The WPA Slave Narratives: Teaching with Oral Histories
Horton, Paul, Social Education
Standardized test questions for each social studies discipline are being debated and instituted in many states. Teachers who have developed successful lessons that delve deeply into a topic fear that teaching to "benchmarks" will force such lessons to the margins of the curricula. In order to successfully defend the centrality of "inquiry" within our courses, we need to stake out ground now and dig in when we adopt assessment strategies. History teachers need look no farther than the National History Standards for rationales to justify units of study based on careful inquiry. "Historical analysis and interpretation skills," are not practiced by speed readers, but by students of history. (1)
Students do not learn to become historians by reading textbooks. The authors of any history textbook select evidence to construct their own interpretations. Historians often disagree about analysis and interpretation based on similar sets of documents. In the language of the National History Standards, students must learn to "compare competing narratives" in order to begin to think critically as historians should. The pedagogical problem posed by this objective is: How will students be able to assess competing narratives? Fortunately, the problem of access to documents has been lessened somewhat by thier availability on the Internet. As a result, many teachers are now constructing units of study that allow students to become historians by reading (for themselves) and interpreting (with the help of a teacher) primary documents. (2)
Effective middle school teachers know that they must do everything that they can to enliven their subject matter with compelling stories that connect students to the experiences of people in other times and places. Primary documents can invite students to enter the emotional and intellectual experience of real people. Middle school students want to learn about struggles for justice because they are developing their own moral compasses. A topic that middle school students tend to immerse themselves in is the tragedy of slavery in America.
Uncovering the Story
The U.S. Library of Congress has made available online the Works Progress Administration's (WPA's) Slave Narratives, which were compiled between 1936 and 1938 to recover and document the memory of the ex-slaves still living at that time. (3) Over 2,300 former slaves from every Southern state were interviewed by journalists employed by the WPA (see sidebar, p.4). These interviews were transcribed and form much of the base of primary documents upon which historians have based their understanding of the institution of slavery in the Southern states.
Before students dive into reading the narratives, contexts for understanding and analysis must be created by the teacher. In order to measure initial student understanding, ask students to make a list of facts they "know to be true" about American slavery along with the written sources of those facts. Then ask them to list the visual images that come to mind when they think about American slavery and to couple those images with their sources as much as possible. Ask them to compare the two lists. My students have typically listed many more images and television sources than facts and written sources. When written sources are mentioned, they usually refer to textbooks or general reference works used for reports. Most of the visual sources discussed are movies like Amistad, with an occasional reference to the television series Roots (also on video) or a PBS documentary. What I try to stress to my students at the end of our discussion is that they each have, as potential historians, predetermined biases about the subject of American slavery before they begin their research. I then ask them to write a paragraph about how they would try to remain objective when given an opportunity to examine a significant number of documents.
At this juncture the WPA Slave Narratives are introduced. I tell students that most of the former slaves were in their seventies and eighties when they were interviewed and that they were therefore children or very young adults when they were slaves. The shortcomings of the WPA Slave Narratives as sources include: 1) direct memory of a limited time frame, slavery during the 1850's; 2) possible embellishment or erosion of memory; 3) elderly black ex-slaves were sometimes reluctant or afraid to talk candidly with young interviewees, whether black or white; and 4) bad questions angling for confirmation of the interviewer's ideas about slavery. Students should also be made aware that the authenticity of the transcription of an interview was sometimes compromised by an editor or interviewer who sought to make it easier to read by "correcting" African-American dialect. (4)
Because many middle school students might find some of the narratives difficult to read, excerpts from selected narratives should be read aloud so that students can develop a feel for listening to and understanding interviews. The teacher should read aloud several passages and students should write down their interpretations (Handouts 1 and 2). (5) The teacher might also consider using the transcripts and recordings from Remembering Slavery, which provide dramatic readings by professional actors who help convey the meaning of the text. (6) Students should also listen to some of the original interviews recorded on tape in the thirties that are included in Remembering Slavery.
Next, ask students to read five to ten of the WPA narratives. For teachers who want a representative sample of narratives (there are over 2,000 at the Library of Congress site), I would recommend using the University of Virginia website xroads.virginia. edu/~hyper/wpa/index.html, which features thirteen narratives. Teachers can easily pick and choose narratives from the thirteen with the use of an index with summaries. Bruce Fort (then a graduate student at the Department of History) did a great job choosing narratives that represent all areas of the South and that serve to give the student a complex composite picture of the experience of slavery in America. For example, one of the interviewees featured is Lucinda Davis of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was a slave of Creek Indians (see Handout 2). She spoke the Creek language and did not learn to speak English until after the Civil War. Some of the narratives depict brutal conditions while others offer images of more humane masters. The original narratives, taken as a whole, perhaps over-represent the "benevolent" image of slave life because most of the interviewers were white and some of those interviewed may have "sugarcoated" their responses to avoid offending or challenging stereotypes in the minds of the young people interviewing them. (7) The selection of narratives at this website aims to provide a representative sample of experiences.
Digging into the Material
In preparation for reading the narratives, I have students construct a chart. In the left margin students list the names of the former slaves and the states and communities where they were held in bondage. Horizontally, across the top of the page, students make columns entitled "Size of Farm or Plantation," "Nature of Relationship Between the Owner and Slave," "Relative Autonomy of Slave Life," and "Reliability of Narrative." I then describe what each category means. For example, the second category concerns whether the owner knew the slave by name, used more harsh punishment than incentives, and was consistent and rational or tended to be moody, harsh, or impulsive in his treatment of slaves. For the "autonomy" category, I ask students to look for descriptions of time away from the overseer or owner. To what extent, for example, were slaves permitted to hold meetings or travel to do "piecework?" Were slaves permitted to grow their own gardens? Were slave marriages and families recognized and respected? Were they allowed their own religious and social gatherings? Were slaves on one farm permitted to socialize with slaves from other farms or free African Americans? In general, to what extent were slaves allowed lives independent from their masters? I ask students to comment on the reliability of each narrative by judging its internal consistency. I ask students to note what appear to be exaggerations or omissions in stories. Finally, I instruct students to focus on those portions of each narrative that deal with the slave experience.
The length of class time given students to complete their slave narrative charts can vary. If the class is working in a computer lab, the teacher might be constrained to one day and therefore require students to read fewer narratives. I typically give my middle school students two class days to read ten printed narratives. Some students will have more trouble reading the narratives than others. Teachers will constantly be asked questions about words, so they need to read all of the narratives in advance. I've found that initial frustration with reading dialect gives way to fascination as students read more narratives.
On the next day, I ask students to discuss their reading and their charts. Most students report significant variations in farm size and in the relationships that existed between the owner and slaves. Many students report a pattern of slaves enjoying more autonomy on larger plantations: yeoman farmers who owned fewer slaves knew them personally, but these same slaves, ironically, had relatively less autonomy. What really comes through in our discussions is that the slave experience is incredibly varied and that generalizations are difficult to state and support. On the other hand, most students find most of the narratives to be compelling and reliable. They typically report that they find the logic of the stories to be internally consistent. They are most impressed by the vivid and concrete details that ex-slaves provide when describing their experiences as young slaves.
After we have our discussion based on the charts they have created, I ask students to write an essay called "Slavery: Myth and Reality." If we have the time, we extend the unit with enrichment activities. Students have produced documentaries using recordings of the voices of former slaves (available on record and on websites) and created posters on the theme of the myths and realities of slavery.
I have found that two prevalent myths are dealt serious blows as students encounter the narrative evidence. The first myth is the Gone With the Wind image of the big house on the plantation. Students learn that, although the plantation image holds true for some farms, especially as slave ownership became more consolidated in the 1850s, many slaves worked on medium- and small-sized farms. The second idea that students begin to call into question after reading the narratives is the image of the sadistic planter Simon Legree (the character in Harriet Beacher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin), who enjoys beating his slaves. Although there are descriptions of true "Simon Legrees," the picture that emerges from the evidence is that slave owners were usually businessmen who wanted to profit from their investment in slave labor. Because they were interested in the long-term profitability of their investment in human bondage, most owners wanted their slaves healthy enough to work. Most planters saw their slaves, to use Leslie Owen's phrase, as a "species of property" (with its grim pun on the word "species" meaning "money" and also a "genetic grouping"). (8) Of course, this more calculating image of the slave owner is also a far cry from the image of the slavemaster as a kindly and just father, which was a powerful myth in the antebellum South. Students also tend to be surprised by the number of slaves who were skilled craftsmen.
Using the WPA Slave Narratives in the classroom allows middle school students to examine a sample of the evidence that historians have used to construct their descriptions of history. (9) Bringing these documents into the classroom permits students to become historians, to tap into the excitement of research with primary sources. By working with the same traces of the past that historians rely on, we as teachers can guide our students through the process of historical thinking. Students are. better able to understand slavery to the extent that they can begin to hear the voices of slaves and imagine a world in which freedom was a precious dream.
The Works Progress Administration the Slave Narratives
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government created jobs by funding public-works projects like the construction of dams, roads, bridges, parks, and swimming pools. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) also created jobs for white-collar workers through activities such as the Federal Writers' Project (FWP), which had the goal of preparing a comprehensive "American Guide" of the towns, cities, and states in the United States -- a written description of their history, geography, and society.
Some black intellectuals, working as writers for the FWP, took the opportunity to interview former slaves, who were by then quite elderly. For example, the novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston interviewed many ex-slaves in Florida. When these interviews were forwarded to Washington, D.C., the directors of the FWP grew excited by the possibility of large-scale historical research to document the life of slaves, and the WPA Slave Narratives project was born.
Writers, working in seventeen states, compiled the WPA Slave Narratives during 1936-38. The collection consists of more than two thousand interviews. Many FWP projects never made it to publication, but all of the Slave Narratives are now available flee to the public on the Internet, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Source: Norman R. Yetman "An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives." Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2001. (memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snintro00.html)
Modern readers will note in some narratives the patronizing tone of the interviewers and the seeming deference of the subjects. While the racial language can be offensive to modern readers, it is important to remember that these narratives were conducted sixty years ago in the Jim Crow South. Just as these former slaves had survived into the twentieth century, so had the ideology of white supremacy that underpinned the slave society of the American South.
-- From "Reading the Narratives" at the University of Virginia's American Slave Narratives webpage, xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/wpa/wpahome.html.
Interpreting a Primary Source
In the 1930s, college students and other young people used tape recorders to try to capture the memories of African Americans who had once been slaves in the United States. Slavery ended throughout the nation in 1865, so the former slaves were elderly by the time they were interviewed. Over 2,500 former slaves were interviewed. Small parts of just three different interviews are provided on Handout 2.
The passages from interviews on Handout 2 might be hard for you to read. Don't rush. Try reading the words aloud quietly. When you figure out a difficult word or unfamiliar spelling, try writing down the correct spelling underneath that word. If the word is totally unfamiliar, see if it is in a dictionary. Then go back, read the whole sentence through, and see if it makes sense to you. Here is an example,
Dey treated us putty good, but we hab to wuk hard. They pretty had work
Remember that most of the interviews were made with a tape recorder. These passages are transcriptions from a tape. Students of history listened slowly to the taped interviews one by one, writing down what they heard as best they could, word by word. Now it is your responsibility to search for the meaning of those words.
Analyzing a Primary Source
After you have read the three passages from the interviews with elderly former slaves, discuss these questions in small groups or as a whole class. Some of these questions do not have one clear answer, but you may have a better understanding of what slavery in America was all about by pondering them with your classmates and your teacher.
Questions about Interview A
1. Can you tell whether Walter Calloway would have been considered a "field slave" or a "house slave?"
2. The overseer was a person who commanded the slaves as they worked in the field. Why would the person named "Mose" have obeyed the overseer, whose name was Green Bush? What did Green Bush tell Mose to do?
Questions about Interview B
1. The owner of Lucinda Davis was not a white man. What ethnic group did he belong to?
2. Some of the words used by Lucinda Davis are not common anymore. A "shoat" is a young pig, and a "brake" is a piece of rough land. To her, the language of white people sounded like a band of squealing pigs in the woods, nave you ever heard people speaking to each other in another language? Did it sound like they were talking faster or slower than you do? Did their speech sound odd or funny?
3. Some Indian tribes adopted their slaves as members of their tribes when President Lincoln proclaimed that slaves must be freed. If you had been a slave, and an Indian tribe offered you membership, would you have wanted to stay with the tribe, or to head further West on your own?
Questions about Interview C
1. Why does Charity Anderson say that her master was "good" to his slaves?
2. Did her master trust her? How do we know?
3. Why would Charity Anderson want us to know that "all white folks warn't good to dere slaves?" What sort of person was she talking to during this interview?
Voices of Former Slaves Selections from the WPA Slave Narratives, 1087-88
Marse John hab a big plantation an' lots of slaves. Dey treated us putty good, but we hab to wuk hard. Time I was ten years ole I was makin' a reg'lar han' `hin de plow. Oh, yassuh, Marse John good `nough to us an' we get plenty to eat, but he had a oberseer name Green Bush what sho' whup us iffen we don't do to suit him. Yassuh, he mighty rough wid us be he didn't do de whippin' hisse'f. He had a big black boy name Mose, mean as de debil an' strong as a ox, and de oberseer let him do all de whuppin'. An', man, he could sho' lay on dat rawhide lash....
Walter Calloway Birmingham, Alabama
I belong to a full blood Creek Indian and I didn't know nothing but Creek talk long after de Civil War. My mistress was part white and knowed English talk, but she never did talk it because none of de people talked it. I heard it sometime, but it sound like whole lot of wild shoat in de cedar brake scared at something when I do hear it. Dar was when I was little gift in time of de War....
Lucinda Davis Tulsa, Oklahoma
It sho' was hard for us older uns to keep de little cullered chillun out ob de dinin' room whar ol marster ate, cause when dey would slip in and start' by his cheer, when he finished eatin' he would fix a plate and gib dem and dey would set on de hearth and eat. But honey chile, all white folks warn't good to dere slaves, cause I'se seen pore niggers almos' tore up by dogs, and whipped unmercifully, when dey did'nt do lack de white folks say. But thank God I had good white folks, dey sho' did trus' me to, I had charge of all de keys in the house and I waited on de Missy and de chillun. I laid out all dey clos'....
Charity Anderson Mobile, Alabama
(1.) Charlotte Crabtree and Gary Nash, National Standards for American History: Exploring the American Experience (Los Angeles, CA: National Center for History in the Schools, 1996), 26.
(2.) C. Crabtree and G. Nash, 27.
(3.) The Slave Narrative collection at the Library of Congress can be viewed through the American Memory website site at memory.loc.gov/ ammem/snhtml/snhome.html. The narratives were also published in a series of books, in forty-one volumes: George P. Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Biography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972-79).
(4.) For a discussion of the historiographical issues raised by the use of slave narratives, see John Blassingame, "Using the Testimony of Ex-slaves: Approaches and Problems," Journal of Southern History 41 (November 1975), 473-92; John Blassingame, Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1977); Paul D. Escort, Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth Century Slave Narratives (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1979).
(5.) The full text of the interviews excerpted on Handout 2 can be seen at xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/wpa/index.html and in the sources listed in note 3.
(6.) Ira Berlin et al., eds., Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Freedom (book and tape; New York: Norton, 1997).
(7.) Some of the problems of bias and interpretation in the WPA Slave Narratives are discussed by Norman R. Yetman in "An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives." (Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2001. memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snintro00.html)
(8.) Leslie H. Owens, This Species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in the Old South (London: Oxford University Press, 1978).
(9.) A version of this article appeared in the fall 1999 issue of The Iowa Council for the Social Studies Journal. On the cover: Charlotte Beverly; page3: Esther King Casey (Library of Congress).
Paul Horton teaches social studies at the Malcolm Price Laboratory School at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.…
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Publication information: Article title: The WPA Slave Narratives: Teaching with Oral Histories. Contributors: Horton, Paul - Author. Journal title: Social Education. Volume: 66. Issue: 1 Publication date: January-February 2002. Page number: S3+. © 2008 National Council for the Social Studies. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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