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River of Blood

American Slavery from the People Who Lived It: Interviews & Photographs of Formerly Enslaved African Americans

Richard Cahan Michael Williams Dorothea Lange Adam Green

240 pages
Cityfiles Press
In the late 1930s, the federal government embarked on an unusual project. As a part of the Works Progress Administration's efforts to give jobs to unemployed Americans, government workers tracked down 3,000 men and women who had been enslaved before and during the Civil War. The workers asked them probing questions about slave life. What did they think about their slaveholders? What songs did they sing? What games did they play? Did they always think about escaping?

The result was a remarkable compilation of interviews known as the Slave Narratives.

This book highlights those narratives—condensing tens of thousands of pages into short excerpts from about 100 former slaves and pairs their accounts with their photographs, taken by the workers sent to record their stories.

The book documents what slaves saw and remembered, and explains how they lived. It is an eye-opening account that details what it was like to be a slave—from everyday life to the overwhelming fear they harbored for their lives and for the lives of their family and loved ones. Their stories are clear and stirring.

For some reason, the 700 photographs taken for the Slave Narrative Collection have been largely overlooked. The negatives are missing and the paperclip impressions used to attach the small prints to the typewritten interviews indicates that the photos were never valued or treated as art.

By pairing 100 narratives and photographs, the material takes on a new life.

Every word from every former slave comes alive when the reader can see exactly who told these accounts. The photographs—with the stories—are essential in helping us understand the humanity behind these stories. The words take on new meeting paired with the photographs. When you hear Bill Homer explain that he was given as a wedding present at the age of ten in 1860 and look at his photograph as a proud old man, the true meaning of slavery starts to sinks in.

This book is designed so that all Americans will better understand this issue that plays such an important role in present day society. The words and the photographs are profound.

Author Bio
Richard Cahan and Michael Williams are noted photo historians. They have teamed up to produce more than twelve books. Most are based on long-lost archives or photographic collections. Called “the eloquent archival sleuthing duo” by Booklist magazine’s Donna Seaman, they have written award-winning books about photography, art, and history, including two on Vivian Maier, the reclusive nanny whose discovered photographic work has become a worldwide sensation.

Their most recent book is Un-American, a careful look at government photographs taken of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II by Dorothea Lange and other government photographers. Wrote Booklist: “In this unique, richly produced volume, they showcase 170 magnificent black-and-white pictures accompanied by an exceptionally illuminating narrative to tell the staggering stories of the resilient, courageous people Lange and others so sensitively photographed. Cahan and Williams even tracked down survivors, who share haunting memories. The result is an intensely revelatory and profoundly resonant book of beauty and strength, history and caution.”

Adam Green is a history professor at the University of Chicago and author of Selling the Race: Culture and Community in Black Chicago, 1940-1955. He is currently helping to create the official oral history of Barack Obama's presidency, and recently contributed an op-ed piece on the 1919 Chicago race riots for the New York Times.