Listening to the Voices of the Oppressed

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By the 1930s new interpretations of the South, the Civil War, and slavery were being considered because of the first person perspectives of former slaves.

By the 1930s there were new interpretations of the South, the Civil War, and slavery. Southern historians previously argued that slavery was a necessary evil in the civilizing of the savage black. Furthermore, they wanted everyone to believe that slaveowners considered slaves extensions of the white family. Supported by Jim Crow racism, these views were surprisingly accepted around the country by the time the stock market crashed in 1929.

The New Deal and the Preservation of American Culture

In his attempt to find employment for unemployed writers and other white-collar professionals, Franklin Roosevelt created the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) to preserve American culture through the compilation of guidebooks (state and local) and other projects that focused on oral histories and folklore that created a depression-era “snapshot” of America. That snapshot included interviews with former slaves. However, the study of former slaves did not begin with Roosevelt’s New Deal as academics Charles S. Johnson and John Cade initially approached elderly former slaves about their recollections of their lives as slaves.[i]

The Study of Black Life and Former Slaves: Charles S. Johnson

In the late 1920s, sociologists in Chicago studied virtually every aspect of local black life in communities that were fast becoming identified as “ghettos.” Charles S. Johnson contributed to these initial Chicago studies and later moved south and created the Social Science Institute at Nashville’s Fisk University where he led teams of students in the interviewing of former slaves.

Johnson soon recognized the value of these interviews in understanding the sociological aspects of slavery from the former slaves’ perspective. Eventually, over 100 interviews from former slaves in rural Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama were published.[ii]

The Study of Black Life and Former Slaves: John Cade

While teaching United States history at Southern University in 1929, historian John Cade directed his students to find former slaves and talk to them about their memories of slavery and other general information regarding such things as antebellum food, clothing, working conditions, and family life.[iii] Cade’s successes at Southern University led him to replicate the process at Prairie View A&M University, near Houston, Texas, in the mid 1930s.

In 1935, Cade published his article, “Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves,” which discussed slavery from the views of surviving slaves. The New Deal’s Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) led to a broadening of Cade’s methodology while providing opportunities for unemployed white-collar workers to preserve American culture through the biographies and folklore of hundreds of “average” Americans.[iv]

The New Deal and the Interviewing of Former Slaves

In 1936, black writers assigned to the Florida Writer’s Project interviewed former slaves as part of the process of collecting information on indigenous African American history and culture. In March 1937, these narratives of former slaves came to the attention of John Lomax, a nationally recognized authority on folklore. In April 1937, the Slaves’ Narratives project was created under Lomax’s leadership.

The interviews of former slaves occurred in seventeen states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) principally during 1937 and 1938. In 1938, Benjamin A. Botkin replaced Lomax as the guiding force behind the collection of folklore and folk histories. Like Lomax, Botkin also believed the Slave Narratives project would be integral to African American and United States history.

The Slave Narratives became one of the most referenced aspects of the FWP. While the Guides Series produced essays and books of local historical value, the Slave Narrative Project changed the paradigm in the historical analysis of slavery in this country by providing historians with first-hand accounts of events that were often misconstrued by other primary sources. As a result, many books and television documentaries have been based on their findings. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, these narratives allow former slaves the opportunity to tell their stories of life during slavery; stories that have been too often distorted by those wishing to downplay the obvious atrocities of the inhumane institution of slavery.

References:

  1. Billington, Ray Allen. 1961. Government and the Arts: The W.P.A. Experience. American Quarterly, 4: 466-479.
  2. Cade, John. 1935. Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves. The Journal of Negro History 3 (July, 1935), 294-337.
  3. Egypt, Ophelia Settle, and Charles S. Johnson. 1945. Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Accounts of Negro Ex-Slaves. Fisk University (Nashville): Social Science Institute.
  4. Fisk University Social Science Institute. 1945. God Struck Me Dead: Religion Conversion Experiences and Autobiographies of Ex-Slaves. Fisk University (Nashville): Social Science Institute.
  5. Larson, Cedric. 1939. The Cultural Projects of the WPA. The Public Opinion Quarterly 3: 491-496.
  6. Mangione, Jerre Mangione. 1983. The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers’ Project, 1935-1943. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  7. Rose, Nancy. 1993. Put to Work: Relief Programs in the Great Depression. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Endnotes

  • [i] For more information on the FWP, see Jerre Mangione, The Dream and the Deal: The Federal Writers’ Project, 1935-1943 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983).
  • [ii] Ophelia Settle Egypt, J. Masuoka, and Charles S. Johnson, Unwritten History of Slavery: Autobiographical Accounts of Negro Ex-Slaves (Nashville, 1945); Fisk University Social Science Institute, God Struck Me Dead: Religion Conversion Experiences and Autobiographies of Ex-Slaves (Nashville, 1945).
  • [iii] John Cade, “Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves,” The Journal of Negro History, 3 (July, 1935), 295.
  • [iv] See: Ray Allen Billington, “Government and the Arts: The W.P.A. Experience” American Quarterly, 4 (Winter, 1961): 466-479; Cedric Larson, “The Cultural Projects of the WPA,” The Public Opinion Quarterly, 3 (Jul., 1939): 491-496; Nancy Rose, Put to Work: Relief Programs in the Great Depression (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1993).