Into the Archives: Listening to the Voice in the Archive, by Dr Beth Wilson

Picture of the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University Bloomington.
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In April 2023, I travelled to Indiana University Bloomington to spend two weeks in the archives. I was funded by the Institute for Advanced Studies at Indiana University to undertake a Repository Research Fellowship at the Archives of Traditional Music – an archive dedicated to the collection of audio-visual material. The archive holds over 110,000 recordings of music and other cultural forms from across the globe, including songs, music, interviews, folktales, and linguistics, as well as accompanying documentation. I spent my fellowship exploring one collection; a set of sound recordings collected by African American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. In 1932 and 1933 Turner travelled to this region to survey the Gullah dialect and published the first ‘academic’ survey of this dialect in 1949. Gullah is a form of creolised English spoken on the Sea Islands and mainland coast of Georgia and South Carolina, with roots in African languages evident in the vocabulary and grammar. Refuting previous claims that Gullah was simply a less developed version of the English language, Turner showed that the Gullah people had retained African elements in their language and culture, including music and dance. The Archive of Traditional Music holds 154 of Turner’s Gullah recordings, as well as later recordings from field trips to Brazil, the Caribbean and West Africa.

Image of the Front of a book by Margaret Wade-Lewis on Lorenzo Dow Turner
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Turner recorded inhabitants of the Sea Islands discussing their lives, including some elderly men and women who had been enslaved on the islands. I was interested in listening to these recordings as part of my current book project that explores the emotional lives, experiences, and memories of enslaved and formerly enslaved people in the U.S. South. My book considers how enslaved people discussed their emotional lives in different forms of testimony, including nineteenth century slave narratives, letters written by the enslaved, 1930s era textual interviews and recorded interviews. Turner’s recordings allow me to analyse how formerly enslaved people, in the 1930s, remembered, felt, and discussed their emotional lives whilst in bondage. Whilst at the archive, for example, I listened to formerly enslaved woman Katy Brown speaking to Turner on July 29, 1933. Brown had always lived on Sapelo Island, Georgia, and discussed her experiences as a child during the Civil War. Brown explained to Turner that before the Union Army advanced, her enslavers moved all ‘the people’ (the enslaved) over to the mainland and that they were forced to move countless times over the next few years. She then described the different emotions she had when she finally encountered the Union army. Explaining that they were glad to see the advancing army, she noted that it was ‘also bad’ because food was scarce – the army killed most of the local livestock to take back to the camp.  She also recounted the enslaved peoples’ excitement on hearing the news that the Yankees had advanced to Sapelo Island.[1]

Historians of US slavery, particularly those focusing on women’s experiences, are constrained by the fact that enslaved testimony is relatively rare. Whilst we do have access to abolition era slave narratives and written interviews with formerly enslaved people, these are all textual documents. We also encounter the enslaved in sources produced by enslavers, such as diaries, letters, and plantation records. In these white sources, the enslaved are dehumanised – they are only mentioned alongside their monetary value or as part of a business transaction. In contrast, Turner’s interviewees used the rare opportunity to tell their own story, and thus provides us with a chance to hear a formerly enslaved person discuss their experiences, memories, and feelings in an environment where they were comfortable enough to testify to slavery’s abuses. During my time in the archive, I also listened to formerly enslaved people discuss their relentless forced labour, the punishments they endured, and the forms of resistance they undertook, including running away and attending illicit night-time prayer meetings. Alongside analysing how the informants described their feelings in relation to these events, when developing our methodologies as researchers, it is also important that we consider our own encounter with the archive. As a historian of emotion, I am acutely aware that when I heard Katy Brown discussing her experiences, in contrast to simply reading her testimony, I had a different affective response. These recordings are infused with an affective power for the listener that written testimonies do not have.

While the primary reason for my trip to the US was to undertake this archival research, I was also able to talk to the wonderful archivists at the Archives of Traditional Music about my work; discuss longer-term projects with the Institute of Advanced Studies; connect with members of history faculty at IU; and go to some thought-provoking events about how we may use scant archives to re-imagine the lives of historical actors. Archival trips to the US are not just about the archives – they allow me to engage with people, arguments, and culture beyond the UK.

[1] Katy Brown, ‘Slavery Days’, interviewed by Lorenzo Dow Turner July 29, 1933. 12-3273: part 1, United States, Sea Islands, Gullah, 1932-33 Lorenzo Dow Turner Collection, Archives of Traditional Music. Available:

Dr Beth Wilson is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Reading, specialising in emotional experiences and memories of enslaved and formerly enslaved women in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

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