Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives

Making the Collection Known

Image: caption follows
Alonza Fantroy Toombs

The first publication to use the Slave Narrative Collection was the Virginia Writers' Project's The Negro in Virginia, which drew on many of the interviews obtained by the Federal Writers to reconstruct the history of slavery in the Old Dominion. Other publications in the 1940s that used or drew inspiration from Writers' Project interviews with former slaves included the Georgia Writers' Project's Drums and Shadows, on the cultural traditions of African Americans along the Georgia coast, and the Louisiana Writers' Program's Gumbo-Ya-Ya, a miscellany of Louisiana folklore that is based in part on interviews with former slaves, most of which were obtained after the Writers' Project had come to an end.18 These works used the collection as primary-source material but the collection itself was not their main focus.

In 1945, the existence of the collection was widely publicized for the first time by Botkin's Lay My Burden Down, a work that assembled excerpts and selections from the collection that were mainly in the form of anecdotes and folklore. While Lay My Burden Down vividly captures the flavor of the collection's contents, fewer than twenty of the more than two thousand interviews in the collection were included in it in their entirety.19 Responding to the need to make these materials more widely available, in 1970 I published Voices From Slavery (also published in a text edition under the title Life Under the "Peculiar Institution"), which contains one hundred complete interviews.20

Although Lay My Burden Down and Voices From Slavery publicized the existence of the Slave Narrative Collection, the entire collection still remained relatively inaccessible. This impediment was removed in 1972 with publication of the entire series by Greenwood Press under the title The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, edited by George P. Rawick. As an introduction to the series, Greenwood also published Rawick's interpretive study of slavery From Sundown to Sunup, which is based almost exclusively upon interviews found in the Slave Narrative Collection. The series also includes two volumes of the interviews obtained under the direction of Charles S. Johnson at Fisk University during the 1920s.21

NEXT: Discovering More Slave Narratives

Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives