Magazine article American Libraries

The Haunting Sound of a Voice

Magazine article American Libraries

The Haunting Sound of a Voice

Article excerpt

I didn't have shoes, like you have now, you know," asserts a strange voice on a scratchy recording from another time, her speech slightly slurred, oddly accented, and difficult to understand. The woman is Sally Ashton of Albemarle County, Virginia, speaking in 1934. She is testifying, as an eyewitness, to that most disturbing and incomprehensible phenomenon in American history--slavery.

Sally Ashton was a slave. Her memories, along with those of 22 others, are preserved at the Library of Congress in "Voices from the Days of Slavery," a remarkable collection of recordings, some of which were made by journalists working with the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression.

If you have not listened to these voices, I urge you to do so. It's stunning and inspiring to hear testimony from people who actually lived through the Civil War. These recordings are amazing for both the horror of the subject and the matter-of-fact calm with which the testimony is delivered. They stun not so much with their high drama as with the courage these witnesses display as they reveal details of daily life.

Over the past year, news aboutmany oral history projects around the country crossed our desks here, probably the most expansive being StoryCorps (see p. 44). LC's American Folklife Center is the repository for the work of this marvelous project, which AFC Director Peggy Bulger calls "extremely powerful on a personal level but also very important for future researchers and scholars."

Bulger points out that a written transcript cannot convey the anguish in a man's voice as he explains to his 10-year-old grandson what it was like to fight for his country in World War II only to be denied, upon his return, admission to an American movie theater because he was black. …

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