Situating the WPA, Ex-Slave Narratives in the Historiography of American Slavery

Between 1936 and 1938, approximately 2,194 ex-slaves living in the American south were interviewed by writers and journalists under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), one of five “artistic” branches of the greater Works Project Administration (WPA). As historians well know, both of these initiatives were part of the New Deal, a series of domestic programs first enacted in 1933 by the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help the United States recover from the Great Depression. Specifically, these five “artistic” programs were called Federal Project Number One, and they were initiated in 1936, during the second phase of the New Deal.

This blog post will situate the WPA ex-slave narratives within the historiography of American slavery, showing how they have been both used and challenged in the past, and suggesting what roles they might play in the future.

Before the Narratives:

The ex-slave narratives were conducted roughly one decade after the Progressive-era and proslavery historian Ulrich B. Phillips published his Life and Labor in the Old South(1929). Writing during the terroristic era of Jim Crow in the American south, Phillips dug extensively into family and plantation records, ultimately coming to several conclusions; he argued that slavery was “an evil necessity,” morally wrong but justified by its civilizing and controlling tendencies. Like Eric Williams would argue fifteen years later, Phillips claimed that slavery was inefficient and doomed to die a natural death without the violence of the Civil War; but, perhaps most controversially, Phillips argued that slavery was a benign and paternalistic institution, in which slaves were generally treated well.

The First Works on Folklore:

Unsurprisingly, the first published works to use the slave narratives as sources were written by state branches of the WPA, the very organization that had collected the materials. Only two years after the completion of the project, representatives from the Virginia Writers Project drew upon 300 former slave interviews to publish their comprehensive African American history, The Negro in Virginia (1940). That same year, representatives from the Georgia Writers Project published Drums and Shadows, a collection of oral folklore from coastal Georgia.

In 1945, two more works were produced: Lay My Burden Down by the scholar of English Benjamin Albert Botkin and Gumbo Ya-Ya, a collection of stories about Louisiana slaves. Without exception, each of these four works was interested in the mystical, magical, and folkloric traditions of African American life; they were not interested in using the WPA narratives to better understand the historical experience of American slavery.

Ignoring the Narratives:

In 1956, the historian Kenneth Stampp set out to counter the work of Phillips (long since deceased) in his first major work, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. Among other claims, Stampp argued that African Americans engaged in multifaceted forms of resistance to slavery through such means as armed uprisings, running away, work slowdowns, theft from their masters, the breaking of tools, secret meetings, et cetera. Writing during the dawn of the American Civil Rights Movement, Stampp re-asserted the violent and repressive nature of American slavery. In positioning its moral dilemma as the central cause of the Civil War, Stampp also anticipated the work of future historians like Gordon Wood, who would choose to emphasize class divisions instead.

But, while Stampp includes the WPA narratives in his appendix, “Manuscripts Consulted, and Their Locations,” he chooses not to cite them in the text. In general, he is much more comfortable using the abolitionist slave narratives of figures like Frederick Douglass, Austin Steward, Solomon Northrup, Benjamin Drew, and William Wells Brown. To make his claims, Stampp combines these narratives with newspaper and journal articles, diaries and memoirs, and secondary research in the field of American history. Regardless, through the 1960s, the majority of the 2,194 ex-slave interviews from 1936-1938 were collecting dust in the stacks of the Library of Congress, virtually unused by historians. This remained the case until the year 1974, when Eugene Genovese relied on them in order to write his Bancroft-winning book,Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made.

Using the Narratives in Roll Jordon Roll (1974):

In researching Roll Jordan Roll, Genovese benefited heavily from renewed scholarship on the WPA narratives. In 1972, Greenwood Press in Westport, Connecticut, finally began publishing the narratives, thanks to the efforts of Professor George Rawick. By the time Roll Jordon Roll went to press, Greenwood had brought out nineteen volumes under the title The American Slaves: A Composite Autobiography. The first volume was editorial commentary, the last two volumes were ex-slave interviews conducted by scholars at Fisk University in 1929, and the middle sixteen volumes were nothing more than edited narratives from the WPA project. For the first time, the ex-slave narratives were made available outside the archives in their complete form. Now the question remained, would they change the scholarship?

To summarize the thesis of Roll Jordan Roll, Genovese argued that “masters and slaves shaped each other” and created a pre-capitalist “historically unique kind of paternalistic society,” which pre-political slaves then turned into “a weapon of resistance.” Unlike Eric Williams, who emphasized capitalism, and Stampp, who emphasized violence, Genovese defined slavery as a paternalistic, albeit contradictory, “community” in which all participants were “required [to] find some measure of self-interest and self-respect.” He did not try and justify slavery as an “evil necessity” like Phillips, but neither did he position slavery as an enterprise that was exclusively exploitative toward blacks. In a statement that seems ironical today, he claimed that the circumstances of slavery affirmed the humanity of the slave.

Using the Narratives in Time on the Cross (1974):

The same year that Genovese published Roll Jordan Roll, the economists Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman published their infamous book Time on the Cross. Using economic methods, Fogel and Engerman argued that slaves were better treated than “generally presumed.” They argued, “over the course of a lifetime a slave field hand received approximately ninety percent of the income produced;” slaves were physically abused far less than previously thought; the slave family was supported by slave owners; and slave conditions were roughly comparable to the conditions of poor northerners.

Like Genovese, Fogel and Engerman relied heavily upon the narratives in order to make their arguments. They stated, “the overwhelming majority of the ex-slaves in the WPA narratives who expressed themselves on the issue reported that their masters were good men.” So, despite 45 years of distance from the work of Phillips, the work of Genovese, Fogel, and Engerman all seemed to validate his conclusions. Each monograph used the WPA narratives to emphasize the paternalistic nature of American slavery. Conversely, each of the major works that foregrounded the violence and repression of slavery—namely, The Peculiar Institution by Stampp andSlavery: A Problem in American Institution and Intellectual Life (1959) by Stanley Elkins—chose not to emphasize the WPA narratives as source material. What did this mean? In order to answer that question, historians began taking a much closer look at the interviews themselves.

Critiquing the Narratives:

Over the next two decades, scholars like John Blassingame, Stephen Crawford, Norman Yetman, Charles Davis, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. all produced commentary on problems with the WPA narratives. The historian of West Africa and the diaspora, Michael Gomez, summarizes this scholarship in Exchanging our Country Marks (1998):

First, Gomez questions the representativeness of the source material. He notes that, when the ex-slave interviews were conducted, slavery had been abolished in America (by order of the thirteenth amendment to the United States Constitution) for a period of 71 years. This means that only “16% [of the interviewees] were fifteen years of age or older by the beginning of the Civil War.” Additionally, the 2,194 interviews constituted only 2% of the former slave population at the time of the WPA project. Among those selected for interviews, it appears that the accounts reflect “the more educated and privileged” of the former population; and many of the largest slaveholding states, such as Virginia, are particularly underrepresented.

Second, Gomez questions the accuracy of the source material. As he states, problems associated with editing mean that “it is not always clear that a statement attributed to an informant was precisely what was said, nor if it was said in the manner so described.” Also, the limited methodology of the study and the cultural misconceptions of the interviewers—evinced by the preponderance of leading questions about supposed folklore—had a bearing on the results and “probably contributed to the absence of detail.”

Next, Gomez reminds us that the narratives were collected during Jim Crow, when the social climate for African Americans in the South was defined largely by terror, violence, rape, repression, and pervasive inequality. In this context, “it is problematic [to assume] that a former slave,” interested in avoiding repercussions for themselves and their family, “would respond candidly…about conditions under slavery.” Not only was there a general fear of telling the truth, but there were also very real social advantages attached to telling lies.

The Most Interesting Narrative:

Lastly, Gomez notes that many of the WPA interviewers were white, and “their biases and relationships with the informants” are reflected in the interviews. To grasp this particular problem, historians can turn to a specific case study featured in the textbook After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection (1982).

On pages 183-193, After the Fact draws our attention to two specific interviews from the WPA project. One of them is labeled “project #-1655” and the other is labeled “project #-1885.” The first interview is with an ex-slave named Susan Hamlin, while the second interview is with an ex-slave named Susan Hamilton; but, as it turns out, these individuals are one and the same; both of them are from Charleston, South Carolina, and both of them were the former property of a planter named Mr. Fuller.Strangely, while the interviews were given by the same person, they do not say nearly the same thing.

        Susan Hamlin: When asked if she thought slavery was fair, Susan Hamlin replied in a way that Phillips, Genovese, Fogel, and Engerman would have approved: “Course it been fair,” she said. “I belonged to him and he got to get something to take care of me.” Similarly, when asked about her master, Susan Hamlin said: “the people was good to me. Mr. Fuller was a good man and his wife’s people been grand people, all good to their slaves. Seem like Mr. Fuller just git his slaves so he could be good to them.” As it turns out, this interview was conducted by Jessie Butler, a known white interviewer.

        Susan Hamilton: On the contrary, when asked about slavery, Susan Hamiltonreplied in a Kenneth Stampp sort of way. “All time, night an’ day,” Hamilton said, “you could hear men an’ woman screamin’ to de tip of dere voices as wiether ma, pa, sister, or brother wus take without any warnin’ an’ sell. People wus always dyin’ frurn a broken a heart.” In regards to physical violence, she states, “Dey whip [de washer] until dere wusn’t a white spot on her body. Day wus de worst I ebber see a human bein’ got such a beatin. I t’ought she wus goin’ to die.” And, “w’en any slave wus whipped all de other slaves wus made to watch. I see women hung from de ceilin’ of buildin’s an’ whipped with only supin tied’ round her lower part of de body. I had some terribly bad experiences.” As it turns out, this interview was conducted by Augustus Ladson, believed to be an African-American interviewer.


What happened here? As the record suggests, the same ex-slave woman gave two completely different interviews to two racially different interviewers. So, while the majority of the WPA narratives seem to support the work of Phillips, Genovese, Fogel, and Engerman, this interview reminds us that fear is not a quantifiable phenomenon; it cannot always be measured in the sources, and the sources cannot reliably be divorced from their cultural contexts—in this case, the violent, fear-ridden, and segregated era of Jim Crow. Perhaps this is where the greatest lesson lies. As the WPA narratives continue to be discredited as reliable sources on American slavery, and age-old questions about “the peculiar institution” continue to be debated without them, the interviews may prove their value in another context. Despite their stated purpose, they may become essential sources on the social history of Jim Crow during the 1930s.

What do you think?

* For more work written by this author, please visit his personal blog, The Zamani Reader: A History Blog from a History Student.



2 thoughts on “Situating the WPA, Ex-Slave Narratives in the Historiography of American Slavery

  1. Laura Pearce

    Great post Devin. To me, oral histories seem to be in a particular situation for historians where they are either completely written off or regarded as totally accurate. Your post makes the excellent point that we must interrogate oral history testimonies in the same way that we have been trained to interrogate texts. Perhaps these interviews don’t tell us much about their intended subject, slavery, but I think you are right that they tell us a great deal about the conditions of the Jim Crow South under which they were created.

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