African American Oral History
Benefits of Oral History
While the use of oral history falls outside the mainstream of genealogical research, African American oral history plays a vital part in African American genealogical research. With fewer ways to document African American ancestors going back in time, oral history or documented narratives can be used to extract important facts which may give clues or point to existing historical documentation.
Even though the researcher may not find oral history on an ancestor, oral history may exist for an ancestor's contemporary who may have mentioned:
- former slave owner
- neighbors or family members
- names of churches
- whereabouts before slavery
Small clues can open up avenues of research that did not exist previously, and even a study of the history of the slave owning family can lead to other topics to research or historical records that actually document an ancestor. The slave narratives compiled by the Works Project Administration (WPA) between 1936-1938 consist of 2,300 first person accounts of people formerly enslaved. A study of the interviewees who were from an ancestor's locality can shed further light on the life of an ancestor and can identify other research avenues based on people, places, and events mentioned in the interview. This article will help to identify respositories containing collections of oral history or narratives.
- "First-Person Narratives of the American South" is a collection of diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, travel accounts, and ex-slave narratives written by Southerners. The majority of materials in this collection are written by those Southerners whose voices were less prominent in their time, including African Americans, women, enlisted men, laborers, and Native Americans (Documenting the American South)
- "North American Slave Narratives" collects books and articles that document the individual and collective story of African Americans struggling for freedom and human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. This collection includes all the existing autobiographical narratives of fugitive and former slaves published as broadsides, pamphlets, or books in English up to 1920. Also included are many of the biographies of fugitive and former slaves and some significant fictionalized slave narratives published in English before 1920. (Documenting the American South)
- The Special Collections oral histories contain a wealth of local history and cultural information on Asheville and the Western North Carolina region. Beginning with two major oral history collections, the Southern Highlands Research Center Oral History collection and the Voices of Asheville Project, These first two collections cover a broad range of topics on the general history of Asheville and the surrounding area from the early twentieth century up until the brink of the twenty-first century. Recurrent themes involve: city and county development issues, segregation and integration of Asheville schools, private education in the region, the diversity of religions throughout the area, changes in farming and subsistence strategies, and the histories of various families and organizations that impacted western North Carolina (University of North Carolina).
- Voices From the Days of Slavery The almost seven hours of recorded interviews presented here took place between 1932 and 1975 in nine Southern states. Twenty-three interviewees, born between 1823 and the early 1860s, discuss how they felt about slavery, slaveholders, coercion of slaves, their families, and freedom. Several individuals sing songs, many of which were learned during the time of their enslavement. It is important to note that all of the interviewees spoke sixty or more years after the end of their enslavement, and it is their full lives that are reflected in these recordings. The individuals documented in this presentation have much to say about living as African Americans from the 1870s to the 1930s, and beyond (Library of Congress).
Oral History Projects
WPA Slave Narratives
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves
- In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration sponsored a Federal Writers' Project dedicated to chronicling the experience of slavery as remembered by former slaves. African-American men and women born into slavery were interviewed. Their stories were recorded and transcribed. See WPA Slave Narratives (PBS)
- The Slave Narrative Narratives of slavery recounted the personal experiences of ante-bellum African Americans who had escaped from slavery and found their way to safety in the North.