The Primary Source Librarian

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Slavery: Textbook vs. Narrative History

Once you have read a handful of narratives from the Library of Congress collection, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project 1936-1938, you will never again rely wholly on textbooks to teach about slavery. These narratives tell more about the actual slave experience than any American history textbook can convey in a few paragraphs.

Sarah Graves Narrative

Take, for example, the extraordinary interview with 87-year-old with former slave Sarah Frances Shaw Graves. In this narrative, we learn that Sarah Graves was born in 1850 in Kentucky, moved to Missouri at 6 months of age, and worked as a slave until her family was freed in 1863. At the time of the 1937 interview, she owned a 120-acre farm in Missouri, and her bachelor son still lived with her. Those are the facts. It is her memories that fill in the story.

We learn the following details:

  • When Sarah was a baby, her mother laid her “on a pallet near the fence while she plowed the corn or worked in the field.”
  • Her stepfather and mother “tended their own tobacco and grain in the moonlight. This they could sell and have the money.”
  • To get a wool dress, they would “shear the sheep, wash the wool, card it, spin it and weave it.”
  • Field work was hard and backbreaking. “They used oxen to break up the ground for corn, an’ for plowin’ it too. They hoed the corn with a hoe, and cut the stalks with a hoe and shocked ’em. They cut the grain with the cradle and bound it with their hands, and shocked it. They threshed the grain with a hickory stick. Beating it out.”

In the harshest paragraph of the interview, Sarah Graves describes whippings at the hands of her master:

“Yes’m. Some masters was good an’ some was bad. My mama’s master whipped his slaves for pastime. My master was not so bad as some was to their slaves. I’ve had many a whippin’, some I deserved an’ some I got for being blamed for doin’ things the master’s children did. My master whipped his slaves with a cat-o-nine tails. He’d say to me, ‘You ain’t had a curryin’ down for some time. Come here!!!’ Then he’d whip me with the cat.”

And who better to explain the concept of “allotment” than an ex-slave who understood it all too well?

“You see, there was slave traders in those days, jes’ like you got horse and mule an’ auto traders now. They bought and sold slaves an’ hired ’em out. Yes’m, rented ’em out. Allotted means somethin’ like hired out. But the slave never got no wages. That all went to the master. The man they was allotted to paid the master.”

“I was never sold. My mama was sold only once, but she was hired out many times. Yes’m when a slave was allotted, som[e]body made a down payment and gave a mortgage for the rest. A chattel mortgage.”

A down payment!!

“Times don’t change. Just the merchandise.”

Sarah Graves’ explanation of allotment personalizes what could otherwise be viewed by students as a dry economics concept.

Taken together, the memories of ex-slaves in the “Born in Slavery” collection connect students to a far more complete picture of slavery than the usual textbook approach. It is important to keep in mind, however, that all of the ex-slaves interviewed during the late 1930s were still young when they were slaves. How accurate were their memories of slave childhoods nearly eighty years in the past?

The dilemmas of memory and forgetting are unavoidable whenever teachers use oral histories in primary source teaching. But that’s another post.

Sarah Graves, Age 87

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One Response to “Slavery: Textbook vs. Narrative History”

  1. Kathy Winn says:

    Welcome back Primary Source Librarian!

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