“Blam!” A screen door popped open and slammed into the perpendicular wall on the Lambert family house. I looked up in time to see the door, caught by its coiled wire, snap back into place with a loud second bang.
There stood Hepzibah Lambert, great-grandmother of my newest best friend, my back fence neighbor in the suburbs outside Richmond, Virginia, Johnnie Lambert, a dark-coffee-colored African-American woman who stood well over six-feet tall with another foot of white hair wrapped into a cloth on top of her high-held head.
She would have made an impression on a five-year old White child just moved up from Florida, even if she hadn’t been carrying a hatchet, even if she didn’t go directly to a fenced yard to dispatch that night’s chicken for dinner. That made her unforgettable. But what made her even more memorable was that sometime around 1860, give or take a year, Hepzibah Lambert had been born into slavery.
Which is what this shy, reserved, not-always-lethally-armed women placed and kept in my memory, that slaves were people, ordinary people you could one day 80-some years later meet over your back fence, or could, across a kitchen table, hand you a Karo syrup sandwich just like the ones she made for her great-grandkids.
Of course, she never told me about her slave life, but knowing her made it easier to imagine, made it harder to bear, even just in imagination.
I met Hepzibah Lambert in 1947. By then, there were almost no surviving slaves to personally communicate what this now-ended way of life was like. Even ten years earlier, in 1937, when the Federal Works Progress Administration’s Federal Writers’ Project commissioned the Slave Narrative Collection project, its investigators could track down only about 3500 one-time slaves still alive and willing to tell their stories.
Accompanying many of the interviews were photographs, some 300 of them, taken by the interviewers of their subjects.
Distilled from the archive of this research, a powerful new book, River of Blood: American Slavery from the People Who Lived It, coedited by Michael Williams and our guest today Richard Cahan uses excerpts from interview transcripts and photos of the speakers and of some of the ruined buildings and landscapes of slave life across the south to make the reality of enslavement a personal experience for readers, the kind that should never be forgotten.
Richard Cahan and [his co-editor on River of Blood: American Slavery from the People Who Lived It] Michael Williams are noted photo historians. They have teamed up to produce more than twelve books. Most are based on long-lost archives or photographic collections. Called “the eloquent archival sleuthing duo” by Booklist magazine’s Donna Seaman, they have written award-winning books about photography, art, and history, including two on Vivian Maier, the reclusive nanny whose discovered photographic work has become a worldwide sensation.
Their most recent book is Un-American, a careful look at government photographs taken of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II by Dorothea Lange and other government photographers.