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

  1. Angela November 27, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    The book “the Bullwhip Days” was an excellent compilation of some of these narratives. Will make you shudder at the inhumanity of such a system as well as inspire you by the resilience and strength of the people who endured. Definitely needs to be taught without restraint to future generations so that such an act NEVER be repeated!

  2. blkgalusa November 27, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    This photos make me very sad. However, these are my ancestors and I am proud to see these photos anyway.

  3. DeepEntity November 27, 2012 at 9:56 pm

    Our Strong Black people is whom built, not just the America’s but the world you see today and the wealth that many whites have over Blacks in every country is because of the many many years of free labor Black Slaves endured. It’s a shame our Black race haven’t received Reparation like so many other’s and you wonder why? so many of our people and communities are in a state of Chaos. “You see, if our great great grandfather’s was a doctor or lawyer or business entrepreneur then I would follow in his footsteps, but they weren’t. So many Black have no past wealth to have a better future.

    • David November 29, 2012 at 10:15 pm

      I agree with your statement for we have been over looked by our nation’s leadership. Blacks and Native Americans have been done wrong and are still suffering from injustice.

  4. Thelma Williams November 27, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    I am so glad to see these pictures and to know that some of the history was not lost. Yes Black history should be taught in schools, the full unadulterated history.It makes me sad to see the pain and suffering of those that under went this barbaric treatment .It also makes me pray for the forgiveness of those that perpetrated the inhumane and barbaric treatment to others.There are still too many that house the spirit of those that inflicted this type of pain and suffering to others.If we could capture the spirit and will of the survivors of slavery in these United states we would .stronger will to survive the atrocities that the rogue government has in store for us in the name of the New World Order.

  5. Colonel Yaskovich November 29, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Brilliant collection of some great Americans!

  6. carol carter November 29, 2012 at 5:52 pm

    I am so glad that these pictures touched all our hearts in a positive way. It means that more of such history really needs to be taught in schools worldwide. Wherever we are in the world, everyone seems to only think of the slave history in the Americas, and particularly in the U.S. But even in Africa, our ancestors were and still are enslaved on the Mother Continent.

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  9. R. Brown December 1, 2012 at 11:25 am

    To teach Black History in the public schools today would expose the barbaric inhumane ways of the white man’s ancestors, that they want swept under the rug forever, which is the Black mans holocaust, along with the Indian holocaust, just like the Jewish holocaust, death and intense suffering was involved in all three. h**l is certainly going to be full with a lot of these Hitlers for they all fall in to the same boat. A lot of their off spring unfortunately are alive today with this same racist mentality in their hearts as their ancestors possessed on their way to join their ancestors on a 1 way trip to h**l with no privileges of return, what a sick but sad way to end one’s life, but we all have choices, to Love or to Hate and God not accepting excuses., its all in His Holy Word.

  10. Carolyn Marshall December 2, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    This story brings tears to my ears. Our youth are not interested in learning about our past. I know . I am a public school teacher. I am thankful to have my grandmother and her baby sister ( 98 and 96 years of age) in my life. They always tell stories of their life growing up in Alabama.

  11. icdatruth December 2, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    I have really begun to realize that my great-grandmother was old enough that she would have lived during that time. This makes me realize that all of the whites and African immigrants that down play the affects of slavery on the blacks in America are really ignorant of this country’s history. Slavery, at least in my family was only four generations ago, that being said how in the h**l can it be expected to “pretend like it never happened” or had little effect on our children today? Not to mention the four generation head start that whites in this country had over us (with the help of free labour) financially.

  12. matt carmody December 2, 2012 at 9:07 pm

    This country will never be redeemed (not in the confederacy’s sense of the word but in god’s eyes) until we confront and truly atone for what have allowed to remain blight on our souls.
    We are way past time due for real reconciliation on this country instead of paying lip service to equality while hoping “they” won’t move in next door.

  13. Labimmer December 3, 2012 at 6:58 am

    I am glad to be reminded of my past. I too would love to see African Americam History taught in schools. Maybe if our children knew from whence they came, they would have a better understanding of where they should be headed. There is one problem with teaching AA History, the teachers, both black and white, don’t know it and don’t seem interested enough to learn it. AA History goes deeper than the slave trade and anyone not well versed in it would not do it justice. Imagine an educator who spent as much time reading Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Chancellor Williams or even watching Hidden Colors as they did posting on twitter and Facebook! Maybe we could get it going on.

  14. Theodore F. Hamilton December 3, 2012 at 11:49 am

    Bless their hearts. So sad am I, but truly proud of them. This is one reason why I have valued education and doing for myself. To show gratitude and love for them. Every one of them. Thank You JESUS for these saints.

  15. Theodore F. Hamilton December 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    You know, everyone of these saints were born into slavery. No doubt that these women were all raped as younger girls and women. Forced to do all kinds of things the white women and girls wouldn’t. Bless their hearts. They never bothered anyone.
    Only a two legged pig would treat other humans this way. Another thing, if they have a problem with the way we look(those that do), then they have a problem with God, cause all that we have, was given to us by him. One more thing, they call President Obama(us) a monkey…., well, why is it, that my monkey, gorilla, chimpanzee…sperm will fertilize your girls and women’s eggs. What does that make them? What does that make you? Just wondering.

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  23. Virginia Kavanaugh August 26, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    Just looking at these photos ,has renewed my strenght,and good will towards all my fellow humans…

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  26. Lucy Ujamaa September 14, 2013 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.

  27. Zurie Holland October 1, 2013 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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    interessant post. I’ll remember it, and follow your nexts messages.


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