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date: 21 October 2020

Abstract and Keywords

More than 2000 interviews of former slaves were conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration in the years 1936–1938. In recognition that the last generation of Americans who had experienced slavery firsthand was rapidly dying off, government officials arranged for folklorists, historians, and other writers to interview the former slaves, who were then in their sixties, seventies, and beyond. Armed with pencils, pens, and paper (some with cameras and recording devices) the federally funded WPA agents fanned out to locate and let the freed people and their descendants tell stories about slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, and the changes that occurred thereafter. The WPA slave narratives can be daunting for readers who first encounter them. The informants speak with many different voices about very different topics, but herein lies their value. The diverse voices of former slaves compel historians to think in complex ways about slaves, slaveholders, and slavery. Disparities in their memories of former slaves force the reader to see the people who were held in bondage as complicated human beings, more than a slave and more than the stereotype that has so often stood in for the men, women, and children who lived in bondage. Because the WPA narratives have been carefully scrutinized by scholars, it may be easier to ferret out problems with these narratives than with other types of sources, and historians who bother to unlayer the voices of the former slaves, their interrogators, and their editors may learn quite a lot about slavery and its aftermath, as well as about historical methodology.

Keywords: Works Progress Administration, slaves, slavery, slave narratives, African Americans, history, memory, historical methodology

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