Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

WPA Sources for African-American Oral History in Arkansas: Ex-Slave Narratives and Early Settlers' Personal Histories

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

WPA Sources for African-American Oral History in Arkansas: Ex-Slave Narratives and Early Settlers' Personal Histories

Article excerpt

IN ARKANSAS, AS ELSEWHERE, the paucity of material written by nine-teenth-century African Americans has been one of the obstacles to incorporating their perspectives into the study of the state's history. Enforced illiteracy during slavery prevented generations of African Americans from writing letters, diaries, and other documents that might have survived to offer researchers first-hand accounts of their experiences.1 Literate slaves were few. For many years, the main source of written first-hand accounts by slaves and former slaves were the slave narratives popular from the early nineteenth century through the Civil War. Generally, these narratives were published either by abolitionist groups to expose the horrors of slavery or by pro-slavery apologists to promote the "contented slave" image. Unfortunately, the authors of those former slaves' autobiographies and other early narratives, and those who told their stories to second parties, did not collectively provide a large or representative sample of the nineteenth-century African-American population.2

By the early twentieth century, several currents in African-American life were working to promote black biographical and autobiographical writing. African-American scholars, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, led what one scholar called a "concerted quest for a 'usable past,' one that would impart a sense of self-respect and identity to the American Negro."3 Their desire to include the viewpoints of slaves in the study of slavery stimulated renewed interest in the earlier narratives as well as publication of more autobiographies, biographies, and reminiscences of former slaves. At the same time, followers of Booker T. Washington were eager to provide inspiring examples of African Americans lifting themselves "up from slavery."4 Yet this latter impulse in some cases served to shift the focus of biographies and autobiographies away from slavery. Many of these publications told less about their subjects' lives in bondage and more about the successes they had achieved as free citizens, because they were intended to encourage other African Americans as they made their "way upward."5

Two excellent Arkansas examples of this latter genre are How I Succeeded in My Business, by the Reverend A. H. Miller, and From Slavery to Wealth, the Life of Scott Bond; the Rewards of Honesty, Industry, Economy and Perseverance. Reverend Miller began his book by stating that he was "born a slave in St. Francis County, Arkansas, in the year A. D. 1851. Sometime during the Civil War-I cannot name the exact date-my mother moved to Helena and took me with her. It is there I was brought up."6 Miller made only that single reference to his and his mother's slave roots, and then proceeded to describe his multifaceted career, in which he rose from a dray driver to a wealthy investor in real estate. An ordained minister, he held many positions in district and state associations of the Baptist Church and also served in public office, including one term representing Phillips County in the Arkansas House of Representatives (1874-75).7 Scott Bond was born a slave in Madison County, Mississippi, in 1853. His family was taken to Cross County, Arkansas, in 1858, and then moved to St. Francis County, Arkansas, in 1872. Bond established himself as a farmer and became a major landowner and businessman. His business interests included cotton crops, cotton gins, brick kilns, a sawmill, a gravel pit, and, according to his biographers, the "largest general store between Memphis and Little Rock."8 he became an active member of the National Negro Business League. Bond's biography included only a few remarks about his childhood in slavery but featured seventy-three photographs documenting various aspects of his extensive farming and business enterprises as well as showing his home and family (including one of the family with Booker T. Washington).9

Like the early slave narratives, then, the individual success storiesas well as scholarly studies based on public documents, newspapers, and slaveholders' records, like Orville Taylor's Negro Slavery in Arkansasfailed to provide a broad-based perspective on slavery and emancipation from the viewpoint of those who had experienced them. …

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