Capturing the oral histories of our elders is a beautiful way to make sure their contributions and wisdom are not forgotten. Firsthand accounts of the past can help educate future generations, which is of paramount importance.
Thanks to our high-tech world, it’s now easier than ever to record our elders for posterity, but during the Great Depression, it took considerably more effort.
Slave Narratives From the Federal Writers' Project
In the late 1930s, under the direction of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Works Progress Administration, the government compiled hundreds of firsthand slave narratives. As told by former slaves, the stories were recorded and kept in the public domain for all to access. In honor of Black History Month, we’ve excerpted a few of the incredible stories that have been collected.
“My name is Fountain Hughes. I was born in Charlottesville, Virginia. My grandfather belonged to Thomas Jefferson. My grandfather was 115 years old when he died, and now I am 101 years old. We were slaves, we belonged to people. They would sell us like you would sell horses or cows or hogs, all like that on the auction bench. And they’d put you up on the bench and beat on you.”
Hear more of Fountain’s story on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IfIDrQxI0o.
“Well they take that ol’ woman, poor ol’ woman, carried her in the peach orchard and whipped her. And, you know, just tied her hands this a way, you know, ‘round the peach orchard tree … She couldn’t do nothing but just kick her feet, you know, just kick her feet. But they had her clothes off down to her waist, you know—they didn’t have her plum naked, but they had her clothes down to her waist. And every now and then they’d whip her, you know, and then snuff the pipe out on, you know, just snuff the pipe out on her. You know, the embers in the pipe.”
Hear more of Laura’s story on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYWF5lz2HuM.
“I remember all their names, all the children, every one of the children’s names. I belonged to Jim Bunton, the baby boy. He had my Grandmaw, my Maw—my Maw was the cook—but my Grandmaw and them, they worked in the field … I used to pick cotton, I didn’t want to go hungry. I knocked out 500 pounds of cotton, and there’d be more coffee for you and watermelon or pomegranate.”
Hear more of Harriet’s story on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkArabbqKMw.
While it’s true that America has come a long way since the end of slavery, we still face challenges that date back to that dark period in our nation’s history. Having access to the stories of people who experienced the injustice of slavery with their own eyes provides us all with a better view about where we are today.
Compile Your Own Oral Histories
The preservation of oral histories is important not only for future generations to gain more perspective about American history, but also for families to better understand where they came from. Consider immortalizing your own family’s oral history in the following ways:
- Interview the older adults in your life on a digital video camera.
- Upload your own audio recording of your elderly relatives to the StoryCorps database, which is archived with the Library of Congress.
- Take your older relatives to a StoryBooth, which is available in Atlanta, Chicago and San Francisco. Or, check to see if the StoryCorps Mobile Tour will be coming to a town near you.
- Interview your elderly relatives and write down their stories, sharing the stories with other family members and encouraging them to do the same with their extended family members.
Hilary Young is a writer dedicated to helping older Americans live healthier, more fulfilling lives. She currently blogs for HuffPost50, Fifty Is The New Fifty and Medical Guardian. You can find her on Twitter as @hyoungcreative.