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Collection Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938

About this Collection

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves.  These narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA).  At the conclusion of the Slave Narrative project, a set of edited transcripts was assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. In 2000-2001, with major support from the Citigroup Foundation, the Library digitized the narratives from the microfilm edition and scanned from the originals 500 photographs, including more than 200 that had never been microfilmed or made publicly available.  This online collection is a joint presentation of the Manuscript and Prints and Photographs divisions of the Library of Congress.

The Volumes

The published volumes containing edited slave narratives are arranged alphabetically by the state in which the interviews took place and thereunder by the surname of the informant.  Administrative files for the project are bound at the beginning of Volume 1.  These files detail the instructions and other information supplied to field workers as well as subjects of concern to state directors of the Federal Writers' Project.

Vol. 1

Vol. 2, Arkansas

Vol. 3, Florida, Anderson-Wilson (with combined interviews of others)

Vol. 4, Georgia

Vol. 5, Indiana, Arnold-Woodson

Vol. 6, Kansas, Holbert-Williams

Vol. 7, Kentucky, Bogie-Woods (with combined interviews of others)

Vol. 8, Maryland, Brooks-Williams

Vol. 9, Mississippi, Allen-Young

Vol. 10, Missouri, Abbot-Younger

Vol. 11, North Carolina

Vol. 12, Ohio, Anderson-Williams

Vol. 13, Oklahoma, Adams-Young

Vol. 14, South Carolina

Vol. 15, Tennessee, Batson-Young 

Vol. 16, Texas

Vol. 17, Virginia, Berry-Wilson

Historical Overview

In the Depression years between 1936 and 1938, the WPA Federal Writers' Project (FWP) sent out-of-work writers in seventeen states to interview ordinary people in order to write down their life stories. Initially, only four states involved in the project (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia) focused on collecting the stories of people who had once been held in slavery. John A. Lomax, the National Advisor on Folklore and Folkways for the FWP (and the curator of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress), was extremely interested in the ex-slave material he received from these states. In 1937 he directed the remaining states involved in the project to carry out interviews with former slaves as well. Federal field workers were given instructions on what kinds of questions to ask their informants and how to capture their dialects, the result of which may sometimes be offensive to today's readers (see A Note on the Language of the Narratives). The field workers often visited the people they interviewed twice in order to gather as many recollections as possible. Sometimes they took photographs of informants and their houses. The interviewers then turned the narratives over to their state's FWP director for editing and eventual transfer to Washington, D.C. The administrative files accompanying the narratives detail the information supplied to field workers as well as subjects of concern to state directors of the FWP. For more information about the interviewers, the people interviewed, and the processes of collection and compilation, see Norman Yetman's essay which accompanies this online collection.

In 1939, the FWP lost its funding, and the states were ordered to send whatever manuscripts they had collected to Washington. Once most of the materials had arrived at the Library of Congress, Benjamin A. Botkin, the folklore editor of the FWP who later became head of the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress, undertook the remaining editing and indexing of the narratives and selected the photographs for inclusion. As noted above, he organized the narratives by state, and then alphabetically by name of informant within each state, collecting them in 1941 into seventeen bound volumes in thirty-three parts under the title Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves (Washington, D.C., 1941). The multivolume set and other project files, including some earlier unbound annotated versions of the narratives, are housed in the Manuscript Division and described in the finding aid for the records of the WPA.

Other records relating to the ex-slave project are among the FWP files at the National Archives and Records Administration (Record Group 69.5.5) and are described in the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, Vol. I. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1995). Volumes 2-17 of The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, edited by George P. Rawick and others (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972-79), present these narratives with a slightly different organization; the later volumes of Rawick's series also include ex-slave interviews housed in other archives. Anthologies containing selections from the Library of Congress collection include the Federal Writers' Project's Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery, edited by B. A. Botkin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945) and Voices from Slavery (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), edited by Norman R. Yetman, author of An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives under the Articles and Essays tab. For additional works using these narratives as well as other slave narratives, please see the list of Related Resources.