To Freedom: Voices of the Formerly Enslaved

Albumen print of enslaved women and their children near Alexandria, Va., Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The United States abolished slavery Dec. 6, 1865, by amending the Constitution to state, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Secretary of State William Seward announced to the world on Dec. 18, 1865, that the United States had constitutionally abolished slavery - the 13th Amendment had been ratified. The 13th Amendment completed what free and enslaved African Americans, abolitionists and the Emancipation Proclamation set in motion.

Freedom meant different things to different people, but one thread ran throughout - autonomy. After slavery, African Americans acted on visions of freedom in their everyday lives. Certain expressions rose to the surface. People claimed their families. Mother, uncle, cousin brother - all were brought in as kin and held close. People claimed their dignity. Using clothing, photography, manners or speech, they conveyed who they were. People claimed the land they had brought into production. Finally, they claimed the freedom to move whenever and wherever they wanted. 

The Library of Congress collection, “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 (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA).  After the Slave Narrative project, a set of edited transcripts was 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.”

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