Using the WPA Ex-Slave Narratives to Study the Impact of the Great Depression

Article excerpt

FOR AT LEAST TWO GENERATIONS ACADEMICS HAVE BEEN REAPING THE benefits of the Works Progress Administration's (WPA) Federal Writers' Project. White-collar workers employed by this program during the 1930s summarized and indexed government records and newspaper articles, compiled local histories, and interviewed men and women from all walks of life, preserving for posterity the life histories of thousands of ordinary people. (1) Folklorists, anthropologists, sociologists, theologians, human ecologists, and historians have all used these records to great advantage. (2) But for historians, one of these projects actually resulted in a paradigm shift in the scholarly discourse. The WPA workers' interviews with ex-slaves made it possible to rewrite part of the history of the antebellum South from the perspective of the slave. (3)

Although the "new" histories of slavery represented a tremendous breakthrough in African American, southern, and American history, historians have not all been in agreement about how and whether to use the WPA narratives as source material. John W. Blassingame did not use them at all in his now classic study, The Slave Community (1972). In a later work, Blassingame detailed his concerns about the power dynamics of the interview process, the competence of the interviewers, and the advanced age of the informants that led to his discomfort with the narratives as sources. And although most scholars of slavery writing during and since the 1970s chose to use the narratives, they did point out that the documents were, in some ways, flawed. (4) It is partly in response to this seeming incongruity that historian Donna J. Spindel, in a recent study of history and memory, took her colleagues to task. Spindel concluded that they "allowed the potential richness of the ex-slave interviews to overshadow their weaknesses." (5)

Concerns about the narratives have always been wide-ranging. Because most respondents were children at the time of emancipation, some scholars have feared that the narratives were reliable only as sources about childhood. By the same logic, those few former slaves who were adults (or nearly adults) at the time of emancipation were so old at the time of the interviews that their memories were questionable. There were apparent statistical problems as well. The states of residence of the former slaves who were interviewed did not correspond proportionately to the geographical distribution of slaves during the antebellum period. And because only about 2 percent of the former slaves who were still alive in the 1930s were interviewed, the nearly 2,200 narratives did not seem a large enough sample. On top of all these warnings came another, focused squarely on the issue of race relations in the South. Most of the former slaves were interviewed by white WPA workers; as a result, historians contended, the information relayed was likely to be tainted. (6) (Indeed, some of the former slaves were interviewed by members of the families who had owned them, which could have resulted in even more constrained responses than otherwise might have been offered. (7) )

The foregoing concerns were undoubtedly valid, but the preoccupation with them has obscured other important ways we might utilize these documents as historical records and with substantially more confidence. The Great Depression looms large in these narratives. But none of the scholars commenting on the interviews' use for studying slavery has explored with any depth their relevance to studying the depression. C. Vann Woodward suggested that the former slaves' longing for the "good ole days" was related to the contemporary economic crisis. He noted, "After all, these were old and helpless people, often living alone in the worst years of the Great Depression, sometimes admitting they were hungry and not knowing where the next meal was coming from." John Blassingame's well-known discussion of the narratives also related the responses of the former bondpeople to their desperate conditions at the time of the interviews. …