The Works Progress Administration Slave Narratives are a massive collection of oral histories captured by the Federal Writers’ Project. Between 1936 and 1938, over 2,000 verbal accounts were recorded and compiled as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, although critics maintain that the narratives miss several marks in context.
Carter G. Woodson’s The Journal of Negro History book made the federal government take an interest in preserving the stories of former slaves. The FWP and the WPA collected over 2,300 first-person accounts compiled in a collection titled “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.”
Across 17 states, mostly white interviewers spoke with African-Americans who’d endured slavery’s brutality. While most of the narratives were edited for academic clarity and to personal preference, across the South the stories remained true to the dialect and broken English used by the former slaves. Some critics viewed this as an affront to the stories and their subjects, although the narratives remain a vital piece of information for historians looking to examine the time period.
In the ’40’s, a collection of edited transcripts produced 17 volumes, lining up with the various states involved. While a pair of books from this period emerged, much of the narratives remained away from the public eye until the ’70’s.
In 2000, the Library of Congress, which houses the narratives, digitized them and scanned over 500 photographs, including several that had never been seen before. While there has been some sanitizing of the narratives, transforming the material for contemporary usage helped historians observe the development of Black speech and tradition over the years.
PHOTO: Library Of Congress/Public Domain
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