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Enslaved People in the Southeast

Voices of the Enslaved

In May 1937, interviewer Marjorie Jones, working for the Federal Writer’s Project, sat down with 121-year old Sarah Gudger who recounted her life’s story and memories for the Born into Slavery project. What made Gudger’s stories remarkable was that they were often corroborated through records and census counts, and the confirmation of others.

Born into slavery in 1816 in the Swannanoa Valley of western North Carolina, Sarah Gudger, aged roughly 20 years in 1833, found herself being sold to Andrew Hemphill, a planter in Burke County. The bill of sale, shown here, confirms the $250 transaction between Abner Pervis and Andrew Hemp(hill). Gudger would remain with the Hemphill family, later willed to Andrew’s son William, until she received her freedom with the Civil War’s end at the age of 49.

She recalled the lives of her parents, Smart Gudger and Lucy McDaniels; periods of hunger, severe work conditions, and deprivation during her life of enslavement; and that she first experienced sleeping in a bed once she attained her freedom. Called “Aunt Sarah,” Gudger spent her elderly years making quilts and hobbling around on her cane in her Asheville home that she shared with distant relatives. Gudger never married, saying that “I had enough trouble by myself without takin’ on anymore.” While she never had children, she mentioned that she raised the children of others. Sarah Gudger died peacefully in her sleep in 1938 and is buried in an unmarked grave.

The Federal Writer’s Project, an off-shoot of the Workers Project Administration that Franklin Delano Roosevelt instituted during the Great Depression, produced not only works of fiction and non-fiction, but also recorded 2,300 oral histories of former enslaved people.

The beginning eight pages of Jeffrey T. Wilson's 1913 diary. To read the full diary, please visit Image courtesy of Virginia Polytechnic and State University.

The 1913 diary of formerly enslaved person Jeffrey T. Wilson. Entries were kept in a Wanamaker's Diary (produced by the department store chain) actually designed for 1911. As a result, Wilson has hand-corrected the days of the week throughout to reflect 1913. In addition to the entries recorded (two to a page), throughout the year, Wilson attached additional pages to continue writing. Many of these consist of reminiscences of his life in previous years on topics from the Civil War, his service in the United States Navy, segregation and race issues in Portsmouth and Norfolk, and local news. He also writes of daily events including his family's health, church events, the weather, and his frequent concerns about money.

In his first remember, either for January 3 or 4, Wilson wrote "Fifty years ago today I was hired out for the first time in my life and F. W. Lomsey was my master was my new master. He was mean his wife was meaner and the children were the same."

On page 82, the Wanamaker diary has suggestions for how to create a family tree. Creating family trees is and was often impossible for African Americans whose family members were enslaved since records of their history were not collected or were lost.

Letter from former body servant and enslaved man Jack Foster to former Confederate General John McCausland. Image courtesy of Virginia Polytechnic and State University.

This collection contains an 1883 letter written by Jack Foster, a formerly enslaved person who served as a body servant in the 36th Virginia Infantry during the Civil War. Foster writes to former Confederate General John McCausland, one-time commander of the 36th. After inquiring about the general's wellbeing, Foster mentions his family, then begins to reminiscence about his time in the general's camp. Foster mentions being at Camp Narrows (Giles County, Virginia) and being present when McCausland took command following the death of General Jenkins at "Floyds Mountains" [i.e., the Battle of Cloyd's Mountain, May 9, 1864]. Foster then proceeds to recollect a discussion between Jenkins and McCausland regarding battle strategy and the Confederate units present. He also recalls baking bread in the camp. At the time of the Civil War, Jack Foster was enslaved by the Tompkins family of Virginia. Though Christopher Q. Tompkins, Foster's enslaver, served with the 22nd Virginia Infantry during the war, Foster found himself in the 36th Virginia, body servant to a young soldier in the regiment. By 1883, Foster was living in Richmond, Virginia. He may have been the same man as a driver named John Foster enumerated in the 1880 census living in Richmond, Virginia with wife Virginia and daughters Hattie, Lucy, Ada and Ida. By 1900, Virginia Foster was a widow in Richmond, living with children Ada, Ida, and Chris.