American Slave: A Composite Autobiography

Rebecca Guendelsberger, '03

September 25, 2001

Source Report


George Rawick, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972).



The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (I will refer to this collection from now on as The American Slave) series is a compilation of black autobiographies focusing on slave narratives. 1971 and 1972 were the original publishing years of these volumes, with subsequent supplemental volumes published in 1977 and 1979. Howard Potts compiled and published the name index to this set in 1997. The complete series includes nineteen original volumes and two supplemental series of twelve volumes and ten volumes each. Included in these volumes is the before mentioned name index, and a manuscript written by George Rawick, the General Editor of the series. In his book, Rawick describes his theories on slavery and outlined and explained the questions that the interviewers asked the narrators. This vast series can be found in the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library at Bowdoin College on the second floor.

The American Slave volumes contain the printed form of the interviews made by the Federal Writers Project, a subdivision of the Works Progress Administration. The majority of the entries consist of interviews during the years 1936-1938. Each volume has a listing of all of the people's names whose accounts are found in the book. These books are separated by the states in which the interview occurred, and represents South Carolina, Texas, Alabama, Indiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas, Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Washington D.C., Maryland, Nebraska, New York, and Rhode Island. In order to help navigate these volumes, Howard Potts recorded all of the slaves' names from the American Slave volumes and printed them alphabetically in the "Comprehensive Name Index for the American Slave" volume. This index is a comprehensive guide to the American Slave autobiographies. It separates the narratives in the American Slave collection into different sections, organized alphabetically by County and State, Narrator (former slave), Master, Interviewer, and Narrator Birth Year (if known).

The County and State Index alphabetically lists the counties that the narrator lived in during his/her time of servitude. This Index gives the following information: the county name, the state, the narrator's name, the year the narrator was born, the narrator's age at the time of the interview, the master, the name of the interviewer, and the location of the narrative inside the collection (volume, page number, and number of pages of the narrative).

The narrator index lists the narrators names alphabetically, the county in which they lived during slavery, the state of slave residence, the year they were born, their age at the time of the interview, their master's name, the interviewer's name, and location of the narrative in the series (the volume, the page number, and the number of pages of the narrative). With this index, as with the other indexes, the same narrator may appear more than once. The reason for these multiple entries of the same person is due to the plight of the slave; if the account makes clear the selling or moving of the narrator to another master or location, the index notes the change accordingly.

The interviewer index alphabetically lists the interviewer's name, the volume in which their work resides, the page number the narrative begins, the number of pages in the narrative, the master, the county of the slave-holding, the state, the narrator, the year the narrator was born, and the age of the narrator at the time of the interview.

The narrator birth year index lists the year the narrators were born, in descending order form 1907 through 1766. Although this is a wide range of years, many birth years were not known, and most of the known years lie between 1836 and 1860.


The American Slave series is a vast collection of narratives regarding slavery and the years immediately following emancipation through an ex-slave perspective. These narrations are the stories found in the WPA documents. Interestingly, the WPA printed only some of the narratives, and many times altered the narratives in order to make the slaves' experiences in slavery similar to other accounts. For example, many of the narratives chosen for printing highlighted the image of masters living in large mansions and associating with the elite upper class. If the narrative did not hold this image, then the WPA editors either did not publish the account, or deleted that section of the story from the official records.[1] Due to this restricted and biased publishing of the original narratives Rawick compiled these narratives from the WPA's records in order to present a more complete vision of slavery. In order to fulfill his goal of uncensored reporting, Rawick's volumes contain both the "officially published" form of the narratives and the actual unedited edition.

Within the volume filled with these narratives, the stories are indexed alphabetically by the narrator's last name. Many times at the top of the narrative, the interviewer's name, place of interview, and district number of the location of interview are located on the top left of the first page of the narrative. The date of the interview and whether or not the narrative was published is on the top right corner of the first page. On the upper left hand of each subsequent page are the narrator's name and the page number. Before the actual testimony of the narrator, the interviewer wrote a very brief description of the person being interviewed, where s/he was born, and a quick highlight of various aspects of the ex-slaves life.

The written account is the answers to the questions that the interviewer asked. The actual questions are not recorded. The questions posed seemed to prompt the narrator to speak about every aspect of slave life, including: birth, parents, punishments, food, social occasions and happenings, and work habits. The narratives also include brief accounts of the war if the narrator had any contact with soldiers and the Ku Klux Klan. The interviewers and editors retained the language of the ex-slaves by recording and publishing the rough dialect of the narrators.


The accounts are helpful with understanding the life and emotions of an American slave. Since the reporters interviewed thousands of people throughout the entire United States, they recorded a very large proportion of the slave experiences in all of the slave states. Thus, these volumes offer a more in depth and comprehensive review of slavery. Furthermore, this series is unique and helpful because since the masters and the law kept slaves illiterate, most slaves did not leave any records or narratives explaining their experiences under the peculiar institution. Indeed, this source gives its reader a deeper insight into the everyday workings of slavery and how the institution sustained. Since the source is unabridged and retains the original dialogue of the interview, collectively the narratives tell the social history of slavery during the bullwhip era. If one delves deep enough into this source, s/he can find the answer to any question regarding slavery. The WPA's interviews with former slaves are a high quality source in order to begin to comprehend the thoughts, feelings, and actions of slaves. This source, The American Slave, is a better source than the WPA's original published versions of the interviews because the WPA edited and did not include many of the narratives. Along with being a primary source document based account of slavery throughout the entire United States, The American Slave can be used as a text that shows the different ways slavery has been represented. Indeed, because both the original version of the interviews and the published versions appear in The American Slave, researchers may use these volumes not only as a primary source on slavery, but also as an approach to the historiography of slavery.

[1] George Rawick, The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Company, 1972), vol. 2, part 1, Texas Narratives, page xxxii.