Maryland scholars gather slaves' accounts of life 40 volumes of interviews from the 1930s are compressed into a book

September 24, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- There is the woman who thought it was normal to be someone's property.

There is the man who risked all to guide dozens north to freedom across the Ohio River.

There is the little girl born at a time when it was OK to maim a child for stealing a peppermint from her mistress.

"I seed dat candy layin' dere, an' I was hungry," remembered Henrietta King of West Point, Va. Her mistress found out, and, in punishment, pinned her head underneath a rocking chair while she whipped her.

"Nex' thing I knew de ole Doctor was dere, an' I was lyin' on my pallet in de hall, an' he wa a-pushin' an' diggin' at my face, but he couldn't do nothin' at all wid it."

King wound up with a face that made children laugh and babies cry.

"Here, put yo' han' on my face right here on dis lef' cheek," she told an interviewer in the 1930s. "Dat's what slave days was like."

King's tale and the others are about slavery, the "peculiar institution" that gripped America for about 250 years. More than a century after its end, the mention of slavery still makes most people cringe. Blacks are angered by the stories of captured and brutalized Africans. Whites are dismayed, even shamed, by the tales of raped women and split families.

Now, America has a chance to learn about slavery from the almost-lost perspective of the people who lived it, say two scholars from the University of Maryland.

'Remembering Slavery'

Historians Ira Berlin and Steven Miller are working with University of Maryland graduate student Marc Favreau, the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, The New Press publishing company and academics around the country to compile a book and audiotape of 1930s interviews with former slaves.

"Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation" will be in stores in October. The interviews also will be the subject of a documentary on public radio stations between September and March.

"The memory of slavery is so contentious," Berlin, 56, a history professor, said recently at his office in College Park.

"We have a great history of saying, 'Slavery wasn't so bad' or 'we've always treated people very well' or 'it was a tool for civilization' and 'we took people who were savages and civilized them,' " Berlin said. "I think the people who were interviewed here want to put on record what their experience was."

The former slaves talk of facing up to brutal planters, the turbulence of the Civil War, living an unnatural way of life and celebrating emancipation.

Thousands of interviews

The printed interviews, transcribed in dialect, were part of the Federal Writers' Project, an effort under the Works Progress Administration to employ Depression-era writers. Participants interviewed thousands of former slaves between 1936 and 1938.

Because so few slaves could read or write, these interviews became one of the few written records of their lives.

The WPA project inspired others to tape-record former slaves' recollections. That team included John Lomax, author and folklorist; his son, Alan Lomax, whose specialty is world music; Zora Neale Hurston, author and folklorist and the writer and humorist John Henry Faulk.

Despite the compelling subject, many of the interviews landed in the bowels of the Library of Congress, and some of the tapes wound up at the University of Texas Library in Austin. Only in recent years did researchers realize the full extent of what had been buried. A two-year resurrection began.

The New Press and the Library of Congress began the print project with the help of a team of linguists. Smithsonian Productions, an arm of the institution, began a separate audio project with the help of the Institute of Language and Culture in Clanton, Ala. The two groups eventually discovered each other and collaborated.

Berlin, Miller and Favreau waded through 40 volumes of interviews. A technical team made the tapes more audible, so that the frail voices of the elderly former slaves come through. Personalities such as James Earl Jones, Debbie Allen and Esther Rolle joined the team to dramatize some of the written slave accounts on tape.

The value of a project like this, historians said, is that it gives a human face to slavery and makes the slaves into people anyone might have known, loved or cried over.

"When we understand, it becomes something we don't want to see happen anywhere with anyone at any time," Clifton Taulbert, author of "Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored," said from his office in Tulsa, Okla.

'We begin to understand'

"When we see these narratives, I think we begin to understand that we are now dealing not with just a group of people who are tied together and loaded into the bottom of Portuguese ships, but we are talking about mothers, fathers, people with feelings, people who live next door to us," he said.

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