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A Virginia Slave Puts His Writing Skills to Good Use

In this selection from an oral history interview, William L. Johnson, Jr., describes a fellow slave who resisted slavery by learning to read and write and in turn helped other slaves to resist. The interview was one of thousands conducted with former slaves during the 1930s, as part of the Federal Writer's Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA interviews of Johnson and thousands of other former slaves were assembled in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves and are an important source for understanding the experiences and perspectives of the enslaved. While the original interviews were transcribed in dialect form, the language in this selection has been standardized to assist readers.

We had one smart slave on our plantation, Joe Sutherland, who was master’s coachman. Joe always hung around the courthouse with master. He went on business trips with him, and through this way, Joe learned to read and write unbeknown to master. In fact, Joe got so good that he learned how to write passes for the slaves. Master’s son Carter Johnson, was clerk of the county court, and by going around the court everyday Joe forged the county seal on these passes and several slaves used them to escape to free states. I remember three slaves who escaped that way; they were App Seldom, who carried his wife, Moses Bollock and Daniel Prosser. Joe was doing a big business—the slaves always paid him for the passes—but he was finally caught and sold way down south, somewhere.

Source | William L. Johnson, Jr., interviewed Richmond, Virginia, 28 May 1937, in Ira Berlin et al., eds., Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation (New York: The New Press, 1998) 52-53.
Creator | Works Progress Administration
Interviewee | William L. Johnson, Jr.
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | Works Progress Administration, “A Virginia Slave Puts His Writing Skills to Good Use,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed December 5, 2023,

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