Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives

The Black Presence in the Writers' Project

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Patsy Moses, Age 74

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.

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

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Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives