WPA Slave Narrative Event Edits

WPA Slave narratives are based essentially on a list of twenty standardized questions, asking about conditions of food, shelter, punishment, access to worship. And, yet, when numbering all the narratives for concordances, I was slowed by a sentence, a paragraph, that went beyond replies to that sheet of questions.

In the WPA Administrative files, Chief Editor, Writers’ Unit, Library of Congress Project, B.A. Botkin writes that the Slave narratives “with earthy imagery, salty phrase, and sensitive detail…possess an essential truth and humanity which surpasses as it supplements history and literature,” and George W. Cronyn, Associate Director, Federal Writers Project, writes that “[s]uch documentary records by the survivors of a historic period in America are invaluable, both to the student of history and to creative writers.”

Two years ago, I was slowed by:

“Rock Hill, South Carolina, from 1876 to a while later, bore the name ‘Bloody Town.’ They killed a man there every Saturday night in the year–fifty-two times a year they killed a man. They had to send for the Federal troops to bring them down. They didn’t just kill colored people. They killed anybody–about anything.”
Samuel S. Taylor AR6

“Everybody wanted women who would have children fast. They would always ask you if you was a good breeder, and if so they would buy you at your word, but if you had already had too many chillun, they would say you warn’t much good. If you hadn’t ever had any chillun, your marster would tell ’em you was strong, healthy, and a fast worker. You had to have somethin’ about you to be sold. Now sometimes, if you was a real pretty young gal, somebody would buy you without knowin’ anythin’ ’bout you, just for yourself. Before my old marster died, he had a pretty gal he was goin’ with and he wouldn’t let her work nowhere but in the house, and his wife nor nobody else didn’t say nothin’ ’bout it; they knowed better. She had three chillun for him and when he died his brother come and got the gal and the chillun.

One white lady that lived near us at McBean slipped in a colored gal’s room and cut her baby’s head clean off ’cause it belonged to her husband. He beat her ’bout it and started to kill her, but she begged so I reckon he got to feelin’ sorry for her. But he kept goin’ with the colored gal and they had more chillun.”
Unidentified GA4

The WPA titles its slave narratives “Folk Histories,” but the words come from people in their mid-80s, and might as well be death-bed confessions. As the WPA auditor says to John Smith (AL-106), “Thank you John, this will make a good story,” he “replie[s] indignantly, ‘Hit ain’t no story. Hit’s de Gawd’s trufe mistess.’”

To better enter into the mid-nineteenth century agricultural South, I’ve gone back to the narratives, marking items and events that for me bring “essential truth and humanity” “in earthy imagery, salty phrase, and sensitive detail.”

As by far the events extracted are separated within the state texts, I have not used paragraph breaks, as even when a particular event is covered in several paragraphs there are often breaks in the story.

Here, are Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina (Part 1) & North Carolina (Part 2), Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Virginia, which are by count about half the WPA narratives. To sift are Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas.