Veracity Denied: Early Twentieth Century Historians' Refusal to Believe Enslaved Testimony

Noted historian of African American Literature William L. Andrews has written that “the most popular and lasting African American literary contributions to the movement for freedom were the autobiographical narratives of American slaves.” [1]

This distinction is undoubtedly true as American Slave Narratives served as rich firsthand sources of the realities of plantation life while establishing a literary genre that inflamed antislavery sentiment during their time of publication. In a nation “divided politically and geographically by the institution of slavery, narratives of enslavement possessed a unique rhetorical status as witness participants” for interested audiences. [2]

In spite of this special authority, early historians of slavery and the Civil War ignored slave narratives as documentary sources. In Slave Community, historian John Blassingame tells us that the majority of historians refused to accept the slave narratives as true testimony because enslaved people were aided by abolitionist editors or amanuenses. Yet those historians who refused to acknowledge the veracity of the American Slave Narratives had never bothered to read them. [3]

Ulrich B. Phillips, speaking in 1929, expressed the prevailing historiographical consensus regarding slave narratives by declaring that “ex-slave narratives in general . . . were issued with so much abolitionist editing that as a class their authenticity is doubtful.” [4]

Phillips had a profound influence in the early twentieth century as the “undisputed” special authority of the history of slavery.” [5] Phillips’ upbringing was one that helped to cultivate in him a high regard for the planter class of the old south. [6] To this end his interpretation of American slavery mirrored the tenets of the Lost Cause tradition - one in which American slaves are painted as “happy darkies” that benefitted from the institution of slavery. Such an interpretation reduces black people to a racial stereotype devoid of agency and autonomy. Implicit in Phillips’ assertion that American Slave Narratives lacked authority was that enslaved people were incapable of authoring their experiences truthfully, even if dictated to an amanuensis. Phillips’ assertion can be seen as symptomatic of the prevailing racial beliefs of his day – white supremacist to its very core.

In this light, we can see how any effort to enhance the discoverability of enslaved testimony expands our understanding of the era of slavery. We then recognize how digitization of American Slave Narratives is an act of recovery on a much deeper level - one where the expansion and promotion of access to once derided testimonies redresses the wrongs of early historians who rejected slave testimony.

The early efforts to collect American Slave Narratives began in the 1920’s alongside the emergence of the Harlem Renaissance through the tireless searches of historian Arturo Schomburg and early Civil Rights leader Arthur Spingarn. [7] Schomburg’s expansive collection of cultural materials resulted in the establishment of the Schomburg Center for Black Culture in New York City, while Spingarn’s was purchased by Howard University to become the Moorland Spingarn Research Center. The collective achievements of Schomburg and Spingarn in amassing African Americana cannot be understated as bibliographies of early African American literature were “minuscule, scarce and the books, once identified and located, were generally non-circulating.” [8]

Spingarn and Schomburg’s efforts spoke to a vision where the preservation of cultural memory was a way to improve African American futures. In collecting African American slave narratives and other important works of African American consciousness, their efforts demonstrated an acute awareness of the need for these historical materials for future African American scholars who would endeavor to create from these documents a usable past. Schomburg, speaking to a crowd in New York City, proclaimed that, “African Americans . . . need a collection or list of books written by our men and women. If they lack style let the children correct the omission of their sire. Let them build upon the crude work.” [9] It is evident here that Schomburg and others like him were determined to create a vast archive of African American contributions to literary culture.

Marion Wilson Starling would take up Schomburg’s challenge with her dissertation The Slave Narrative: Its Place in American Literary History in 1946. Starling’s research culminated in a bibliographic guide to the location of 6006 narrative records extending from 1703-1944. Starling discovered these narratives among judicial records, broadsides, private printings, church records and more. [10]

Starling's work laid the foundation for what has become an even more expansive bibliographic list of American Slave Narratives. Reading Starling's pioneering work, one is confronted with a vast amount of raw historical material unearthed for generations of scholars to study as a guide. Starling’s dissertation was not published until 1981, but her work represents an invaluable contribution to historical and literary scholarship of the American Slave Narrative.

Charles Nichols followed in 1963 with the publication of Many Thousand Gone drawing on the testimony of seventy-seven published slave narratives. Sponsored by the American Institute of the Free University of Berlin and published by a Netherlands printing house, and written during his time in Germany, Nichols’s work represented a global interest in attempting to understand how American slavery shaped African American intellectual life. [11]

Nichols was the first published historian to incorporate enslaved people’s experiences as documentary evidence for accessing how American slavery historiography had obscured its interpretation by silencing enslaved voices. The book revealed for readers the connections between the history of American slavery, the lived experience of enslaved people as observed in the slave narratives, and the continued struggle for political and social equality from Jim Crow through the era of the book’s publication.

Nichols is aware of the limitations of slave narratives as historical sources, especially of those that were written for illiterate fugitives by white abolitionists,” wrote leading historian Kenneth Stampp in his review of the work, “Yet he does not always use the narratives as critically as he should.” [12]

Stampp’s response to Nichols’ use of American Slave Narratives as a source of evidence reveals the lingering skepticism American historians had of their utility in interpreting slavery. This review was published in The American Historical Review in 1964 with Stamp ultimately concluding that Many Thousand Gone was “an unsatisfactory volume.” [13] In spite of Stampp’s unfavorable assessment Nichols’ work pioneered the use of American Slave Narratives as documentary evidence in studies of slavery in the United States.

It was from this collective journey of archival excavations that John Blassingame was able to produce The Slave Community which helped change the course of American slavery historiography by highlighting the experiences of enslaved people to speak for the historical record on a critical level. Blassingame wrote:

“By concentrating solely on the planter, historians have in effect been listening to only one side of a complicated debate. The distorted view of the plantation which emerges from the planter records is that of an all-powerful, monolithic institution which strips the slave of any meaningful and distinctive culture…” [13]

Blassingame revolutionizes the historical canon by utilizing enslaved people’s testimony to understand the history of slavery. The book is a pathbreaking study that provides a basis for understanding enslaved people’s response to plantation life. Blassingame consults a broad range of sources from American Slave Narratives to plantation journals to articles on psychological theory of the day.

Blassingame’s analysis of enslaved unions is particularly revealing and he uses enslaved testimony to shed light on the hardships enslaved people's spousal unions encountered when they attempted to maintain monogamous relationships. Drawing on the narrative accounts of several American Slave Narratives Blassingame helps the reader understand why enslaved men preferred unions to women enslaved on other plantations. The power dynamics of ownership inherent in the institution of slavery allowed enslavers to violate enslaved women on a routine basis: enslaved men shielded themselves from seeing these attacks by living “abroad” at another plantation. Though enslaved women's spouses "abroad" may not have witnessed firsthand the violations, they knew it happened; worse, the enslaved woman had no one to protect her from the violations continuing.

Though Blassingame indicates that some sources show that certain enslavers “encouraged stable monogamous families in order to make escape more unlikely” this practice was not the case for Moses Grandy.

In Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy: Late a Slave in the United States we observe how enslavers often “paired” enslaved people together while instructing them to live partnered until the vagaries of the slave market or death of an enslaver and eventual division of property meant severing this precarious bond. Moses Grandy spoke of how his wife cried out “I am gone!” as the slave traders marched her off to be sold away. “My God have you bought my wife?” Moses cried out - he was not even allowed to hug her upon departure. [15]

Consulting enslaved people’s testimony and embarking on reading practices that consider silences as well as acknowledge the epistemological violence on which slave regimes verified forms of information serves to illuminate multilayered perspectives previously hidden from the historical record. [16] Given this, we must engage narratives of enslavement alongside the historical record to arrive at a fuller view of the era of slavery.

Works Cited

[1] William L. Andrews, North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy, and Thomas H. Jones (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2005),1

[2] Charles J. Heglar, Rethinking the Slave Narrative: Domestic Concerns in Henry Bibb and William and Ellen Craft (1996), 9.

[3] John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford, 1981), 234.

[4] Charles J. Heglar, Rethinking the Slave Narrative: Domestic Concerns in Henry Bibb and William and Ellen Craft (1996), 13.

[5] In Slavery a Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life Stanley Elkins wrote that Phillip’s influence emphasized the “genial view of the institution. Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutionaland Intellectual Life. 2d Ed (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 9-15.

[6] Ibid,

[7] William Loren Katz, Flight from the Devil: Six Slave Narratives (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1996), xvii.

[8] Frances Smith Foster, Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1979)

[9] Vanessa K. Valdes, Diasporic Blackness: The Life and times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (S.l.: STATE UNIV OF NEW YORK PR, 2018), 79.

[10] John Ernest, The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 4.

[11] Prince E. Wilson “Slavery through the Eyes of Ex-Slaves.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 24, no. 4, 1963, pp. 401–402.

[12] Heather Andrea Williams, Introduction. Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy; Late a Slave in the United States of America. 1843. By Moses Grandy. North Carolina Slave Narratives. Ed. William L. Andrews. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. 133-186.

[13] Prince E. Wilson “Slavery through the Eyes of Ex-Slaves.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 24, no. 4, 1963, pp. 401–402.

[14] Kenneth Stampp, The American Historical Review 69, no. 3 (1964) 789-90 doi 10.2307/1845844

[15] Moses Grandy, Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy: Late a slave in the United states of America (Gilpin, London) 1843

[16] Aisha K. Finch, Rethinking slave rebellion in Cuba: La Escalera and the insurgencies of 1841-1844 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 10-12.

#slavenarratives #AfricanAmericanHistory #MosesGrandy #UlrichBPhillips #JohnBlassingame

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