Genealogy Research,  Genealogy Resources

Using the Slave Narratives for African American Research

Welcome to guest blogger Taneya Koonce!

African American genealogy research presents unique challenges given the history behind the institution of slavery and the effects it had on enslaved families; particularly for families that were separated from each other. Thus, resources that help provide context for family structures can be especially valuable.
Martha Spence Bunton, age 81 of Austin, Texas

Over the next two weeks Lisa is highlighting information relevant to African American genealogy research. I’m honored that Lisa thought to include me! As many may know, African American genealogy research presents unique challenges given the history behind the institution of slavery and the effects it had on enslaved families; particularly for families that were separated from each other.  Thus, resources that help provide context for family structures can be especially valuable.

One resource to use for researching those formerly enslaved is a collection of interviews conducted in the 1930s as a project of the Works Progress Administration – Slaves Narrative from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1938. This collection is freely online at the Library of Congress at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html. The Slave Narratives database contains the full transcriptions of more than 2,300 first-person accounts of formerly enslaved individuals. The narratives come from 17 states – including 10 of the Confederate states, the Border states, as well as Kansas, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Indiana.

The online collection offers several options for searching and browsing the material. You can browse narratives by the state in which they were conducted, can browse by the name of the person being interviewed, and you can even download PDF files of entire volumes (these are usually several hundred pages long). The ability to search the full-text of all the narratives by keyword is particularly handy as you can look for specific locations and family names. The collection also includes more than 500 photographs that can be browsed by the subject’s name.

The type of information you’ll find recounted in the narratives is varied and requires understanding the scope and limitations. In my own experience, I’ve found information in the narratives that are quite compelling and provided insight into research I’ve conducted.

  • In one example, there is an interview with a woman who was enslaved on the same plantation as some of my family members in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. In the narrative, Adaline Johnson discusses a situation with one of the other slaves on the plantation and while none of my family members are mentioned by name, the context of what happened on the plantation gives such insight into what was happening.
  • In another example, I found the slave narrative of a great-grandfather of one of my husband’s family members. This particular story was of extreme interest because the subject of the interview, George Fortman, names his parents, his grandparents, and describes his ancestry – a combination of Native American and Caucasian. Had it not been for this interview, I’m not sure we would know the names of his grandparents given the difficulty of finding other record sources.  I found this narrative by doing a regional search for mentions of my husband’s family.

 If you’ve not used the slave narratives, you’ll want to add this to your list of resources to periodically consult. You may find new directions for your research.

Taneya Koonce


 I am a medical librarian with 16 years in information management & organization.  I apply my professional experience in the identification, selection, evaluation, & critical analysis of information resources to my genealogy hobby pursuits.  My own quest in family history research started in 2006 after rediscovering family tree notes taken during interviews with my grandmothers approximately 10 years earlier.  I volunteer extensively with the national USGenWeb Project and am dedicated to helping others locate additional information to enrich their own family history knowledge.  An active blogger (Taneya’s Genealogy Blog) and participant in the internet genealogy community, my specific interests lie heavily in technology and historical newspaper research.

Find Taneya on Facebook, Twitter,  and Google+.

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