Stories of former San Antonio slaves live on in Library of Congress collection

Narratives captured an overlooked swath of America, professor says

The last generation of slaves had their stories chronicled in a narrative collection now archived in the Library of Congress.
The last generation of slaves had their stories chronicled in a narrative collection now archived in the Library of Congress. (KSAT)

SAN ANTONIO – William Branch was 11 when Union soldiers arrived to the Virginia plantation he was living in to tell him he was now free. James Green, who was kidnapped and sold back into slavery after he was emancipated, only learned his age when he was freed again at age 25. Martin Jackson was fighting the Union with his master when he realized the South would soon surrender.

The histories of these former San Antonio residents were among the thousands that were captured by the federal government in a collection of former slave narratives in the 1930s. The collection sheds light on a generation of Black Americans that are heavily overlooked in American history. Though some aspects of the narratives are problematic — almost every recorder was a white man, for example — the vast information still holds historical significance for the perspectives it chronicled.

In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Federal Writers’ Project, a government-funded program that hired unemployed writers during the Great Depression. A year later, writers in Southern states began interviewing Black Americans who were born into servitude about slavery, which was ostensibly dismantled by 1865.

“(The narrative project began) roughly 70 years after the end of slavery, so I think people recognized that many of the former slaves are dying or dead so we should collect these things and learn more about them,” said Dr. Carey Latimore, an associate professor of history at Trinity University.

In two years, the writers amassed more than 2,000 interviews spanning 17 states, taking photographs and a few audio-recorded interviews along the way.

Adeline Cunningham was born enslaved in 1852. She recalls how they were rarely allowed to attend church services and witnessed horrible consequences for others who unsuccessfully tried escaping for their freedom. (KSAT)

Previous slave narratives typically focused on those who made history, like Frederick Douglass and Henry Box Brown. But this collection was more unique, focusing on people who lived more average lives, covering Black history that might otherwise have been obscured.

“It’s valuable because these are people that would never have been interviewed for anything before,” Latimore said.

About the Author: