Part 1: Aspects of Enslavement
We don't often hear from the enslaved directly. Most could not read or write, and they had no social or political power with which to make their voices heard, at least not in a way that was documented on paper, as in wills, land deeds, tax assessments, receipts, letters, or diaries. They are rarely documented as actors; they are generally acted upon, their existence inferred from the historical record of the people who owned them and the systems that supported that oppression.
There is much to be learned through careful reading of the documentary record of slaveowners. (See, for example, Ann Laura Stoler's Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense.) There are also ways to reframe our perspective on this kind of historical evidence so that it emphasizes the experiences of the enslaved rather than the actions of the enslaver, foregrounding resistance and agency. (For one such approach, see Marisa J. Fuentes's Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive.)
For this reason, most of the items here have been given titles that reflect the enslaved people they are about, situated in a place and time, rather than the usual historical and archival custom of identifying documents by their creators and recipients -- that is, owners and others complicit in the institution of slavery. This information is, of course, also useful, so it is given in the description of the item. (If you follow the link on each item to the version in our online repository, you can see what a more typical item title would be.)
However, such reframing can only do so much. In addition, as an introduction to the subject and the process at once, this collection aims to draw attention to the realities of archival research, its distortions and silences. Therefore, the items chosen emphasize the way enslaved people were treated as property, which led to their lives being underrepresented and misrepresented in the historical record. In other words, the distance between the real people and the documents that describe them is entirely the point.
How to Use This Collection
These items were designed for people new to the study of slavery via primary sources, to help them understand what this documentation looks like, what it can tells us (and what it can't), and how to parse it. Items have been grouped into clusters so as to emphasize particular aspects of enslavement or case studies in what it looked like to transition out of slavery into freedom.
For instructors, these items may be useful for discussing particular historical realities or as a set of materials with which to practice critical thinking or reflection:
- Individual Assignment - Give the student a reflection question to consider; or provide a set of questions to prompt analysis -- how to read and understand the document, how to evaluate its usefulness in research, etc.
- Small Group Activity - Ask a group of students to do the above with a single example; or give them individual examples and ask them to compare, generalize, or synthesize their findings. Each group might work with a different section, then present to the rest of the class.
- Class Discussion - Use as an example to guide students through analyzing documents; or ask them questions to prompt analysis.
Other Primary Source Sets
The following projects may be good complements to this collection, especially those that focus more on the lived experience of the enslaved and their descendants.
Library of Congress
These collections focus on the voices and experiences of the enslaved.
- Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories
- Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938
Digital Public Library of America
These primary source sets cover specific areas of slavery, emancipation, and African American life.
- The Transatlantic Slave Trade
- Cotton Gin and the Expansion of Slavery
- Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
- Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
- The Underground Railroad and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
- Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln
- The Fifteenth Amendment
- The Freedmen's Bureau