Oral Histories

photo John W. Fields in 1937
John W. Fields in 1937

One of the goals of this project is to collect as many source documents as possible that pertain to slavery in Kentucky, the initial focus of our series. Perhaps the most powerful of these are the first-person testimonials of the enslaved themselves.  

Unfortunately, there are no known audio or video recordings of formerly enslaved Kentuckians, but there were numerous print interviews that were done in the 1930s, some by African American scholars affiliated with Fisk University, most by writers and folklorists associated with the WPA Writers’ Project. 

You can browse and access these oral histories in the searchable table below, with links available to complete interview transcripts. 

Interview Context and Dialect


Most of the oral histories featured on the Reckoning website come from the WPA Slave Narratives collection.  Between 1936 and 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project, a part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), collected over 2,300 first-person accounts of enslavement.


Please note that the format of these interviews varies widely. While most are transcriptions of the actual words spoken by the formerly enslaved people, some are third-person summaries of the interviews written by the interviewee. Also note that most of the interviewers were white (only about 17% were African American). As a result some interviewees may have depicted slavery in a positive light so as to not offend their white interviewer and/or challenge the racial hierarchy. Additionally, many of the interviewers chose to use Black dialect when transcribing the words of the formerly enslaved (including some African American WPA interviewers). Other interviewers chose to use standard English, rather than dialect, when transcribing the interviews they conducted.

Because of the different ways the interviewers chose to transcribe their interviews, we decided to standardize the transcriptions using standard English (e.g., master instead of massathem instead of dem). We wanted to emphasize the content of these oral histories, rather than have the interviewers’ transcription choices distract readers.

To read the original versions of all the oral histories, or to learn more about the WPA Slave Narratives project, please visit the Library of Congress website.

Read any oral history by clicking on the linked name. You can browse the interviews, use the search option, or sort the table by column: Name, Sex, County, City of Birth, State of Birth, or Name of Enslaver(s).