The Seed and the Story: Federal Writers Project Part 3: Slave Narratives from Arkansas

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The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring oral history, community life, traditions, sustainability in the Yell County area. The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier. Please remember to support your local paper and independent media!The Seed and the Story column is just of many features you can find on the Boiled Down Juice. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you enjoy our posts, please tell a friend. And thanks for reading.

The past two weeks this column has focused on the Federal Writers Project, a branch of the New Deal, which provided jobs for out of work writers, historians, and other researchers. (You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here). In addition to the popular state guidebooks published by all of the then forty-eights states, the Project also gathered numerous oral histories and first person narratives from around the nation, interviewing everyday people about food, work, faith, and community life.

Originally initiated by employees in the Florida Writers Project (which would later include famous African American novelist and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston) and further inspired by early work at Fisk University in Nashville, the Federal Writers Project began a concerted effort to document the narratives of men and women born into slavery.  The project was short-lived, lasting only from 1936-1939. During just three short years employees documented the stories of over 2,300 former slaves and produced over 500 black and white portrait photographs of these elderly men and women, one of very few efforts to document first-person accounts of slavery.

Under the direction of the national FWP leader Henry Alsberg, and with much support from the WPA’s head of the “Office of Negro Affairs,” Sterling Brown, and project leader Alan Lomax, the project took place in thirteen states. Thirty three percent of the interviews were documented in Arkansas by the Arkansas staff, including two African American employees, Samuel S. Taylor of Little Rock and Pernella Anderson of El Dorado. The Arkansas collection is particularly strong, thanks to Taylor and Anderson who, on average, documented narratives that show a depth, nuance, and amount of detail not found in the interviews recorded by the white interviewers. As multiple historians have noted, the interviewees had many reasons to distrust the white government-affiliated interviewers, especially during a time when state-supported, institutionalized racism was the norm. Taylor and Anderson interviewed men and women who often had ties to their own family and community, and were able, and willing, to ask deeper questions about the interviewees’ experience.

As George Lankford explains in his introduction to the most recent collection of published Arkansas slave narratives, Bearing Witness: Memories of Arkansas Slavery: Narratives from the 1930s WPA Collections, the original collection from Arkansas included narratives from people all over the southern states who were living in Arkansas at the time of the interviews.  Lankford’s 2003 publication brings together the 175 narratives of men and women who were in slavery in Arkansas, including Pope and Yell Counties.  These narratives were recorded before audio recording was readily available and are a product of the interviewer’s rendering of the event.

Divided into counties, these narratives detail information’s about daily life, beatings, and chilling reminders of the lack of personhood these men and women experienced including watching their family members sold away, even their own children.  There’s only one narrative from Yell County, that of Matilda Hatchett who was born “nine miles from Daradnelle.” She talks about mistreatments including “whippings,” some of her father’s other children being set free before emancipation, and the arrival of Union soldiers. She discusses learning to read after slavery and states that she’d love to know the whereabouts of the babies she nursed for the family to which she was enslaved, “Thad Haney and his wife Louisa.”  Upcoming columns will discuss interviews from Pope County, the role of interviewer Samuel S. Taylor and Writing Project Administrator Bernie Babcock and her connections to Russellville and Petit Jean.


Been Here So Long: Selections from the WPA Slave Narratives

A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves, Arkansas Narratives Part 3

Manuscripts and Photos from the Federal Writers Project 

Slavery and the Making of America, Narratives from the WPA (PBS)