Slave Narratives Collection

About the Collection

The Digital Collection

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 at the Library of Congress offers more than 2,300 typewritten narratives comprising over 9,500 page images with searchable text and bibliographic records, and more than 500 photographs of former slaves with links to their corresponding narratives. Approximately two hundred of the photographs in this online collection have never before been publicly available; originally rejected for inclusion in the published narratives, they were sent to the Library's Prints and Photographs Division and remained uncataloged until Born in Slavery was assembled. The digitization of the collection was made possible by a major gift from the Citigroup Foundation.

The digitized narrative pages in the online collection were scanned from microfilmed images of typewritten documents or carbon copies of those documents because scanning directly from the originals, now housed in bound volumes, posed insuperable practical challenges including potential damage to the materials. The legibility of both the original documents and the microfilm images depends on many factors: the amount of ink on the typewriter ribbon used, the type of paper used, whether or not the document is a copy, and variations in the quality of the microfilmed images. When a page was illegible or missing from the microfilm, a facsimile of the original page was created by transcribing the document and scanning the copy. There are approximately fifty facsimile pages (out of 9,686) in the online collection; these pages are clearly marked. Searchable text for the collection was generated using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software on the digitized typescript images.

The Archival Collection

In the Depression years between 1936 and 1938, the WPA Federal Writers' Project (FWP) sent out-of-work writers in seventeen states to interview ordinary people in order to write down their life stories. Initially, only four states involved in the project (Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia) focused on collecting the stories of people who had once been held in slavery. John A. Lomax, the National Advisor on Folklore and Folkways for the FWP (and the curator of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress), was extremely interested in the ex-slave material he received from these states. In 1937 he directed the remaining states involved in the project to carry out interviews with former slaves as well. Federal field workers were given instructions on what kinds of questions to ask their informants and how to capture their dialects . They often visited the people they interviewed twice in order to gather as many recollections as possible. Sometimes they took photographs of informants and their houses. The workers then turned the narratives over to their state's FWP director for editing and eventual transfer to Washington, D.C. The administrative files accompanying the narratives detail the information supplied to field workers as well as subjects of concern to state directors of the FWP . For more information about the interviewers, the people interviewed, and the processes of collection and compilation, see Norman Yetman's essay which accompanies this online collection.

In 1939, the FWP lost its funding, and the states were ordered to send whatever manuscripts they had collected to Washington. Once most of the materials had arrived at the Library of Congress, Benjamin A. Botkin, the folklore editor of the Writers' Project who later became head of the Archive of Folk Culture at the Library of Congress, undertook the remaining editing and indexing of the narratives and selected the photographs for inclusion. He organized the narratives by state, and then alphabetically by name of informant within each state, collecting them in 1941 into seventeen bound volumes in thirty-three parts under the title Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves (Washington, D.C., 1941). The approximately two thousand narratives Botkin assembled are now housed in the Library of Congress's Manuscript Division and are also available on microfilm. An unpublished finding aid for the records of the WPA, which includes the listings for the Slave Narrative Project of the FWP, is kept in the Manuscript Division Reading Room. Other records relating to the ex-slave project are among the FWP files at the National Archives and Records Administration (Record Group 69.5.5) and are described in the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States, Vol. I. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1995). Volumes 2-17 of The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, edited by George P. Rawick and others (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972-79), present these narratives with a slightly different organization; the later volumes of Rawick's series also include ex-slave interviews housed in other archives. Anthologies containing selections from the Library of Congress collection include the Federal Writers' Project's Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery, edited by B. A. Botkin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945) and Voices from Slavery, edited by Norman R. Yetman (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), author of the Special Presentation essay for the online collection. For additional works using these narratives as well as other slave narratives, please see the Selected Bibliography.

Slave Narratives Collection