Rare audio of enslaved people connects history to the present

'10 Million Names' project uses ancestry research to shed light on U.S. history.

February 29, 2024, 7:32 PM

Genealogists and researchers are tracking down archival documents from across the country to piece together the family ancestry of Black Americans in a vast effort to identify the more than 10 million men, women, and children who were enslaved before 1865 in the present-day United States – most of whom have long remained anonymous to history.

ABC News is the exclusive media partner of the historic "10 Million Names" project, a moonshot endeavor that aims to use ancestry research to put a name to each enslaved person to not only acknowledge their dignity, but to connect their living descendants with their family history.

Audiotape interviews with formerly enslaved individuals are striking and uncommon, but are actually part of a long tradition of Black families, communities, and institutions, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities that led the way in collecting oral histories in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 1930’s and later, technology allowed some interviews to be recorded as part of both Federal and independent history projects.

Kendra Field, a Tufts University professor and the project’s chief historian, told ABC News that the few audio recordings that exist offer firsthand accounts directly from the source shedding light on the darkest chapters in American history in a similar way that many of the oral histories do that were transcribed by hand.

One 1941 audio interview with a man named George Johnson is one of these rare, historic accounts.

Vincent Brown and Kendra Field are leading the Ten Million Names project.
ABC News

It was recorded almost 80 years after Johnson gained his freedom. He and his family worked on a plantation in Virginia owned by confederate leader Jefferson Davis -- a staunch opponent of abolition.

In the interview, Johnson recalls a day in his life as an enslaved person and watching a young man get whipped while working.

"He come whip the boy, the boy wouldn’t keep up, you understand? ... The boy went to the house where master Jeff works and [Jeff] asked him ‘what is the trouble, son?’ Say “Mr. so-on-so whip me because I won’t keep up with the gang.”

Vincent Brown and Kendra Field are leading the Ten Million Names project.
ABC News

Vincent Brown, a scholar on the project and a professor at Harvard University, said the recordings allow people today to connect to the history more intimately. "Slavery," he said, “is not ancient history" -- these recordings show that many people today have coexisted with those who lived through slavery.

"If we're going to understand anything about freedom, we're going to have to understand the people who were denied that freedom," Brown told ABC News.

In a 1974 recording, a 114-year-old woman named Celia Black recalled picking cotton in Texas as a child born into slavery.

"Oh, I didn’t do nothing but work in the field. Worked in the field, goodness, goodness ... me and my husband would go out, out West and pick cotton. Pick cotton. Go out every year. We wouldn’t miss a year going out there, picking cotton.”

68-year-old Curtis Royal spoke to ABC News about the rare recordings of his great grandmother who was enslaved.
ABC News

Black lived a long life -- she was alive when Abraham Lincoln was president and lived to see the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

With the help of the 10 Million Names genealogy research team, ABC News was able to track down a direct descendant of Celia Black. In Rhode Island, ABC News’ Alex Presha met with 68-year-old Curtis Royal, who is Black's great grandson and spent time with her as a young man.

"I was young at the time, but to just to sit and talk with her and listen to her ... she told us about how difficult it was just being alive during that period" said Royal. "You try to put yourself in there ... and to understand what they went through in it. It is scary."

In a 1974 recording, a 114-year-old woman named Celia Black recalled picking cotton in Texas as a child born into slavery.
Courtesy Curtis Royal

Field says it is important to consider the people who conducted the interviews when reviewing oral histories of this nature. In many of the interviews conducted as part of a Federally funded project under the “Works Progress Administration” in the late 1930’s, for example, many of the interviewers were white, which likely had influence on the stories told in the recordings.

"Some are the children of the former slave owners, in fact, that are interviewing former slaves of that same family," Field told ABC News. “Slavery was a system for allocating status, and slaves and ex-slaves were supposed to be low-status people,” added Brown. “And so when they were talking to people who they perceived to be of higher status, they had to be very careful about what they said, right, because those people could determine their fate.”


Though many of the audio recordings do not reflect it, enslaved people were frequently subjected to heinous forms of abuse -- including beatings, sexual assault and other forms of torture.

Part of the "10 Million Names" project is an ancestry database that the public can access, add information and use as a research tool. Because so little information about enslaved people was officially documented or preserved historically, amassing the data is a huge task, according to Field.

"Since the launch of '10 Million Names' last summer, we've received hundreds and hundreds of messages and notes from individuals across the country," said Field. "We are well on our way, but we encourage anyone that wants to get involved to reach out, to go to the website and to be part of that project."

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