Library of Congress


The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Collection Connections > Born in Slavery

[Detail] Bill and Ellen Thomas, Ages 88 and 81


Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 presents transcriptions of more than 2,000 interviews with former slaves conducted during the Great Depression, along with 500 photographs of former slaves. From 1936-1938, the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), under the New Deal's Works Progress Administration (WPA), sent out-of-work writers to collect the life stories of ordinary people.  Writers in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia focused on interviewing people who had once been held in slavery.  John A. Lomax, a folklore expert who worked with the FWP, found these narratives intriguing.  Consequently, by 1937, the FWP directed other states to conduct interviews with former slaves. 

In all, the collection includes narratives from former slaves conducted in 17 states—10 of the 11 states that formed the Confederacy, the Border States, and Kansas, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Indiana.  Federal field workers were instructed on what kinds of questions to ask and how to capture the interviewees' dialects. The interviewees had ranged in age from 1 to 50 at the time of emancipation, and several of the interviewees were well over 100 years old at the time of the interviews. The diverse stories recorded in this WPA collection of personal reminiscences add a new dimension to the study of slavery.  The individual accounts, drawn from the memory of the elderly, reveal differing experiences; taken together, they help broaden perspectives of slavery.  As in all cases of oral history, these remembrances must be examined with a filter that sifts through nostalgia and fleeting memory.

Some narratives contain startling descriptions of cruelty while others convey a nostalgic view of plantation life.  While these narratives provide an invaluable first-person account of slavery and the individuals it affected, the interviews must be viewed in the context of the time in which they were collected.  White southerners conducted most of the interviews with former slaves. Some responses may have been framed to reveal what the interviewer wished to hear.  Others may have been colored by the Depression-era poverty in which the subjects were living at the time of the interviews. Narratives were not rejected or revised because of questions about their authenticity.  Therefore, readers must critically review stories that may have been either embellished or influenced by fading memory.  A series of short essays laying out the strengths and limitations of the narratives, "An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives" by Norman Yetman, provides useful background for a serious study of the narratives.  Teachers should be aware that, throughout the narratives, interviewees use derogatory terms in reference to themselves—one of the legacies of the dehumanization of slavery and a reflection of prevalent racial attitudes of the day.  In some cases, narratives include agonizing descriptions of brutal punishments and the murder of slaves while others relate instances of forced sexual relations with plantation owners and overseers. 

Many of the interviewers attempted to transcribe the dialect in which interviewees spoke. The accuracy of this transcription is impossible to judge; many interviewers were white, and whites in the 1930s often held stereotypes about black speech. In addition, the interviewers were not experts in speech transcription.  Whether accurate or not, dialect can be challenging to read. Students may find it useful to read passages aloud and to read for overall meaning rather than focusing on particular words. As they gain practice, reading the dialect will become easier.