Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Black History Month - Voices from Slavery

The theme for the 35th anniversary of Black History Month, "African Americans and the Civil War," was chosen by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History to commemorate "the efforts of people of African descent to destroy slavery and inaugurate universal freedom in the United States." By the end of the Civil War, African American soldiers comprised about 10% of the Union Army and had participated in dozens of major battles. Nearly 40,000 died throughout the course of the war. Sixteen were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and many others carried out unheralded acts of bravery that led to the eventual downfall of the Confederacy.

Notably, the experiences of many African Americans during this period were documented by the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This New Deal program recruited unemployed writers to conduct interviews with thousands of former slaves, several of whom witnessed the events and consequences of the Civil War firsthand. An estimated 100,000 former slaves were still living in the United States during this period and the federal government employed mostly white writers to write down, and in some cases make audio recordings of, former slaves' oral histories. Many of the interview subjects were in their eighties and nineties when the WPA Slave Narrative Collection of the FWP was conducted. While many of their memoirs discussed their myriad experiences under the Civil War, many of them also discussed their folk beliefs, emancipation, Reconstruction, and the establishment of the Jim Crow South.

Decades later, these WPA narratives were compiled for the first time by scholar George P. Rawick, which resulted in the definitive 41-volume work The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, published by Greenwood Press during 1972–1979. The series' introductory volume, From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community, was groundbreaking in that it was one of the first books to show that slaves did not play passive roles during the era of slavery and the Civil War, but rather functioned as primary actors in shaping their own history.

Find out more about African Americans during the Civil War and browse through more than 1,000 newly added WPA slave narratives on ABC-CLIO's African American Experience database. If you are not already a subscriber, click here for a free trial.

Excerpted from "Black History Month Marks 35th Anniversary: Background." The American Mosaic: The African American Experience. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 7 Feb. 2011.


Additional Resources

Martha B. Katz-Hyman and Kym S. Rice, Editors
Greenwood, 2010

World of a Slave was recently featured in The New York Times in an article titled "The Everyday Lives of American Slaves". Read the article here.

Herbert C. Covey and Dwight Eisnach
Greenwood, 2009

The powerful, long-neglected testimony of former slaves places African American slave foods and foodways at the center of the complex social dynamics of the plantation South.

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