Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives

A Collective Portrait

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James Boyd, Age about 100

The Slave Narrative Collection provides a unique and virtually unsurpassed collective portrait of a historical population. Indeed, historian David Brion Davis has argued that the voluminous number of documented slave testimonies available in the United States "is indisputably unique among former slaveholding nations."2 In addition to the substantial number of life histories it contains, the most compelling feature of the collection is the composition of the sample of people who made up its informants. Although not a representative sample of the slave population, they were a remarkably diverse and inclusive cross-section of former slaves. Those whose voices are included in the collection ranged in age from one to fifty at the time of emancipation in 1865, which meant that more than two-thirds were over eighty when they were interviewed. Almost all had experienced slavery within the states of the Confederacy and still lived there. They represented all the major slave occupations. Moreover, the size of the slave units on which respondents reported living varied considerably, from plantations with over a thousand slaves to situations in which the informant was his or her owner's only slave. The treatment these individuals reported ran the gamut from the most harsh, impersonal, and exploitative to work and living conditions and environments that were intimate and benevolent. In fact, except that most of the informants were relatively young when they experienced slavery (older slaves had died long before these interviews were undertaken), all the major categories of the slave population appear to be well represented in the collection.

Because the actual occupational distribution of the slave population is unknown, assurance of total randomness in this sample is impossible. But there appears little reason to believe that the processes involved in the selection of interviewees produced a sample that systematically diverged from the larger population. At least the sample biases that characterized the universe of antebellum slave autobiographies--the disproportionate number of runaways, individuals who had purchased their freedom or had been freed, males, craftsmen, and individuals from border states--are absent. While not totally eliminated, the methodological problem of sample bias that inevitably confronts the historian is substantially reduced in this sample of the ex-slave universe. The WPA narratives thus constitute an illuminating and invaluable source of data about antebellum and post-Emancipation Southern life, the institution of slavery, and, most important, the reactions and perspectives of those who had been enslaved.

NEXT: Slave Narratives during Slavery and After

Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives