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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Enslavement

Slide Show, An Enslaved Person's Life
An Enslaved Person's Life
- Photographs of enslaved African Americans, 1847-ca. 1863 (PDF)
- Jacob Stroyer, narrative, 1885, excerpts (PDF)
- WPA narratives, 1936-1938:
- Jenny Proctor, enslaved in Alabama (PDF)
- W. L. Bost, enslaved in North Carolina (PDF)
- Mary Reynolds, enslaved in Louisiana (PDF)

This toolbox is not a history of slavery. As we said in Theme I, its goal is to capture the experiences of African Americans in the years of slavery. And from this point on, the documents in this Toolbox will be the voices of African Americans—their letters, memoirs, journals, interviews, poems, songs, petitions, addresses, pamphlets, newspapers, convention reports, committee expense records, photographs, paintings, sculpture, medallions, and even inscribed verses on ceramic jugs. In some cases the testimony is recorded and often edited by white people, as in the Civil War freedmen's interviews, the 1930s WPA interviews, and some slave drivers' letters to their masters. One must use such documents with care (see below), but without them one would lose the voice of countless African Americans whose experiences are no less valid for having been recorded by others.

Remember that the voice of the never-escaped, never-interviewed, never-liberated slave, i.e., of the vast majority of the enslaved black people in the Americas, is rare in the historical record. So a reader's ear must stay alert for their indirect testimony—the determined silence of a whipped slave as recounted by a runaway, the strong-willed temperament of a slave described in a runaway advertisement, a stoic facial expression in a daguerreotype portrait.

In this section, ENSLAVEMENT, most of the primary sources come from
  1. narratives written in the 1800s by former slaves and published by abolition societies, churches, or the authors themselves (in one case to raise money for his education)
  2. letters written by slaves to each other and to their masters
  3. interviews in the 1850s with former slaves resettled in Canada
  4. interviews in the 1930s with former slaves throughout the south
  5. studio and on-site photographs.
Because there is little direct African American testimony from the 1600s and 1700s, we must depend almost exclusively on nineteenth-century resources in this section to glimpse the experiences of enslaved African American and address the question: What was an enslaved person's life?

To begin, view the photographs of enslaved men, women, and children taken from 1847 to ca. 1863. We know the identities of a few persons, such as Isaac Jefferson, who had been owned by Thomas Jefferson in Monticello, but most are unknown to the photographer and to us. What do the African Americans convey with their facial expressions, postures, and, in some cases, their agreement to pose for portraits? Next we read from the postwar memoir of Jacob Stroyer. Born on a South Carolina plantation in 1849, he became a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Massachusetts after the Civil War, publishing several editions of his memoir, My Life in the South. In these selections from the 1885 edition, we read of his early life in slavery and several "sketches" of slave life.

Finally, we will read three complete narratives from the 2300 interviews of former slaves compiled during the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal agency under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Historians caution us on the use of these narratives, recorded seven decades after the end of slavery. In a recently published study of the narratives, literature scholar Saidiya Hartman offers this advice:

How does one use these sources? At best with the awareness that a totalizing of history cannot be reconstructed from these interested, selective, and fragmentary accounts and with an acknowledgment of the interventionist role of the interpreter, the equally interested labor of historical revision, and the impossibility of reconstituting the past free from the disfigurements of present concerns. With all these provisos issued, these narratives nonetheless remain an important source for understanding the everyday experience of slavery and its aftermath.1

To help you use the WPA narratives as historical texts, we include two documents in the supplemental sites: (1) the WPA's guidelines for interviewers, and (2) an introduction to the narratives by historian Norman R. Yetman. Now you may proceed to meet Jenny Proctor, W. L. Bost, and Mary Reynolds. (36 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What varieties of experience do you find in the narratives and photographs? What accounts for the variety?
  2. What range of responses to enslavement do you find?
  3. What common elements run throughout the narratives?
  4. What issue causes the greatest tension between slave and overseers, especially in Stroyer's account?
  5. What realities of a slave's life can only be communicated through first-person accounts and photographs?
  6. How might these accounts have been influenced by white publishers, interviewers, and photographers?
  7. Compare these texts with those in IDENTITY #1: Slave. How did an enslaved African American sustain a sense of self? How did he or she exercise power or autonomy? Was submission a sign of failure?
  8. Compare the narratives from the 1800s and the 1930s. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each group of narratives?
  9. How did slavery circumscribe the human possibilities of the enslaved?
In addition, consider the following questions when studying the photographs:
  • Where do the subject's eyes seem to be looking?
  • Is the subject smiling?
  • Is the mouth open or closed?
  • Is the subject's head turned from the camera?
  • Are the shoulders turned in the same or the opposite direction?
  • What is the subject wearing?
  • How is the subject holding his/her hands?
  • What effect does the background have on the portrait?
  • What does the background reveal about the subject's life?
  • Does the subject fill the picture frame?
  • In portraits with two or more subjects, how has the photographer suggested a relationship between/among the subjects?
  • Are the subjects posed close together?
  • Are they touching each other?

Framing Questions
  •  How did enslavement in America affect Africans and their descendants?
  •  How did enslaved peoples maintain selfhood in the slave-master relationship?
  •  What aspects of slavery did freed men and women emphasize when relating their experiences?
  •  How did a person respond to being the slave of another?
  •  What impact did slavery have on white people?

Photographs: 12
Stroyer: 12
Proctor:   4
Bost:   3
Reynolds:   5
TOTAL 36 pages
Supplemental Sites
Isaac Jefferson, Memoir of a Monticello Slave, University of Virginia Library

North American Slave Narratives (18th-19th century), Introduction, Dr. William A. Andrews, UNC-Chapel Hill

Jacob Stroyer, My Life in the South, 1885, full text in Documenting the American South (UNC-Chapel Hill Library)

WPA Slave Narratives, 1930s, full text as digital images, Library of Congress
An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," by Norman R. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)

General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865

1 Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 11, quoted in Norman R. Yetman, "An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives," in online collection Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938, Library of Congress.

- Jenny Proctor, former slave, age 87, on the steps of her home in San Angelo, Texas, photograph, ca. 1937. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division.
- Isaac Jefferson, slave once owned by Thomas Jefferson, daguerreotype photograph, ca. 1847. Reproduced by permission of the University of Virginia, Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History, Isaac Jefferson Collection.
- Two young men, unidentified; former slaves photographed during Union occupation of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, ca. 1863, photographer unknown; written on photograph: "Intelligent Contraband [slave who escaped into or was brought into Union occupied territory during the Civil War]." State Library of Louisiana; permission pending.
- Enslaved woman, unidentified; detail of photograph of the slaves of Confederate general Thomas F. Drayton, Hilton Head, South Carolina, May 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. An Enslaved Person's Life   2. Sale   3. Plantation   4. Driver
  5. Labor   6. Master/Slave   7. Resistance   8. Runaways

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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