WPA Slave Narratives

aka: Slave Narratives

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was the largest agency in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal economic relief, reform, and recovery agenda during the Great Depression, as their “make-work” programs got millions of unemployed people back to work. One component of the WPA, the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), sponsored unemployed writers to undertake assorted research and writing assignments, including conducting oral history interviews of ex-slaves in the Southern and border states. By the time the program ended in 1939, Arkansas had generated the largest portion of the interviews, nearly one-third, now known collectively as the WPA Slave Narratives.

The FWP’s national director was Columbia University law graduate Henry G. Alsberg, who was a lawyer, former foreign correspondent, and director of the Provincetown Theatre. He was assisted by author and poet George W. Cronyn, renowned folklorist John A. Lomax, and the Office of Negro Affairs headed by Sterling A. Brown, a Washington DC poet and Howard University English professor. Arkansas’s FWP was under the leadership of state director and noted writer Julia Burnelle “Bernie” Babcock, who was readily accepted for the position after Senator Joe T. Robinson and state WPA administrator Floyd Sharp proposed her to the national office.

Juggling between national instructions and state politics, Babcock designated regional offices and selected supervisors and workers. Following national criteria, Babcock selected supervisors to oversee work centers throughout the state: Emma Foster in Little Rock (Pulaski County), L. E. Hebb in North Little Rock (Pulaski County), Reedy Buzbee in Fort Smith (Sebastian County), J. E. Matlock in Texarkana (Miller County), Mary Hudgins in Hot Springs (Garland County), Albert Sterling in Jonesboro (Craighead County), Marion Pettigrew in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), Mary Armstrong in El Dorado (Union County), Zillah Cross Peel in Fayetteville (Washington County), and Mary Irwin in Russellville (Pope County). Each center was delegated counties, and the corresponding number of workers (three to ten) was established by size of the district. Salaries averaged around $53 a month with anywhere from $10 to $20 a month for materials, depending on the number of employees.

A writer’s prerequisite for employment (there were exceptions) was the pauper’s oath and a means test. Nationally, ninety percent of the workers came off public welfare rolls. Often, qualified applicants could not bring themselves to declare being indigent, and people whose only journalism skills were being able to read and write were frequently hired. Occurrences arose of supervisors teaching their staff how to collect information as well as write it. Around this same time, a status report to Washington DC on the FWP in Arkansas noted a five-to-one ratio of women to men filling their ranks.

The FWP’s first enterprise was the American Guide series, a tour guide for each of the forty-eight states. However, writers soon began to expand their literary work. African-American writers in Arkansas and other states started working on African-American history and culture projects. Arkansas was one of seven states (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia) in which writers, of their own accord, embarked on collecting oral histories from former slaves. The slave narratives became a national project after Lomax, Cronyn, and Brown read a group of ex-slave narratives from Florida submitted for critique. Lomax recognized that a window of opportunity would close if the oral histories of former slaves still alive in the 1930s were not recorded. (The 1930 Census revealed a total of 118,446 African Americans in the age categories seventy-five and over.) At that time, more than two-thirds of the former slaves were over age eighty. Launched on April 1, 1937, in the FWP’s second year, the national program commenced under Lomax’s supervision in the Folklore Division by directing seventeen states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) to seek out and interview ex-slaves.

The FWP’s ex-slave interviews were not the first attempt at capturing these histories. In 1929, Fisk University and Southern University had graduate programs conducting ex-slave oral histories, followed soon after by Prairie View State College. In 1934, Lawrence D. Reddick, a Fisk graduate, then on the faculty of Kentucky State College, proposed to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration a similar undertaking in Kentucky and Indiana.

The national office suggested state directors hire African Americans for the ex-slave project. Some directors complied, while others did not, and Washington could not make it compulsory. African Americans were barred from the FWP in some Southern states. In August 1936, Babcock, with Alsberg’s approval, hired two African-American applicants, but state officials would not add their names to the payroll. Eight months later, five African Americans were hired but were subsequently laid off in seven months. Washington became agitated with the situation and sought an explanation on all African Americans hired for the FWP in Arkansas. Under this umbrella of inquiry, Babcock hired Samuel S. Taylor, a black man, to complete a survey, “Social and Economic Life of the Negro in Greater Little Rock,” started by previously fired African Americans. Once that was completed, Taylor went to work on the slave narratives. Babcock also hired a black woman, Pernella M. Anderson, to work on the slave narratives. As the FWP undertook the full-time task of a national ex-slave oral-history study, Babcock was made state folklore editor, and a new Arkansas FWP director, Dallas McKown, was named.

Twenty full-time and part-time Arkansas FWP interviewers worked under Babcock on the slave narratives, including Pernella Anderson, Bernice Bowden, Beulah Sherwood Hagg, Witt McKinney, Cross Peel, Irene Robertson, and Samuel Taylor (no roster of all employees is extant). Collectively, these interviewers gathered at least 696 accounts, with full-time employees completing eighty-five percent of the interviews: Taylor (twenty percent), Robertson and Bowden (sixty percent), and Anderson (five percent). Historiographers claim that only Taylor and Robertson showed proficiency and skill. Taylor, who completed 130 interviews, was called the best interviewer in the entire WPA program, while Robertson’s 286 interviews were said to read as though recorded and transcribed without padding.

Editor Lomax sent supplementary instructions (#9E) to the states on April 22, 1937, and listed a questionnaire he prepared with twenty multiple-part questions for interviewers to use as a guide. At the end of the memorandum, Lomax specified, “The details of the interview should be reported as accurately as possible in the language of the original statements. It should be remembered that the Federal Writers’ Project is not interested in taking sides on any question. The worker should not censor any materials collected regardless of its nature.” Director Alsberg suggested that interviewers “concentrate on one or two of the more interesting and intelligent people, revisiting them, establishing friendly relations, and drawing them out over a period of time.”

Portable recording devices were not available to interviewers in the 1930s, making word-for-word transcripts produced from notes almost impossible. Just to what extent the Arkansas FWP interviewers attempted this and how successful they were is debatable. Just how much the interviewer was able to record, how much was left out, and how much the interviewer interpreted after the fact is also debatable.

Earl Rowe’s thesis on the FWP in Arkansas addresses how Mary Hudgins, the Hot Springs supervisor, addressed the word-for-word interview situation. “Hudgins encouraged her workers to sit down and have a conversation with them. She did not want them writing down everything as they talked because she felt it would constrain the interview. Hudgins also encouraged writing the narratives in the vernacular in which it was spoken, though she found that Washington’s editors usually eliminated this style.” Hudgins later “commented on the reliability of narratives from elderly persons recalling events many years in the past. Because most slaves did not read or write, Hudgins said, their memories were much keener than those of most people.” George Lankford’s compilation of Arkansas slave narratives, Bearing Witness, makes note of several key issues the narrative reader should keep in mind: 1) interviewers took notes and wrote from these and memory for the typewritten narrative; 2) editors had a hand in the final product; 3) interview techniques were not exact, and thus the sequence of questions is not certain; 4) trustworthiness of the dialect renditions is questionable; 5) racial identity of the interviewer is a factor; and lastly 6) informant candor in the racial climate of the 1930s varied.

In August 1939, the FWP lost funding and was transitioned to the Writers’ Program. The slave narratives were terminated, with all material directed to be sent to the Library of Congress. Lomax’s successor, Benjamin A. Botkin, became chief editor of the Writers’ Unit of the Library of Congress. Botkin gathered the narratives, inventoried and sorted them, and placed them into the Library of Congress archives. Besides the original seventeen states, additional interviews were taken in New York and Rhode Island. Louisiana was the only Southern state not participating in the WPA ex-slave project (though the state’s narratives were collected later). 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; Mississippi, by contrast, contributed only one percent of the narratives despite having approximately ten percent of the nation’s slave population in 1860. Botkin’s Writers’ Unit used the narratives to produce Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews With Former Slaves (1941), a seventeen-volume collection divided into thirty-three parts; it held little interest for historians and was virtually unknown by the general public. After the documents spent decades sitting in the Library of Congress and state library archives, George P. Rawick compiled them into a collection, publishing sixteen volumes in 1972, with Arkansas’s contribution filling three and a half volumes.

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 experiences of these Arkansas ex-slaves speak to the totality of the Southern slave experience and not to their experiences as slaves in Arkansas. One might speculate that the Arkansas slave narratives provide a depth that other state narratives lack. In 1977 and 1979, Rawick located additional interviews and published a supplemental series of narratives. Here, the Arkansas supplemental collection is strictly of Arkansas slavery, regardless of where the interview took place.

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, Ben Heard of Union County, “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.” Ninety-year-old Sallie Crane of Wrightsville (Pulaski County) remembered being “whipped from sunup till sundown….They kept a bowl filled with vinegar and salt and pepper setting nearby, when they had whipped me till the blood come, they would take the mop and sponge cuts with this stuff so they would hurt more. They would whip me with the cowhide part of the time and with a birch sprouts the other part. They just whipped me ’cause they could—’cause they had the privilege. It was nothing I done; they just whipped me.” H. B. Holloway, age eighty-nine, of Little Rock told interviewers that, “Old Myer Green would take a nigger and tie his feet to one side of a railroad track and tie his hands to the other side and whip him till the blood ran. Then he would take him down to the smokehouse and rub him down with lard and red pepper.”

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, of Little Rock recalled his father saying, “They auctioned off niggers accordin’ to the breed of them. Like they auction off dogs and horses. The better the breed, the more they’d pay….My father said that they breeded good niggers—stud ’em like horses and cattle. Good healthy man and woman that would breed fast, they would keep stalled up.” Eighty-seven-year-old Adeline Blakeley of Fayetteville (Washington County) recalled that “[i]t was the custom to give a girl a slave when she was married. When Miss Parks became Mrs. Blakeley she moved to Fayetteville and chose me to take with her. She said since I was only 5 she could raise me as she wanted me to be. But I must have been a lot of trouble and after she had her baby she had to send me back to her father to grow up a little.”

Many of the slaves recalled acts of resistance, both big and small, directed against their masters. According to Alfred Wells of Five Forks (Jefferson County), 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, although they used the nigger dogs, who were taken out by men who where looking for runaway nigger slaves.”

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, of El Dorado (Union County) 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. When it rained and we could not go to the field my aunty had me spinning thread to make socks and cloth, then I had to card the bats and make the rolls to spin.” However, as Alfred Wells told his interviewer, “If I had my choice, I’d rather be a slave. But we can’t always have our ruthers. Them times I had good food, plenty to wear, and no more work than was good for me.” Likewise, Rachel Bradley of Pine Bluff, approximately eighty years old, said of her life as a house girl: “My white folks was so good to me. I sat right down to the same table after they was thru. My mistress give us a task to do and when we got it done, we went to our playhouse in the yard.”

Historians are divided on the value of the WPA Slave Narratives, debating whether they constitute a true tapestry of slave life, an across-the-board amalgam of slavery, or splintered depictions, as well as whether these ex-slaves genuinely expressed themselves to white interviewers or only to African-American interviewers. Scholars have also asked why the success of Arkansas interviewers was not matched in other states and just how credible the interviews are, given the varied methodologies employed by those doing the interviews.

Estimates are that only two percent of the ex-slave population was interviewed. The largest part came from Arkansas, where interviewers found someone from every slave state. For the last time, former slaves told their stories, reflecting upon every facet of their slave life some seventy years after the fact, and Arkansas played a pivotal role in seeing that their stories were recorded for future generations.

For additional information:
“Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936–1938.” Library of Congress, American Memory, Manuscript Division. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html (accessed April 4, 2022).

Cantrell, Andrea E. “WPA Sources for African-American Oral History in Arkansas: Ex-Slave Narratives and Early Settlers’ Personal Histories.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 63 (Spring 2004): 44–67.

Finley, Randy. “In War’s Wake: Health Care and Arkansas Freedmen.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 51 (Summer 1992): 152–153.

Lankford, George E., ed. Bearing Witness: Memories of Arkansas Slavery: Narratives from the 1930s WPA Collections. 2nd ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006.

Lovell, Linda Jeanne. “African-American Narratives from Arkansas: A Study from the 1936–1938 Federal Writers’ Project ‘A Folk History of Slavery in the United States.’” PhD diss., University of Arkansas, 1991.

Moneyhon, Carl H. “The Slave Family in Arkansas.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 58 (Spring 1999): 24–44.

Nash, Horace D. “Blacks in Arkansas during Reconstruction: The Ex-Slave Narratives.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 48 (Autumn 1989): 242–259.

Rowe, Earl D. “The Federal Writers’ Project in Arkansas, 1935–1942.” MA thesis, University of Arkansas, 1990.

Van Deburg, William L. “The Slave Drivers of Arkansas: A New View from the Narratives.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 35 (Autumn 1976): 231–245.

Woodward, C. Vann. “History from Slave Sources.” American History Review 79 (April 1974): 470–481.

Yetman, Norman R. “The Background of the Slave Narrative Collection.” American Quarterly 19 (Fall 1967): 534–553.

———. “Ex-Slaves Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery.” American Quarterly 36 (Summer 1984): 181–210.

John Spurgeon
Bella Vista, Arkansas


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