Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project 1936-1938: Stories as a Catalyst for Historical Comprehension

Article excerpt

A great teaching tool for middle school teachers is the U.S. government's oral histories collection titled, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers 'Project, 1936-1938. During the Great Depression one of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiatives was to hire writers to interview and collect the stories of former American slaves. The initiative, through the Federal Writers' Project, captured over 2,300 stories rare, firsthand accounts--of what daily life was like for the men and women who were enslaved. Slaves from 17 states shared their unique lives with interviewers who were trained to ask questions ranging from the origins of their names to games children played, and were prepared to interpret the general dialect. This profound collection is housed at the Library of Congress with some 500 photographs, and some historians have consolidated these stories into anthologies, including: The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography (1); Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery (2); and Voices from Slavery (3).

All of these resources can be used to give students a glimpse of the hard labor, mistreatment, familial dismemberment, and the severe punishment the slaves endured contrasted with the feelings and attitudes they held with regard to being enslaved and then freed. One book that is developmentally appropriate for the middle school grades is Slavery Time: When I Was Chillun. Belinda Hurmence's (4) book, which is applied in the following lesson plan, shares the lives of 12 men and women who were slaves, and more importantly asks young readers to critically contemplate: how authentic the accounts are given that many of the interviewed were in their eighties, nineties, and some over a century year old; how reliable the stories are given that the interviewed were a discriminated minority in the 1930s and could have shared accounts they believed would have been acceptable to the interviewer; how accurate the stories are given that the narratives could have been edited or modified by the interviewers; and how influential the mid-1930s period influenced their perception of being enslaved. These inquiries and the historical narratives afford themselves to multiple purposes all of which are focal to the standards (for grades 5-12) developed by the National Center for History in the Schools (NCHS). The most essential is Standard 2, The Student Comprehends a Variety of Historical Sources, which originates from the importance of facilitating historical comprehension.

The skill of historical comprehension, or historical understanding, is a substantial one that is not casually developed nor easily accomplished by assigning readings from the basal history or social studies text and then having students answer insipid questions strategically located at the end of a passage. Facilitating historical comprehension instead rests in constructive mediums that compel students to engage in historical thinking. To this end, the NCHS (5) emphasizes that students become immersed in lessons that stimulate them:

* to ask questions and find support for their answers;

* to examine historical records beyond their textbooks;

* to consult various artifacts and data from the past and evaluate them in their historical context; and

* to compare multiple points of view.

Moreover, the NCHS underscores that historical narratives, such as the slave narratives, are ideal for lessons designed with historical understanding in mind because they "are interpretive, revealing and (explain) connections, change, and consequences. They are also analytical, combining lively storytelling and biography with conceptual analysis drawn from all relevant disciplines." (6) In short, the slave narratives afford students: a glimpse into the world of slavery through men and women who lived it; the opportunity to analyze qualitative data and to question assumptions; interpret the nature of the oral history and its context; and compare alternative information (primarily from their text) and determine the intentions of the source. …