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Gelatin-silver photographic print and narrative of Mary Armstrong, Houston, Texas, 1937

Mary Armstrong, 91, was born on a farm in Missouri. She described the extreme cruelty of her original masters, William and Polly Cleveland, but kinder treatment by their daughter Olivia and son-in-law Will Adams. Once freed, 17-year-old Armstrong sought her mother, from whom she’d been separated. Traveling alone, carrying freedom papers, she found her mother in Texas.

I stayed with Mis’ Olivia ‘til in ’63 when Mr. Will set all his slaves free. He said we had a right to freedom an’ read a proclamation…Mis’ Olivia she ask me what I want to do an’ I tell her I want to find my mamma.

Prints and Photographs Division and Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Gelatin-silver photographic print of Mary Armstrong, Houston, Texas, 1937 Narrative of Mary Armstrong, Houston, Texas, 1937 I stayed with Mis’ Olivia ‘til in ’63 when Mr. Will set all his slaves free. He said we had a right to freedom an’ read a proclamation…Mis’ Olivia she ask me what I want to do an’ I tell her I want to find my mamma.

Voices of Slavery - 2

More than 2,000 African Americans who were enslaved before the Civil War shared their memories with interviewers from the Slave Narratives Project, a New Deal-era initiative that employed journalists and scholars during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The interviewers for this oral history project were largely white Southerners, and their biases and perspectives—as well as the speakers’ own caution—influenced the edited transcripts. Despite these limiting factors, the narratives preserve vivid memories of enslavement and emancipation.

Learn more about the Slave Narratives Project on the Library of Congress’s website by clicking here.