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African-Americans & the Black Experience: Slavery

Primary sources on slavery

  • Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record
    Images from the Center for History and New Media, George Mason University.
  • Transatlantic Slave Trade Database
    Records of voyages and estimates of slave trade volume, as well as an African name database of enslaved persons.
  • In Motion: African American Migration Sources
    Images, maps and texts related to the transatlantic and domestic slave trade, runaway slaves, and emigration.
  • Unknown No Longer: A Database of Virginia Slave NamesDocuments from the Virginia Historical Society, indexed by name.
  • From Slavery to Freedom : The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909.  Presents 396 pamphlets from the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, published from 1822 through 1909, by African-American authors and others who wrote about slavery, African colonization, Emancipation, Reconstruction, and related topics. The materials range from personal accounts and public orations to organizational reports and legislative speeches. Among the authors represented are Frederick Douglass, Kelly Miller, Charles Sumner, Mary Church Terrell, and Booker T. Washington. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory Project. 
  • Slave Societies Digital Archive
    Images and documents from Angola, Benin, Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia, Cuba, and Spanish Florida.
  • Mapping Marronage
  • Georgetown Slavery Archive
    Documents related to slavery practiced by Maryland Jesuits.
  • African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts [Flash Player].nbsp; The Massachusetts Historical Society created a website that chronicles the lives of free and enslaved African Americans in Massachusetts from the late seventeenth century through the abolition of slavery under the Massachusetts Constitution in the 1780s. Also see the Society’s Images of the Antislavery Movement in Massachusetts.
  • African American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920. This digital collection illuminates specific moments in the history of Ohio’s African-Americans and provides an overview of their experiences during the time period 1850 to 1920 in the words of the people that lived them. Part of the Library of Congress American Memory Project.
  • African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A.P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907: A panoramic and eclectic review of African-American history and culture from the early nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, with the bulk of the material published between 1875 and 1900. Among the authors represented are Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Benjamin W. Arnett, Alexander Crummel, and Emanuel Love. Courtesy of the Library of Congress American Memory Project.
  • Documenting the American South: Primary Resources for the Study of Southern, History, Literature, and Culture. A digital publishing initiative that provides Internet access to texts, images, and audio files related to southern history, literature, and culture. Currently DocSouth includes twelve thematic collections of books, diaries, posters, artifacts, letters, oral history interviews, and songs. Includes many resources on both African Americans and Native Americans in the South. From the University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture. This website from the University of Virginia presents a vast multimedia archive of primary material, 1830 to 1930, organized around Harriet Beecher Stowe's seminal work. Educators should preview the material, particularly the various representations of race and slavery in the archive, to determine what is appropriate for use in their own classroom discussion.
  • Umbra: Search African American History (umbrasearch.org) is a free digital platform and widget that brings together content documenting African American history and culture in order to enable the creation of new works—research projects, scholarship, curricula, art of all kinds—that illuminate parts of our history that have not been enough broadly accessible.

Slave narratives and testimony

  • 5 Classic and Heartbreaking Slave Narratives
  • North American Slave Narratives
    Part of the "Documenting the American South" collection.
  • American Memory Collections on African American History
    Includes full-text slave narratives and pamphlets.
  • American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology: From 1936 to 1938, over 2,300 former slaves from across the American South were interviewed by writers and journalists under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration. These former slaves, most born in the last years of the slave regime or during the Civil War, provided first-hand accounts of their experiences on plantations, in cities, and on small farms. Their narratives remain a peerless resource for understanding the lives of America’s four million slaves. Courtesy of the University of Virginia.
  • Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. Courtesy of the Library of Congress American Memory Project.
  • Diary of a Contraband : The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. William B. Gould’s Civil War diary chronicles his daily life in the United States Navy from September 27, 1862, to his discharge three years later, on September 29, 1865. One of the only known diaries of an African American sailor in the Civil War, this document describes his service and life as a sailor on the U.S.S. Cambridge and later on the U.S.S. Niagara, which took him from the northeastern U.S. to Great Britain, Holland, Belgium, Spain, and Portugal.
  • Free at Last?  Slavery in Pittsburgh in the 18th and 19th Centuries.  Free at Last? takes the visitor on a journey that begins with life as usual in Africa, stops over in the slave castles that lined the West African coast, travels across the gruesome Middle Passage onward to slavery in the Americas, and, as W.E.B. Du Bois characterized it, through a descent into hell....Through the exhibition, the journey brings us to the American colonies, Pennsylvania, and the Pittsburgh region, where the core of the story dates to Pittsburgh’s founding 250 years ago. The Pittsburgh and broader Pennsylvania variety of slavery may not have been as punishing as the Southern version. Nonetheless, it was slavery, in turn accompanied by and followed by discrimination and segregation so seemingly intractable that their vestiges survive today.
  • Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs (pen name Linda Brent).

    Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In 1861, Harriet Jacobs published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, an account of her experience of enslavement in Edenton, North Carolina. Jacobs used the pseudonym Linda Brent and changed all of names in the book to protect the identity and safety of her family. Incidents soon became one of the most widely read slave narratives written by a woman. Jacobs used the book to highlight the unique cruelties of slavery experienced by women, including sexual abuse, exploitation, and violence. Courtesy of Samantha Gibson, Digital Public Library of America.

  • Slave Biographies: The Atlantic Database Network is an open access repository of information on the identities of enslaved people in the Atlantic World. It includes the names, ethnicities, skills, occupations, and illnesses of individual slaves involved in the Atlantic slave trade. It also connects slaves to family members creating a complex web of social and kinship networks. In this way Slave Biographies reveals much about slave life in the New World and about African slaves' lives in parts of the Old World....Slave Biographies also provides a platform for researchers of African slavery to contribute, analyze, visualize, utilize, and collaborate on data they have collected. The repository combines multiple, individual datasets in a way that is complimentary and creates a resource for quantitative data analysis and data visualizations about the Atlantic slave trade.
  • SlaveryStories.org. These are tales of American slaves, written in their own words and spoken with their own voices.  Includes both written and audio narratives.  A new, collaborative digital project started February 3, 2014 by Rob Walsh, Scholastica. At time of posting the written narratives include: 
    (1) Twelve Years a Slave : Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 by Solomon Northup
    (2) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs
    (3) Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass Written By Himself. Frederick Douglass
    (4) Fifty Years In Chains; or, The Life of an American Slave by Charles Ball
    (5) Up From Slavery: An Autobiography by Booker T. Washington
    (6) Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon or Inside Views of Southern Domestic Life by Louisa Picquet
    (7) The Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth
    (8) Slave Life in Georgia : A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave by John Brown
  • Voices from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories.  As part of the American Memory Project at the Library of Congress, this engaging website offers first-hand audio recollections of the experience of slavery in the American South from 23 African-Americans. The interviews themselves were originally conducted between 1932 and 1975, and contain memories of their lives that include discussions of their feelings on slavery, their families, and on freedom. It is not terribly surprising that very limited biographical information is available about each participant, though the special exhibit that is also available here (titled Faces and Voices From the Presentation), features photographs of some of the interviewees, such as Fountain Hughes, Uncle Bob Ledbetter, and George Johnson. As some of the audio recordings contain a good deal of background noise (and in some cases are incomplete), visitors may also want to follow along by viewing the full-text transcriptions as well. One interview that visitors will want to make sure and listen to is the one with Uncle Billy McCrea conducted in 1940, in which he sings both Blow Cornie Blow and Walk Dooley.
  • 12 Years A Slave. A 2013 movie and an adaptation of the 1853 memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup. This autobiographical story provides a rare and shocking historical account of life for both free blacks and slaves during the pre-Civil war era. In 12 Years a Slave, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an educated, free man living in New York State with his wife and three children when he is kidnapped and sold in Louisiana as a slave. Having only lived as a free man, Northup must learn how to act like a slave in order to survive to be reunited with his family. Northup soon learns slaves should not read or write, slaves should only speak when spoken to, and slaves are their masters’ property to do whatever they want with....During his twelve years as a slave working on Louisiana plantations, Northup endures the horrors of being a slave—beatings, unsanitary living conditions, physical and mental abuse, and unendurable working hours and conditions. Northup is an extraordinary man who overcomes cruelty, degradation, and despair to reunite with his family and then share his story with the world in his memoirs. Courtesy of Awesome Stories.

Runaway Slave Broadside, 1853

  • Aboard the Underground Railroad: A National Register Travel Itinerary.   This portal introduces travelers, researchers, historians, preservationists, and anyone interested in African American history to the fascinating people and places associated with the Underground Railroad. The itinerary currently provides descriptions and photographs on 64 historic places that are listed in the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places, America's official list of places important in our history and worthy of preservation. It also includes a map of the most common directions of escape taken on the Underground Railroad and maps of individual states that mark the location of the historic properties.
  • Freedom on the Move: A Database of Fugitives from North American Slavery.  Throughout the 250-year history of slavery in North America, enslaved people tried to escape. Once newspapers were common, enslavers posted “runaway ads” to try to locate these fugitives. Such ads provide significant quantities of individual and collective information about the economic, demographic, social, and cultural history of slavery, but they have never been systematically collected. We are designing and beginning data collection for a database that will compile all North American slave runaway ads and make them available for statistical, geographical, textual, and other forms of analysis. Some elements of data collection will be crowdsourced, engendering a public sense of co-participation in the process of recording history, and producing a living pedagogical tool for instructors at all levels, in multiple disciplines.
  • California Underground Railroad. The story of California’s Underground Railroad is an important but too little known struggle in the quest for freedom and equality. The archive uses digital images of letters, journals, photographs, documents, and newspapers to tell the often overlooked experiences of African-American slaves in California. A digital compilation by California State University - Sacramento.
  • Geography of Slavery in Virginia
    Digital collection of advertisements for runaway and captured slaves and servants in 18th- and 19th-century Virginia newspapers.
  • North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements (1751 - 1840)
  • Texas Runaway Slave Project
  • Louisiana Runaway Slave Advertisements, 1836-1865
  • Runaway Slave Ads, Baltimore County Maryland
  • The Underground Railroad and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  The Underground Railroad (1850-1860) was an intricate network of people, safe places, and communities that were connected by land, rail, and maritime routes. It was developed by abolitionists and slaves as a means of escaping the harsh conditions in which African Americans were forced to live, and ultimately to assist them in gaining their freedom. Although securing one’s freedom was challenging, many enslaved persons escaped to free states in the North and to Canada. Free African Americans, however, faced the threat of being returned to a slaveholder as a result of the The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required that all escaped enslaved persons be returned, upon capture, to their masters. This primary source set provides teachers and students with resources that reveal the myriad sacrifices enslaved people made in order to gain their freedom, the effects of the Fugitive Slave Law on the lives of free African Americans, and the community that was built among abolitionists and enslaved people. A compilation by Lakisha Odlum, Digital Public Library of America.

Pittsburg Gazette Advertisement, 1786

Abolitionism sources

  • Death or Liberty : Gabriel, Nat Turner, and John Brown Exhibition January 10 - November 8, 2000. Between the Revolution and the Civil War, three dramatic events in Virginia focused America’s attention on the problem of slavery. Gabriel’s Conspiracy in 1800, Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southampton County in 1831, and John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 deeply shocked white southerners and provided confirmation for those who argued that slavery was incompatible with American liberty. “Death or Liberty” examines these events and the debates about slavery, freedom, and sectional politics that raged in their wake. Finally the exhibition offers an overview of how the public memory of these events has changed. Courtesy of the Library of Virginia. Includes a selection of transcribed and digtitized documents.
  • Nat Turner Project. In the Nat Turner Project digital archive, you can read original documents related to the only large-scale slave revolt ever to occur in the United States. Explore newspaper articles, diary entries, letters, maps, trials transcripts, census records, pamphlets, petitions, and other types of sources created at the time the revolt occurred. The archive also contains later accounts of the revolt, including interviews with former slaves and memoirs of former slaveholders. In the Memory section, you will also find visual and fictional representations of Nat Turner and the revolt that were created long after the revolt was suppressed and the people involved were gone.  Sarah N. Roth, Widener University.
  • 1811 Slave Insurrection.  Entry from KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana
  • 1811 Slave Revolt in Louisana.  More than a century before the first modern-day civil rights march, there was Charles Deslondes and his make-do army of more than 200 enslaved men battling with hoes, axes and cane knives for that most basic human right: freedom. They spoke different languages, came from various parts of the United States, Africa and Haiti, and lived miles apart on plantations along the German Coast of Louisiana. Yet after years of planning at clandestine meetings under the constant threat of immediate death, they staged a revolt on Jan. 8, 1811, that historians say is the largest uprising of enslaved people in this country.  For more information see Daniel Rasmussen's American Uprising:The Untold Story of America's Largest Slave Revolt .
  • Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware. About 2,000 pages of family histories based on all colonial court order and minute books on microfilm at the state archives of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and Delaware (over 1000 volumes), 1790-1810 census records, tax lists, wills, deeds, free Negro registers, marriage bonds, parish registers, Revolutionary War pension files, etc.
  • Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony. During the Civil War, Union-occupied Roanoke Island, which lies between the North Carolina mainland and the barrier islands known as the Outer Banks, became home to thousands of former slaves. Initially these refugees settled near the Union headquarters, creating a community that included churches and a school. In the spring of 1863, this camp evolved into a government-sanctioned colony. Major General John G. Foster, Commander of the 18th Army Corps, ordered Horace James, a Congregational minister from New England who was serving as a chaplain in the Union army, to establish a colony of former slaves on the island. Although the Roanoke Island freedmen’s colony was an experiment of national significance, few people are aware of its history. This site presents an introduction to the colony and the colonial experiment that was conducted there. It also features some primary sources, maps, and projects for student.
  • The Revised Dred Scott Case Collection. In 1846, Dred Scott and his wife Harriet filed suit for their freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court. This suit began an eleven-year legal fight that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued a landmark decision declaring that Scott remain a slave. The collection contains the original and newly discovered records in a full-text, searchable collection including TEI encoded XML transcripts and images. Courtesy of the Washington University Libraries in St. Louis.
  • Slaves and the Courts, 1740-1860. Contains just over a hundred pamphlets and books (published between 1772 and 1889) concerning the difficult and troubling experiences of African and African-American slaves in the American colonies and the United States. The documents, most from the Law Library and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress, comprise an assortment of trials and cases, reports, arguments, accounts, examinations of cases and decisions, proceedings, journals, a letter, and other works of historical importance. Of the cases presented here, most took place in America and a few in Great Britain. Among the voices heard are those of some of the defendants and plaintiffs themselves as well as those of abolitionists, presidents, politicians, slave owners, fugitive and free territory slaves, lawyers and judges, and justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Significant names include John Quincy Adams, Roger B. Taney, John C. Calhoun, Salmon P. Chase, Dred Scott, William H. Seward, Prudence Crandall, Theodore Parker, Jonathan Walker, Daniel Drayton, Castner Hanway, Francis Scott Key, William L. Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Denmark Vesey, and John Brown. Slaves and the Courts was made possible by a generous gift from the Citigroup Foundation.
  • The Freedmen's Bureau.    The Freedmen’s Bureau (also called the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands) was an agency established at the end of the Civil War to help support freed slaves (or freedmen) in the South. The Bureau was established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, but faced substantial challenges by both President Andrew Johnson’s administration and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. This collection of documents, images, and readings from the era give an overview of the work done by the Freedmen’s Bureau and the racial and political struggles the agency faced during the Reconstruction Era.   Courtesy of Hillary Brady and the Digital Public Library of America.
  • Visualizing EmancipationOnline map of slavery's end during the Civil War.
  • Documents from Freedom : A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867. Contains transcriptions (or, in a few cases, images) of originals housed in the National Archives of the United States Freedman and Southern Society Project. They have been transcribed exactly as written, with no correction of spelling, punctuation, or syntax.
  • The Thirteenth Amendment. The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution declared that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Formally abolishing slavery in the United States, the 13th Amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865.
  • The Fourteenth Amendment. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on July 9, 1868, and granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” which included former slaves recently freed. In addition, it forbids states from denying any person "life, liberty or property, without due process of law" or to "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” By directly mentioning the role of the states, the 14th Amendment greatly expanded the protection of civil rights to all Americans and is cited in more litigation than any other amendment.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment (Digital Public Library). The Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified on February 3, 1870, says that the right to vote cannot be denied or abridged on the basis of race, color, or prior condition of servitude. The Fifteenth Amendment is often grouped with the Thirteenth Amendment, ending slavery (1865), and Fourteenth Amendment, securing citizenship (1868), as one of the “Reconstruction amendments,” which were passed by the radical Republican-dominated Congress following the Civil War.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment (Library of Congress). 
  • Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.    Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were both great men who rose from poverty to become advocates for freedom and equality. Although their backgrounds are seemingly different and their meetings brief, their work to end slavery is undeniable. These men met three separate times during Lincoln’s presidency to discuss issues such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment. When Douglass was turned away from the White House on the day of Lincoln’s Second Inauguration, Lincoln called him back, saying, “There is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours.” This source set explores each man’s views and work to end slavery.