federal writers' project

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While processing the papers of John Lovell, Jr., I came across some material labeled “Relics and Reminiscences” and “ex-slaves”. The papers turned out to be transcripts of interviews with former slaves, primarily in South Carolina, along with Dr. Lovell’s hand-written notes about the interviews. The interviews provide an intimate, personal, vastly broad portrait of life as a slave in the American South in a number of voices. In several cases the interviewees claim to be over 100 years old.

Two letters included with the transcripts indicate that the interviews were part of Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States, or the Works Progress Association’s Slave Narrative Collection which was made as a part of the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) between 1936 and 1938. The collection represents over 2000 interviews and over 500 black-and-white photographs, some of which can be found in print, such as the FWP’s These are our Lives (1939), and some of which can be found on the internet. These interviews have been utilized extensively by writers exploring the antebellum and postbellum South since the time of their initial publication. It is unclear exactly how the documents found in Lovell’s papers were being used. Several of his notes indicate that he was attempting to analyze the discourse between the FWP project organizers and the interviewees to discern exactly how the interview narratives were being constructed—two of the letters hint in no uncertain terms that several of the FWP interviewers were accused of asking leading questions while engaging their subjects. Included with Lovell’s notes are several pages of original writing titled “Relics and Reminiscences” in which the author—presumably Lovell himself—discusses how public memorials to slavery and ex-slaves in the South shape the history of enslavement for the viewer. Perhaps Lovell was embarking on a critical analysis of slavery narratives that did not come to fruition or planned to contribute to ongoing critical scholarship on the topic? This research may also have contributed to his seminal work on negro spirituals: “Black Song: The Forge and the Flame: the Story of how the Afro-American Spiritual was Hammered Out” (1972).

1. Transcript of interview with ex-slave, Jessie A. Butler. Charleston, SC. Ca. 1937. Papers of John Lovell, Jr. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

2. Selection from transcript of interview with ex-slave. Charleston, SC. Ca. 1937. Papers of John Lovell, Jr. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

3. Handwritten note regarding transcripts of interviews with ex-slaves, John Lovell, Jr. Undated. Papers of John Lovell, Jr. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

4. Excerpt from letter between FWP field officer and FWP project coordinator. Charleston, SC. 1937. Papers of John Lovell, Jr. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University.

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Portraits of former slaves from 1937-1938, taken for the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Progress Administration (from a group of 500, alongside more than 2,000 first-person accounts of the experience of being a slave).
Published in 1941 as the seventeen-volume “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.”

  • Charlotte Beverly
  • James Singleton Black, 83 years old
  • Monroe Brackins, Hondo
  • Josie Brown, Woodville (Beaumont)
  • James Cape, Ft. Worth
  • Adeline Cunningham
  • Ann Edwards, Ft. Worth
  • Mary Randall, Beaumont
  • Daphne Williams, Hillister (Beaumont)
  • Julia Williams Wadsworth
Unpopular opinion: I don't think Cliven Bundy is a racist

Did he use political incorrect words, yes.  Could he have worded his comments better, of course. 

He is an 80 year old farmer.  He isn’t a career politician.  He isn’t a savvy media personality. 

Could he have worded his comments better, of course.  But he didn’t say anything people like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams have said.

He is just an old man who is being oppressed by the government. 

Feel free to read Thaddeus Russell’s A Renegade History of the United States.  Thaddeus points out in a 1930’s federal report that the vast majority of the 2300 ex slaves who were still alive said they felt freer under slavery and actually wish to return to it. 

Particularly interesting in this regard is Russell’s chapter on slavery. It is centered around his report that “a majority of [the 2,300] ex-slaves who offered an evaluation of slavery [to interviewers from the Federal Writers’ Project in the mid-1930s] — field hands and house slaves, men and women — had a positive view of the institution, and many unabashedly wished to return to their slave days.”

As Russell sees it, the ex-slaves looked back on their days as chattels so nostalgically because they felt they had greater “freedom” as slaves than they later enjoyed after slavery had been abolished. He quotes the testimony of one former slave who told a Federal Writers’ Project interviewer in 1937 that he had worked harder since the abolition of slavery than he had ever worked on the plantation and that on the plantation he knew that Master would take care of him and provide him with food and warm clothing and warm housing in the winter months, even if, along with all or most of the other slaves, he shirked his work and played sick and devoted whatever resources he did have to pleasure — chiefly gambling, liquor, and sex.

As Russell himself puts it, “many and possibly most of the ex-slaves did not … restrain their personal freedoms, did not devote their lives to work, monogamy, frugality, and discipline.” Instead they “created a uniquely liberated culture that valued pleasure over work and freedom over conformity.”

Congress established the Works Progress Administration, a central part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” on April 8, 1935.

The WPA employed more than 8.5 million persons on 1.4 million public projects before it was disbanded in 1943. The Federal Theatre Project was one of the five Federal One projects sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. The Federal One projects included: the Federal Writers’ Project, the Historical Records Survey, the Federal Theatre Project, Federal Music Project, and the Federal Art Project. The Federal Theatre Project employed out-of-work artists, writers, and directors to entertain poor families and create relevant art. 

This image is from a play produced by the Federal Theater Project entitled “It Can’t Happen Here” in 1935 in New York City. Image: National Archives Identifier 195735.