Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives

John Lomax's Leadership and the Issue of Race

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Mary Kincheon Edwards, Age 127

The WPA project to interview former slaves assumed a form and a scope that bore Lomax's imprint and reflected his experience and zeal as a collector of folklore. His sense of urgency inspired the efforts in several states. And his prestige and personal influence enlisted the support of many project officials, particularly in the deep South, who might otherwise have been unresponsive to requests for materials of this type.

One might question the wisdom of selecting Lomax, a white Southerner, to direct a project involving the collection of data from black former slaves. Yet whatever racial preconceptions Lomax may have held do not appear to have had an appreciable effect upon the Slave Narrative Collection. Lomax's instructions to interviewers emphasized the necessity of obtaining a faithful account of the ex-slave's version of his or her experience. "It should be remembered that the Federal Writers' Project is not interested in taking sides on any question. The worker should not censor any materials collected regardless of its [sic] nature."15 Lomax constantly reiterated his insistence that the interviews be recorded verbatim, with no holds barred. In his editorial capacity he closely adhered to this dictum, making only minor grammatical corrections, never altering the substance of the narratives. Narratives were never rejected or revised because of questions about their authenticity.

On the other hand, while Lomax was keenly sensitive to the importance of establishing adequate rapport with the aged informants, it does not appear that he seriously considered the possibility that black interviewers might accomplish this more effectively than white. Earlier evaluations of the Georgia narratives had reported that black interviewers appeared "able to gain better insight" than whites and that the interviews obtained by blacks were "less tinged with glamour." Nevertheless, no special attempt was made to assign African Americans to this task, as had previously been done in Georgia, Florida, and several other states. Indeed, after the national office of the FWP began directing the project, the writers employed as interviewers were almost exclusively white--and it is probable that in many instances caste etiquette led ex-slaves to tell white interviewers "what they wanted to hear." Lomax's personal success in obtaining African-American folklore may have blinded him to the effects of the interviewer's race on the interview situation.

Yet Lomax should not be held solely responsible for the paucity of black interviewers, for his duties were editorial rather than administrative. And as noted above, African Americans were underrepresented among the writers in the Writers' Project primarily because Washington officials were unable to ensure that black personnel be included in local and state FWP units, especially in the South.

NEXT: How the Narratives Were Compiled

Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives