The Seed and the Story: Samuel S. Taylor and the Federal Writers Project (FWP Part 5)

An image from the Arkansas interviews. Julia Jackson, aged 102. Taken in El Dorado.

For the past several weeks this column has focused on the Federal Writers’ Project and the role the project played in documenting life in 1930s Arkansas. One of the project’s major undertakings was the documentation of the stories of ex-slaves throughout the state. Research on the project took place in thirteen states, but the largest number of interviews, (over 1/3 of the entire collection) were recorded in Arkansas, thanks to Samuel Shinkle Taylor, widely hailed as one of the best interviewers and researchers in the nation and one of very few African Americans to work for the Project.

When the FWP began attempting to document the stories of ex slaves, the national office requested states directors hire African American researchers. Many directors, however, refused and some even barred African Americans for working for the Federal Writers Project whatsoever. Bernice Babcock, the director in Arkansas (information about Babcock was featured in last week’s column, including her close connections to Russellville and Petit Jean), hired multiple African Americans but the state officials refused to list their names on the payrolls and/or laid them off after a few months, even though they had already began work on a survey entitled, “Social and Economic Life of the Negro in Greater Litter Rock. “ After an inquiry was issued from the national branch, Babcock hired Taylor, a man who was active in the Little Rock community. He completed the previously begun Little Rock survey and then began work on the slave narratives.

Taylor wasn’t originally from Arkansas. He was born in Ohio in 1886 and raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. He obtained his masters in education from Dillard University in New Orleans and was later drafted and served as a private with the Ohio Engineers. Following his time in the military he became the supervisor of Negro Public Schools in New Orleans and was awarded with a school board fellowship to study at Columbia University. In 1927 he, along with his wife and five children, moved to Little Rock where he became head of the Department of Education at Philander Smith College. He also taught math at Dunbar Junior High before he was asked to lend his expertise to the FWP.

Historians agree that Taylor’s work is the strongest in the FWP collection. He documented over one hundred and twenty interviews with elderly ex slaves living in the state. Many of these men and women had been slaves in other states and relocated to Arkansas after the Civil War.  While historians are somewhat unsure about the legitimacy of some of narratives in the larger collection—especially those conducted by many of the white interviews, who the ex-slaves had multiple reasons to distrust—the interviews conducted by Taylor are detailed and layered with information. As discussed earlier in this series, many of them are also painfully hard to read. In an age before recording equipment was readily available, Taylor’s meticulous notes and subsequent narratives created a record of these men and women’s lives and their struggles toward freedom.

After his work with the FWP, Taylor began work with the Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and become the Dean of Education at Shorter College in North Little Rock. He served as associate editor of the Arkansas State Press, the paper founded by L.C. and Daisy Bates, which covered both local and national aspects of the civil rights movement and served as a touchstone for those involved in the integration of Little Rock schools. He died in 1956 and is buried in the Little Rock National Cemetery. You can read many of Taylor’s narratives with ex-slaves in George E. Lankford’s edited collection, Bearing Witness: Memories of Arkansas Slavery Narratives from the 1930s WPA Collection available through the University of Arkansas Press.

For further information:

Slave Narratives and Images from Arkansas online at the Library of Congress 

Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture: Samuel Shinkle Taylor