Thousands of African Americans have an ardent interest in finding out whether they may have slave ancestors in the United States prior to Emancipation during the Civil War. White persons have an easier time finding out about their family histories, since more records potentially refer to them.

            In censuses prior to the 1870 federal census, African-Americans were "nameless" as far as government enumerations were concerned, with few exceptions. Historians and genealogists know that the 1850 federal census was the first enumeration which listed all members of each family, including the "head of the household" with names, ages, places of birth, occupations and separate listings for wives and children and others living in the household. Black slaves were generally recorded only on slave schedules, which named their owners, but with no  slave names listed—only their sex, age, and whether they were black or mulatto.

            This lack of information in our major records is a major hurdle to tracing slave ancestors. Free persons of color, however, are easier to trace, as they are recorded by name in the various censuses, even during slavery days.

            A rich resource, however, are the ex-slave narratives that came to light in the widespread interviews of the Federal Writers' Project during the latter part of the Great Depression. The interviews and narrations were conceived as a way to make jobs available to hundreds of persons in many states, but especially in the Southern states. The interviewers had varying degrees of skill in  gathering information and in recording it. Interviewers were almost all white, and they generally fashioned their interviews around a closed-end method, in which some questions they asked exposed pre-conceived white ideas of what slave life was like. Nevertheless, despite serious flaws in their work due to limitations of the questionnaire given to them  and in their writing and interviewing talents, the 10,000 pages of more than 2,900 interviews give considerable insight into the lives of ex-slaves interviewed. The conversations took place between 1936 and 1939. The photos of hundreds of ex-slaves are included with the text, if interviewers took pictures.  Some interviews also include audio recordings.

            These narratives are in the public domain as Slave Narratives: a Folk History of Slavery in the United States. They are available online from the American Memory Website of the U. S. Library of Congress and you can use key-word searches for names or subjects, as well as narratives filed in each state. They can be read and used freely from the site:

            The slave narratives are also available through Project Gutenberg.  These are downloadable in various formats, including e-book formats, and can be used freely by the public. The Project Gutenberg specific narratives are more difficult to find than the American Memory narratives. See website:

            What types of information are common to the interviews of ex-slaves? Included are the names of ex-slaves, their place of birth, place of residence at time of interview, their age and their answers about slave life they experienced. Often, other family members of slaves and the names of slave owners and information about their plantations, farms, etc., are included. Some of the  interviews are short and not very thorough. But other interviews are long and vivid and contain much valuable information. By inference, we can also find out much about prevailing racial and cultural attitudes of whites doing the interviews and responses made by the ex-slaves.

            States where interviews took place were: Alabama (221), Arkansas (765), Florida (73), Georgia (194), Indiana (69), Kansas (3), Kentucky (57), Maryland (22), Mississippi (31), Missouri (92), North Carolina (218), Ohio (41), Oklahoma (79), Rhode Island (1), South Carolina (341), Tennessee (26), Texas (695), and Virginia (14). Indices are available with the narratives, listing each ex-slave interviewed.

            Since this blog is mainly concerned with Civil War and Reconstruction Period history of the Athens, Georgia, area, Part 2 will focus on what is available for research in the slave narratives for this part of Georgia. It will include a listing of the ex-slaves and other African Americans who may have had memories of the period immediately after the Civil War.

            It will be helpful to go to the slave narrative sites to get the "feel" of what you will find and to see by using the indices which may contain the names of ex-slaves among your ancestors.


Ex-Slave Robert Henry of Athens, GA, one of the interviewees. He lived on Billups Street and was a carpenter.
Ex-slave John Cole of Athens, GA, interviewed in the slave narratives project. Cole lived on Billups Street and was a laborer. Photos from the U. S. Library of Congress.
(See Part 2 soon giving names and information about ex-slaves from the Athens area, interviewed for the slave narratives).