John Brother Cade

Image from Southern University and A&M College,

African American, Ethnography, History

John Brother Cade


John Brother Cade led one of the earliest oral history collections of ex-slave narratives in the United States. Born near Elberton, Georgia, in 1894, he graduated from Knox Institute and Industrial School in Athens, Georgia in 1915. After he had enrolled in Atlanta University in 1915, his studies were interrupted by World War I.  

During World War I, Cade was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. While in training in Iowa and serving in France, he and First Lieutenant Harrison Pinkett taught nearly half their sharecropper trainees how to write their names in order to get their paychecks, and over 2300 troops in the segregated African American 366th Infantry how to read and write. After being wounded in a battle in France, he was awarded a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross for valor. 

Upon returning, Cade returned to Atlanta University and earned his AB (1921). He worked as an instructor at Paine College in Georgia from 1922 to 1929, and during this time, he also earned an A.M. in History from the University of Chicago (1928). In 1929, he published a memoir of his military experience and moved to Southern University in Louisiana to become the first principal and instructor of Southern University Laboratory School, and the university registrar. The next year he was Director of Teacher Training.   

From 1929 to 1930, on Saturdays while at Southern, John Brother Cade Sr. led the collection of 82 narratives from former slaves throughout Louisiana in an independent project with 36 of his history students. One of the earliest oral history collections in the U.S, this effort was simultaneous with but separate from the collection of ex-slave life stories and cultural traditions at Fisk University. Through this initiative, Cade sought to use the experiences of slavery as witnessed by ex-slaves to contest ideas promoted by Southern historian Ulrich Phillip, that “Negroes did not mind slavery.” Although some findings of Cade’s research were summarized in his article, “Out of the Mouths of Slaves” (1935), this collection of narratives was destroyed.  

From 1931 to 1939, Cade worked as the registrar at Prairie View State College in Texas. There, he continued research with ex-slave narratives in a second project from 1935-1938, using students enrolled in the extension services as interviewers to travel throughout the South. Framed around questions addressing the everyday life of slaves and their feelings about slavery, the 1935 Prairie View slave narrative collection contains 228 narratives from 15 southern states plus Oklahoma and Indian territories, and Canada. Cade organized the collection into a manuscript called “Opinions Regarding Slavery.”

In 1939, Cade returned to Southern University to serve as university dean and Director of Extension Services. He remained there until his retirement in 1961, after which he established the Archives of Black Louisiana History on Southern University’s campus.

Among his publications are:

“Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves.” The Journal of Negro History 20 (3): 294-337. (July, 1935).

Phyllis M. May-Machunda 

(coming soon)