About the National Archives

Welcome Remarks for "The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery"

Good afternoon. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and I’m pleased to welcome you to the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives for our program on Noel Rae’s book, The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery. We’re glad you could be with us today, whether you are here in the theater or joining us through YouTube.

Before we start our program, I’d like to tell you about two other programs coming up soon in this theater.

Next Wednesday, February 28, is the beginning of our annual Showcase of Academy Award–Nominated Documentaries and Short Subjects. From Wednesday through Sunday, we’ll show all the nominated films in the categories of Documentary Feature, Documentary Short Subject, Live Action Short Film, and Animated Short Film. You can find the names of the films and the schedule at our online event calendar on Archives.gov. This free annual event is extremely popular, so register for it at www.archivesfoundation.org/events.

On Monday, March 5, at noon, we will host a program with the Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense. Edward Keefer, author of Harold Brown: Offsetting the Soviet Military Challenge, 1977–1981, will moderate a discussion on how the former Secretary of Defense Brown worked to counter the Soviet Union’s growing military strength during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Former Secretaries of Defense Brown and William Perry will be part of the discussion.

To learn more about these and all of our public programs and exhibits, consult our monthly Calendar of Events online at Archives.gov. Check our website or sign up at the table outside the theater to get email updates. You’ll also find information about other National Archives programs and activities.

Another way to get more involved with the National Archives is to become a member of the National Archives Foundation. The Foundation supports the work of the agency, especially its education and outreach programs. Pick up your application for membership in the lobby or become a member online at archivesfoundation.org.

In The Great Stain, Noel Rae brings together firsthand accounts of 300 years of slavery in America. In historical discourse we often talk about “the institution of slavery.” We examine the debates over the legal questions concerning slavery and its expansion in the United States, its role in the origins and conduct of the Civil War. But works such as The Great Stain bring us back to the human level—allowing us to hear what the institution meant for an individual.

The National Archives holds billions of records, and I like to say that within those records we have everyone’s story. Some stories are relatively easy to follow—like a narrative written in support of a pension claim—and others must be traced from document to document, making us glean a little bit from each until we can put together a sequence of events. The bits of evidence we collect allow us to verify stories handed down through generations and fill out long-forgotten details.

The Archives has an extraordinary amount of primary source material about slavery and emancipation. We find documentation in court records, slave manifests, emancipation papers, military service records, pension claims, Freedmen’s Bureau records, and more.

These invaluable sources allow us the privilege of being able to listen to people telling their stories in their own voices. And when authors republish these stories and make them more widely available, the voices continue for future generations.

Let us now turn to Noel Rae and hear about his newest book, The Great Stain.

A native of London, England, he spent two years in the British Army and received an honors degree in history from Oxford University. After living a while in Italy, where he taught English as a second language, he returned to London and was a stockbroker for a time. In 1960 he came to the United States for a short visit and has been here ever since. In the States, he has had a colorful career, working briefly as a door-to-door salesman, as a translator at the UN, as a freelance editor, and as an executive editor at Readers Digest before he turned to writing books on American history based on original, first-person material. His previous books are People's War: Original Voices of the American Revolution and Witnessing America: The Library of Congress Book of First-Hand Accounts of Public Life.

To bring these stories from The Great Stain to life today, Noel Rae has asked several National Archives staff members to read some of the firsthand accounts from his book. But first, please welcome author Noel Rae.