Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives

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.

NEXT: The Black Presence in the Writers' Project

Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives