to the LOC collection (PDF)
introduction to the LOC collection (PDF)
to the Mississippi Narratives
to the interviewers (PDF)
to the Index
by Dr. Charles Joyner
About the Subject Index—Donald M. Jacobs
When his Index was published, Donald M. Jacobs was Professor of History at Northeastern University in Boston. His earlier works included Antebellum Black Newspapers: Indices to New York Freedom's Journal (1827-1829), The Rights of All (1829), The Weekly Advocate (1837), The Colored American (1837-1841), published by Greenwood Press in 1976; Afro-American History: A Bibliography and America's Testing Time 1848-1877 (co-authorship).
Preface to Index to The American Slave
The search for a clearer understanding of the many facets of the American historical experience continues to build in intensity as innovative tools for evaluating and classifying information open new doors and help the research scholar draw new and hopefully more accurate conclusions. This is nowhere more evident than in the area of American social history where many preconceived notions are undergoing reinterpretation. Teachers and scholars are currently focusing more on the country's historical experience from the bottom up rather than merely from the top, where major political figures have usually occupied not only the center state but the whole stage.
American ethnic history, American immigrant history, and American minority history are significant examples of often overlapping areas where such changes in interpretation are occurring. A sense of racial and ethnic solidarity an individuality has been building as research changes our perceptions from the democratic, egalitarianoften assimilationist"melting pot" views of the old "progressive" historians. More and more people are not only asking how they became what they are; they also want to know what they were and what their ancestors were.
Most nineteenth-century racial and ethnic minorities had neither the time nor the inclination to keep a personal written record of their experiences in a new, often alien, even hostile world. For the American slave, purposely and purposefully denied education by laws both written and unwritten, a rich shared oral history served for many years as a facsimile for the personal written record of slavery. During slave times Northern whites and Northern blacks, particularly, began to gain a sense of immediacy regarding slavery from the more than one hundred published slave narratives. These narratives were written and ghost written by runaways more than willing to attack the brutal institution whose harshness was so deeply etched in their recent memories.
After the Civil War, ex-slaves had the opportunity to be more outspoken. However, as the nineteenth century wore on and white society began to lose any real sense of concern for the plight of blacks, little effort was made to build a greater understanding of what slavery must have been like from the slave's perspective. It is small wonder that the major works written by whites during the first half of the twentieth century dealing with the issue of slavery were those by the likes of Ulrich Phillips, who referred to the African blacks brought to the Americas as "the world's premium slaves." And while Phillips could not justify the existence of the institution of slavery on economic grounds, he could, nonetheless, give strong support to the Southern effort to maintain slavery for reasons of social control.
Since the turn of the century blacks had been migrating northward by the tens of thousands. By the 1930s a demographic and ideological revolution had taken place. Many in both the North and the South were shifting their political allegiances from the party of Abraham Lincoln to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt who promised so many of America's Depression-ridden and down-trodden a "new deal." If, in the end, the New Deal economically left much to be desired, it did make a massive effort to put the nation's people back to work with direct help from the government. Not only were the industrial unemployed given government-sponsored jobs, but artists, musicians, and people of many and various intellectual talents were also employed by the Works Progress Administration. Among these, fortunately, were the men and women who travelled throughout the South interviewing thousands of by then elderly ex-slaves before this rich source of first-hand information disappeared forever.
However, until George Rawick began to edit and compile these narratives more than thirty years after the interviewing began, much of the material remained scattered, appearing every so often during the 1950s and 1960s in a much abridged single-volume format. Now that Professor Rawick's forty-one volumes have been published (40 volumes contain narrative materials), the thoughts and attitudes of more than 3,500 slaves from twenty-six states have been brought together, providing a vast array of valuable information to research scholars, teachers, genealogists, as well as people who possess little more than a general interest in what slavery must have been like from the perspective of those who had lived it. Professor Rawick has performed an important service, tracing down materials dealing with the slave experience from those who recalled, mostly from the vantage point of the 1930s, what the "peculiar institution" was like as they were growing up.
True, many of those interviewed had experienced slavery as young children and had memories somewhat dimmed from more than seventy years in freedom and influenced by the experience of the Depression. Nonetheless, this does not diminish the value of these narrative materials. The index for the forty volumes of the slave narratives that appears on the following pages should make the information that is provided within the more than 20,000 pages of interviews more accessible. In many respects this volume is a testament to the efforts of the many graduate students in the Northeastern University history department who, between 1977 and 1981, spent many long hours poring over the thousands of pages of narrative materials to locate information dealing with more than one hundred different subjects. The subjects are as diverse as "African Survivals," "Diet," "Family (Separations)," "Indian Relatives," "Political Participation, Black," and "Slave Surveillance and Patrols." There will be errors, both of omission and commission. The voluminous amount of data within these pages makes the total avoidance of such errors an impossibility. Hopefully they will not negate the usefulness of this volume.
I would like to thank Northeastern University for the help that was provided during the final stages of preparation of this index for publication. Thanks also to the dozen graduate students who labored long and hard for little more reward than the recognition they are receiving here. They are John Corcoran, Irene Di Pietro, Michael Haire, Robert Ladino, Kerry Mangan, Ben Potter, Stephen Smith, Michelle Strauss, John Thomson, Joanna Walsh, Jacqueline Wilkie, and Alicia Williams.
Much deserved praise also goes to a superb typist, Mary Ellen McGinty, who moved rapidly and accurately through the thousands of names and numbers and did all that could have been asked in helping assure the quality of the final product.
Finally, special thanks to the two individuals who were involved in so many phases of the index, especially during the final weeks when so much last minute checking and rechecking had to be done, Steven Fershleiser and Stephen Shore. Steven Fershleiser, especially, played a key role in the project from its conception to its completion.
Hopefully this work will demonstrate that indexing, while surely a mechanical and often tedious exercise, is much more than just that. A good index can and usually does help immeasurably in furthering valuable humanistic research in areas of broad intellectual concern and interest. Clearly the central goal of this index, in fact of all research indexes, is to make knowledge and ideas more easily accessible. Volumes such as this can help oversee the building of a few more intellectual bridges so that the various groups who have helped to write many of the fascinating chapters of the American historical experience can come to better understand the ideologies and perspectives of their own and other groups. In the end, can there be any more humanistic goal than that?
Donald M. Jacobs