Forgotten Black Voices
American slaves had surprisingly positive things to say about slavery.
by Gedahlia Braun
From September-October, 1993, issue
On the subject of the treatment of American slaves, your readers may be interested to know that during the Depression someone had the idea of sending people to the South to interview the last remaining blacks who had been slaves--all then in their 80s and 90s. Someone named George P. Rawick has compiled these narratives into a 19-volume collection called The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, which is published by Greenwood Press.
Several books have been based on these interviews, and a few years ago I read one called Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves. It was edited by Belinda Hurmence, and published by Mentor (Penguin) in 1990. I recall that of these 48 interviews only two could be called hostile to former masters, slavery, or whites. Some were more or less neutral, but certainly the largest number expressed a positive attitude toward former owners and to slavery. Here are some excerpts:
Patsy Mitchner, age 84 when interviewed on July 2, 1937:
Betty Cofer, age 81:
Adeline Johnson, age 93:
Mary Anderson, age 86:
Simuel Riddick, age 95:
Sylvia Cannon, age 85:
As I reflect on these interviews, they remind me of what I find now among non-Westernized Africans. They like and respect whites because, generally speaking, whites treat them better than their fellow blacks do.
In the introduction to this collection, the editor is at pains to explain all of these favorable statements about whites and slavery. The best she can do is to point out that these interviews were taken in the midst of the Depression and people must have looked back nostalgically to the past when blacks had food, clothing, housing, etc.
Even if this could explain the fond memories of the condition of slavery, it does not explain fond memories of white owners. What is especially surprising is that after sifting through thousands of interviews, and with the clearly expressed liberal bias of the editor, there is still such a preponderance of positive expressions about whites and slavery. One is bound to conclude that this was at least a very common reaction if not perhaps even typical.
Dr. Braun has lived in Africa since 1976. Click here for a review of his book.