Long Past Slavery: Race and the Federal Writers' Ex-Slave Project during the New Deal

Long Past Slavery: Race and the Federal Writers' Ex-Slave Project during the New Deal

Long Past Slavery: Race and the Federal Writers' Ex-Slave Project during the New Deal

Long Past Slavery: Race and the Federal Writers' Ex-Slave Project during the New Deal


From 1936 to 1939, the New Deal's Federal Writers' Project collected life stories from more than 2,300 former African American slaves. These narratives are now widely used as a source to understand the lived experience of those who made the transition from slavery to freedom. But in this examination of the project and its legacy, Catherine A. Stewart shows it was the product of competing visions of the past, as ex-slaves' memories of bondage, emancipation, and life as freedpeople were used to craft arguments for and against full inclusion of African Americans in society. Stewart demonstrates how project administrators, such as the folklorist John Lomax; white and black interviewers, including Zora Neale Hurston; and the ex-slaves themselves fought to shape understandings of black identity. She reveals that some influential project employees were also members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, intent on memorializing the Old South. Stewart places ex-slaves at the center of debates over black citizenship to illuminate African Americans' struggle to redefine their past as well as their future in the face of formidable opposition.

By shedding new light on a critically important episode in the history of race, remembrance, and the legacy of slavery in the United States, Stewart compels readers to rethink a prominent archive used to construct that history.


The railway juncture is marked by transience. … Polymorphous and
multidirectional, scene of arrivals and departures, place betwixt and between
(ever entre les deux), the juncture is the way-station of the blues.

—Houston A. Baker Jr., Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature:
A Vernacular Theory
, 1984

In Tampa, Florida, in the fall of 1937, former slave Josephine Anderson told Jules Frost a ghost story. Anderson’s tale was representative of the rich African American folk tradition of hant (a colloquial version of “haunt”) stories, many of which were collected by employees, like Frost, of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), one of the New Deal’s work-relief programs. As Anderson recounted, early one morning before dawn she was walking along the railroad tracks on her daily route to work when “fore I knowed it, dere was a white man walkin long side o’ me. I jes thought it were somebody, but I wadn’t sho, so I turn off at de fust street to get way from dere.” The next morning was foggy as well as dark, and Anderson found herself almost upon the white man before she realized he was there again, “bout half a step ahead o’ me, his two hands restin on his be-hind. I was so close up to him I could see him as plain as I see you. He had fingernails dat long, all cleaned and polished. He was tall, an had on a derby hat, an stylish black clothes. When I walk slow he slow down, an when I stop, he stop, never oncet lookin roun. My feets make a noise on de cinders tween de rails, but he doan make a mite o’ noise.” Now thoroughly spooked, Anderson sought to discover whether the figure was human or spirit, saying “goo[d] and loud: ‘Lookee here, Mister, I jes an old colored woman, an I knows my place, an I wisht you wouldn’t walk wid me counta what folks might say.’” As soon as Anderson made this declaration, the man vanished: “he was gone; gone, like dat, without makin a sound. Den I knowed he be a hant.”

Anderson was one of over 2,300 African Americans interviewed as part of the FWP, one of the numerous cultural projects established under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of Franklin Delano Roo se velt’s New Deal. Gathering oral histories from the last living generation of former slaves, the Federal Writers’ Ex-Slave Project intended to record the history of slavery as well as African American folk culture from . . .

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