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Emancipated Voices: Online Recordings Tell of Slavery

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 16, 2004; Page C01

Deep, resonant like coming thunder is the voice of Bob Ledbetter as he remembers his life as a slave -- singing to pass the time, learning to read and write, joining the church and getting married.

"Well, how have you got along so well in life?" the interviewer asks Ledbetter in a 1940 conversation in Louisiana. "What's been your principles?"

Billy McCrea told interviewers in 1940 about the Freedmen's Bureau coming to his town. (Ruby T. Lomax -- Library Of Congress American Memory Web Site)

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In his rumbling tone, Ledbetter replies: "I know what's right and I tried my best to do what's right in everything I do."

Beginning today people the world over will be able to listen to interviews with Ledbetter and other former slaves through the online presentation "Voices From the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories" on the Library of Congress's American Memory Web site (www.memory.loc.gov).

One of the most amazing encounters is with Wallace Quarterman, who was interviewed in the mid-1930s. At age 87, he is sometimes difficult to understand when he speaks. He says at one point that he remembers being told that the Yankees were coming and he should run down to the field and let all the slaves go free.

But he is eerily clear when he sings "Jesus Is a Rock in a Weary Land."

He and others, in intricate harmony, sing: "My God is the rock in the weary land. Shelter in the time of storm."

The words are comforting when you read them; chilling when you hear them.

Nearly two dozen people are interviewed. Many of the recordings -- most cut on scratchy 78 rpm discs -- have not been released before.

Most of the reminiscences come from elderly men. Billy McCrea, questioned when he was 89, remembers seeing a group from the North set up a Freedmen's Bureau in a southern town.

Another former slave tells an interviewer: "I got my name from President Jeff Davis. He was president of the Southern Confederacy. He owned my grandfather and my father."

The recordings are important because we can hear the oppression. Michael Taft, head of the library's archive of folk culture, says, "These are the only voices we have from a defining era in American history."

He adds: "These are the stories of people's lives who grew out of slavery."

Reams of written documents regarding slavery, mostly from field historians of the Works Progress Administration, are kept in the library's American Folklife Center and are available on the Web at the American Memory site, Taft says. But those interviewers used dictation and could not always be faithful to what was being said.

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