“Heed Their Words”: Using the WPA Slave Narratives to Address Challenging Sources

Victoria Lewis

Rachel Sullivan walked up the steps of her front porch, kicked off her shoes, and plopped down in her rocker. In her eighties, she just didn’t get around like she used to. As she sat on the porch of that two-room house on Reynolds Street, Rachel could not help but reflect on her life: her early years on the plantation of Governor Pickens in South Carolina, working as an enslaved nurse for the white children of her mistress, jumping over the broom to marry her husband, giving birth to eleven children, losing four of them, and watching the others grow up and move away. Her life had not been easy, but as she rocked back and forth on her front porch, she was a testament of strength and resilience. It had been a long day (and a long life), and she was tired.

Rachel’s time on her porch was interrupted that day when she was approached by three white women. “Auntie, we heard you were one of the slaves who used to live on Governor Pickens’ place over near Edgefield,” one woman began. Rachel was in a predicament. Yes, she had been enslaved on the Pickens plantation years ago, but was she prepared to discuss it with three white women while Jim Crow still ruled the South? Any number of things may have flooded her mind: an indesire to recall a difficult and violent past, a fear that these white women may misrepresent her story or sympathize with her well-known and well-respected enslaver, or even distress over her own safety.

Rachel’s dilemma was the same one that faced hundreds, potentially thousands, of Black Americans in the 1930s. The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was developed as a part of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), designed to get people back to work during the Great Depression. As part of the program, the government hired writers to conduct interviews with formerly enslaved persons throughout the South. These mostly white, government-employed interviewers were given questions to ask their interviewees that ranged from “what work did you do in slavery days?” to “did the white folks help you to learn to read and write?” As interviewers collected answers to these questions, it went largely unquestioned whether the racial dynamics between white interviewers and Black interviewees might affect the results of the interviews.

How could a historian extract trustworthy information from these interviews conducted at the height of Jim Crow? Because of this question, the largest collection of slave narratives ever collected, sat, relatively untouched, in the Library of Congress. It wasn’t until the 1970s that historians turned back to them, as writers like Paul Escott began critically approaching the sources and considering what information could be extracted from them. By examining former slaves’ responses to white interviewers’ questions versus Black interviewers’ questions, it was clear that interviewees were more reluctant to share the more appalling details of their enslavement to white interviewers. 

The racial hierarchy of the Jim Crow South likely deterred interviewees from speaking ill of their former enslavers. Additionally, Rachel was enslaved by Governor Francis Pickens, a man whose family name was recognized across the South, was well-respected by southern whites, and who lived less than thirty miles from her home on Reynolds Street. These facts, alongside the rampant racial violence and segregation of the Jim Crow South, complicate the fact that during her WPA interview, Rachel opted to praise the man who once held her in bondage. 

So what can we take from these interviews? Stephanie Jones-Rogers offers one example of how historians have turned to the WPA narratives to learn about the history of slavery through the voices of the formerly enslaved themselves. Though Rachel spent most of her interview praising her former master, she also revealed that her “auntie” served as an enslaved wet nurse for her mistress. For Jones-Rogers, Rachel’s interview provides evidence that the use of enslaved Black women as wet nurses was common in the South, something that had previously been refuted. When asked about her role on the plantation, Rachel responded, “I was a nu’s gal, ’bout ’leben years old. I nu’sed my Auntie’s chillun, while she nu’sed de lady’s baby whut come from Russia wid de Marster’s wife – nu’sed dat baby fum de breas’s I mean. All de white ladies had wet nusses in dem days.” For Jones-Rogers, Rachel’s interview provides evidence that white women did often use wet nurses, even if they themselves did not admit to it in their own writings. 

Even when historians have considered how racial dynamics may have shaped the outcome of the WPA interviews, they have often failed to account for gender power dynamics. Were formerly enslaved Black women more or less likely than Black men to positively recall their enslavement? Did responses change based on the sex of the interviewer? Recent historiography has shown that white women were, in many cases, just as involved in the buying, selling, and violence of slavery as white men. Rachel’s interview in particular highlights white women’s involvement in the commodification of Black women’s bodies. She tells of her former mistress’s reliance on enslaved women to nurse her children and the children of her visitors. Now, in the 1930s, Rachel was a Black woman being interviewed by three white women–one of whom had published children’s books set on romanticized southern plantations complete with racial slurs and stereotypes and a promotion of the Lost Cause narrative of the Confederacy. Rachel’s previous interactions with white women may have caused her to feel alarmed or guarded when her interviewers approached her. 

Rachel’s interview showcases many of the reasons for historians’ wariness of WPA narratives. But Jones-Rogers opted to use it anyway. She writes of those interviewed by the WPA, “I honor their courage, heed their words, and foreground their testimony and remembrances in this book.” By using interviews like Rachel’s, Jones-Rogers demonstrates that if we are willing to think critically about both the racial and gender dynamics of the 1930s, we can parse through these interviews to learn more about the lives of enslaved individuals.

As President Biden continues to fight for his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, some have suggested that the bill should include a reincarnation of the Federal Writers’ Project. Conducting oral histories of thousands of individuals who lived through Jim Crow, World War II, the fight for women’s rights, Japanese internment, or the Holocaust would ensure that first-person testimonies are available for future historians to study some of the most consequential moments of American history. However, if the FWP were to be reimagined, it’s worth considering how that project should be approached. What would offer the most authentic story? How can we encourage individuals to share the honest truth about the events they have witnessed or experienced? Rachel Sullivan’s interview tells us almost nothing about Rachel herself–who she was, who she married, what happened to her after emancipation, how she ended up in Reynolds Street, or where her children were. Her story remains untold, with the exception of an interview whose very methods embody violent racial and gender dynamics. Does Rachel’s relative absence in the historical archive make her story unworthy of being written? Of course not. Jones-Rogers exemplifies how Rachel’s words can be used to uncover the active role that white women played in the commodification of Black women’s bodies, allowing Rachel’s legacy to live on and challenge previous understandings of the objectivity of sources. A critical look at WPA narratives such as Rachel’s opens the door for opportunities to authentically depict stories of slavery: through the voices of those that lived it.

Image: A Government-issued poster for the WPA, which sponsored the Federal Writer’s Project.

Victoria Lewis is an M.A. student at Georgetown studying Global, International, and Comparative History. Her research interests include the history of education in the United States and the development of historical memory. 

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