Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives

Collections That Led the Way

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Allen Sims

The earliest of the endeavors to secure interviews with ex-slaves was initiated in 1929 under private auspices when separate and independent projects began simultaneously at Fisk University, Southern University, and Prairie View State College. The projects at Southern and at Prairie View were directed by John B. Cade, a historian whose interest in using the accounts of ex-slaves was initially aroused by the controversy over the nature of the slave regime and, in particular, by Ulrich B. Phillips's contention that slaves had been contented with their lot. Cade later summarized the materials collected under his direction at Southern in the article "Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves," and its success stimulated him to undertake a similar effort at Prairie View during the mid-1930s.6

The Fisk collection of slave narratives evolved as an unanticipated consequence of research directed by Charles S. Johnson, who had established the Social Science Institute at Fisk in 1928. One of Johnson's earliest projects, an extensive community study of the African-American neighborhoods adjacent to Fisk in Nashville, foreshadowed the influence his research training at the University of Chicago's renowned Department of Sociology was to exert on the Fisk collection of slave narratives. In that study, Johnson's research design relied heavily on personal interviews, and Ophelia Settle of the Institute's research staff interviewed a large number of former slaves. Johnson quickly recognized the value of preserving such firsthand accounts of slave life and urged that a concerted effort be made to obtain them. In addition to those in Nashville, interviews were conducted in rural Tennessee and Kentucky and later as an integral component of Johnson's study of Macon County, Alabama, which formed the substance of his analysis of the plantation as a social institution.7 These interviews proved so satisfactory that Johnson planned to publish a volume based on an analysis of the one hundred documents Settle had obtained. Although the plan was never realized, the Institute's Unwritten History of Slavery reproduced approximately one-third of the narratives.8

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Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives