Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives

Discovering More Slave Narratives

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Henry Robinson(?), Ex-slave

Although much has been written about the Writers' Project, much of its story may never be told.22 This is because most of the research concerning the project has focused upon the activities and objectives of the national office in Washington and has consulted local and state records only infrequently. Yet many of the activities of the state units were undertaken with minimal direction from the national office and when the FWP was terminated, their records and data were hurriedly boxed and stored in local libraries and archives in anticipation of the project's renewal after World War II. They remained untouched for many years or, in some cases, were destroyed.

Yet as additional WPA and Writers' Project records at the national and, especially, state levels have been examined, a number of other oral history materials have been discovered. In 1977 and 1979, after Rawick and several other researchers had sifted through many of the voluminous state WPA and Writers' Project records in libraries and depositories throughout the country, Greenwood Press published two supplementary series to The American Slave totaling twenty-two additional volumes of interviews. Most of these had been collected as part of the Writers' Project efforts to interview former slaves, but some of them had been obtained in other contexts. Not only did these searches uncover additional narratives that had not been forwarded to Washington, but they also yielded earlier, pre-edited versions of those interviews that were sent from the states to the Writers' Project national headquarters.23

Such research in local and state archives and libraries has also demonstrated that the Writers' Project was not alone among New Deal projects in interviewing former slaves. The National Archives houses several excellent interviews that were obtained by workers on the Federal Theater Project. In some states interviews were conducted by workers for the Historical Records Survey. Moreover, in many states there were work projects for white-collar workers apart from the Federal Arts Projects (which included the Art, Writers', Theater, and Music Projects), and a systematic survey of the records of these projects for possible oral-history materials remains to be undertaken. As additional records of state units of the many WPA agencies are examined, it is likely that they will reveal other valuable oral histories.24

NEXT: The Limitations of the Slave Narrative Collection: Problems of Memory

Slave Narratives: An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives