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, most by writers and folklorists associated with the WPA Writers’ Project.
Interview Context and Dialect
Most of the oral histories featured on the Reckoning website come from the WPA Slave Narratives collection. Between 1936 and 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project, a part of the Works Progress 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.
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.
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.
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).
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/