Oral Histories Curricula

Reckoning, Inc.‘s resources for elementary, middle, and high school educators includes a searchable database of over 100 oral histories of formerly enslaved Kentuckians, as well as inquiry materials aligned to the Kentucky Academic Standards for Social Studies. Educators will also find resources to support teaching oral histories responsibly and using the Inquiry Design Model (IDM) to create instructional materials.

Oral Histories of Formerly Enslaved Kentuckians

One of the goals of this project is to collect as many source documents as possible that pertain to slavery in Kentucky, the initial focus of our series. Perhaps the most powerful of these are the first-person testimonials of the enslaved themselves.  

 

Unfortunately, there are no known audio or video recordings of formerly enslaved Kentuckians, but there were numerous print interviews that were done in the 1930s, some by African American scholars affiliated with Fisk University, most by writers and folklorists associated with the WPA Writers’ Project.

Our source collection features a searchable database of over 100 oral histories. Each page includes a description, excerpt,  informational matrix, and links to access the full documents. 

See the Oral Histories

Teaching WPA Narratives Responsibly

Most of the oral histories featured on Reckoning, Inc.’s website come from the WPA Slave Narratives collection.  Between 1936 and 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project, a part of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), collected over 2,300 first-person accounts of enslavement. Though these are oral histories, teachers should be highly conscientious about the context within which these narratives were collected and transcribed. 

Interview Context and Dialect

Though the WPA interviewers had guidelines meant to standardize their work, the interview transcriptions are nonetheless riddled with the biases and motivations of the interviewer. Helping students make meaning from the narratives requires they consider the value and limitations of this particular source type. One important consideration is how the dynamic between interviewer and interviewee shaped each oral history’s content.


Many interviewers were white Southerners. Some interviewees may have depicted slavery in a positive light so as to not offend their interviewer and/or challenge the racial hierarchy, violations of which endanger people of color. Additionally, many of the narratives use Black dialect, where interviewers transcribed responses exactly as stated. Many transcriptions demonstrate the racial biases of the interviewers—believing that the formerly enslaved people were ignorant and/or unable to accurately describe their experiences.  Some Black interviewers also participated in the oral history project. Some interviewers used standard English, rather than dialect. In doing so, they were challenging racialized assumptions of Black interviewees’ ignorance. 

 

Because of the different ways the interviewers chose to transcribe their interviews, we decided to standardize the transcriptions using standard English (e.g., master instead of massa; them instead of dem). We made this choice as many uses of dialect lead to the speaker being classified as ignorant. We wanted to emphasize the content of these oral histories, rather than have the interviewers’ transcription choices distract readers.

 

Using these narratives responsibly in the classroom requires students have space to question the different elements informing the source’s content.

Removed Language

Where appropriate, offensive terms that marginalize and/or disparage interviewees have been removed from the transcripts and replaced with [redacted] or [ ___ ].  This choice was made to remove these historically used terms to focus students’ attention to the content, rather than provocative language. 

Teachers may access the full document to find the original language. 

Additional Resources

Teachers are encouraged to read a brief overview of the WPA narrative project from the Library of Congress for context. See: 

Overview: Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. (n.d.) Teacher Resources. Library of Congress. Accessed from: https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/connections/narratives-slavery/.

 

More information on teaching with WPA Narratives

Jeffries, H.K. (14 February 2020). Using the WPA Slave Narratives. Episode 11, Season 2: Teaching Hard History. Teaching Tolerance. Podcast. Accessed from: https://www.tolerance.org/podcasts/teaching-hard-history/american-slavery/using-the-wpa-slave-narratives

 

For a lesson that centers historiographical thinking around the WPA narratives, see:

Swogger, M.J. (2017). Race and the WPA Slave Narratives: A Lesson in Historiography. Social Education  81(6), pp. 383–388. Accessed from: https://www.socialstudies.org/social-education/81/6/race-and-wpa-slave-narratives-lesson-historiography

 

More information on how race and racial assumptions impacted the WPA narratives, see: 

Stewart, C.A. (2016). Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press.

Garner, L.A. (2000). Representations of Speech in the WPA Slave Narratives of Florida and the Writings of Zora Neale Hurston. Western Folklore 59(3/4), p. 215-231. Accessed from:  https://www.jstor.org/stable/1500233?seq=1 

 

Explanation about the use of “slave” versus “enslaved person.” See:

Waldman, K. (19 May 2015). Slave or Enslaved? Slate. Accessed from: https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/05/historians-debate-whether-to-use-the-term-slave-or-enslaved-person.htm

 

Discussion of when and how the slave narrative collection movement started. Both articles are from Lawrence Reddick, who headed the history department at Kentucky State Industrial College (now Kentucky State University).

The Slave as His Own Interpreter (1944)

The Background of the Slave Narrative Collection (1967)

 

 Recent scholarship on the WPA narrative

Musher, S.A. (2014). The Other Slave Narratives: The Works Progress Administration Interviews. In J. Ernest (Ed.) The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press. https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199731480.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199731480-e-004.

 

Information about the pre-WPA slave narratives conducted by John B. Cade and his team, beginning in 1929. Accessed from: Slave narratives available on SU John B. Cade Library’s website

Cade, J.B. (1935). Out of the Mouths of Ex-Slaves. The Journal of Negro History 20(3), p. 294-337. Accessed from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2714721

 

Quantitative research on the WPA narratives, including a breakdown of the race and gender of the interviewers/interviewees.

Escott, P.D. (2018). Quantitative Data Coded from the Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narratives, United States, 1936-1938. Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research. (ICPSR 36381). Accessed from: https://www.icpsr.umich.edu/web/RCMD/studies/36381/datadocumentation#.

 

Database allowing users to search for people based on where they were enslaved.

U.S., Interviews with Former Slaves, 1936-1938, Ancestry.com.  Accessed from: https://www.ancestry.com/search/collections/1944/ 

 

Teaching with Inquiry

Teaching with inquiry is an effective and engaging way for students to explore enduring questions of the past and present.

Reckoning, Inc.’s inquiry materials use the Inquiry Design Model (IDM). The IDM is a distinctive approach to creating instructional materials. It presents a one-page blueprint of the inquiry, from which teachers can create lessons for their classroom.

See the full Reckoning, Inc. Inquiry Collection

What hidden stories do primary sources tell?

Learning Exercise

In this lesson, students analyze a primary source by generating questions that surface clues about the experiences of people in the past. Specifically, this task allows students to reflect upon the ways in which education was transformed after the Civil War—specifically through the expansion of education to the Black community. The primary source is a Freedmen’s Bureau record that documents information about the students and teachers of a Kentucky school. The second source is an excerpt from a biography about the report’s recordkeeper, written for Reckoning, Inc.

*Created for Reckoning, Inc.

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How did slavery shape my state?

Elementary inquiry
This inquiry leads students through an investigation of the influence of slavery on the history of Kentucky.  By investigating the compelling question, students examine the growth and development of slavery, the ways in which the slave system differed from place to place, the violence endured by enslaved people, and how this portion of the country’s history is (or isn’t) being remembered. 

Students explore how slavery impacted the development of the country and Kentucky, while also providing space to consider the extent to which public memorializations appropriately reflect slavery’s impact.

*Created for Reckoning, Inc.

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How did sugar feed slavery?

Elementary inquiry

This inquiry provides students with an opportunity to evaluate the relationship between the dramatic increase in European sugar consumption in the 18th and 19th centuries and the reliance on the labor of enslaved persons to produce sugar in the Western Hemisphere. In examining the compelling questionHow did sugar feed slavery?students explore the environmental, economic, and social consequences of increased sugar production.

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Whose story is told in an interview?

Middle School inquiry
This inquiry leads students through an investigation of interviews with formerly enslaved people that were recorded during the 1930s.  Students will read and analyze excerpts from multiple interviews in order to answer the compelling question: Whose story is told in an interview?

This focused inquiry is a shorter inquiry (1-2 days) with targeted sources and an intentional focus on important skills and concepts.

*Created for Reckoning, Inc.

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Can words lead to war?

Middle School inquiry

This seventh grade annotated inquiry provides students with an opportunity to explore how words affect public opinion through an examination of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Students will investigate historical sources related to the novel and reactions in the North and South in order to address the compelling question, “Can words lead to war?” This query takes advantage of the mixed messages students often receive about the power of words. Students’ understanding about how words can make a difference is often grounded in discussions of words used to bully, instead of the power of words to encourage reform. This is an ANNOTATED inquiry with additional information on the questions, tasks, and sources within.

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Did the end of slavery mean freedom?

High School inquiry
Unknown Kentucky sharecroppers

This inquiry leads students through an investigation of interviews with formerly enslaved people that were recorded during the 1930s.  Students will read and analyze excerpts from multiple interviews in order to answer the compelling question:  Did the end of slavery mean freedom?

*Created for Reckoning, Inc.

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What did freedom mean for Anna?

High School inquiry

In November of 1815, an enslaved woman known only as Anna jumped out of a third floor window in Washington DC in what was assumed to be a suicide attempt. Presumed dead, abolitionists used her story to expose the harsh realities of slavery and advocate for better treatment of slaves. In 2015, the Oh Say Can You See research project uncovered an 1828 petition for freedom from an Ann Williams for herself and three children. This woman was the same “Anna” who had leapt from the window, still alive but severely injured from her fall, a contrast to the widely held belief that she had died in the fall. In 1832, a jury ruled in her favor, granting Ann and her three children freedom from master George Williams. Ann and her children went on to live free in Washington, subsisting on the weekly $1.50 that Ann’s still enslaved husband was able to provide for his family. This inquiry and the compelling question seeks to address the autonomy that enslaved African Americans had, and the question of what freedom meant to Anna.

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Does it matter who freed the slaves?

High School inquiry

The goal of this inquiry is to introduce students to historiography as they wrestle with historical significance within the context of a historical controversy. The common narrative about the end of slavery has given credit to President Abraham Lincoln, who earned the nickname “The Great Emancipator.” However, over the past 30 years, many scholars have sought to revise this narrative, with a critical mass now arguing that the slaves freed themselves. Students look at the laws that emancipated certain slaves over time and then examine the arguments contemporary historians have made about who was responsible for freeing the slaves. This inquiry invites students to engage with the actual historical debate, but rather than focusing on the veracity of claims, students concentrate on the significance of the issues behind the claims. By looking at the controversy about who freed the slaves, students should understand why this issue matters 150 years later.

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Did the Constitution Establish a Just Government?

High School inquiry

The goal of this inquiry is for students to gain an informed, critical perspective on the United States Constitution as it stood at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. By investigating the justness of the Constitution, students examine how the Constitution structures the government, the Constitution’s relationship to slavery, and the extent to which the amendment process makes the government more democratic. Through taking a critical look at the Constitution, students should understand the government the Constitution created and develop an evidence-based perspective that serves as a launching pad for informed action.

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Why did the South secede?

High School inquiry

This inquiry leads students through an in-depth investigation of a series of primary sources that highlight the events surrounding the secession of South Carolina and other Confederate states. Investigating the compelling question, “Why did the South secede?” students will need to consider the historical events leading up to the decision to secede, the role of political parties in secession and the views of both Southerners and Northerners on the issue of secession. In investigating the various perspectives surrounding the southern secession movement of 1860 and 1861 that ultimately led to the American Civil War, students will develop a nuanced understanding of the complicated process of secession and the conflicting moral, political and social tensions inherent in what history often paints as a straightforward decision. This inquiry can be used as a tool to introduce the Civil War or as a way to have students reflect on the aftermath of the Civil War.

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