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 Steve Weathersby:
Steve Weathersby, ex-slave, was born about 1856 and was owned by Owen Weathersby of Simpson County. He is now living on his farm at D’Lo, Mississippi.
This old ex-slave of about seventy nine or eighty years is tall and slender and walks erect for his age. His black clean shaven face wears a severe expression and he is not very talkative. His large hands show signs of years of hard labor.
“The fust five years ob my life was spent on de large Weathersby plantation. I had de good luck to be wid a man lack him fer he was good to us slaves, he was kind an’ believed in treating us right. He fed well and looked after our housin’ seein’ to hit dat we always had comfo’table places to stay an’ that us was well cared fer in general. Of course us had to wuk and wuk hard but us knowed we didn’t hab to worry ’bout a livin’. Some time I gets to thinkin’ dat hit was kinda fine to hab some body takin’ care ob yo’, especially in dese days ob depressions an hard times wid so many famblies in destitute conditions an’ all de people that is in distress. Some folks, an a heap ob ’em, would be better off wid somebody to take the worries away. Hit is hard ter find good payin’ wuk ter do dese here days.
My fust wuk in de fields, I was a small slave boy ob about five years. I had to chop de grass from around de stumps. As I growed up I did uder things an’ heaver wuk such as pickin’ cotton, plowin’ an’ lookin’ ader Mar’s stock.
De slaves lived in small huts an’ early in de mornin’ long afore de break ob day yo’ could see dim lights a shinnin’ from ’em ’cause dey was up peparin’ ter go to de fields.
When I was a little chap ’bout five years ole we moved ter Willis Mangel’s place at Good Water. Day was a great day fer me. I was all excited over goin’ to a new place and I enjied watching ’em lood our few household things on de wagon. De few miles ride in de wagon to our new home was a event. I dressed den in long shirts an’ on ’till I was a big boy. I was plump proud ob de fust pants I wore. Dey made me feel growed up an’ was proud de days of just shirts was gone.
My father was cruel to my mudder. She had a mighty hard time wid him, and us children little and having ter be a slave too was to much fer her to stand. Den one day not long afterwards us made what to us was a journey back to our fust Master, leaving my father. Mr. Weathersby was kind to us and my mudder lef my father where she could hab better treatment.
As slaves, our education an’ religious advantages was poor. What education us recieved was by white teachers who would teach us ter spell and cipher a little. Dis was all we eber had de chance o’ learning.
On Sundays us would meet at log cabins ter worship as us didn’t hab no Churches. De slaves did like ter git tergether an’ praise de Lord. Dey would set fer hours on straight oncomfo’table benches an’ planks, while some would be seated on de ground or standing. Dey would hum deep and low in long mournful tones swayin’ to an’ fro. Uders would pray and sing soft while de “Broder Preacher was a deliverin’ de humble message. De songs was old negro spirituals sung in de deep rich voice of our race. We didn’t hab no song books nor couldn’t read if we had ’em, we sorter made ’em up ‘long as us went. We loves music. Most any cottage you pass especially at nite yo’ can hear soft music an’ singin’. Dee slave owners us’ter say when he had a bunch wukin’ in de fields, as long as dey could hear ’em singin’ dey knowed dem niggers was a workin’ but when dey got quiet dey had ter go put ’em back to wuk fer when dey stopped singin’ dey stopped wuk too. At uder times when us didn’t hab no cabin to gether at, us built large bush arbors fer our meetings, den at nite built big bon fires fer light and sometimes de open.
We lacks pur’ty bright colors ispecially in flowers. Our homes may be small, old, and delopodated lookin’ but dey most al’as hab purty flowers growin’ all ’round and a vegetable garden too.
We stayed wid my Master ’till I was ’bout fourteen years ole, when us started life for our selves.
I married when I was twenty seven an hab’ four chillun. Years ago I homestead one hundred and sixty acres ob land west ob D’Lo, hab made comfortable livin’ can gladly say hab neber had to have any help or reli’.”
WPA Slave Narratives