ended.

  3. Pingback: Amazing Photographs Of Former Slaves… |
  4. Jayni Robinsonfamilyfarm Tutson at 7:26 am

    After slavery was "abolished" the plantation system turned to sharecropping. Basically former slaves rented the land from the owners and farmed the land and was barely making ends meet after the rent on the land was paid after harvest. Sometimes it wasn't paid and these individuals went further and further into debt. They went into debt to the landowners and the store where they bought food. Honestly, I can't see much of a difference between now and then. Then there were some blacks who got ahead, but many were poor and struggling. We live in a different era and have different technology and opportunities, but we are still struggling from situations that keep us down through no fault of our own. There are plenty of people around the country who don't overindulge in materialistic things and they are struggling living from paycheck to paycheck, working minimum wage, surrounded by ignorance and violence and no information on how to escape. We don't need to learn about slavery except to study how to change our current situation that is equivalent to sharecropping. We are still working for pennies for the more fortunate. These were slaves that are now free and soon will go home to their maker. They won the war. I see pride in these individuals who show on their faces the hard lives they endured.

  5. Sabrina M Messenger at 3:57 pm

    I agree with Kathy Arnold! Then maybe some of the spoiled brats of today would learn there are others who had situations far worse and still perservered. Too many people nowadays (of all races) have an ungrateful, negative and arrogant attitude, they think the world owes them a living, and they give up too easily, or they're so ridiculously hypersensitive they're ready to commit suicide over a damn hangnail! No backbone whatsoever.

  6. Janie Dougherty at 9:28 pm

    Daron Walter, Learning goes both ways….so much has been suppressed of the Black history and even hidden. I just saw "The Butler"-very moving and hard to watch. I actually lived through that time with many memories of the newspapers and TV, but was living in North Eastern Ohio, and now back in North Western NC where I'm from. It's also heart wrenching for the whites who have an understanding of our true connection and human equality-men and women. I admire and respect those who were slaves so very much-can't believe their own names were not provided for those interviewed. Full education for all will one day be the norm with teachers paid appropriately for their skills. Wishing you the best!

  7. Beverly Wright Wilder at 4:48 am

    Daron Walter … sure, white history is taught in schools, but most of it is a pack of lies and exaggerations! I am white, but FIRMLY believe that Black History be taught in schools, starting in kindergarten. Our whole country is based on lies, and we will ALL flounder until we TELL THE TRUTH!!! There should NEVER be a celebration of Christopher Columbus Day! What an atrocity to human kind! He was one bad, despicable man. It is time we teach truth. Period.

  8. Lucy Ujamaa at 5:37 am

    As an African, seeing those photographs has brought home the flip side of slavery – apartheid that we endured under the white rule. We black people have suffered the brutality of white superiority one way or the other, and the struggle goes on. I salute all the slaves and all those who died under apartheid brutality.

  9. Zurie Holland at 6:08 pm

    Pride, strength and sadness are the words that describe my feeling while viewing these pictures. I wish more information was provided. My great great or great great great grandparent were slaves. Black people are truly strong and beautiful people. Only we can endure so much a still poses strength even through a picture. Black history is important, and should be most important to African Americans

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  16. Patricia Duncan at 6:32 pm

    My great grandfather told me his remembrances of his village attacked; adults separated from children. The slaves stacked in confined shelf – like spaces chained individually and to one another.

  17. Rehab at 8:49 am

    John W. Fields, 89, said: ‘We were never allowed to go to town and it was not until after I ran away that I knew that they sold anything but slaves, tobacco, and whiskey. Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us. We knew we could run away, but what then?
    Still true today…

  18. ERIC at 12:04 pm


  19. Jeana at 4:17 pm

    They Look So Sad, As If To say, LORD Will This treatment? Ever End? I Was Born A King ! Queen, Prince, And Princess, With My Family. Being Separated From My Family, And Made A Slave To Be Treated Less Then A Human being, Raped, Killed, Seeing My Children Sold Off Like Cattle, To Never See Them Again. Lord! You Created Us In Your Image, To Be Treated Like The Kings, Queens, Prince, And Princess’s, You Created Us To Be. You Are Our Creator. That’s Why So Many Jumped Overboard, Rather Die Than Be A Slave. This Too Shall End!

  20. Lisa at 8:37 pm

    “Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that tell you what slavery is-t’is he who has endured it.” Profound words.

  21. Iya Kai at 10:21 am

    These were published in “The Slave Narratives.” The WPA hired writers to transcribe these recollections. I am a writer and wish I could have been one of the writers on that project, but I wasn’t born until 20 years later. I have two of those books and the stories are powerful.
    However, we do not refer to our ancestors who were held in bondage as “slaves.” They were enslaved Africans — African people living in an enslaved state of being. There is a difference. They never accepted their fate and rebelled in many ways including escaping. Also, they were not American citizens until after slavery. I do not use the oppressors’ terms to describe myself or our African ancestors. That’s the least we can do in their memory. Every person of African descent should get these books and share them with our youth.

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