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Photography, Slavery, WPA

Ex-Slaves in America

In April of 1936, the Federal Writer’s Project of the Works Progress Administration – one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s government make-work programs aimed at aiding the displaced of the Great Depression – deployed a diverse group of unemployed white-collar workers out into the field, tasked with the curious mission of locating and interviewing ex-slaves still alive in America. People from an array of professions were given a small stipend – only $20 a week, but anything was better than unemployment – and dispatched to scour communities for survivors.

Ultimately, more than two thousand men and women in seventeen states were identified and interviewed, creating a narrative of existence under what historians euphemistically called the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Why, given all the possible uses of federal monies, was the government funding such a project? WPA administrators knew the value for posterity. The clock of mortality was ticking for these former slaves. More than 70 years out from the end of slavery in the United States, those who were alive during its day were slipping away into eternal silence — and their stories thus forever lost. Gone would be an invaluable resource for understanding the complexities of the nation’s history

Slavery had been an avoided topic of discussion for a long time after its abolition with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in December of 1865; bigotry and legal intolerance, however, were constants in legislative and courtroom dialogues. Jim Crow laws, restricting the movement of African-Americans and legalizing segregation, remained a common and polarizing feature of society throughout the early 20th century. But in the nation’s cosmopolitan centers during the 1920s arose a growing interest in black culture, fueled by white culture’s discovery of the vibrancy of African-American jazz and dance, literature and visual arts – culminating in the so-called Harlem Renaissance. With that interest came a concomitant introspection about what it meant to be black in America — over which slavery still cast a long, dark and often impenetrable shadow.

Bringing the realities of slavery into the light and honestly interpreting its impact on the course of American history became the pursuit of a number of academicians around the United States during the 1930s.   To tell that tale scholars relied on 19th century printed accounts of slave life told by those who escaped to freedom – accounts oftentimes ghostwritten by white abolitionists not always intent on presenting reality. The WPA’s slave narrative project was intended to greatly expand the primary source materials available to those intent on understanding the underpinnings of black culture in America. However, many of the resultant interviews of ex-slaves, conducted by people with little or no training in oral historyLou Turner Beaumont Texas techniques, were of questionable value. Their accounts ran the emotional gamut, from benign warmth in the homes of welcoming masters to harsh and exploitive treatment at the hands of tyrants. Some interviewees were skeptical about talking to government agents of any kind, their narratives therefore clipped and inconsequential. Many were less than ten years old by the time of slavery’s end, and thus their accounts bore the limitations of a child’s remembrance. Some at the other end of the spectrum, in their nineties, some more than a hundred years of age, suffered the shortcomings of aged memories.

Yet accompanying these narratives were photographs of the ex-slaves. And while written narratives may be uncertain remembrances, the images captured by the WPA project are unflinchingly real portraits of forgotten Americans. The oral histories may depict certain elements of life during slavery, but these photographs catalogued the existence of a people long after emancipation, revealing in fixed certitude a poignant segment of the black experience in the 1930s.

Etched on the faces of the subjects are the deep lines of time, of resignation and stillness, decline and defiance. Some pose in dresses and suits, others barefoot and in rags. Some are seen with the tools of their occupations, a hoe or a washboard. Some are photographed in their homes and the images begin to give viewers a deeper understanding of how they lived, the makeshift furnishings, the dirt and dust and holes in the log walls of hovels, the poverty of their environment,

The photographs are the faces of slavery, captured forever. But they are as well an invaluable primary source revealing the hidden lives of African-Americans in the midst of the Great Depression.

Recollections of the past are often subjective, susceptible to twists and distortions. Photographs as well are subjective; the viewer sees only what the photographer wants to be seen. But what is seen in these photographs are real people, not imaginings shaded by time. This is what the people behind the narratives looked like. These are visual artifacts of how they lived. For many, their name and their image preserved in this collection are the only references to their existence. But they survive, and the pictures of their lives, through their viewing, immeasurably expand the nation’s collective comprehension of the African-American experience in the early twentieth century.

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About markwalston

Writer, historian, creative director, poet, playwright, author of nine books and nearly 200 essays and articles exploring a broad range of American social, cultural and historical topics.

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