As an author of historical fiction, I know that solid research breathes life into my books. What I didn’t know was how it could change the trajectory of my life. In May 2013, I purchased a research book on slavery that would do just that. I Was Born in Slavery: Personal Accounts of Slavery in Texas is a small, unremarkable-looking book, with a black-and-white photograph of a smiling, older black gentleman gracing the cover. Yet the pages of this little, unassuming book are filled with the captivating, often heart-wrenching word-for-word narratives of life in bondage, told by twenty-nine brave individuals to interviewers employed by the government.
After the stock market crash of 1929, millions of Americans found themselves out of work. Beginning in 1933, a series of government programs were created to help Americans get back to work. One of them was the Federal Writers’ Project. The FWP provided employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and others with a knack for the written word. Originally, the purpose of the project was to produce a series of guidebooks, focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States. More projects were added, and by 1936, FWP employees were dispersed across the Southern states with one objective: record first-person accounts of people who had once lived in bondage. The result was what is now known as Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. This collection, archived in the Library of Congress, contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. There are even a handful of unforgettable recordings.
How did the slave narratives change my life? you might wonder. First, I don’t believe anyone can read or hear the words of a former slave, telling their story in their own way, and not be affected. But in all honesty, I stumbled upon the slave narratives quite by accident. I was researching slavery in Texas for my historical romance series and wanted the characters’ lives to be authentic. Even though slavery had existed in America since the 1600s—and quite possibly before that—I didn’t want to use generalities. I wanted to honor the people who’d been enslaved in Texas by telling their stories through my characters, so I purchased I Was Born in Slavery.
That little book turned out to be far more than a research book.
It began an awakening in me. Reading word-for-word narratives and studying the many photographs that accompanied them took slavery out of the history books, where facts and secondhand storytelling tend to dull the emotions and placed the former slave right there in my office. With an uncomfortable awareness, I realized I had never truly taken a hard look at the reprehensible institution of slavery. Like most children who attended public school in the seventies, I remember studying slavery in history class. I’ve read novels and watched movies that depict the life of slaves in the South, but I had a cursory knowledge of what it meant to keep a person in bondage. I’d never put a face and name to that person. The slave narratives do exactly that: put a face and a name on slavery.
Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs.
Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about.
Visit her online at michelleshocklee.com.