There’s an ancestor in my family tree who, according to census records, was born in 1790 and lived to be 115 years old. Because of this, I’m a bit obsessed with the concept of living in America as former slave and have tried to no avail to verify that great-grand’s age and find out more about what her life was like. So I’m mad that it took a spotlight by The Daily Mail to bring this set of photos and former slave narratives to my attention, but so pleased to check them out.

As part of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Progress Administration, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938, contains over 2,300 first-person accounts of life under slavery along with 500 black and white photographs of former slaves. This work was completed in 17 U.S. states between 1936 and 1938, as the nation realized that the living memories of slavery were dying off with former slaves themselves. The testimonies — from black Americans well into their 80’s, 90’s, and some over 100 — both reveal the harsh realities of life under slavery and impart a wisdom that only such advanced age could. This work is part of the Library of Congress and available for public viewing and reading. Who knew?

Take a look at a few of the more stunning images from the collection:

Sarah Frances Shaw Graves, Age 87Sarah Gudger, Age 121


Sarah Gudger, Age 121


Charley Williams, Age 94

For more photos and fascinating narratives written in (often suspect) black vernacular, check out the searchable collection at The Library of Congress.

What do you think of these photos and stories?

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  • these elders look so African, it can’t possibly be they are in America!:) Lovellly! Ms. Sarah is prolly my great great granma

  • Dalili

    I love the concept! It’s a great way to pass our life stories of perseverance, triumph, tragedy from one generation to another. Am always intrigued by the individual stories of those who came before me. Thanks for sharing!

  • omfg

    i’ve actually been thinking about doing a short oral history on my grandmother. well, not so much an oral history cuz i would video it.

    • dgrrl

      @omfg, PLEASE dont think about it, do it! even if its just on your smartphone. i always said i would do this with my great-grandmother who died in 2002 @ 97 years old but i never did it and that missed opportunity hurts! omg, the stories she told me…all i have is memories but i always think about how amazing it would have been to have her on video…

  • geek chik

    i love looking at vintage photos.

  • Amanda

    These are great…thanks for sharing!