This video of the January 12, 1999 broadcast of Nightline is really quite remarkable. It shares clips of voice recordings made in the mid-twentieth century of black people born into U.S. slavery.
That's right, it features the voices of real (former) slaves.
To get these interviews, folklorists traveled the South in the 1930s and 1940s carrying around 200 lb. "portable" 78 RPM disc recorders.
The technology to clean up and digitize the scratchy memory-filled discs only became available in the 1990s.
Now the vivid real-life stories of these men and women who lived as slaves are available online through the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center. They truly give a sobering look at life in the United States before abolition:
The almost seven hours of recorded interviews presented here took place between 1932 and 1975 in nine Southern states. Twenty-three interviewees, born between 1823 and the early 1860s, discuss how they felt about slavery, slaveholders, coercion of slaves, their families, and freedom. Several individuals sing songs, many of which were learned during the time of their enslavement. It is important to note that all of the interviewees spoke sixty or more years after the end of their enslavement, and it is their full lives that are reflected in these recordings. The individuals documented in this presentation have much to say about living as African Americans from the 1870s to the 1930s, and beyond.
All known recordings of former slaves in the American Folklife Center are included in this presentation. Some are being made publicly available for the first time and several others already available now include complete transcriptions.
One of the interviews highlighted in the Nightline broadcast is with an elderly Baltimore gentleman by the name of Fountain Hughes. The former slave shares, quite plainly, that his grandfather was owned by Thomas Jefferson. He also recollects many details about his own life as a slave.
He also shares this:
If I thought, had any idea, that I'd ever be a slave again, I'd take a gun and just end it all right away. Because you're nothing but a dog. You're not a thing but a dog.
A side note: While I was researching this post, I learned that the last ex-slave, Sylvester Magee, passed away in 1971. 1971!