Saving the Stories of Former Slaves

The Works Progress Administration and the Slave Narrative

Today’s Archives Month object is one of the numerous photos from the Ohio Guide Collection.  These photographs were taken and collected by the Federal Writers’ Project, part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), while they were writing the Ohio Guide book during the Great Depression in the 1930s.  This photograph depicts Columbus man Alfred Murphy, a former slave, who learned to read and write at age 105 thanks to the WPA teaching program that taught thousands of Ohioans.  Murphy spent the first 33 years of his life in slavery, the last two years building fortifications for the Confederate Army.  He was in Richmond when General Robert E. Lee commander of the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union Army, in Appomattox Court House, Virginia in April 1865. The end of the Civil War gave Mr. Murphy his freedom.

Former slave Alfred Murphy in WPA literacy class.

Former slave Alfred Murphy in WPA literacy class.


As you can see by Murphy’s advanced age, by the 1930s, people who had been slaves as adults were quickly disappearing.  The Federal Writers’ Project of the WPA began an urgent effort to save the slaves stories.  The writers spent 1936-1938 travelling through seventeen states and speaking to more than 2,000 former slaves, gathering their life stories and experiences. 

The Federal Writers Project in Ohio received instructions to conduct interviews with former slaves living in Ohio in April 1937. Most of the interviews collected were done in 1937 and 1938. After the dissolution of the Federal Writers Project, most narratives were transferred to the Library of Congress. However, an additional twenty-eight narratives were discovered in the holdings of the State Archives Ohio. These narratives are available to researchers on microfilm, roll number GR 1563, in the Archives/Library.

The WPA Slave Narratives were compiled into several books during the 1940s, including the Virginia Writers’ Project’s The Negro In Virginia, the Georgia Writers’ Project’s Drums and Shadows, and Benjamin A. Botkin’s Lay My Burden Down.  Bodkin was the second Folklore Editor of the Federal Writers’ Project.  In 1941, all of the narratives were bound and presented to the Library of Congress. The Library has made the slave narratives and accompanying photographs available online with the digital collection Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project, 1936-1938

Caitlin Smith, History Collections Intern

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4 Responses to Saving the Stories of Former Slaves

  1. Peggy Mershon says:

    So, are the 28 narratives found later in the state archives now also at the Library if Congress or are they accessible only on microfilm at OHS? Has anyone done a geographic listing of Ohio residents’ interviews?

    • ohiohistory says:

      Hi,

      I apologize for the slow response. I am consulting with the staff in the State Archives department and hope to have the answer soon.

      Sincerely,
      L. Wood, Curator for Visual Resources

    • ohiohistory says:

      Hi,

      Here is the answer that I received from the State Archives staff:

      Twenty-three slave narratives in the Library of Congress are attributed to Ohio, but the additional twenty-eight narratives were later in the Ohio Federal Writer’s Project County Work Files (State Archives Series 1157) were not added to the narratives at the Library of Congress. The origin of the additional narratives is uncertain as the individual interviewer is not always noted. The finding aid for State Archives Series 1109 lists the names of all fifty-one ex-slaves and the county they were from.

      Sincerely,
      L. Wood, Curator for Visual Resources

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