Charlie Bell, age 81, ex-slave in Lauderdale County. James Butters photograph, July 8, 1937, courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Read his narrative
Rose Holman, age about 84, ex-slave in Webster County. 1930s WPA photograph courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Read her narrative
Josh Tarbutton, age 100, ex-slave in Walthall County. 1930s WPA photograph, courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Frank Childress, left, age 84, and Nathan Best, age 92, ex-slaves in Harrison County, sit on the steps of their housing at Beauvoir, Confederate Soldiers’ Home. Photograph courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Read their narratives
Ex-slave with her great great granddaughter. Photograph courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Willis Mitchell, ex-slave in Washington County. October 10, 1938, photograph courtesy Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
WPA Slave Narratives
The WPA Slave Narratives are interviews with ex-slaves conducted from 1936 through 1938 by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a unit of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Both the FWP and its parent organization, the WPA, were New Deal relief agencies designed by the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide jobs for unemployed workers during the Great Depression.
The WPA Slave Narratives consist of 3,500 relatively brief oral histories (most of them two- to four-pages long), representing about 2 percent of all ex-slaves surviving in the late 1930s. The sample for Mississippi was somewhat smaller: out of perhaps 20,000 living former slaves, 450 were interviewed by the WPA. All states and territories that had slaves in 1865 are represented, except Louisiana which did not participate.
Some experts believe that these interviews represent the most valuable first-person record ever collected. Without question, they are the largest body of slave memories to be found anywhere in the world. The slave narratives are invaluable to anyone who tries to understand slavery from the vantage point of the men and women who were enslaved. Today, no historian would attempt to write a history of slavery without these eye-witness accounts.
Neglect and rediscovery
These narratives and other slave sources were not always highly valued. Although the WPA Slave Narratives were soon deposited in the Library of Congress, and soon thereafter also made available to researchers on microfilm, they were rarely used by scholars from any discipline. Historians often complained that good first-person slave sources were unavailable. Answering his own question – “What is it like to be a slave?” – one historian declared in 1939, “We do not know. The slaves themselves never told.”
More recently, new perspectives in a new age of civil rights have resulted in a new appreciation for the personal testimony of the slave. Published for the first time in 1972, the WPA Slave Narratives are now the basic building blocks for new understandings of slavery. Sometimes called “history from the bottom up” or “community and culture history,” the resulting “new history” of American bondage examines day-to-day life in the slave quarters from the point of view of the slaves themselves. Where once historians had often found the slaves to be contented, docile, and imitative of whites, the new histories generally emphasize slave resistance and slave initiative, slave cultural adaptation, slave social institutions, and slave religious autonomy.
Today, no historian would deny the wisdom of Frederick Douglass (1817-1895). Writing in his own book of slave remembrances, this famous run-away slave and abolitionist declared in 1855 that no free man could truly understand the life of the enslaved, because he “cannot see things in the same light with the slave, because he does not, and cannot look from the same point from which the slave does.”
Problems and limitations
All significant slave occupations are represented in the WPA Slave Narratives, as are both large plantations and small farms. All of the respondents were elderly, of course. The average age was 85, and nearly one in every ten claimed to be 100 or more years old. All had been freed some seven decades before they were interviewed. Most had known slavery only in childhood or youth.
Unfortunately, the quality of the interviews rarely matched the quantity. Few of the WPA interviewers were adequately trained. With the rarest exceptions, the interviews were not tape recorded and the finished transcripts were not so much word-for-word representations of what ex-slaves actually said, but reconstructions based on the interviewers’ memory or field notes. Nearly all of the interviewers were white southerners and most of them were women. Far too often the tone and even the content of the interviews reflected the white supremacist values of the 1930s. The WPA workers often patronized or insulted the ex-slave interviewees, reconstructing their speech in the crudest “plantation style,” referring to them as “old darkies,” or as “auntie” and “uncle.” Too often interviewers accepted Old South mythology as truth, assuming that all slaves were contented, all masters kind, and all plantations idyllic.
For their part, the elderly former slaves may have spent most of their lives as free persons, but such freedom as they had known was anything but free. In freedom, not less than in bondage, they had been kept in their “place” by Jim Crow laws and customs designed to ensure white supremacy. Not surprisingly, during the interview process former slaves often seemed uncomfortable and cautious, eager to please their interviewers by supplying the “right answers” and by wearing the mask of racial submission.
When 90-year-old Liza McGhee was interviewed in Marshall County, Mississippi, a WPA worker found her “hesitant about talking freely as she feared the white people were planning to enslave her again.” McGhee did indeed chose her words carefully. “I remember some things about old slave days,” she said, “but I don’t want to say nothing that will get me in bondage again. I am too old now to be a slave. I couldn’t stand it.” That her concerns were widely shared was suggested by another former slave, Martin Johnson, who informed an interviewer in another state that, “Lots of old slaves closes the door before they tell the truth about their days of slavery. When the door is open, they tell how kind their masters was and how rosy it all was.” Lots did, but not all.
In fact, some of Mississippi’s former slaves spoke so bluntly about harsh conditions and cruel treatment that state FWP officials, apparently offended by such candor, chose to violate WPA guidelines and not forward their narratives to the Library of Congress in Washington. Thousands of pages of “bad” slave memories were discovered in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in the 1970s.
All historical documents present problems for those who read them. All require close, careful reading and rigorous comparisons with other documents. In this respect, as experts now agree, the WPA Narratives are not different from other historical data. The records left by slaves and the records left by slave owners are both valuable. Both can mislead, but both can inform. Used carefully, each can contribute to the larger picture of slave life.
Those who read slave documents will immediately notice the great variety of opinions expressed. The ex-slaves, as it develops, were like everybody else – they did not speak with a single voice. Some were more than eager to assure WPA interviewers that they had been happy and well cared for as slaves. Others insisted that they hated slavery and that – hungry as they often were in freedom – they did not long for “dem olden times.” Some described good masters and mistresses; some described unspeakable cruelties. The most wary claimed either to have no memories worth recalling, or simply wouldn’t talk at all. “My conscience tells me to keep my mouth shet,” Rhoda Hunt (b.1854) told an interviewer,“let de dead rest and don’t bother trouble less trouble troubles you.”
The excerpts below from WPA Slave Narratives suggest the range of slave responses:
A remembered past – a needy present
Living as they often did in extreme poverty, the elderly slaves, perhaps inevitably, often chose to remember their childhood and youth in slavery as a time of relative plenty. No single narrative captures the full range of slave opinion, but Jerry Cook’s interview is as representative as any. Interviewed in Gulfport when he was 84 and physically disabled, this former slave struggled to explain his thread-bare situation: “Madam, I jes’ cain tell you half how bad it is.” He had worked and saved all his life, only to loose his modest nest egg “when de banks failed.” Now, his cupboard was practically bare; he had trousers and an extra shirt, “but I ain’ got no underclose an’ my shoes is all to pieces.” He preferred to be a freeman, but he also remembered better days in slavery when “we had plenty to eat.” “I preciate freedom,” he said, “but I’se having a lot harder time now than wen we wuz slaves. Times is getting harder fer us old ones. We is too old to wuk, but we gets hungry jes’ the same, and we don’ know who to look to.”
Allen Ward (b. 1856) expressed the same mixed feelings to an interviewer in Simpson County: “I hates to talk ’bout all dis, as dem wuz bad days [in slavery] for us niggers; wuk, eat, an’ sleep filled us’ lives.” On the other hand, he added, “I finds myself thinking again, now dat I’se a gittin’ ole . . . dat mixed wid de udder us hab us’ fun. Us enjied good times tergether an’ didn’t hab to worry ’bout how us would make a livin’.”
Jane Sutton (b. 1853) from Harrison County, Mississippi, spoke more plainly still. Comparing her current need to what she thought to be better antebellum days, she told a WPA interviewer: “I wish I could go back dar now. . . . I’se telling you de truf, Miss, I’se havin’ a harder time now dan I ever had in slavery times.”
Consider also the narrative of Elizabeth Finley of Gulfport (b. 1847), in which both the interviewer and the interviewee describe life on the far edge of desperation.
Interviewer: “Elizabeth Finley lives in the Colored Section of . . . Gulfport. She is 88 years old . . . very feeble, and entirely unable to earn a living. In December of last year she fell and broke her arm at the wrist, from which she suffers greatly as the bones fail to knit properly. She states that she has high blood pressure and is almost helpless. Until a few months ago she lived with an only daughter, who is also unable to earn a living. . . . [Her grand]daughter took them both in and gave them shelter but is not able to do anything else for them, so they are dependent on the white folks for what they get. . . . The problem with Elizabeth now seems to be who is going to look after her and her daughter who is almost as helpless as she is.”
Elizabeth Finley: “Our white folks wuz rich folks. Dey live in a big white house wid roun’ posts in front. Dey give us plenty to eat and wear but dey beat on us a plenty. . . . Den one day . . . dem Yankee mens tole us de guvment would give us some land and a mule or some hosses to work wid, but we never did git nothing from dem. We wuked hard for whut we got. We wuz mighty proud of our freedom – but times is a lot harder now dan it wuz in dem times. Now we can’t git ’nough to eat and dere’s nobody to look atter us, but de white folks whut takes pity on us, and heps us sometimes. Times is gittin’ harder it seems to me.”
And many of the elderly slaves, and very often the most destitute, looked
past their current hardships, back to the remembered abundance of their
youth in bondage. The contrast between past and present was especially
stark to Mandy Jones from Lyman, Mississippi, who, at the age of 80, still
picked cotton to keep food on the table. Not having “enough t’
eat or wear,” she looked forward to “my home in Heaven . .
. I is lookin’ to Marse Jesus to keer for me.” She also looked
back to a slave childhood when, “after the white folks eat in the
dining room, all us cullud folks eat in the kitchen, allus a plenty, which
is more than we has now. Times was good then, I members back to it sometimes
now, when I is glad jes’ to get a piece of bread. . . . Oh the sweet
taters we did have! . . . great big winter cabbages. . . . [and] so many
sides an’ hams of meat.”
What then should a 21st century reader make of testimony so diverse? Clearly, the narratives seem to point in many directions, offering support for a diversity of conclusions. A shrewd reader will approach these old records with an open mind, with a good foundation in United States history, and with a recognition that human experience varies widely. That reader should also know that human memory is imperfect, that even people with “good memories” tend to view the past in the light of the present.
Mississippi slave narratives can be found at the Library of Congress website, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938 (accessed February 2005).
Neil R. McMillen, Ph.D., is the author of Dark Journey: Black Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow (Urbana, 1990). He is professor emeritus of history, the University of Southern Mississippi.
Posted February 2005
George Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography.
_________. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Supplement,
__________. The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Supplement,
Series 2, 9 vols. Westport, Conn., 1979.
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