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Question Description

I’m working on a history exercise and need a sample draft to help me understand better.

Analyze the Evidence

Guided Discussion/Sourcing


How and why did slaves “put on the master” or use sly tricks during slavery?

Is there a reason that former slaves would remember these stories in this way some 70 years after the end of slavery?

Is it significant that these former slaves were remembering stories that they learned as children?

Is it significant that these stories were told during the Great Depression when many wealthy and powerful people had fallen on hard times?

Read the 3 stories from former slaves and explain in a few words how the master is depicted. Then write your own interpretation as to why he might be characterized in this way.

Interpretation and Sourcing Chart

In what way is the master depicted?

How might memory have affected this story?

Story 1

Story 2

Story 3

In the antebellum era, before the American Civil War, there were hundreds of autobiographies
written by former slaves, describing their experiences. The intention of most of these accounts
was moral — to educate northern whites about the reality of slavery and counteract the proslavery narrative that suggested that slaves were content in their condition. The autobiographies
were quite effective. But after the Civil War and for another 60 years, the nation ignored the new
harsh reality of former slaves as they struggled with Jim Crow laws and discrimination.
In fact, the ideology of the contented slave or the African American better off in captivity made a
comeback in the early 20 century. Southern historian Ulrich B. Philips wrote his
history, American Negro Slavery, which suggested that slavery was an inefficient but generally
beneficial system for the slaves. It would have faded away of its own accord without the needless
conflict of the Civil War. Ulrich used large plantation records to defend his position and rejected
the use of slave accounts, which he regarded as worthless because of bias. His historiography
had wide currency in academic circles even to the 1970s. But a small counter narrative was
developing in the 1920s among African American scholars, notably Carter B. Woodson, editor of
the Journal of Negro History. Woodson and others embraced the method of interviewing former
slaves themselves.
The research was fairly limited until 1936-38, when the Works Progress Administration (WPA)
of the Roosevelt administration directed a division called the Federal Writers’ Project to begin
the process of interviewing former slaves in the South before they could die and their record
would be lost for ever.
In two years, they interviewed 2,300 former slaves across 17 states — the South and several
northern states. But the methods and process were not very systematic. Almost half the
interviews were conducted in one state — Arkansas. Few of the interviewers were African
American. Former slaves were chosen mostly because they were nearby and so a majority were
living in urban rather than rural areas. Also, quite obviously this was 65 years after the end of
slavery, so most were remembering their childhood or what adults around them told them about
Interviewers were directed to ask questions about labor, diet, marriage, punishment, and relations
with masters. Why these subjects is not entirely clear. However, the three stories told her focus
on the last topic — how the slaves felt about their masters. Historian David Henige has lamented
the unsystematic collection of the slave narratives, suggesting that they offer little more than
“some unintended insights into the nature of memory and of interview psychology.” Other
historians since the 1970s have managed to glean more insights into slavery from the slave’s
view. These three stories allow us to discuss the role of memory in evidence. Remember that
evidence can tell us more about what happened after the event recalled than the event itself.
Story 1
I rememer Mammy told me about one master who almost starved his slaves. Mighty stingy, I
reckon he was.
Some of them slaves was so poorly thin they ribs would kinda rustle against each other like corn
stalks a-drying in the hot winds. But they gets even one hog-killing time, and it was funny, too,
Mammy said.
They was seven hogs, fat and ready for fall hog-killing time. Just the day before Old Master told
off they was to be killed, something happened to all them porkers. One of the field boys found
them and come a-telling the master: “The hogs is all died, now they won’t be any meats for the
When the master gets to where at the hogs is laying, they’s a lot of Negroes standing round
looking sorrow-eyed at the wasted meat. The master asks: “What’s the illness with ‘em?”
“Malitis,” they tells him, and they acts like they don’t want to touch the hogs. Master says to
dress them anyway for they ain’t no more meat on the place.
He says to keep all the meat for the slave families, but that’s because he’s afreid to eat it hisself
account of the hogs got malitis.
Don’t you all know what is malitis?” Mammy would ask the children when she was telling of the
seven fat hogs and seventy lean slaves. And she would laugh, remembering how they fooled Old
Master so’s to get all them good meats.
Story 2
The mistress had an old parrot, and one day I was in the kitchen making cookies, and I decided I
wanted some of them, so I tooks me out some and put them on a chair, and when I did this the
mistress entered the door. I picks up a cushion and throws [it] over the pile of cookies on the
chair, and Mistress came near the chair and the old parrot cries out, “Mistress burn, Mistress
burn.” Then the mistress looks under the cushion, and she had me whipped, but the next day I
killed the parrot, and she often wondered who or what killed the bird.
Story 3
Two slaves were sent out to dig a grave for old master. They dug it very deep. As I passed by I
asked Jess and Bob what in the world they dug it so deep for. It was down six or seven feet. I
told them there would be a fuss about it, and they had better fill it up some. Jess said it suited
him exactly. Bob said he would not fill it up; he wanted to get the old man as near home as
When we got a stone to put on his grave, we hauled the largest we could find so as to fasten him
down as strong as possible.
Interpretation and Sourcing Chart
In what way is the master depicted? How might memory have affected
this story?
Story 1
Story 2
Story 3

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