WPA Slave Narratives

James Boyd
James Boyd

Typewritten records prepared by the Federal Writers’ Project 1936-1938. 1 Assembled by the Library of Congress Project work projects administration for the District of Columbia sponsored by the Library of Congress.

When comparing these life stories to the works of formal historians, social scientists, novelists, slave autobiographies, and contemporary records of abolitionists and plantation owners, it’s clear that these accounts, recorded in the narrators’ own words as much as possible, offer an invaluable collection of indirect evidence. This information is indispensable for scholars and writers focusing on the South, particularly social psychologists and cultural anthropologists. For the first and perhaps only time, numerous surviving slaves (many of whom have since passed away) have been given the opportunity to share their experiences in their own words. Despite inevitable limitations—such as the bias and fallibility of both interviewees and interviewers, leading questions, unrefined techniques, and a lack of proper controls—this chronicle remains the most genuine and vivid source for understanding the lives and thoughts of thousands of slaves, their relationships with each other, their masters and mistresses, overseers, and attitudes towards various aspects of life in the South.

These accounts are part of folk history, drawn from the memories and words of those who lived through or witnessed these events. They combine group and individual experiences, observations, hearsay, and tradition. The narrators provide insight into not only what they saw, felt, and thought at the time, but also their reflections on slavery since then. To the existing white narrative of slavery, the slaves’ own folklore and stories must be added. The patterns revealed are diverse, ranging from regional and occupational differences to varying degrees of kindness and cruelty exhibited by masters or mistresses, and even the influence of various racial backgrounds (including Creole and Indian).

These narratives are also an integral part of folk literature, abundant not only in folk songs, stories, and speech but also in humor and poetry. They display an array of dialects, tones, and styles, often enriching the reader with earthy imagery, expressive phrases, and attentive details. In their unintentional artistry, as seen in numerous compelling short stories, they contribute to the realistic writing of the Black experience. Despite any surface inconsistencies and exaggerations, their core truth and humanity surpass and complement both history and literature.

About WPA Slave Narratives:

Slave Narratives TOC:

The present Library of Congress Project, under the sponsorship of the Library of Congress, is a unit of the Public Activities Program of the Community Service Programs of the Work Projects Administration for the District of Columbia. According to the Project Proposal (WPA Form 301), the purpose of the Project is to “collect, check, edit, index, and otherwise prepare for use WPA records, Professional and Service Projects.”

The Writers’ Unit of the Library of Congress Project processes material left over from or not needed for publication by the state Writers’ Projects. On file in the Washington office in August, 1939, was a large body of slave narratives, photographs of former slaves, interviews with white informants regarding slavery, transcripts of laws, advertisements, records of sale, transfer, and manumission of slaves, and other documents. As unpublished manuscripts of the Federal Writers’ Project these records passed into the hands of the Library of Congress Project for processing; and from them has been assembled the present collection of some two thousand narratives from the following seventeen states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. 2

The work of the Writers’ Unit in preparing the narratives for deposit in the Library of Congress consisted principally of arranging the manuscripts and photographs by states and alphabetically by informants within the states, listing the informants and illustrations, and collating the contents in seventeen volumes divided into thirty-three parts. The following material has been omitted: Most of the interviews with informants born too late to remember anything of significance regarding slavery or concerned chiefly with folklore; a few negligible fragments and unidentified manuscripts; a group of Tennessee interviews showing evidence of plagiarism; and the supplementary material gathered in connection with the narratives. In the course of the preparation of these volumes, the Writers’ Unit compiled data for an essay on the narratives and partially completed an index and a glossary. Enough additional material is being received from the state Writers’ Projects, as part of their surplus, to make a supplement, which, it is hoped, will contain several states not here represented, such as Louisiana.

All editing had previously been done in the states or the Washington office. Some of the penciled comments have been identified as those of John A. Lomax 3 and Alan Lomax, who also read the manuscripts. In a few cases, two drafts or versions of the same interview have been included for comparison of interesting variations or alterations.

Washington, D.C.
June 12, 1941

B.A. Botkin
Chief Editor, Writers’ Unit
Library of Congress Project

  1. On August 31, 1939, the Federal Writers’ Project became the Writers’ Program, and the National Technical Project in Washington was terminated. On October 17, the first Library of Congress Project, under the sponsorship of the Library of Congress, was set up by the Work Projects Administration in the District of Columbia, to continue some of the functions of the National Technical Project, chiefly those concerned with books of a regional or nationwide scope. On February 12, 1940, the project was reorganized along strictly conservation lines, and on August 16 it was succeeded by the present Library of Congress Project (Official Project No. 165-2-26-7, Work Project No. 540).[]
  2. The bulk of the Virginia narratives is still in the state office. Excerpts from these are included in The Negro in Virginia, compiled by Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Virginia, Sponsored by the Hampton Institute, Hastings House, Publishers, New York, 1940. Other slave narratives are published in Drums and Shadows, Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes, Savannah Unit, Georgia Writers’ Project, Work Projects Administration, University of Georgia Press, 1940. A composite article, “Slaves,” based on excerpts from three interviews, was contributed by Elizabeth Lomax to the American Stuff issue of Direction, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1935.[]
  3. Mr. Lomax served from June 25, 1936, to October 23, 1937, with a ninety-day furlough beginning July 24, 1937. According to a memorandum written by Mr. Alsberg on March 23, 1937, Mr. Lomax was “in charge of the collection of folklore all over the United States for the Writers’ Project. In connection with this work he is making recordings of Negro songs and cowboy ballads. Though technically on the payroll of the Survey of Historical Records, his work is done for the Writers and the results will make several national volumes of folklore. The essays in the State Guides devoted to folklore are also under his supervision.” Since 1933 Mr. Lomax has been Honorary Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song, Library of Congress.[]

Federal Writers' Project. WPA Slave Narratives. Web. 2007-2024. The WPA Slave Narratives must be used with care. There is, of course, the problem of confusion in memory resulting from (73+ years) of the participants. In addition, inexperienced interviewers sometimes pursued question lines related to their own interests and perspectives and attempted to capture the colloquialism of the informant's speech. The interviews provide fascinating insight and surprisingly candid information, however.

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