An “impassioned conversation across generations”: Oral Histories of the New Deal

Martin Jackson, of San Antonio: Interviewed in 1937, his memories of life under slavery were preserved in the WPA Slave Narratives.


Martin Jackson, of San Antonio: Interviewed in 1937, his memories of life under slavery were preserved in the WPA Slave Narratives.  SourceWordPress.com, 2016

A vital link to the past, oral history–“preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events”–reflects how individuals of different backgrounds experience capital-H History. (In this case, government programs and policies.) Oral histories compel us to go beyond official rhetoric and see how individual commitments and values also shape our sense of the world and our place in it–often they challenge what we think we know. As such, these memories serve as “an impassioned conversation across the generations.” (The History Matters website provides a valuable introduction to the work of conducting and interpreting oral history, including some of the pitfalls and advantages of learning about the past through subjective, retrospective experience.)

 

As a site dedicated to both preserving the past and fostering research in the present, oral histories are crucial to our work at the Living New Deal. We’ve long sought and promoted memories of life and work during the New Deal, and you can find examples on our Share Your New Deal Story page and here. These memories evince a reflective population looking back on its contributions to an important era in U.S. history. And we’ve long sought to expand this aspect of the website. Recently, Research Associate Shaina Potts compiled an impressive list of online resources dedicated to peoples’ New Deal stories. You can find this list, divided by state and governmental program, here. It offers readers a wealth of experiences, from CCC workers in Louisiana to members of a resettlement community in Maryland to muralists to African American women who participated in the WPA. Some of these histories focus on an entire group of people; others, on an individual. But all pose the same set of questions: What do people remember? How do they tell their stories? How do these stories compel us to reevaluate our collective past?

 

New Dealers also recognized the importance of oral histories in preserving the past and in challenging traditional narratives of American history. Workers for the Federal Writers’ Project collected thousands of life histories, “designed to document the diversity of the American experience and ways ordinary people were coping with the hardships of the Great Depression,” and these remain essential sources for learning about individuals whose experiences would otherwise have gone unrecorded. (This, by the way, places those government-funded interviewers at the vanguard of oral historiography.) Shaina has compiled a list of websites that provide links to such oral histories. The most famous are undoubtedly the WPA Slave Narratives, thousands of first-hand accounts of life under slavery, and still the most comprehensive resource for scholarship on the lives (and inner lives) of slaves.

 

We hope to expand our oral history resource and to even include video interviews. And, of course, we welcome any suggestions you have about how to improve our coverage of this important form of commemoration and preservation.

Gabriel Milner is Project Manager for The Living New Deal. He is a trained cultural historian who teaches courses in U.S. History at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

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