Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives


1 For the sake of brevity, I have omitted many references in this essay. More extensive and detailed discussion and documentation can be found in two articles that I have previously published on which I have drawn substantially in my discussion here: "The Background of the Slave Narrative Collection," American Quarterly 19, no. 3 (Fall 1967), 534-53, and "Ex-Slave Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery," American Quarterly 36, no. 2 (Summer 1984), 181-210. © The American Studies Association. Reproduced with permission of the Johns Hopkins University Press.

2 David Brion Davis, "Slavery and the Post-World War II Historians," Daedalus 103 (Spring 1974): 7.

3 George Fitzhugh, Sociology for the South, or the Failure of Free Society (Richmond, Va., 1854), 246.

4 Ulrich B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery, A Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Regime (New York, 1918; reprint Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1996).

5 Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago, 1959), 11.

6 John B. Cade, "Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves," Journal of Negro History, XX (July 1935).

7 Charles S. Johnson, Shadow of the Plantation (Chicago, 1934); see also E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in the United States (Chicago, 1939).

8 The Fisk University interviews were originally published in mimeographed form: Ophelia Settle Egypt, J. Masuoka, and Charles S. Johnson, Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Accounts of Negro Ex-Slaves (Nashville, 1945). A second volume, Fisk University Social Science Institute, God Struck Me Dead: Religion Conversion Experiences and Autobiographies of Ex-Slaves (Nashville, 1945), was also part of this project and was published at the same time. Both documents have been reprinted as volumes 18 and 19, respectively, of George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (Westport, Conn., 1972-79). God Struck Me Dead has also been reprinted by Clifton H. Johnson, ed. (Philadelphia, 1969).

9 Ann Banks, ed., First Person America (New York, 1981), xiii.

10 Donald K. Wilgus, Anglo-American Folksong Scholarship Since 1898 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1959), 157.

11 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.

12 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.

13 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.

14 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.

15 "Supplementary Instructions #9E to the 'American Guide Manual.'" April 22, 1937. Records of the Library of Congress Project, Writers' Unit, NA.

16 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.

17 The "non-narrative materials" that accompanied the interviews were deposited in the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Song.

18 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.

19 Benjamin A. Botkin, Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (Chicago, 1945; reprint Athens, Georgia, 1989; New York, 1994).

20 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.

21 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).

22 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).

23 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).

24 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.

25 By the 1960s a microfilm version of the collection had become available.

26 John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Ante-Bellum South (New York, 1972; revised edition 1979); John W. Blassingame, "Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems," Journal of Southern History 41 (1975): 490. For a critical assessment of The Slave Community, see Al-Tony Gilmore, ed., Revisiting Blassingame's "The Slave Community": The Scholars Respond (Westport, Conn., 1978). A substantially expanded version of Blassingame's detailed critical assessment of different forms of personal testimonies, particularly the Slave Narrative Collection interviews, serves as the introductory essay for his Slave Testimony (Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1977), an exhaustive compilation of letters and speeches of slaves and former slaves; interviews conducted by journalists, scholars, and government officials; and autobiographies. Fears that the ex-slave interviews would be accepted at face value and used uncritically recently surfaced in North Carolina, where the state N.A.A.C.P. challenged a community college course taught by local members of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, who contended that, based on their analysis of Slave Narrative Collection interviews, "70 percent of slaves were satisfied with their lives in captivity." "Class Teaches That Slaves Were Happy," New York Times, November 16, 1998, A15.

27 Rawick, The American Slave, Supplement Series 1 and 2. See especially Rawick's comments comparing earlier versions of Texas interviews with those that were finally sent to Washington for inclusion in the Slave Narrative Collection. Most of the material deleted from later versions did not conform to the prevailing white notions of proper race relations and racial etiquette. Rawick, The American Slave, Supplement Series 2, 1: xxx-xxxix.

28 Paul D. Escott, Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979).

29 Herman R. Lantz, "Family and Kin as Revealed in the Narratives of Ex-Slaves," Social Science Quarterly 60 (1980): 670.

30 David Henige, Oral Historiography (London, 1982), 117,118.

31 For critical assessments of the utility of the ex-slave interviews, see Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup, xviii-xix; Escott, Slavery Remembered, 6-17; Rawick, The American Slave, Supplementary Series 1, 1:xix-xli, lxxxvi-cvi; Yetman, Voices From Slavery, 3-4; C. Vann Woodward, "History from Slave Sources," American Historical Review 79 (1974): 470-81; Eugene D. Genovese, "Getting to Know the Slaves," New York Review of Books, 19, 21 Sept. 1972, pp. 16-19; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, 1974), 676; Thomas F. Soapes, "The Federal Writers' Project Slave Interviews: Useful Data or Misleading Source," Oral History Review 2 (1977): 33-38; David Thomas Bailey, "A Divided Prism: Two Sources on Black Testimony on Slavery," Journal of Southern History 46 (1980): 381-404; Donna J. Spindel, "Assessing Memory: Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives Reconsidered," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 27 (1996): 247-61; Herbert C. Covey and Paul T. Lockman Jr., "Narrative References to Older African Americans Living Under Slavery," Social Science Journal 33 (1996): 23-37.

32 Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 1997), 11.

33 Yetman, "Ex-Slave Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery," American Quarterly 36, no. 2 (Summer 1984): 181-210 and the Preface to the Dover Edition of Voices From Slavery (2000).

34 Davis, "Slavery and the Post-World War II Historians," 2, 7.

35 Ibid., 7.

36 The task of reviewing that extensive literature is well beyond the scope of this introductory essay, but let me suggest, in addition to those already mentioned, some of the most important of the numerous books that have effectively incorporated materials from the Slave Narrative Collection into their analyses: Rawick, From Sundown to Sunup (1972); Gladys-Marie Fry, Night-Riders in Black Folk History (Knoxville, Tenn., 1975); Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974); Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York, 1976); Ollie Alho, The Religion of the Slaves: A Study of the Religious Tradition and Behavior of Plantation Slaves in the United States, 1830-1865 (Helsinki, 1976); Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery to Freedom (New York, 1977); Thomas L. Webber, Deep Like the Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community, 1831-1865 (New York, 1978); Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (New York, 1978); Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York, 1979); Escott, Slavery Remembered (1979); William L. Van Deburg, The Slave Drivers: Black Agricultural Labor Supervisors in the Antebellum South (Westport, Conn., 1979); Charles Joyner, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Urbana, Illinois, 1984); Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (New York, 1988); Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture (Philadelphia, 1990); Roger D. Abrahams, Singing the Master: The Emergence of African-American Culture in the Plantation South (New York, 1992); Ann Patton Malone, Slave Family and Household Structure in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1992); John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1993); Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomington, Ind., 1995); Hartman, Scenes of Subjection (1997); Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, Mass., 1998). The quintessential fictional use of the slave narrative form is Ernest Gaines's epic novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (New York, 1971).

Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives