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

The WPA and the Slave Narrative Collection

The WPA and Americans' Life Histories

Private efforts to preserve the life histories of former slaves accounted for only a small portion of the narratives collected during the late 1920s and 1930s. The advent of the New Deal marked a new phase, for it was under New Deal employment programs for jobless white-collar workers that narrative collecting reached its zenith, first in 1934 in a Federal Emergency Relief Agency (FERA) white-collar project headed by Lawrence D. Reddick at Kentucky State College and subsequently in its successor organization, the Works Progress Administration. Both agencies were created in response to the massive unemployment of the Great Depression and were designed to use unemployed workers on public-works projects such as building roads, dams, bridges, and swimming pools. However, the scourge of unemployment during the Depression was not restricted to blue-collar workers, and thus both the FERA and the WPA included projects for white-collar workers as well. The most notable of these were the WPA Arts Projects.

The spirit of innovation and experimentation that was the hallmark of the New Deal was nowhere more clearly manifested than in the establishment of Federal Project Number One, better known as the Federal Arts Project, an umbrella organization that included the Federal Art, Music, Theatre, and Writers' Projects designed to assist unemployed writers, artists, musicians, and actors by providing them with employment that would use their occupational skills. With the creation of the Arts Project the Federal government embarked upon an unprecedented program of support for artistic and cultural endeavors.

As originally envisioned, the primary task of the Federal Writers' Project (also known by its initials, FWP) was to prepare a comprehensive and panoramic "American Guide," a geographical-social-historical portrait of the states, cities, and localities of the entire United States. The original idea of a single multi-volume national guide ultimately gave way to the American Guide Series, composed of a number of state and local guides.

As the Writers' Project became more firmly established and its research potential more apparent, the scope of its efforts broadened beyond the guides and activities initially associated with them assumed independent significance. Among these was a series of projects manifesting a fresh appreciation for the folk elements in American life, the most innovative of which sought interviews for anthologies reflecting the lives of Americans from many different backgrounds. According to Ann Banks, the result was "the largest body of first-person narratives ever collected in this country."9 And the collections of folklore, life histories, and materials on African-American life that resulted gave impetus to the collection of slave narratives.

Thus the program and personnel of the Writers' Project presented a unique opportunity to pursue folklore research on a national basis, and the emphasis upon the collection of folklore materials became one of the project's most characteristic and productive features. To direct activities in this area, the Writers' Project recruited John A. Lomax, one of the foremost figures in the development of American folklore. A man whose pioneering efforts in folklore research established him as "the greatest popularizer and one of the greatest field collectors of American folksong," Lomax was instrumental in identifying and preserving important black folk materials that had previously been overlooked or ignored.10

Lomax's tenure with the Writers' Project was relatively brief, but his impact upon it, and especially on the formation of the Slave Narrative Collection, was enduring. His early direction of the project's folklore research mirrored his personal interest in Southern and rural materials. The interview method of collecting folklore and the corollary emphasis upon the collection of life-history materials, both of which he introduced, became a hallmark of Writers' Project research. The life-history approach was used not only in the Slave Narrative Collection but in several unpublished Writers' Project studies, such as the autobiographies of Texas and Kansas range pioneers. It was most fully developed in the highly original and widely acclaimed These Are Our Lives, a series of life histories of a broad and diverse but undistinguished group of residents of the southeastern United States.11 The Slave Narrative Collection was thus a natural and logical extension of the Writers' Project goal of letting ordinary people tell their own life stories.

The Black Presence in the Writers' Project

During the Depression, an awakened appreciation for the cultural diversity of the American people heightened interest in and sympathy for American minority groups. The broad egalitarianism of the New Deal both reflected and inspired this attitude. The Roosevelt administration proved more responsive to the needs and interests of African Americans than had anyadministration since Lincoln's; blacks, in turn, became an important element in the New Deal coalition. Cooperation was fostered by the efforts of a handful of prominent administration spokesmen and by the pressures that African Americans themselves exerted to obtain representation in New Deal programs. Through these efforts, blacks were appointed to positions of responsibility within numerous governmental agencies, creating the "Black Cabinet" or "Black Brain Trust"--a vocal and eloquent group of highly trained and politically astute African-American intellectuals who spearheaded the struggle for civil rights during the thirties. Within the administration, its members served, officially and unofficially, as their agency's "race relations advisor" and "to look out for the Negro interests." Discrimination still flourished, for this representation of African Americans in the New Deal was largely token. But compared to the indifference of previous administrations, it was also a significant departure.

Patsy Moses, Age 74

African-American participation on the Writers' Project was achieved only after the lack of black personnel had been scored by black leaders. Following the predictable New Deal pattern, an Office of Negro Affairs was created, which played a vital role in the Writers' Project program. With "Black Cabinet" support, Sterling A. Brown, a Washington, D.C., poet and Howard University English professor, was enlisted to insure that "the Negro [was] not neglected in any of the publications written by or sponsored by the Writers' Project."12

While its primary official responsibilities were editorial, the Office of Negro Affairs also served as watchdog over the Writers' Project's personnel practices. In this capacity its course of action was limited because personnel policies were largely determined by the participating states, and the national office could do little more than deplore the discrimination that existed and recommend the addition of qualified black writers. Black participation was in many instances circumscribed by white Southern mores that dictated the establishment of separate units for white and black, the cost of which was often prohibitive. Moreover, state Writers' Project officials were extremely sensitive to local white public opinion and were reluctant to take any action that might endanger their already tenuous status in the eyes of the white community. When individual African Americans were hired in states lacking separate black units, their terms were often of short duration; the familiar pattern of "last hired, first fired" is amply documented in FWP records.

Yet the record of the FWP on this score is mixed. While African Americans were virtually excluded from Writers' Projects in several Southern states, the pattern was not universal. In several states--notably Virginia, Louisiana, and Florida--ambitious black units flourished; in several others the number of black workers fluctuated in response to work quotas. And the energies of the black writers were directed almost exclusively to the collection of materials pertaining to African-American culture.

The relative paucity of black personnel on the Writers' Project makes their accomplishments all the more impressive. In addition to the collection and preparation of materials for the state guides, African-American workers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, and Virginia engaged in research studies on black history and culture. The Washington office of the FWP also contemplated publishing a history of the antislavery struggle "from the Negro point of view"; development of a comprehensive bibliography of writings on African-American culture; and the compilation of a documentary record of events in the history of the Underground Railroad. Sterling A. Brown, whose unstinting support and encouragement sustained each of those efforts, had personally formulated plans for the publication of a volume that would draw substantially upon Writers' Project materials obtained by black researchers. These studies were curtailed and publication plans based upon them thwarted, however, by the abrupt termination of the Writers' Project in 1939. Only The Negro in Virginia, a product of that state's black unit directed by Roscoe E. Lewis and one of the outstanding achievements of the Writers' Project, attained publication.13

The WPA Begins Collecting Slave Narratives

Preliminary plans for the Writers' Project made no provision for collecting slave autobiographies, testimonies, and reminiscences. Interviews with former slaves were undertaken spontaneously after the inception of the FWP and were included among the activities of several Southern Writers' Projects for almost a year before these isolated and unrelated efforts were transformed into a concerted regional project coordinated by the Washington office. Project records reveal that a small number of ex-slave interviews had been sporadically conducted, often by a single black employee, in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia without explicit direction or apparent recognition from Washington before the collection of narratives was officially inaugurated by the national headquarters of the FWP in April of 1937.

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston
Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964

It was a group of ex-slave narratives submitted by the Florida Writers' Project that directly sparked the establishment of a regional study under FWP auspices. The Florida narratives had been independently undertaken under the direction of the State Director of the Florida Writers' Project, Carita Doggett Corse, who earlier in her career had glimpsed the potential value of such interviews while engaged in research on a history of Fort George Island. When Corse was appointed Director of the Florida Writers' Project in the fall of 1935, the recollection of her conversations with an aged ex-slave who had vividly recalled much of the island's past, coupled with the Writers' Project emphases upon personal history and interview methods of data collection, suggested the possibility of using project personnel to interview ex-slaves. In 1936 employees of Florida's active black FWP unit, which included the novelist-anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, interviewed a substantial number of former slaves as an integral part of their quest for indigenous African-American folk materials. These activities were nominally associated with the compilation of the Florida Guide and the narratives obtained were later considered for inclusion in a projected volume entitled The Negro in Florida which was never completed.14

In March of 1937 several of the Florida interviews were forwarded to Washington for editorial comment. Lomax and Brown were intrigued by the narratives and immediately recognized the value of preserving them. Excited by the possibilities that the structure and emphases of the Writers' Project afforded for large-scale collection of life histories, Lomax proposed that such efforts be extended more systematically to the remaining Southern and border states. On April 1, 1937, the collection of slave narratives formally began with the dispatch of instructions to each of these states directing their Writers' Project workers to the task of interviewing former slaves.

John Lomax's Leadership and the Issue of Race

The WPA project to interview former slaves assumed a form and a scope that bore Lomax's imprint and reflected his experience and zeal as a collector of folklore. His sense of urgency inspired the efforts in several states. And his prestige and personal influence enlisted the support of many project officials, particularly in the deep South, who might otherwise have been unresponsive to requests for materials of this type.

Mary Kincheon Edwards, Age 127

One might question the wisdom of selecting Lomax, a white Southerner, to direct a project involving the collection of data from black former slaves. Yet whatever racial preconceptions Lomax may have held do not appear to have had an appreciable effect upon the Slave Narrative Collection. Lomax's instructions to interviewers emphasized the necessity of obtaining a faithful account of the ex-slave's version of his or her experience. "It should be remembered that the Federal Writers' Project is not interested in taking sides on any question. The worker should not censor any materials collected regardless of its [sic] nature."15 Lomax constantly reiterated his insistence that the interviews be recorded verbatim, with no holds barred. In his editorial capacity he closely adhered to this dictum, making only minor grammatical corrections, never altering the substance of the narratives. Narratives were never rejected or revised because of questions about their authenticity.

On the other hand, while Lomax was keenly sensitive to the importance of establishing adequate rapport with the aged informants, it does not appear that he seriously considered the possibility that black interviewers might accomplish this more effectively than white. Earlier evaluations of the Georgia narratives had reported that black interviewers appeared "able to gain better insight" than whites and that the interviews obtained by blacks were "less tinged with glamour." Nevertheless, no special attempt was made to assign African Americans to this task, as had previously been done in Georgia, Florida, and several other states. Indeed, after the national office of the FWP began directing the project, the writers employed as interviewers were almost exclusively white--and it is probable that in many instances caste etiquette led ex-slaves to tell white interviewers "what they wanted to hear." Lomax's personal success in obtaining African-American folklore may have blinded him to the effects of the interviewer's race on the interview situation.

Yet Lomax should not be held solely responsible for the paucity of black interviewers, for his duties were editorial rather than administrative. And as noted above, African Americans were underrepresented among the writers in the Writers' Project primarily because Washington officials were unable to ensure that black personnel be included in local and state FWP units, especially in the South.

How the Narratives Were Compiled

The responses of the FWP's state units Lomax's request for ex-slave materials varied. Interviews were conducted in all Southern and most border states, as well as in New York and Rhode Island. Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas sponsored especially productive projects, but the achievement of the Arkansas Project-- whose Director, Bernice Babcock, had a special interest in the ex-slave narratives--exceeded that of any other state. Although their brevity often limits their utility, the nearly seven hundred Arkansas narratives constitute almost one-third of the entire collection. One writer alone, Irene Robertson, interviewed 286 former slaves. Yet in this instance, as in many others in the history of the Writers' Project, plans for publication were frustrated by the termination of the FWP.

Richard Toler, Age about 100

Most of the narratives were compiled in 1937 and early 1938. Thereafter, interviewing was curtailed for several reasons. The competing demands of several other FWP projects in addition to the preparation of the Guides meant that the slave narrative project could not continue indefinitely. Uncertainty about the ultimate disposition of the narratives curbed interest as well. Many officials also felt that the repetition that characterized the narratives marked a point of diminishing returns. Finally, many felt-erroneously, it now appears--that the supply of ex-slaves had been exhausted.16 By the spring of 1939 the collecting of ex-slave interviews had ceased.

After interviewing ended, the narratives lay dormant for several years and it appeared that they might be relegated to permanent archival oblivion in their respective states. Upon the termination of the Writers' Project, however, responsibility for the final disposition of the narratives was assumed by the Writers' Unit of the Library of Congress Project, which was concerned primarily with the conservation of Writers' Project materials not intended for publication by the individual states. Approximately 2,300 narratives, as well as a thousand related documents and other "non-narrative materials" (consisting primarily of copies of the following documents: newspaper advertisements of slave auctions and runaways, state laws and bills pertaining to slavery, tax enumerations on slaves,bills of sale, and so forth), were among the materials called in from the states for permanent storage in the Library of Congress.

Benjamin A. Botkin, a noted folklorist who had succeeded Lomax as Folklore Editor of the Writers' Project, directed the processing of these materials. Botkin was chiefly responsible for preserving the narratives in a permanent collection, for without his sensitivity to the value of this collective portrait and without his concern for their preservation and what could be made of them, the interviews would probably never have been put to use. Appropriately subtitling the collection "A Folk History of Slavery in the United States," Botkin supervised the accession of the interview materials from the states and their organization into bound volumes that were then deposited in the Rare Book Room of the Library of Congress.17 With the exception of a number of the Virginia narratives used in the preparation of The Negro in Virginia and not forwarded to Washington, all the narratives that had been sent to Washington from state Writers' Project offices were presented in bound volumes to the Library of Congress in 1941.

Making the Collection Known

The first publication to use the Slave Narrative Collection was the Virginia Writers' Project's The Negro in Virginia, which drew on many of the interviews obtained by the Federal Writers to reconstruct the history of slavery in the Old Dominion. Other publications in the 1940s that used or drew inspiration from Writers' Project interviews with former slaves included the Georgia Writers' Project's Drums and Shadows, on the cultural traditions of African Americans along the Georgia coast, and the Louisiana Writers' Program's Gumbo-Ya-Ya, a miscellany of Louisiana folklore that is based in part on interviews with former slaves, most of which were obtained after the Writers' Project had come to an end.18 These works used the collection as primary-source material but the collection itself was not their main focus.

Alonza Fantroy Toombs

In 1945, the existence of the collection was widely publicized for the first time by Botkin's Lay My Burden Down, a work that assembled excerpts and selections from the collection that were mainly in the form of anecdotes and folklore. While Lay My Burden Down vividly captures the flavor of the collection's contents, fewer than twenty of the more than two thousand interviews in the collection were included in it in their entirety.19 Responding to the need to make these materials more widely available, in 1970 I published Voices From Slavery (also published in a text edition under the title Life Under the "Peculiar Institution"), which contains one hundred complete interviews.20

Although Lay My Burden Down and Voices From Slavery publicized the existence of the Slave Narrative Collection, the entire collection still remained relatively inaccessible. This impediment was removed in 1972 with publication of the entire series by Greenwood Press under the title The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, edited by George P. Rawick. As an introduction to the series, Greenwood also published Rawick's interpretive study of slavery From Sundown to Sunup, which is based almost exclusively upon interviews found in the Slave Narrative Collection. The series also includes two volumes of the interviews obtained under the direction of Charles S. Johnson at Fisk University during the 1920s.21

Discovering More Slave Narratives

Although much has been written about the Writers' Project, much of its story may never be told.22 This is because most of the research concerning the project has focused upon the activities and objectives of the national office in Washington and has consulted local and state records only infrequently. Yet many of the activities of the state units were undertaken with minimal direction from the national office and when the FWP was terminated, their records and data were hurriedly boxed and stored in local libraries and archives in anticipation of the project's renewal after World War II. They remained untouched for many years or, in some cases, were destroyed.

Henry Robinson(?), Ex-slave

Yet as additional WPA and Writers' Project records at the national and, especially, state levels have been examined, a number of other oral history materials have been discovered. In 1977 and 1979, after Rawick and several other researchers had sifted through many of the voluminous state WPA and Writers' Project records in libraries and depositories throughout the country, Greenwood Press published two supplementary series to The American Slave totaling twenty-two additional volumes of interviews. Most of these had been collected as part of the Writers' Project efforts to interview former slaves, but some of them had been obtained in other contexts. Not only did these searches uncover additional narratives that had not been forwarded to Washington, but they also yielded earlier, pre-edited versions of those interviews that were sent from the states to the Writers' Project national headquarters.23

Such research in local and state archives and libraries has also demonstrated that the Writers' Project was not alone among New Deal projects in interviewing former slaves. The National Archives houses several excellent interviews that were obtained by workers on the Federal Theater Project. In some states interviews were conducted by workers for the Historical Records Survey. Moreover, in many states there were work projects for white-collar workers apart from the Federal Arts Projects (which included the Art, Writers', Theater, and Music Projects), and a systematic survey of the records of these projects for possible oral-history materials remains to be undertaken. As additional records of state units of the many WPA agencies are examined, it is likely that they will reveal other valuable oral histories.24

Notes

  1. Ann Banks, ed., First Person America (New York, 1981), xiii. [Return to text]
  2. Donald K. Wilgus, Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship Since 1898 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1959), 157. [Return to text]
  3. Federal Writers' Project, These Are Our Lives (Chapel Hill, N. C., 1939). In 1978 Tom Terrill and Jerrold Hirsch published a sequel, Such As Us: Southern Voices of the Thirties (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1978), which was drawn from the same materials. Twenty-eight Alabama life histories from Writers' Project materials have also been reprinted in James Seay Brown, Up Before Daylight: Life Histories from the Alabama Writers' Project, 1938-1939 (University, Ala., 1982). The most comprehensive of the works using these life histories is Ann Banks's First Person America (1981), which emphasizes the nation's occupational, ethnic, and regional diversity during the thirties. [Return to text]
  4. Eugene C. Homes, Assistant Editor for Negro Affairs to the Editor, The Spokesman, San Francisco, April 10, 1938, Negro Studies File, Record Group 69, National Archives; Sterling A. Brown to author, interview, July 20, 1965. [Return to text]
  5. Virginia Writers' Project, The Negro in Virginia (New York, 1940). Roscoe Lewis evinced a keen interest in the tales of former slaves, both in this and in his later research activities. His efforts to obtain slave narratives continued after the Writers' Project was terminated. At the time of his death in 1961 he had begun a systematic analysis of the more than two hundred life histories he had collected. [Return to text]
  6. In 1993 Gary W. McDonogh edited The Florida Negro: A Federal Writers' Project Legacy (Jackson, Miss., 1993), a previously unpublished product of the Florida Writers Project, which relied extensively on interviews with African Americans. [Return to text]
  7. "Supplementary Instructions #9E to the 'American Guide Manual.'" April 22, 1937. Records of the Library of Congress Project, Writers' Unit, NA. [Return to text]
  8. In fact, the number of individuals whose accounts are found in the Slave Narrative Collection represented approximately 2 percent of the total ex-slave population in the United States at that time. See Yetman, "The Background of the Slave Narrative Collection," 534-35. [Return to text]
  9. The "non-narrative materials" that accompanied the interviews were deposited in the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Song. [Return to text]
  10. Georgia Writers Project, Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among the Georgia Coastal Negroes (Athens, Georgia, 1940; reprint Athens, 1986). Selecting the "most revealing, valuable, and reliable" of the Georgia Narratives, in 1973 Ronald Killion and Charles Waller reprinted eighteen complete interviews and fragments from fifty others in their Slavery Times When I Was Chillun Down on Marster's Plantation (Savannah, Georgia, 1973). Lyle Saxon, comp., Gumbo Ya Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales (Boston, 1945); see also Ronnie W. Clayton, Mother Wit: The Ex-Slave Narratives of the Louisiana Writers' Project (New York, 1990). Louisiana was the only Southern state not to participate in the Writers' Project ex-slave study, but interviews with former slaves were conducted in Louisiana after the termination of the Writers' Project. [Return to text]
  11. Benjamin A. Botkin, Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (Chicago, 1945; reprint Athens, Georgia, 1989; New York, 1994). [Return to text]
  12. Norman R. Yetman, Voices From Slavery and Life Under the "Peculiar Institution": Selections from the Slave Narrative Collection (New York, 1970; reprint Melbourne, Florida, 1976; Mineola, N.Y., 2000). See also Julius Lester's To Be a Slave (New York, 1968; reprint, 1998), a brief interpretive and documentary history of slavery in the United States. [Return to text]
  13. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography; From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community is the first volume of this work. In addition to the separate volumes of ex-slave interviews from Georgia, Florida, and Louisiana noted above, books containing interviews obtained by members of the Texas, North Carolina, and Oklahoma Writers' Projects have been published. See Ronnie C. Tyler and Lawrence R. Murphy, The Slave Narratives of Texas (Austin, 1974), which contains edited excerpts from slightly more than one-third of the 308 Texas interviews found in the Slave Narrative Collection; Belinda Hurmence, My Folks Don't Want Me to Talk About Slavery: Twenty-One Oral Histories of Former North Carolina Slaves (Winston-Salem, N.C., 1984); and T. Lindsey Baker and Julie P. Baker, eds., The WPA Oklahoma Slave Narratives (Norman, Oklahoma, 1996). [Return to text]
  14. Jerre Mangione, The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943 (Boston, 1972); Monty Noam Penkower, The Federal Writers' Project: A Study in Government Patronage of the Arts (Urbana, Illinois, 1977); William F. McDonald, Federal Relief Administration and the Arts: The Origins and Administrative History of the Arts Projects of the Works Progress Administration (Columbus, Ohio, 1969). [Return to text]
  15. George P. Rawick, Jan Hillegas, and Ken Lawrence, eds., The American Slave, Supplement Series 1, 12 vols. (Westport, Conn., 1977); Rawick, The American Slave, Supplement Series 2, 10 vols. (Westport, Conn., 1979). For an index to all forty-one volumes of The American Slave, see Donald M. Jacobs, The Index to the American Slave (Westport, Conn., 1981). [Return to text]
  16. See, for example, Charles Orson Cook and James M. Poteet, eds. "'Dem Was Black Times, Sure 'Nough': The Slave Narratives of Lydia Jefferson and Stephen Wiliams," Louisiana History 20 (Summer 1979): 281-92. [Return to text]
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