Work Projects Administration Federal Writers' Project, 1936-38.
The Federal Writers’ Project was an initiative developed as part of the Works Projects Administration (WPA) in 1935. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal provided employment through the WPA, aimed at revitalizing the economy during the Great Depression.
Between 1936 and 1938, out of work writers conducted more than 2,300 interviews of people who had been enslaved. The resulting work, ‘Slave Narratives: a folk history of slavery in the United States from Interviews with former slaves’, was edited and bound into 17 volumes in 1941. Writers were given instructions on the type of questions to ask and to capture the dialects of the interviewees. They were not trained in the phonetic transcription of speech; the transcriptions may sound offensive today.
The narratives below provide powerful accounts of what it was like to be enslaved in the United States of America, and “they are themselves irreducibly historical, the products of a particular time and particular places in the long and troubled mediation of African-American culture by other Americans.”* Within the narratives, interviewees describe relationships with their enslavers, living conditions, foodways, the Civil War and the development of the Ku Klux Klan in the post-Reconstruction era. Many narratives also address the absolute control of their bodies through pervasive violence and ever-present surveillance.
This part of the exhibition also included photographs taken at African descendant burial grounds in Charleston and photographs curated by the 'A Backpack Journalist' team. The photographs were taken by Leonard Freed, on Johns Island in 1964, and were used in his book "Black in White America". Leonard Freed produced 25 books of his photographs, including "The Day" (The March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech) and "Police".
*Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938. A Note on the Language of the Narratives. (2018) Library of Congress.