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 Glascow Norwood:
Glascow Norwood lives near Pinola, Mississippi, on a farm. He was born about 1852, was owned during slavery time by John Norwood. He is tall and slender, his black face is partly covered with gray side whiskers and a goatee, until a few years ago he wore long whiskers. He is in excellent health and active. He hears well, has his natural teeth and can see to thread a needle without the aid of glasses.
“I was a slave right here in Simpson County on a big plantation, deir was about sixty or seventy udder slaves. Us lived in log cabins back ob Mars’ big two story house which had a kitchen dat stood out to one side to feed the slaves in at dinner, dey had to co 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.
Ok deir own breakfast and supper, but Mars he gib ’em de stuff to cook. We toted it to de cabins in pans and goards. We drunk water out of goards too.
When I fust begun to recollect, I was a little chap running around in my long shirt a playin’ in de sand, mud holes and ash heaps. I liked a big noise and to stir up a dust or splash in de water. I was alwas ’round when de slave women was a making soap with de fires a burnin ’round de pots. Hit was de same way at mollasses makin’ time, I liked de muss and de stur. I’d climb high stacks of cane and watch de mules go ’round and ’round as dey pulled de long poles to de mill dat ground de cane to juice. Den I could see de black smoke boiling up from de furnaces where dey cooked de molasses. I liked de bustle ob hog killing time where dey would hab big fires a burning ’round de pots to heat de water to scald de hogs. After dey was scraped dey was strung up to be dressed, dey would be long rows ob ’em. Den dey would be put on long tables under de trees and cut up. De meat den was hung in smoke houses and smoked.
Us little ‘uns was made to do odd jobs and I wants to tell yo’ all dar is plenty ob odd jobs, jist all kinds ob things, and dey could find more things to make us little niggers pick up and tote, dars de fruit when hit fall from de trees, de nuts, sticks, leaves, wood and chillun.
Mars Norwood was kind to his slaves but he had over-seers dat would get a little rash sometimes. I was put in de fields. When I growed up to be abut ten years old, Mar’s son Donald was a over-seer and I was wid him mos’ ob de time when I got a little biger; he over-seed de stock and first an’ las’ dar was a heap o’ stock which caused a good bit of trapseing ’bout to keep up wid ’em all. Dey was always getting out in a bog or breakin’ through a fence or needed some kind ob attention. We had to keep ’em fed, watered and de horses curred, but I liked working wid ’em.
We was fed and clo’sed well and in de busy time ob de year we wuked hard an’ long hours, hit was wuk eat and sleep. Den at times we had our enjoyment. We could git passes from our masters, an’ everything was pretty, we could visit on oder plantations, go huntin’ and to frolics. Now, I did like to hunt, dar was more game to be found in de woods den. We could find droves ob mos’ any-thing we went out for.
We fiddled and cut up more in dem days dan we do now. Us had times when we’d take planks to de woods at nite and buck dance. If yo’ all ain’t never seed a bunch ob niggers buck dance yo’ sho hab missed somethin’. We would build big fires to see by an’ dancin’ would take place. We had square dances too, dey would git exciting when dey would git to fightin’, dey would tie up and fight lack mad dogs. Dey had to keep de fights a secrete, fo’ de owners ob de slaves sho’ didn’t like no fighting ’round you all see, hit was like dis, dey would get crippled up and wouldn’t be worth nothing to wuk.
Everything went on ’bout lack dat until de wo’ come on den hit look lack everything turrible was jis’ gwine ter happen all de time. We could hear de cannons a shooting an when dey had dat battle at Vicksburg, hit sounded all de time lack de world was a coming to an end. De soldiers would camp near by, and we would be scared. Den when dem Cavalrymen would come a ridin’ through a tearing up de whole creation an’ a taking everything dey could snatch and grab. I tell yo’ all dey was turrible.
After four years of dese terrifyin’ times we was told us was free, an’ turned out to make our own way. We had a mighty hard time fer a few years.
I met de gal I married when I was ’bout nineteen an we promised each udder dat if we ever married dat we would marry each udder, so I courted her three years, I did mos’ ob de talkin’. She died several years ago. We had sixteen chillun ‘leven ob ’em is living. I has sixty three gran’ chillun and thirty-nine great gran’ chillun. I tells ’em all times is to hard fo me to git married again. I guess I’ll jus’ jog long by myself.”
WPA Slave Narratives and Linda Durr Rudd