The WPA Slave Narratives are interviews with ex-slaves conducted from 1936 through 1938 by the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a unit of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Both the FWP and its parent organization, the WPA, were New Deal relief agencies designed by the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide jobs for unemployed workers during the Great Depression.
The WPA Slave Narratives consist of 3,500 brief oral histories (most of them two to four pages long), representing about 2% of all ex-slaves surviving in the late 1930s. The sample for Mississippi was somewhat smaller: out of perhaps 20,000 living former slaves, 450 were interviewed by the WPA. All states and territories that had slaves in 1865 were represented, except Louisiana.
Without question, these interviews are the largest body of slave memories to be found anywhere in the world.
The account of George Weathersby:
George Weathersby, ex-slave, lives two miles north west of D’Lo, Mississippi. He was born in 1852, was owned during slavery time by Owen Weathersby of Simpson County. This old ex-slave is white headed with age, although small in stature, he stands straight and erect. His heighth is about five feet and weighs one hundred and twenty five pounds. His general coloring is a light rich brown. He is in poor health, having suffered a severe stroke of paralysis a few months past.
“I was a slave for ’bout thirteen years, an’ fer mos’ ob de time had a kind master. Mars Owen was one good man, treating his slaves wid kindness an’ ‘sideration. He seed to hit dat us was fed a plenty an’ had comfortable cabins ter live in an’ kept us in good clo’se.
While I had de good luck ter hab a kind master I had de bad luck ter have a cruel pa. He was mean to us chillun an’ ‘specially to ma. He made hit powerfuly hard on us all, Ma, she had ter wuk in de fields from early to late, an’ den wid pa crul to her, made hit turrible fer her to git along. Ole Mars helped us out a heap; us sho’ would had a time if’n hit hadn’t been fer him. But when I was seven years ole’ us lef’ our kind master an’ went ter Willis Mangel’s plantation. He won’t kind lak our fust master. Ma jis’ couldnt stan’ dat wid pa rough too, so as soon as hit could be arranged she took us chillun and went back to Mars Owens. I cant tell yo’ all how glad us was ter git back to our ole Master where us knowed we’d have good treatment an’ plenty to live on. Pa, he stayed on wid Mars Willis.
When I was too little to wuk, ma went to de fields early in de mornings. I was lef’ wid de uder slave chilluns ter be looked after by de slave cooks. We was all fed ter-gether at Mars. In de summer us et out in de back yard, in de winter time us was fed in de kitchen ’round de fireplace whar deir was a bright log fire. Us set ’round eating from tin plates an’ drinking our milk from tin cups.
We was raised up wid-out no education ‘ceptin de white teachers taught us to read an’ write a little. We could go to meeting at de white folks church house an’ sit in de back, but us wanted to have worship in our own way. On Sundays us would collect at some ole’ vacant cabin an’ have our own services. In de summer time we would build big brush arbors off in de woods. At nite we would make big firs to see by, then we could sing prayer an’ shout all us wanted to.
My fust wuk in de fields was when I was ’bout five years ole’. I was put to hoeing out de fence corners an’ pulling up grass an’ den on to heavier wuk as I growed bigger. De field wuk was hard, hit was all day in de hot sun, but us laked all being together. Big bunches would be wukin’ in de corn or cotton fields, a hollerin’ an’ a singing an’ a telling ghos’ tales. Turrible experiences would be tole of hoo-doo, cungering an’ ob signs an’ superstition. Some ob ’em belived in signs of owls, black cats an’ stumbling up de back steps an’ all kind ob curious things. I never did blieve in them things an’ glad I don’t.
Den as slaves us had our frolics an’ guitar an’ fiddle music. Mos’ ob ’em could buck dance an’ sing. We loves music an’ likes ter play sof’ an’ low.
De Masters kept up wid deir slaves by never letting ’em leave de plantations wid out a pass an’ a set time ter be back. When dey failed to show up in a reconable time, dey sont men on horse-back after ’em. Dey would sho’ fotch ’em in. Dese was called patrol riders.
After de surrender my pa and ma never tried to live to-gether no mo’. All de slaves had to get married all over again an’ dey was parted an’ jis naturally didn’t remarry. We liked Mars Owen an’ stayed on wid him after de war till I was ’bout sixteen years ole, when us homestead a little farm fer our selves.
I married fifty two years ago when I was thirty three years ole’. My love affair won’t very smooth as de gals pa didn’t want us to git married an’ did a heap o’ interferring’.
At times hit looked hopeless an’ us loved each other so much. De more he tried to break us up de more us was determined. I saw I would have to steal her. I tole her I would be thar on a certain nite an’ us would run away. When dat nite come hit was as dark as ink. I got my brudder Steve an’ two cozins to go wid me. We got on our horses an’ struck out. I sho’ was a dreading hit. I could see her pa a coming out wid a shot gun after de dogs had done made fer me. De closer we got de worser I felt. I almost wanted ter turn back. Us got in ’bout three miles of her home when out ob de black nite a friend o’ mine stepped out from de side ob de road an’ tole us my gal had done slipped off an’ was deir at his house, jis’ up de road a few yards. My gal was deir a waitin’ fer me, dat sounded lak sweet music ter me. We was married dat nite wid out all de truble I was a looking fer.
Hit was bad fer us niggers to be enslaved, but us was cared fer, mos’ times a heap bettern po’ folks is a faring dese days. Our race has gained Civilazation an’ education by hit so I is satisfied an’ wants de good will ob everybody.”
WPA Slave Narratives and Linda Durr Rudd