Her thoughts — The importance of the Federal Writers’ Project

Published 12:15 pm Thursday, June 2, 2022

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

As we have learned, the New Deal was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a way of helping the United States bounce back from the economic turmoil during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The New Deal had a number of components and one of them was the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA’s goal was to assist unemployed workers from various spectrums from construction worker to writers to acquire jobs.

The Federal Writers’ Project was a project of the WPA operating in 17 states cataloguing local archives and hired numerous writers such as Margaret Walker and Zora Neale Hurston to document folklore. Others like historians and librarians were employed to interview ex-slaves and record their stories.

The Federal Writers’ Project was implemented from 1935 to 1942 to give unemployed librarians, historians and poets, etc., job opportunities. For example, in North Carolina the three core objectives of the program were to provide employment, enhance a person’s skills or help them acquire new ones as well as produce publications that would preserve the cultural contributions to the local and state communities.

I believe that should be the goal of a project of this magnitude: provide employment and preserve and record history from the voices of the people who lived an experience.

About two years ago I read a historical fiction novel about a young white woman during the Great Depression who was hired on to the FWP to interview a former slave about her experience during the Civil War and document the interview. Along the way she discovers how her family played a role in the woman’s past. A riveting read.

Subsequently, the Federal Writers’ Project was renamed the Writers’ Program in 1939. From 1936 to 1938 the Slave Narrative Collection was a collection of histories in this program of formerly enslaved African Americans which was produced in digital from documentation and can be accessed online. Over 2,000 interviews and audio recordings of interviews are available through the Library of Congress.

From its inception the Slave Narrative’s goal was to document the memories of people who were born into slavery before Emancipation in 1865 because of the vast number who had died over the years. In addition, people such as John Lomax wanted to give authenticity to the work by having not only whites as interviewers but Blacks as well.

As John Blessingame, an influential historian noted, depending on the ethnicity of the interviewer, the presentation of interviews can be too simplistic when it discusses plantation life. The experience of African Americans during the Civil War should be conveyed with unadulterated honesty no matter the ethnicity of the interviewer. An interviewer’s job is to let the interviewee tell their own story and one need not influence the end result with what you want to forcefully hear.

Among the publications of slave narratives was Lay Your Burden Down by Benjamin Batkins in 1945. An ex-slave who was interviewed as a subject for a slave narrative was Wes Brady from Marshall, Texas, in 1937.

Finally, the Federal Writers’ Project and the Slave Narrative Collection gave us a glimpse into the lives of a people who survived the atrocity of slavery with faith in their God navigating in physical bondage, yet, fighting to stay free from mental bondage. That strength can benefit generation after generation. They also gave financial independence to literaries and academics during a time where finances hinged on economic recovery which was so desperately needed to provide a substantial living for one’s self.

Judy Moore lives in Wylliesburg and is a tour guide at The Central High Museum. She can be reached at v5agabond2@gmail.com.