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Ex-Slaves Recall Sunday Meetings

Between 1936 and 1938, the Federal Writers Project conducted interviews with thousands of former slaves, part of a larger project to collect first-hand biographies of "ordinary" American people. The excerpts below are from two of those interviews, which collectively are an invaluable source of evidence about slaves' experiences.

Silvia King
[After attending the “white folks” church] then the black folks would go off, down in the creek bottom or in a thicket, and sing and shout and pray. . . . The folks get in a ring and sing and dance and shout; the dance is kind of a shuffle, then it gets faster and faster as they get warmed up; and they moan and shout and sing and clap and dance. Some of them get exhausted and they drop out, and the ring gets closer. Sometimes they sing and shout all night, but at the break of day, they have to get to their cabins and get about their business for the day. At breakfast old Master has got to know where everyone of the servants is, and tell them their tasks for the day. The white folks say the ring shout makes slaves lose their heads and that they get all excited and are good for nothing for a week.

Clara C. Young
The most fun we had was at our meetings. We had them almost every Sunday and they lasted way into the night. The preacher I liked the best was named Mathew Swing. . . .He never learned any real reading and writing, but he sure knew his bible and would hold his hand out and make like he was reading and preach the prettiest preaching you ever heard. The meetings lasted from early in the morning until late at night. When dark came, the men would hang up a wash pot, bottom up, in the little brush church-house we had, so it would catch the noise and the overseer couldn’t hear us singing and shouting. They didn’t mind us meeting in the daytime, but they thought if we stayed up half the night we wouldn’t work so hard the next day—and that was the truth.  . . . When we had our big meetings, there would always be some slaves from the plantations around who came. They would have to slip off because their masters were afraid they would get hitched up with some other boy or girl on the other plantation and then they would either have to buy or sell a slave before you could get any work out of him.

Source | Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller, eds., Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Freedom (New York: The New Press, 1998), 190-191, 194-196.
Creator | Works Progress Administration
Interviewee | Silvia King and Clara C. Young
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | Works Progress Administration, “Ex-Slaves Recall Sunday Meetings,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 17, 2018, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1000.

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