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The Ex-Slave Interviews in the Depression Cultural Context

Mark Krasovic

Administrative History


The collecting of ex-slave interviews did not begin with the Works Progress Administration. In 1929, Fisk University of Tennessee and Southern University of Louisiana sponsored field trips with the aim of bringing to light the memories of elderly African Americans who had experienced firsthand the final years of slavery. Five years later, Lawrence Reddick, a veteran of the Fisk project, submitted a proposal to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration that called for the hiring of black white-collar workers to undertake another round of collecting. This project resulted in the transcription of 250 interviews from Kentucky and Indiana.

Although not the first, the WPA's efforts were certainly the most concerted and the results the most voluminous. In 1936, the state Writers' Projects of South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, and Florida had begun collecting material from former slaves. When John A. Lomax, the National Advisor on Folklore and Folkways for the WPA's Federal Writers' Project, saw the results of these smaller state efforts, he decided to make the project a more systematic and widespread effort. In April, 1937, Lomax sent out instructions and a sample questionnaire to the state offices of the FWP and fieldworkers of fourteen additional states began the interviewing and collecting process. Lomax proposed a set of "detailed and homely questions" that focused on the individual's experiences with slavery. The topics covered included the slaves' personal histories, their work habits, education, diet, and their encounters with racism and physical brutality. With instructions on how to render the slaves' dialects in writing, the FWP employees began their task. Between 1936 and 1938, over 10,000 pages of typescript were compiled from over 2,000 interviews.

In 1939, the FWP was disbanded and all material not used in various state publications was ordered sent to the Library of Congress. It was the job of the library's Writers' Unit to process this material for deposit in permanent collections. Benjamin A. Botkin, who had succeeded Lomax as the FWP's Folklore Editor, was the official in charge of this operation. After sorting, alphabetizing, and cataloguing the ex-slave interviews, the Writers' Unit produced the seventeen volumes of Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews With Former Slaves.


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