Mother Wit: The Ex-Slave Narratives of the Louisiana Writers' Project

Mother Wit: The Ex-Slave Narratives of the Louisiana Writers' Project

Mother Wit: The Ex-Slave Narratives of the Louisiana Writers' Project

Mother Wit: The Ex-Slave Narratives of the Louisiana Writers' Project

Excerpt

The experiences of some ex-slaves were published as autobiographies and anti-slavery pieces before, during, and soon after the Civil War. University ex-slave narrative programs began in the 1920s to preserve the national treasury of experiences among the survivors of the "peculiar institution." From 1927 to 1929, Andrew P. Watson, an anthropology student at Fisk University, interviewed one hundred former slaves, and in 1929-30, John B. Cade, Southern University of Louisiana history professor, directed a project which interviewed eighty-two ex-slaves. His work continued in 1935-38 at Prairie View State College where more than four hundred interviews were conducted in thirteen states. Lawrence D. Reddick, before his work at Dillard University, successfully urged the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to adopt a slave narrative program. When the Federal Writers' Project was created in late 1935, the major emphasis was the production of state and major city guidebooks. The state writers' projects, however, were not microcosms of the Central Office, and they engaged in a plethora of projects resulting in a myriad of publications.

The original impetus to interview former slaves began spontaneously in several states, notably in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Impressed with the results of these projects, the Central Office of the Federal Writers' Project decided to pursue interviews with former slaves in other former slave states. John A. Lomax, National Advisor on Folklore and Folkways for the Federal Writers' Project, prepared a questionnaire for field workers. It was issued April 22, 1937 as "Supplementary Instructions #9-E to The American Guide Manual." Most of the interviews were conducted in 1937-38, and were concluded in 1939 when the FWP became the Writers' Program. The Writers' Unit of the Library of Congress Project in 1941 had approximately twenty- three hundred of the Federal Writers' Project interviews which were processed by the Library of Congress Project. Benjamin A. Botkin, Folklore Editor of the Writers' Project, was responsible for processing the materials. Excerpts from the interviews were published in 1945 in Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery. The interviews lay dormant until 1972 when they were . . .

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