We Mourn For All We Do Not Know
The Atlantic|March 2021
The Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives provide a window into our heritage—to stories of suffering but also of love, joy, wonder, and survival. They’re an all-too-rare link to ordinary black lives gone by.
By Clint Smith

On a rainy Thursday afternoon in November, I stepped inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. On past visits, I’d always encountered crowds of tourists and school groups, a space bursting with movement and sound. But on this day, the museum was nearly empty. It seemed to echo with all the people who had been there but were no longer. For the few of us inside, social distancing was dictated by blue circles scattered on the floor.

I made my way down to the bottom level, which documents the history of slavery in America. Masks were mandatory, and something about the pieces of cloth covering everyone’s mouths seemed to amplify the silence and solemnity of what surrounded us.

I walked past the statue of Thomas Jefferson standing among bricks bearing the names of people he’d enslaved, past a cabin that enslaved people had slept in, and past the stone auction block upon which enslaved people had been sold and separated from their families.

Toward the end of a long corridor was a dimly lit room with sepia-toned photos on the walls. Photos of enslaved people holding their own children, or their enslaver’s children. Photos of fresh wounds on the backs of those who’d been beaten. Photos of people bent over fields of cotton that hid their faces.

But what was most striking about the room was the voices running through it. The words of people who had survived slavery were running on a six-minute loop. Their voices floated through the air like ghosts.

“My father was not allowed to see my mother but two nights a week,” said a woman in the voice of Mary A. Bell. “Dat was Wednesday and Saturday. So he often came home all bloody from his beatings.”

“I had to wok evva day,” said a woman in the voice of Elvira Boles. “I’d leave mah baby cryin’ in the yard, and I’d be cryin’, but I couldn’t stay.”

“My mudder word in de field,” said Harrison Beckett. “Sometimes she come in 9 or 10 ’clock at night. She be all wore out an’ it be so dark she too tired to cook lots of times, but she hafter git some food so we could eat it. Us all ’round de table like dat was like a feast.”

When I’d first encountered these floating voices years before, I was fascinated by how ordinary their stories were. These were not tales of daring escapes like those of Henry “Box” Brown, who in 1849 contorted his body into a wooden crate for 27 hours as it was delivered from the slave state of Virginia to abolitionists in Pennsylvania— mailing himself to freedom. Nor were they the stories of Frederick Douglass, who as a teenager, in 1833, fought his white slave breaker with such force that the man never hit Douglass again. Nor were they the stories of Harriet Jacobs, who, in an attempt to escape the physical and sexual abuses of slavery, hid in an attic for seven years.

Brown became a global celebrity who turned his escape routine into a one-man show that traveled throughout the United States and England. Douglass and Jacobs wrote autobiographies that became best sellers, and that today are staples in classrooms around the world. Theirs are the stories I learned as a child, and there’s great value in teaching kids stories of resistance, of Black people not being passive recipients of violence. But I remember how, after reading them, I found myself wondering why every enslaved person didn’t just escape like these famous figures did. The memory of that thought now fills me with shame.

The stories swirling about the room weren’t famous accounts of extraordinary people; rather, they were the words of all-but forgotten individuals who bore witness to the quotidian brutality of chattel slavery. These stories were the result of the Federal Writers’ Project—a New Deal program that was tasked with collecting the oral histories of thousands of Americans. From 1936 to 1938, interviewers from the FWP gathered firsthand accounts of more than 2,300 formerly enslaved people in at least 17 states. The members of the last generation of people to experience slavery were reaching the end of their lives, and so there was an urgency to record their recollections. In scale and ambition, the project was unlike any that had come before it. The Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave narratives produced tens of thousands of pages of interviews and hundreds of photographs—the largest, and perhaps the most important, archive of testimony from formerly enslaved people in history.

While many of these narratives vividly portray the horror of slavery—of families separated, of backs beaten, of bones crushed—embedded within them are stories of enslaved people dancing together on Saturday evenings as respite from their work; of people falling in love, creating pockets of time to see each other when the threat of violence momentarily ceased; of children skipping rocks in a creek or playing hide-and-seek amid towering oak trees, finding moments when the movement of their bodies was not governed by anything other than their own sense of wonder. These small moments—the sort that freedom allows us to take for granted—have stayed with me.

When I first came across the narratives, I was confused as to why I had never, not once in my entire education, been made aware of their existence. It was as if this trove of testimony— accounts that might expand, complicate, and deepen my understanding of slavery—had purposefully been kept from view.

For many Black Americans, there is a limit to how far back we can trace our lineage. The sociologist Orlando Patterson calls it natal alienation: the idea that we have been stripped of social and cultural ties to a homeland we cannot identify. I have listened to friends discuss the specific village in Italy their ancestors came from, or the specific town in the hills of Scotland. No such precision is possible for Black Americans who are the descendants of enslaved people. Even after our ancestors were forcibly brought to the shores of the New World, few records documented their existence. The first census to include all Black Americans by name was conducted in 1870, five years after slavery ended. Trying to recover our lineage can be a process of chasing history through a cloud of smoke. We search for what often cannot be found. We mourn for all we do not know.

But the descendants of those who were interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project have been given something that has been denied to so many Black Americans: the opportunity to read the words, and possibly see the faces, of people they thought had been lost to history.

Because these narratives are not often taught in school, many people come across them for the first time later in life. Several historians told me that their encounters with these stories had shifted the trajectory of their personal and intellectual lives. Catherine A. Stewart, a historian at Cornell College, in Iowa, and the author of Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project, remembers sitting in the basement of the university library as a graduate student, making her way through reels of microfilm. “I will just never forget this sensation I had of these stories— of these life histories of these individuals, personal stories and experiences of enslavement—just leaping off the page,” she said.

For years, the collections had been largely ignored. As Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller note in Remembering Slavery, an edited volume of selected narratives, historians throughout the mid-20th century came up with a range of reasons not to take them seriously. Some argued that because the people who were interviewed, in the 1930s, had been children when slavery ended, their memories were unreliable. Others claimed that the narratives couldn’t be trusted because they weren’t an adequate statistical sample: Those who were interviewed represented approximately 2 percent of the formerly enslaved population still alive in 1930.

Perhaps the most insidious reason to dismiss the narratives came from the historian Ulrich B. Phillips, whose conception of slavery as a civilizing institution for the enslaved shaped many Americans’ understanding of it in the early-to-mid-20th century. Phillips complained of “Negro bias,” believing that Black Americans were “too close” to the subject of slavery and thus unable to be objective about it—a criticism that has been used to undermine Black writing and research on issues of racism since the earliest days of Black life in America.

That view began to change with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when historians, intellectuals, and activists came to see slavery as the root cause of racial inequality. Interest in the Federal Writers’ Project narratives grew.

The Black Lives Matter movement has further pushed historians to revisit these stories. The past several years—and particularly the months since last summer’s racial-justice protests—have prompted many people to question what we’ve been taught, to see our shared past with new eyes. The FWP narratives afford us the opportunity to understand how slavery shaped this country through the stories of those who survived it.

My mammy Martha an’ me we ’longed ter Mister Joshua Long in Martin County, an’ my paw, Henry, ’longed ter Squire Ben Sykes in Tyrrell County. Squire Sykes lived inwhat wus called Gum Neck, an’ he owned a hundert slaves or more an’ a whole passel of lan’.

Noah Lewis had been doing genealogical research for years, trying to learn as much as possible about his family history, when he discovered that his great-great-grandfather, a man named William Sykes, had been interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave-narrative collection. He wanted to see the original documents himself, so he traveled from his home in Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to visit the Library of Congress.

“It was an amazing experience,” he told me. “I had never seen photographs of him before … That was just mind-blowing all by itself.”

In the black-and-white photograph of William Sykes that accompanies his narrative, he is 78 years old and facing the camera, his eyes hidden behind a pair of dark glasses. He has a white mustache that stretches over his mouth and a long goatee that hangs from his chin. He appears to be furrowing his brow. “He kind of reminds me of my older brother, Jimmy,” Lewis said. Lewis had read books that detailed the physical and psychological violence of slavery; he had seen photos of enslaved people and understood the brutal conditions in which they worked. But there was something different about reading the narrative of his direct ancestor—someone from his own family who, only a few generations earlier, had been in chains.

In his narrative, William Sykes describes being a child in North Carolina and seeing the soldiers of the Union Army make their way into Confederate territory. Sykes’s enslaver, fearful for his own life and worried that the Union soldiers might confiscate his human property, escaped with his enslaved workers into the mountains.

While we wus dar one day, an’ while Mr. Jim Moore, de Jedge’s daddy am in town de missus axes my cousin Jane ter do de washin’.

Jane says dat she has got ter do her own washin’ an dat she’ll wash fer de missus termorrer. De missus says “you ain’t free yit, I wants you ter know.” “I knows dat I’s not but I is ‘gwine ter be free’ ”, Jane says. De missus ain’t said a word den, but late Sadday night Mr. Jim he comes back from town an’ she tells him ’bout hit.

Mr. Jim am some mad an’ he takes Jane out on Sunday mornin’ an’ he beats her till de blood runs down her back.

Sykes was a child; the detail of blood running down Jane’s back stayed with him the rest of his life.

Lewis said that, like me, he’d grown up with an incomplete understanding of slavery. “As a young child, I remember thinking to myself, You know, hey, if slavery was so bad, why didn’t my people fight harder to try to get out of it? ” Jane’s story showed that it wasn’t so simple.

Lewis himself was born in 1953 on an Army base in Heidelberg, Germany, where his father was stationed. His family returned to the U.S. when he was just 10 months old. When he was 13, they moved to Aldan, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. As far as Lewis knows, his was the first Black family in Aldan, and he says they were not welcomed with open arms.

“A couple days after we moved in, we woke up that morning, and somebody had written on our car windshield i hate niggers.” His father came out of the house with a shotgun and yelled loud enough for everyone in the neighborhood to hear: “I don’t care if you don’t like me, but if you start playing with my property, there will be trouble.”

Lewis said that while the FWP narratives can be emotionally difficult to get through, he’s also found “a certain joy” in reading them. “This is your relative, and it’s them speaking, and it brings them to life. They remind you that they were a person, not a stat, not a little side note, not a little entry in a genealogical chart. They were a real, living, breathing human being. That’s what that document kind of really hits you with.”

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