In 1933, musicologist John A. Lomax set out with his son Alan in tow for one of those Rooseveltian federal projects that were so criticized in their own day and for which we are so grateful today. Lomax had somehow convinced the Library of Congress that they really needed someone to go down into the Old South and record the living folk songs that were rapidly being corrupted by the influence of commercial radio. They installed the latest high-tech acetate disc recorder (a fly-weight at 315 pounds) in the trunk of a Ford sedan and headed south. Soon they were visiting singers, particularly Negro (they were “Colored” then) singers, in the fields, clubs, and prisons. Somehow the vision of these two white guys (in their white shirts and ties, of course) pulling up inconspicuously alongside a bunch of Negro singers in the mossyback, completely unreconstructed South and whipping their cables and microphones out of their trunk has always struck me as both wonderfully silly and wonderfully brave: federal musicology in the thirties was not for the faint of heart.
It is only thanks to them that we have actual recordings of the pure, unadulterated songs of a world that time has swept away. Along the way, they discovered Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter (in Louisiana State Prison where he was serving time for attempted murder) among others and brought the first exposure of white America to what was arguably the richest and most authentically American musical genre.
All of which is pretty marvelous, but it is not what I wanted to talk about. John Lomax also worked for another fertile source of ultimately invaluable boondogglery, the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Just as the pure folk songs were gradually being lost, another resource was dying away: the ex-slaves. By 1935, the Civil War and Emancipation were seventy years gone. Many ex-slaves, in their nineties or even older, still lived and had clear memories of their early lives, when they had been the property of others.
But every year some of them died, and the only living memories from inside American slavery died with them. So the WPA, under the Federal Writers’ Project, sent interviewers South and got over 2,300 interviews with former slaves. They were in writing, not recorded, so capturing the actual accents and language of the subjects depended on the writing skill of the individual interviewer. Nevertheless, they provide another priceless, living capsule of time now lost.
After all, not much survives to tell the real story of the slaves. If history is always written by the victors, then in the case of slavery, the victors were the abolitionists. There is a great mass of history written about American slavery, but far too much of it has been written by those with an ax to grind. The abolitionists got there first, laying a solid claim for the barbarity, cruelty and venality of the world of the slaves. White historians followed, darkening the picture still further and painting the slaves as helpless, childlike victims of white greed and lust. Lastly the African- American historians have taken over the field, dwelling on the horrors of the Middle Passage and the crippling effects on African civilization caused by the loss of so many millions of their healthy young people. When not blaming slavery or colonialism for all the contemporary problems in Africa, they are busy elevating the slaves to noble resisters only kept from running away or staging a bloody revolution by the ubiquitous fear of the lash, of the packs of bloodhounds, and of reprisals on their loved ones.
Given the paucity of records, slavery seems to be able to be warped into almost any shape that serves the purposes of the authors. It is only in the last thirty years that serious (and unpopular) historians have been able to analyze what information survives in any systematic way. Reconstruction and the struggle to survive in the post-bellum South may have combined with illiteracy to destroy a lot of first person history, but a surprising amount either survives or at least can be inferred from other records that have been preserved.
For instance, there is census data. Since they are taken once a decade, the last pre-war census, that of 1860, was taken just before the Civil War. And given the infamous “3/5” clause of the Constitution that allocated Congressional representation on the basis of the whites plus three-fifths of the slaves, the Southerners were highly motivated to make the census accurate.
What facts can be derived from the census? Well, for one thing, we discover that slaves had a life expectancy 12 per cent below that of whites. At first glance, this conforms nicely to all the horror stories of antebellum slave life. What does not conform is the fact that those slaves had a better life expectancy than either Northern or European free urban industrial workers. Whatever else may be true of urban life in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, it is certainly true that workers were not intentionally starved, nor whipped, nor customarily worked till they dropped, all life-shortening practices charged by the abolitionists against the Southern slave owners. And let us remember that the South was generally considered an unhealthy region, particularly for field workers.
Yet the slaves outlived the factory workers. Hmmm.
The 1850 census shows that in the prime childbearing ages, slave women had a death rate in childbearing of one per thousand births. This is not only a pretty low number for the time, more importantly, it is lower than the maternal death rate of Southern white women. Looking at the one year infant mortality rate, it is virtually identical to that for whites.
So abused, underfed, and poorly doctored black slave women had a lower childbirth death rate and a comparable infant mortality rate to their Southern white sisters. Hmmm.
Among other records that have survived are receipts and account books. Those, too, have been mined for data. These, added to the 1860 census data, allows a pretty good estimate to be made of the amount and variety of food that was fed to slaves. According to those calculations, slaves were actually fed better (by 10%) than free white males were…in 1879! Not only that, but the nutritional value of their diet actually exceeded the 1964 recommended figures for major nutrients. Sadly, census figures from after the war indicate a steep decline in nutrition. Sharecroppers seem to have actually eaten far worse than slaves.
So the slaves were notoriously underfed by the avaricious slave owners who somehow still supplied them with a diet up to modern nutritional standards. Hmmm.
One could go on and on about all this. Clothing, medical care, housing, marriage, education, all present the same picture. Whatever may have been true about the Southern slavery system, the picture that has been presented of it is as viciously inaccurate as the most scurrilous political cartoon.
The thing that has to be remembered about the antebellum world was that it was a Victorian one. It was intensely religious, intensely self-righteous, sexually prudish, with a somewhat mawkish sentimentality. And nowhere had the Victorian world view taken firmer root than in the American South. It was, in fact, probably the last place on earth that would tarnish its own self-image with the sorts of barbarity the abolitionists charged it with. It made good Victorian economic sense as well as good moral sense to treat their slaves well, keep them as happy and healthy as possible, and to cultivate their own values in the slaves.
When modern historians have gone back to those slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project, what they found was so outrageous that they came up with endless rationalizations to contradict the plain testimony of the ex-slaves. Over and over again, what the slaves actually said was that they had been well treated, well fed, and reasonably happy under slavery. A surprising number remembered it as the best times of their lives. They had taken pride in their work, in their families, and in their plantations. And, perhaps most surprising of all, the vast majority remembered their old masters with great affection, and even love.
What then, is the bottom line, as that much overused phrase has it? Was the South really some sort of pastoral paradise instead of a gothic hellhole? Does that mean that the North was wrong to destroy slavery and that the slaves really had wanted to simply remain slaves?
One escaped slave, when questioned by a judge about how bad it was, stoutly went against both stereotypes:
Slave: “Oh, no. I had a good life there.”
Judge: “Were you mistreated?”
Slave: “No. Ole Massa and me was the greatest friends. Fished and hunted together.”
Judge: “Did you have enough food and housing?”
Slave: “Sure enough. Ham and ’taters. Molasses. My little cabin had roses over the door.”
Judge: “I don’t understand. Why did you run away?”
Slave: ”Well, your Honor, the situation is still open down there if you’d like to apply for it.”