Texts by slaves/ex-slaves/free people

Given the problems of literacy, memory, the power relationships within slavery and the memories of ex- slaves, these sources, like all sources, need to be considered critically.

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Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson Slave Letters, 1837-1838
Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson Slave Letters, 1837-1838
Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson were house slaves at Montcalm, the family home of David and Mary Campbell, located in Abingdon, Virginia. During the years David Campbell served as governor of Virginia (1837-1840), he and his family moved into the governor's mansion in Richmond, taking several of their slaves with them, but leaving Hannah and Lethe to care for the homestead. According to historian Norma Taylor Mitchell, young men wrote these letters for Hannah Valentine and Lethe Jackson to their mistresses and other slave family members. Even if not produced by their own hands, the letters provide a rare firsthand glimpse into the lives of slaves and their relationships with their owners. In the spring of 1840, the Campbells, including niece Virginia, returned to Abingdon. Virginia Campbell and Mary Burwell, a literate slave whom David Campbell had purchased in 1840, taught Hannah, Lethe, and the other house slaves to read and write at that time.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845)
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845)
Full text of the first version of Douglass' autobiography. An exploration of slavery and an abolitionist polemic.
African American Women Writers of the 19th Century
African American Women Writers of the 19th Century
These 52 published works by black women writers are from the late 18th century through the early 20th. The full-text database offers works by late 18th-century poet Phillis Wheatley, late 19th-century essayist and novelist Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Harriet Jacobs, a woman born into slavery who published her memoirs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, in the late 19th century. Users can browse by title, author, or type of work (fiction, poetry, biography and autobiography, and essays). Each browse category also contains a keyword search for subjects such as religion, family, and slavery. Brief biographies of the 37 featured writers are available. This site is easy to use and is ideal for learning about African American history, women's history, and 19th-century American literature. Not all are abolitionist texts and some are texts by free blacks.
American Slave Narratives:   An Online Anthology
American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology
From 1936 to 1938, over 2,300 former slaves from across the American South were interviewed by writers and journalists under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration. These former slaves, most born in the last years of the slave regime or during the Civil War, provided first-hand accounts of their experiences on plantations, in cities, and on small farms. Their narratives remain a peerless resource for understanding the lives of America's four million slaves. What makes the WPA narratives so rich is that they capture the very voices of American slavery, revealing the texture of life as it was experienced and remembered. Each narrative taken alone offers a fragmentary, microcosmic representation of slave life. Read together, they offer a sweeping composite view of slavery in North America, allowing us to explore some of the most compelling themes of nineteenth-century slavery, including labor, resistance and flight, family life, relations with masters, and religious belief. This web site provides an opportunity to read a sample of these narratives, and to see some of the photographs taken at the time of the interviews.
Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853)
Solomon Northrup, Twelve Years a Slave (1853)
"Having been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State-and having at the end of that time been kidnapped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years—it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public." So begins Northrup's narrative - now a major film. This is the full text of the narrative.
E. Keckley, Behind the Scenes (1868)
E. Keckley, Behind the Scenes (1868)
Keckley's narrative is fascinating in that she was both a former slave and a servant to the Lincoln family. This account covers both experiences.