• Kyia Young

Voices of Slaves Pt. 1

Updated: Aug 22, 2021

Myself, like many others, never learned the full history of being Black in America. In school, we’ve either heard the shortened or revised versions that failed to explain our economical, social, and political impacts that we see every day; or, blatant lies that cover up who we really are as a people.

I had the privilege of stumbling upon some audio recordings of former slaves telling their personal stories of what slavery was like in the mid to late-1800s. Two, that particularly stood out to me, were: Fountain Hughes & Aunt Harriet Smith (Pt. 2 released soon).

Fountain Hughes (1848–1957)

Hughes spent his childhood in slavery. Born into its late era, he was “owned” by the Burnley family on the Hydraulic Mills property near Charlottesville, Virginia. Unfortunately, his father died during the Civil War as a Confederate soldier. So, his mother, Mary Hughes, put her son out to work for $1/month.

In the 1880s, he purchased horses and a carriage when he worked as a hack driver. Soon after that, he headed to Baltimore, Maryland for greater opportunities. There, he worked as a gardener and hauled manure to make ends meet. (Source: https://bit.ly/2Fx3aKb)


On June 11, 1949 in Baltimore, Maryland, Hughes was interviewed by Hermond Norwood at 101-years-old.

He recalled various things about being a slave in the 1800s & the post-Emancipation era.

  • Slaves didn’t have beds. They slept on the floor — often on a pallet. Treated as “wild people.”

  • Slave owners didn’t allow education. No books & no writing was allowed.

  • They were sold — similar to horses, cattle, hogs, etc. on an auction bench, while getting beat & often separated from their loved ones.

  • Just because night came didn’t mean slaves stopped working. Often cutting tobacco & sugar cane, slave masters would awake to their slaves still working in the fields at the early hours of the morning.

  • After the 1865 Emancipation Proclamation, many outsiders saw this as a black family’s chance to finally establish themselves as an official citizen. However, majority of freed slaves owned no land, had no sources of income, and were still seen as property to white people — regardless of this new executive order. SN: Slaves weren’t told they were free until two months after the Civil War ended.

Family Fact: Hughes’ grandfather, Wormley Hughes, was enslaved by former president, Thomas Jefferson. Wormley was one of the few who had “given their time,” which meant that they were given a freedom that wasn’t legally binding. Very laissez-faire. This unofficial freedom was given by the slave owners who felt that their slave’s time was done, and this was to show appreciation for their works. Wormley was 115-years-old when he died. (Source: https://bit.ly/3iOlm0c)

“You wasn’t no more than a dog to some of them in them days. You wasn’t treated as good as they treat dogs now. But still I didn’t like to talk about it. Because it makes, makes people feel bad you know. Uh, I, I could say a whole lot I don’t like to say. And I won’t say a whole lot more.”


Part 2: Aunt Harriet Smith will be out 8/26/20. For more information or to listen to the audio, click the individual link on the name listed above. 23 of the 26 former-slave audio transcripts and recordings can be found at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Side Note: Typically, I don’t like to use Wikipedia as a source. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find much information on Fountain Hughes.

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