What Do You Know about the WPA Slave Narratives?

This article begins our month-long look at notable people and events with Pine Bluff connections during National Black History Month. Let’s begin with a look back at the WPA Slave Narratives, a collection of first-person accounts of slavery. How much do you know about this ambitious project?

Sarah and Sam Douglas, Ages 82 and 89, two of the thousands of former slaves interviewed.

What is it like to live in slavery? One way to answer this question is to dig into Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project. Containing more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves, the Slave Narratives were collected in the 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration, later renamed Work Projects Administration (WPA). At the conclusion of the Slave Narrative project, a set of edited transcripts was assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.


How did this project come to be? It all started around 1916 when The Journal of Negro History published articles that in part had to do with the African American experience of slavery, as opposed to the white view of it. This spurred several efforts to record the remembrances of living former slaves, especially as the survivors of the generation born into slavery before Emancipation in 1865 were declining in number.

The project took off when the Works Progress Administration (WPA) launched the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), which sponsored unemployed writers to undertake assorted research and writing assignments, including conducting oral history interviews of ex-slaves in the Southern and border states.


In August 1939, the narratives were gathered, inventoried, sorted, and placed into the Library of Congress archives. The ex-slave narratives totaled around 2,300-plus related documents, with Arkansas exceeding every other state, contributing thirty-three percent of the narratives despite having had only four percent of the nation’s slave population in 1860. Interviews conducted in Arkansas showed that more than half of the ex-slaves had been in servitude outside Arkansas. In other words, the ex-slaves moved to Arkansas after being freed but had not been slaves in Arkansas.


The entire FWP collection holds accounts of hard labor, squalor, humiliation, flogging and torture, superstition, education, food, and family life. As runaway ex-slave John Little told the interviewer; “Tisn’t he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is—’tis he who has endured.” Columbus Williams, who was ninety-eight years old at the time of his interview, recalled that his master, “would tie them [slaves] and stake them out and whip them with a leather whip of some kind. He would put 500 licks on them before he would quit. After he whipped them, they would put their rags on and go on about their business….He would whip the women the same as he would the men.”


The pain of separation due to the selling of fellow slaves, and the indignity of being sold, was another recurrent theme. J. F. Boone, age sixty-six, recalled his father saying, “They auctioned off n****** accordin’ to the breed of them. Like they auction off dogs and horses. The better the breed, the more they’d pay….” Eighty-seven-year-old Adeline Blakeley recalled that “[i]t was the custom to give a girl a slave when she was married. When Miss Parks became Mrs. Blakeley she chose me to take with her. She said since I was only five she could raise me as she wanted me to be.”


Many of the slaves recalled acts of resistance, both big and small, directed against their masters. According to Alfred Wells, age seventy-seven, “Sometimes us slaves would stay out later at night than old marster said we could, and they send the patrols out for us. My brother run off and hid in the pasture….He run off to join the Yankees. They never found him…”


The work life of the slaves formed a major part of the memories of interviewees, whether it was working long hours in the fields or in the house. Mary Island, age eighty, recalled that at “seven years old I was cutting sprouts almost like a man and when I was eight, I could pick one hundred pounds of cotton.”


In Arkansas, Pine Bluff supplied the most slave narratives. For the last time, former slaves told their stories, reflecting upon every facet of their slave life some seventy years after the fact. Though the collection preserved hundreds of life stories that would otherwise have been lost, later historians have agreed that, compiled as it was by primarily white interviewers, it does not represent an entirely unbiased view. Flawed though they may be, the WPA Slave Narratives are the closest thing we have to a picture of what life was like for slaves in America.


Sources: LOC.gov, Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Wikipedia



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