African American Slave Narratives Collected by the WPA

September 10, 2019  - by 

African American slave stories are not something we like to remember. The heart-wrenching and disturbing acts of slavery are a stain that won’t soon go away. However, in reading the stories of these formerly enslaved men and women, you will find amazing courage, faithfulness, a love of family, strength through adversity, and much more.

The WPA Begins to Preserve African American Slave Stories

Under the establishment of the New Deal in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted a series of projects and programs in hope of stabilizing the economy and providing jobs to citizens. One such program was the Works Progress Administration, better known as the WPA. Under the WPA was the WPA Arts Projects, which included the Writer’s Project. The purpose of the Writer’s Project was to collect stories of America’s past, including interviews. The project later expanded to include narratives from formerly enslaved men and women in the United States.

A group of WPA organizers plan the New Deal.

African American Slave Stories: From Their Own Mouths

Interviews were conducted in several states. You can see a full list of the states that participated and how many interviews were collected from each on the Library of Congress Website.

True to their language, the transcribed interviews reflect the dialect and style of speech of their subjects. Stories include the sadness, the triumphs, the escapes, the occasional happy memory, and a great deal of family history information.

African American Slave Stories Include Family History Information

In the interview transcript pictured above, William Moore of Dallas, Texas, shared the reason his last name was Moore. This example is just the beginning of the valuable information you will find shared in these African American narratives.

Many times, the people being interviewed shared these kinds of information:

  • When they were born.
  • Where they were born.
  • Parents’, siblings’, and spouses’ names.
  • Their escape or freedom story.
  • What they were doing at the time of the interview.
  • Where they were living at the time of the interview.

Christmas Time: A Portion of the Cinte Lewis Narrative

a slave story recorded by the WPA.

Though the majority of these narratives share the horrors of living an enslaved life, some interviewees shared happy family memories.

San Jacinte Lewis, called Cinte, related the following story regarding Christmastime while being enslaved:

              “Come Christmas time old marse [master] sometimes give us two-bits and lots of extra eats. Iffen it come Monday, we has de [the] week off. But we has to watch the eats, cause [slaves whose] marsters [masters] don’t give ’em no Christmas sneak over and eat it all up. Sometimes we have dances, and I’d play de fiddle for white folks and cullud [colored] folks both. I’d play, ‘Young Girl, Old Girl,’ ‘High Heel Shoes,’ and ‘Calice Stockings.’” (Read San Jacinte Lewis’ full interview.)

The full collection of African American interviews created by the WPA is deeply moving and may help you piece together your family tree.

Find out if your ancestor was interviewed for the WPA slave narrative project.

an enslaved family outside of their house.

Finding Slave Stories Online

Search engines such as Google Books are always great places to search for historical information, especially about your ancestors. By using search terms such as enslaved African Americans who escaped, it’s possible to find books that can give you more information on formerly enslaved men and women who escaped from slaveholders in America to freedom in Canada. One such book is A North-side View of Slavery: The Refugee: Or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, by Benjamin Drew. It was published in 1856 and gives a firsthand account of many daring stories of escape.

One account included in the book is the story of James Adams. James made his escape from Virginia on August 12, 1824, and arrived in St. Catharines, Canada, on September 13, 1824. Frequently, he had to trust strangers, even though there was a bounty on him, to help him navigate the trip.

Add the Stories of Your Enslaved Ancestors

It’s heartbreaking to read stories of the abuse enslaved people went through, especially if those people are your own ancestors. However, their stories are important pieces of both national and family history and can help you connect with even more of your ancestors. If you find the slavery stories of ancestors, you can add them to their sources on FamilySearch. If you have family stories not included in other records, try adding them to the ancestor’s Memories on FamilySearch. By recording the stories of your ancestors, you can provide insight and inspiration for generations to come.

Amie Tennant

Amie Bowser Tennant is a genealogy researcher, writer and presenter.She writes blog articles and other content for many top companies and societies in the genealogy field. Her most treasured experience is working as a consultant for family history. Amie lives with her husband and three children in Ohio, surrounded by many of her extended family.

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Comments

  1. I stumbled into this treasure about 10 years ago and discovered that my mother had typed some of the transcripts and one of the contributors was the woman who had helped to raise my father and had cared for me when I was a baby.

  2. I remember on one of my grandpas census it said he worked on the WPA Project as a truck driver. Would this in any way be connected? His name was Fred Martin

    1. Vickie, that’s really cool that your grandfather did that! I’m sure he has lots of cool stories from when he was involved. The WPA was a very large project meant to help people get jobs and stabilize the economy. There were many segments under the umbrella of the WPA. This article is specifically talking about the WPA writers who were asked to travel around, interview, and transcribe stories from former African American slaves.