The WPA Begins Collecting Slave Narratives
Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston
Portraits by Carl Van Vechten, 1932-1964
Preliminary plans for the Writers' Project made no provision for collecting slave autobiographies, testimonies, and reminiscences. Interviews with former slaves were undertaken spontaneously after the inception of the FWP and were included among the activities of several Southern Writers' Projects for almost a year before these isolated and unrelated efforts were transformed into a concerted regional project coordinated by the Washington office. Project records reveal that a small number of ex-slave interviews had been sporadically conducted, often by a single black employee, in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia without explicit direction or apparent recognition from Washington before the collection of narratives was officially inaugurated by the national headquarters of the FWP in April of 1937.
It was a group of ex-slave narratives submitted by the Florida Writers' Project that directly sparked the establishment of a regional study under FWP auspices. The Florida narratives had been independently undertaken under the direction of the State Director of the Florida Writers' Project, Carita Doggett Corse, who earlier in her career had glimpsed the potential value of such interviews while engaged in research on a history of Fort George Island. When Corse was appointed Director of the Florida Writers' Project in the fall of 1935, the recollection of her conversations with an aged ex-slave who had vividly recalled much of the island's past, coupled with the Writers' Project emphases upon personal history and interview methods of data collection, suggested the possibility of using project personnel to interview ex-slaves. In 1936 employees of Florida's active black FWP unit, which included the novelist-anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, interviewed a substantial number of former slaves as an integral part of their quest for indigenous African-American folk materials. These activities were nominally associated with the compilation of the Florida Guide and the narratives obtained were later considered for inclusion in a projected volume entitled The Negro in Florida which was never completed.14
In March of 1937 several of the Florida interviews were forwarded to Washington for editorial comment. Lomax and Brown were intrigued by the narratives and immediately recognized the value of preserving them. Excited by the possibilities that the structure and emphases of the Writers' Project afforded for large-scale collection of life histories, Lomax proposed that such efforts be extended more systematically to the remaining Southern and border states. On April 1, 1937, the collection of slave narratives formally began with the dispatch of instructions to each of these states directing their Writers' Project workers to the task of interviewing former slaves.
NEXT: John Lomax's Leadership and the Issue of Race
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