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Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves

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Shares personal accounts of what it was like to live under slavery.


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Shares personal accounts of what it was like to live under slavery.

30 review for Before Freedom: 48 Oral Histories of Former North and South Carolina Slaves

  1. 4 out of 5

    Victor Davis

    Like Elie Wiesel's Night, these firsthand accounts of a horrific episode of human history are above criticism. It is fascinating, in an academic way, to read about the American slavery experience from the slaves themselves, rather than the extensive secondhand literature. You get a sense of which elements were cherry-picked for cinema and which were overlooked. Most shocking is their manner of describing it. The vast majority of subjects answered, when asked whether slavery was a bad thing, in t Like Elie Wiesel's Night, these firsthand accounts of a horrific episode of human history are above criticism. It is fascinating, in an academic way, to read about the American slavery experience from the slaves themselves, rather than the extensive secondhand literature. You get a sense of which elements were cherry-picked for cinema and which were overlooked. Most shocking is their manner of describing it. The vast majority of subjects answered, when asked whether slavery was a bad thing, in the negative. The typical response was along the lines of "slavery was bad because it broke up families, but we were better off then than we are now." This unsettling statement contains a hint of all the injustice borne upon free persons of color since the end of the Civil War. Freedom without equal opportunity was a recipe for incredible suffering, the last vestiges of which still haunt us today. The writer prepares the reader for this odd nostalgia in the introduction, where she reminds us that the individuals most ready and willing to fight (before and after slavery) were the least likely to survive, and that the subjects interviewed, the survivors, were most likely the meekest and most compliant (today we would use the word brainwashed) among their people. That in itself is a tragedy. I'm glad that someone finally thought to interview surviving slaves, even if it took until the 1930s (most subjects are in their 80s and 90s) for a government program to do so. This book is an excerpt of an enormous multivolume series housed in the Library of Congress. Its historical value cannot be overstated.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Dee Dee G

    Some of the slaves interviewed lived where I was born so it’s fascinating reading their interviews.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    This slim volume is subtitled "Twenty-seven Oral Histories of Former South Carolina Slaves." It's a selection of remembrances collected up during the Great Depression -- part of the Federal Writers' Project that provided work for writers in need. They interviewed former slaves and made detailed notes about their memories. All their interviews are preserved at the Library of Congress, but those are inaccessible for most people, so Hurmence put a selection of them in this book so people like you a This slim volume is subtitled "Twenty-seven Oral Histories of Former South Carolina Slaves." It's a selection of remembrances collected up during the Great Depression -- part of the Federal Writers' Project that provided work for writers in need. They interviewed former slaves and made detailed notes about their memories. All their interviews are preserved at the Library of Congress, but those are inaccessible for most people, so Hurmence put a selection of them in this book so people like you and I can read them. And they're fascinating. Everyone in this was at least 10 when the Civil War ended, so they had clear memories of slavery. But that's about all they have in common -- every story is different. Some sadder than others, some clearer than others, some more bitter or more angry or even more wistful than others. If you're at all interested in American history, this book presents some really wonderful first-hand accounts.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Lulu

    I had very mixed feelings about the content as a whole of this book. The government created jobs for people back in the depression, and one of the jobs was to interview the last surviving people who had been born into slavery back in the 1840's and 50's. These people were, at the time of the interviews, very elderly, and were living through the hardship of the depression. Their remembrances of slavery and the farms and plantations they lived on so many years ago seemed very strange. Most thought I had very mixed feelings about the content as a whole of this book. The government created jobs for people back in the depression, and one of the jobs was to interview the last surviving people who had been born into slavery back in the 1840's and 50's. These people were, at the time of the interviews, very elderly, and were living through the hardship of the depression. Their remembrances of slavery and the farms and plantations they lived on so many years ago seemed very strange. Most thought their lives had been much easier and happier then. Of course, none of these people lived full lives as slaves. They were freed in their adolescent or teen years. Interesting, but not a typical, or even sensical picture of slavery.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Amber Shehan

    OK. I love narratives and interviews, case studies and similar "real" tales from history. This one made me think on many levels, but left me with something stuck in my craw... Some of these are rounded descriptions, but I note that for the most part, the included interviews are of those who appreciated their positions as slaves, and loved their masters. Is this because those treated more gently lived long enough to be interviewed, or was it selection of the editors? OK. I love narratives and interviews, case studies and similar "real" tales from history. This one made me think on many levels, but left me with something stuck in my craw... Some of these are rounded descriptions, but I note that for the most part, the included interviews are of those who appreciated their positions as slaves, and loved their masters. Is this because those treated more gently lived long enough to be interviewed, or was it selection of the editors?

  6. 5 out of 5

    Bonnie

    Must read for all US citizens

  7. 4 out of 5

    Angela Alessandroni

    I picked up this little booklet at a museum store on St. Simon's Island. It's part of the Slave Narratives, captured during Roosevelt's Federal Writer's Project in the Great Depression of the 1930's. The project employed unemployed journalists to travel the southern states writing down the memories of former slaves, who were then 80 and 90 years old. The complete compilation kept in the Library of Congress is10,000+ pages. The editor of this small book and others grouped them regionally to her o I picked up this little booklet at a museum store on St. Simon's Island. It's part of the Slave Narratives, captured during Roosevelt's Federal Writer's Project in the Great Depression of the 1930's. The project employed unemployed journalists to travel the southern states writing down the memories of former slaves, who were then 80 and 90 years old. The complete compilation kept in the Library of Congress is10,000+ pages. The editor of this small book and others grouped them regionally to her own home base. Some include the former slave's street address. Fun to look them up and discover homes in Charleston now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. I found this little volume and an accompanying short local history enlightening. Whatever I thought the Old South was like was much too narrow. I've always loved history and historic novels. We can't judge the past, but it doesn't hurt to get nearer to the truth. God said it will make us free.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jim Thomas

    These actual interviews from the 1030s were commissioned by the U.S. government are words straight from the mouths of slaves. These are old African Americans who lived through slavery. They are short and to the point. The old way they have of speaking is sometimes hard to understand but the stories should be read by every American. Like I sometimes used to think although it took me years to think about it, the Union army were not all wonderful soldiers who came to rescue the black people. Many n These actual interviews from the 1030s were commissioned by the U.S. government are words straight from the mouths of slaves. These are old African Americans who lived through slavery. They are short and to the point. The old way they have of speaking is sometimes hard to understand but the stories should be read by every American. Like I sometimes used to think although it took me years to think about it, the Union army were not all wonderful soldiers who came to rescue the black people. Many not only burned homes and raped southern women but took the homes and stationed men there. Many soldiers also had less concern for the black men and women than the southerners, many of whom took good care of their slaves. If they had simply been hired hands things would have been better and some of the good things about the south might have endured longer and stronger. Most southerners were true ladies and gentlemen with a certain dignity and generations, the later ones thought nothing about the idea of freedom or the chains of slavery. It was simply a way of life. As I guessed there were so many slaves who were lost and so frightened and who had nowhere to go. If you had lived your life a certain way and had only known that way how would you feel if suddenly you were uprooted and had nowhere to go, no work, no home, no way of procuring food. Interesting how many northerner knew and cared nothing about slaves. They, for the most part didn't want to associate with black people, didn't want them in their homes while the southerners had black nannies who were house slaves and raised many young whites and taught them to be courteous and well mannered. They were in many ways part of the family and the slaves lost that "being part of" when freedom came. The most horrible thing is the idea that human beings were bought and sold and considered property and yes, many were treated no better than animals. This book is a reminder of not only the ugly thing that slavery was but also the horrifying thing that freedom, all at once, was for many of these people.I think many of us think of all southerners then as rednecks who were cold and inhuman but the ugliest thing was war and the useless loss of so many lives. The south was wrong and should have tried to work out something like agreeing to free the slaves and hiring them if they still wanted work and treated them like employees, not as property. I think of so many beautiful southern mansions burned, so many men, women and children who died and suffered on both sides. The south, beautiful, romantic, stately and a fascinating way of life. Read Gone with the Wind. Then read Uncle Tom's Cabin but most importantly read Shelby Foote's monster 3 volume The Civil War. Things are never completely black and white (no pun intended) but a lot of gray also. Maybe black and white needs to evolve into blue and gray. I could write a lot about my feelings on this topic. General Robert E. Lee was perhaps one of the best examples of an officer and a gentleman as we've ever had. Lincoln wanted him as his top general and Lee was torn. It's been written that even the opposing Union army respected him and his surrender was a class act. He arrived in full dress uniform and surrendered with dignity. Lee was one of 3 or 4 men who graduated West Point without a single demerit. Some might say the greatest military leader our country has produced. Ulysses Grant, an OK general was mostly a drunk as general and president of the U.S. Freeing the slaves is so sad because we should have never had slaves. Once it did happen, please read about these ex-slaves in this short book. These men and women should be remembered for enduring their pain and the fight to survive in a confusing and less than helpful world following their freedom from bondage.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mrs

    "Belinda Hurmence was born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas, and educated at the University of Texas and Columbia University. She has written several novels for young people, including Tough Tiffany (an ALA Notable Book), A Girl Called Boy (winner of the Parents’ Choice Award), Tansy (winner of a Golden Kite Award), and most recently, The Nightwalker. In 1984, Hurmence edited My Folks Don’t Want Me to Talk About Slavery, a companion volume to this book, which includes twenty-one narratives from forme "Belinda Hurmence was born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas, and educated at the University of Texas and Columbia University. She has written several novels for young people, including Tough Tiffany (an ALA Notable Book), A Girl Called Boy (winner of the Parents’ Choice Award), Tansy (winner of a Golden Kite Award), and most recently, The Nightwalker. In 1984, Hurmence edited My Folks Don’t Want Me to Talk About Slavery, a companion volume to this book, which includes twenty-one narratives from former slaves in North Carolina. She now lives in Statesville, North Carolina. ___________________________________ During the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project undertook the task of locating former slaves and recording their oral histories. The more than ten thousand pages of interviews with over two thousand former slaves were filed in the Library of Congress, where they were known to scholars and historians but few others. From this storehouse of information, Belinda Hurmence has chosen twenty-seven narratives from the twelve hundred typewritten pages of interviews with 284 former South Carolina slaves. The result is a moving, eloquent, and often surprising firsthand account of the last years of slavery and first years of freedom. The former slaves describe the clothes they wore, the food they ate, the houses they lived in, the work they did, and the treatment they received. They give their impressions of Yankee soldiers, the Klan, their masters, and their newfound freedom. In Before Freedom When I Just Can Remember, Hurmence makes accessible to the casual reader what many scholars and historians have long known to be a great source of our nation’s history."

  10. 5 out of 5

    Nick

    I found this book on the street in Williamsburg, and I'm glad I rescued it. It's a slim volume of oral histories taken from former slaves back in the 1930's. Several striking things about it - the accounts of day-to-day life in the antebellum South, the particulars of 'slave culture,' the brutality of it all, the language these very old people use to describe their former lives...and surprisingly, the nostalgic lens through which most of them view their time as slaves. Several reasons for that, I found this book on the street in Williamsburg, and I'm glad I rescued it. It's a slim volume of oral histories taken from former slaves back in the 1930's. Several striking things about it - the accounts of day-to-day life in the antebellum South, the particulars of 'slave culture,' the brutality of it all, the language these very old people use to describe their former lives...and surprisingly, the nostalgic lens through which most of them view their time as slaves. Several reasons for that, I think - the distortions of memory and time, the fact that life under Jim Crow was often not that different from life under slavery, that these histories were taken during the Depression, and the effects of Stockholm syndrome, or something of the sort - loving your chains and your captors, forgetting that there's any other way to be.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Camille

    This book recounts the interviews of 27 former slaves interviewed under the New Deal's Federal Writers' Project of the 30's. Over 2,000 former slaves were sought out and their narratives recorded in an effort to preserve the history of American life under and post slavery (as well as put unemployed writers back to work). The slave histories gives a view into slave life, but these interviews were conducted some 65 years post slavery and the stories are more about life under reconstruction. Recons This book recounts the interviews of 27 former slaves interviewed under the New Deal's Federal Writers' Project of the 30's. Over 2,000 former slaves were sought out and their narratives recorded in an effort to preserve the history of American life under and post slavery (as well as put unemployed writers back to work). The slave histories gives a view into slave life, but these interviews were conducted some 65 years post slavery and the stories are more about life under reconstruction. Reconstruction gave the slaves freedom, but little else— they were abandoned, and this proved a difficult time. This was made apparent by the many slaves who waxed nostalgic about life under slavery. I urge everyone to read this book and the several others in this series, and even search for them online — many are readily available. This is a history that will move you.

  12. 4 out of 5

    George Nap

    Primary source history is usually worthy of five stars, regardless. Some objections to this book are how 90+ year old former slaves looked back on slavery 70-80 years in their past with some nostalgia. This is exactly what makes this telling, that people could look back on such a thing and find something positive; it makes a statement about the pervasiveness of racism and how slavery effected the self worth of former slaves and how freedom can be a foreign concept due to the lack of educational Primary source history is usually worthy of five stars, regardless. Some objections to this book are how 90+ year old former slaves looked back on slavery 70-80 years in their past with some nostalgia. This is exactly what makes this telling, that people could look back on such a thing and find something positive; it makes a statement about the pervasiveness of racism and how slavery effected the self worth of former slaves and how freedom can be a foreign concept due to the lack of educational enlightenment. The recollections are not all nostalgic and factor in the interviewers were white and their subjects may have been stating what they thought was expected. There are enough stories of dissatisfaction, hatred, revolt (poisonings attempts, etc) that the horrific reality of slavery comes through the fog of decades of memory.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sidney

    Yes, there are problems with trusting these primary accounts, but I still felt I learned from reading them. Hurmence's introduction points out the flaws of taking these accounts as a perfect picture of life as a slave, and I recommend reading it first to put the narratives in perspective. I loved reading 80 and 90 year old reflections on life as a slave. Although prompted by specific questions from the Great Depressions' Federal Writers' Project, I still feel that I gained a fuller understanding Yes, there are problems with trusting these primary accounts, but I still felt I learned from reading them. Hurmence's introduction points out the flaws of taking these accounts as a perfect picture of life as a slave, and I recommend reading it first to put the narratives in perspective. I loved reading 80 and 90 year old reflections on life as a slave. Although prompted by specific questions from the Great Depressions' Federal Writers' Project, I still feel that I gained a fuller understanding of life for slaves before and during the Civil War and during the aftermath of the war. The speakers' vocabulary and wisdom enhanced my understanding of the era and helped me appreciate more what our elders can teach us.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mike Prochot

    Highly edited collection of oral rememberances of the last generation of slaves in the American South. Difficult to comprehend at times due to phonetic spelling and period slang. Interesting, touching and also somewhat sad. One wonders if the rememberances, which mostly seem to be fond memories, are a symptom of old age forgetfulness or a psychological repression of actual facts. Nevertheless, worth a read if only to "read between the lines"" and get a sense of the slaves impressions of the time Highly edited collection of oral rememberances of the last generation of slaves in the American South. Difficult to comprehend at times due to phonetic spelling and period slang. Interesting, touching and also somewhat sad. One wonders if the rememberances, which mostly seem to be fond memories, are a symptom of old age forgetfulness or a psychological repression of actual facts. Nevertheless, worth a read if only to "read between the lines"" and get a sense of the slaves impressions of the times and the total acceptance of their condition. Hard to comprehend at this late date but when one considers a people held in bondage for generations, easy to rationalize.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Flynn

    This book was surprising because it gives a look at how the enslaved remember slavery and as well how they experienced the turbulent event of being granted freedom. It was interesting to be reading it the same week as @kanyewest uttered his opinion that slavery for 400 years must have been a choice. Reading this book, I learned about how hard the transition was for the slaves to freedom. Not because they didn’t want it, but simply because they went from having food to having none. They had been This book was surprising because it gives a look at how the enslaved remember slavery and as well how they experienced the turbulent event of being granted freedom. It was interesting to be reading it the same week as @kanyewest uttered his opinion that slavery for 400 years must have been a choice. Reading this book, I learned about how hard the transition was for the slaves to freedom. Not because they didn’t want it, but simply because they went from having food to having none. They had been prevented from getting much education- maybe some could read, but writing was strictly forbidden, so feeding for themselves in a post war economic crash was not an easy job.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Margaret

    This is a small historical book of epic proportions. It is 27 interviews of former South Carolina slaves. The stories tell of their lives as slaves, the good, the bad, and their perspectives of the Civil War and their Freedom...all of these people were interviewed in their 80, 90, & 100 years old...during the 1930's. Hindsight may have changed their views but their individual stories are captured in these interviews. Amazing stories. A truly "good read" for anyone interested in our country's hist This is a small historical book of epic proportions. It is 27 interviews of former South Carolina slaves. The stories tell of their lives as slaves, the good, the bad, and their perspectives of the Civil War and their Freedom...all of these people were interviewed in their 80, 90, & 100 years old...during the 1930's. Hindsight may have changed their views but their individual stories are captured in these interviews. Amazing stories. A truly "good read" for anyone interested in our country's history.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Connie

    The power of this book lies in its authenticity...for this, I could have given it a five-star. The words of those who experience historical events lend an element of truth that historians and/or critics can only merely attempt to explain or critique. A valuable insight beyond the factual information expressed through the words of those who were born in slavery is how a limited reality can control one's perceptions of the world. The power of this book lies in its authenticity...for this, I could have given it a five-star. The words of those who experience historical events lend an element of truth that historians and/or critics can only merely attempt to explain or critique. A valuable insight beyond the factual information expressed through the words of those who were born in slavery is how a limited reality can control one's perceptions of the world.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Graceann

    This is a collection of Slave Narratives taken from the WPA project in the 1930s. Each state has its own book, and this was South Carolina's. Some of the stories are moving, some funny, and some infuriating. Well worth the brief time it takes to read this slim volume. This is a collection of Slave Narratives taken from the WPA project in the 1930s. Each state has its own book, and this was South Carolina's. Some of the stories are moving, some funny, and some infuriating. Well worth the brief time it takes to read this slim volume.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rosa

    “...I remembered he’d been a captain on horseback in that war. It come into my remembrance the song of Moses: ‘The Lord had triumphed glorily & the horse and his rider have been throwed into the sea.’”

  20. 4 out of 5

    Michelle

    A fantastic compilation of stories by slaves taken from their oral histories. Really compelling and brings to life these wonderful people. Though tragically treated at the beginnings of their lives, they retain humor, joy, intelligence and life within their recollections.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Kimberly

    Why, it’s just as easy to make tallow candles as it is to fall off a log. p51

  22. 4 out of 5

    Candace Ranslow

    It's amazing what secrets about our past, as a nation, that oral history can reveal. It's amazing what secrets about our past, as a nation, that oral history can reveal.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Myla

    Fascinating, shocking, very worthwhile.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Suzanne

    Interesting first hand accounts of living in slavery from the national archives. Gives you a lot of insight.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Bat713

    Authentic memories from some very lid people. One had to put the memories in perspective. Still it is very interesting to read first hand about slavery in the state of South Carolina.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jane Wetzel

    This book is a collection of recollections in the words of ex-slaves about their experiences as young slaves, the civil war and then their lives of freedom. It does show the "good, the bad and the ugly". The bad and the ugly are heart wrenching. The good, and there were good slave owners and good experiences for the slaves, should not be forgotten or overlooked. It is always heartbreaking to hear how evil and cruel some human beings can be. Even though slavery is Never right, it is good to know This book is a collection of recollections in the words of ex-slaves about their experiences as young slaves, the civil war and then their lives of freedom. It does show the "good, the bad and the ugly". The bad and the ugly are heart wrenching. The good, and there were good slave owners and good experiences for the slaves, should not be forgotten or overlooked. It is always heartbreaking to hear how evil and cruel some human beings can be. Even though slavery is Never right, it is good to know that some slave owners loved their people and took good care of them. Not to be a spoiler, but some of the slaves wished for their former lives as slaves and the gentle rhythm of their lives then as opposed to their lives as free people. Many of these people's recollections told of the horrors of the civil war itself including the devastation and theft of homes and supplies, including food, by the yankees. War is always ugly and always touches more innocent lives than just the soldiers fighting a cause. This book was wonderful. It is so good to read truthful words.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Bruce Cline

    Before Freedom, When I Just Can Remember, edited by Belinda Hurmence (pp 135). This is the second book in a series of oral histories of former slaves. These are individuals who were interviewed in 1937 as part of the Federal Writer’s Project to provide work to unemployed writers. The former slaves were from South Carolina and were in theit 80’s and 90’s when they were interviewed, meaning all were young when enslaved. This volume includes the stories of twenty-seven men and women, and is written Before Freedom, When I Just Can Remember, edited by Belinda Hurmence (pp 135). This is the second book in a series of oral histories of former slaves. These are individuals who were interviewed in 1937 as part of the Federal Writer’s Project to provide work to unemployed writers. The former slaves were from South Carolina and were in theit 80’s and 90’s when they were interviewed, meaning all were young when enslaved. This volume includes the stories of twenty-seven men and women, and is written in their dialect with some explanatory notes. However, I was unable to discern the meaning of some words and phrases. That in no way detracted from the overall content. It’s a fascinating first person look into slavery, especially as compared to dire living conditions in the post-Reconstruction South when many blacks were, for all practical purposes, re-enslaved. Virtually none of these individuals could read or write, so these are oral histories in the strictest sense.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca Kinne

    In their own words, some of which I grew up hearing. It was neat being able to relate stories from the people who were there without having a "voice" at the time these occurrences took place. We were taught a whitewashed version of these time frames in school, so being able to "see" these familiar places and stories through the eyes of others was raw, educational, & awakening. It made me feel even closer to the place I call home. In their own words, some of which I grew up hearing. It was neat being able to relate stories from the people who were there without having a "voice" at the time these occurrences took place. We were taught a whitewashed version of these time frames in school, so being able to "see" these familiar places and stories through the eyes of others was raw, educational, & awakening. It made me feel even closer to the place I call home.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Andrea

    I don’t know how to rate this book. Assuming these former slaves were interviewed by white people, I can’t help but wonder how much that influenced their answers to the prompts they were given. It was heartbreaking to read so many former slaves’ accounts of how well they were treated, even while listing the things they didn’t have and knowing they didn’t have freedom.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    Fascinating. Writing or story cannot be judged because this is merely a collection of transcriptions of oral memories told by former slaves. So interesting to get all the different perspectives. Some terrible things in this book, but also some nice things. It's nice to hear first-hand accounts. Fascinating. Writing or story cannot be judged because this is merely a collection of transcriptions of oral memories told by former slaves. So interesting to get all the different perspectives. Some terrible things in this book, but also some nice things. It's nice to hear first-hand accounts.

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