An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives
The Slave Narrative Collection, a group of autobiographical accounts of former slaves, today stands as one of the most enduring and noteworthy achievements of the WPA, Compiled in seventeen states during the years 1936-38, the collection consists of more than two thousand interviews with former slaves, most of them first-person accounts of slave life and the respondents' own reactions to bondage. This introductory essay, which accompanied the Library’s initial 2001 release of the collection, was written by Norman R. Yetman, then Chancellors Club Teaching Professor of American Studies and Sociology and Chair of the American Studies Program at the University of Kansas, where he was also Courtesy Professor of African and African-American Studies and co-editor (with David Katzman) of the transdisciplinary journal American Studies. Among other publications, Yetman is the author of Life Under the 'Peculiar Institution': Selections from the Slave Narrative Collection (1970), also published under the title Voices from Slavery: 100 Authentic Slave Narratives (revised edition, 2000).
In 1855, John Little, a fugitive slave who had escaped to Canada, uttered this perceptive commentary upon attempts to convey the realities of the existence that he had fled: "Tisn't he who has stood and looked on, that can tell you what slavery is--'tis he who has endured." The view that slavery could best be described by those who had themselves experienced it personally has found expression in several thousand commentaries, autobiographies, narratives, and interviews with those who "endured." Although most of these accounts appeared before the Civil War, more than one-third are the result of the ambitious efforts of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to interview surviving ex-slaves during the 1930s. The result of these efforts was the Slave Narrative Collection, a group of autobiographical accounts of former slaves that today stands as one of the most enduring and noteworthy achievements of the WPA. Compiled in seventeen states during the years 1936-38, the collection consists of more than two thousand interviews with former slaves, most of them first-person accounts of slave life and the respondents' own reactions to bondage. The interviews afforded aged ex-slaves an unparalleled opportunity to give their personal accounts of life under the "peculiar institution," to describe in their own words what it felt like to be a slave in the United States.1
The Slave Narrative Collection provides a unique and virtually unsurpassed collective portrait of a historical population. Indeed, historian David Brion Davis has argued that the voluminous number of documented slave testimonies available in the United States "is indisputably unique among former slaveholding nations."2 In addition to the substantial number of life histories it contains, the most compelling feature of the collection is the composition of the sample of people who made up its informants. Although not a representative sample of the slave population, they were a remarkably diverse and inclusive cross-section of former slaves. Those whose voices are included in the collection ranged in age from one to fifty at the time of emancipation in 1865, which meant that more than two-thirds were over eighty when they were interviewed. Almost all had experienced slavery within the states of the Confederacy and still lived there. They represented all the major slave occupations. Moreover, the size of the slave units on which respondents reported living varied considerably, from plantations with over a thousand slaves to situations in which the informant was his or her owner's only slave. The treatment these individuals reported ran the gamut from the most harsh, impersonal, and exploitative to work and living conditions and environments that were intimate and benevolent. In fact, except that most of the informants were relatively young when they experienced slavery (older slaves had died long before these interviews were undertaken), all the major categories of the slave population appear to be well represented in the collection.
Because the actual occupational distribution of the slave population is unknown, assurance of total randomness in this sample is impossible. But there appears little reason to believe that the processes involved in the selection of interviewees produced a sample that systematically diverged from the larger population. At least the sample biases that characterized the universe of antebellum slave autobiographies--the disproportionate number of runaways, individuals who had purchased their freedom or had been freed, males, craftsmen, and individuals from border states--are absent. While not totally eliminated, the methodological problem of sample bias that inevitably confronts the historian is substantially reduced in this sample of the ex-slave universe. The WPA narratives thus constitute an illuminating and invaluable source of data about antebellum and post-Emancipation Southern life, the institution of slavery, and, most important, the reactions and perspectives of those who had been enslaved.
- For the sake of brevity, I have omitted many references in this essay. More extensive and detailed discussion and documentation can be found in two articles that I have previously published on which I have drawn substantially in my discussion here: "The Background of the Slave Narrative Collection," American Quarterly 19, no. 3 (Fall 1967), 534-53, and "Ex-Slave Interviews and the Historiography of Slavery," American Quarterly 36, no. 2 (Summer 1984), 181-210. © The American Studies Association. Reproduced with permission of the Johns Hopkins University Press. [Return to text]
- David Brion Davis, "Slavery and the Post-World War II Historians," Daedalus 103 (Spring 1974): 7. [Return to text]