WPA Slave Narratives

From 1936 through 1938, more than six decades after the Civil War, the Works Projects Administration interviewed over two thousand former slaves about their lives as slaves. Their first person narrative responses were collected from seventeen states — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Since 1941 the documents have been held by the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, which recently provided images of the narratives to be made into digital files by Project Gutenberg®, a decades-old not-for-profit organization with a catalog of more than 50,000 public domain books for download over the internet at no cost.*

I remember having read a book forty or fifty years ago with pieces from these narratives, and when I came across them online last summer I was glad to find I’d be able to see the full texts. But I’m confused, embarrassed. For a project thousands of people have contributed to, I find I’m one of only 76 people to have downloaded WPA first-person Mississippi slave narratives, one of 49 people with Virginia’s narratives, and one of only 13 who might have downloaded all the stories.

In his Introduction to the WPA narratives in June, 1941, B.A. Botkin, Chief Editor of the Writers’ Unit, Library of Congress Project, writes: “Set beside the work of formal historians, social scientists, and novelists, slave autobiographies, and contemporary records of abolitionists and planters, these life histories, taken down as far as possible in the narrators’ words, constitute an invaluable body of unconscious evidence or indirect source material, which scholars and writers dealing with the South, especially social psychologists and cultural anthropologists, cannot afford to reckon without. For the first and the last time, a large number of surviving slaves (many of whom have since died) have been permitted to tell their own story, in their own way. In spite of obvious limitations–bias and fallibility of both informants and interviewers, the use of leading questions, unskilled techniques, and insufficient controls and checks–this saga must remain the most authentic and colorful source of our knowledge of the lives and thoughts of thousands of slaves, of their attitudes toward one another, toward their masters, mistresses, and overseers, toward poor whites, North and South, the Civil War, Emancipation, Reconstruction, religion, education, and virtually every phase of Negro life in the South.”

To add to the WPA caveats on the limitations of their techniques, there is a warning that, out of cultural shifts from the 1930s to 2016, the former slaves—born more than 150 years ago—characterize themselves and their fellows using words now socially unacceptable. The reader should also recognize that most narrative accounts are from house and body slaves. Those slaves who did field work didn’t live long enough to be asked their opinions. The violence done to them, and seen in these narratives, killed them early. Too, most often the stories are presented in a very rural, regional dialect, which may be a problem to a reader.  As well, the people interviewed are elderly enough that they had not only lived as slaves, but also lived as free people in the poverty stricken post-war South, had experienced all the give and take of Reconstruction, and were currently feeling the economic hardships of the Great Depression. All these events lead into what is perhaps an odd caution, which is that the years between slavery and the interviews give a perspective to many accounts, a wisdom—a content of character—that seems almost too gentle.

A few narratives are linked, here.  Slave Arnold Gragston rowed other slaves to their freedom across the Ohio river. Lucretia Alexander‘s husband was bought for her. Gus Smith saw cruel masters. Charles Grandy enlisted in the Union army. But some narratives go their own ways. Dave Taylor‘s story seems a rehearsed comic tale. And Dave Lawson‘s narrative of Cleve and Lissa’s love is tragically sobering.

Reading the narratives is an immersion that can do us good.  People–good people—still live in these pages. There’s no dust on their answers. Go read a few.



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