The Ghosts Among Us—The WPA Slave Narratives

Old Slave Day Reunion, 1937, Southern Pines, North Carolina

Old Slave Day Reunion, 1937, Southern Pines, North Carolina
According to a local newspaper “…a day set aside for those of the colored race who lived during slavery days. These old timers came from far and near, spent a day in the Municipal Park telling of their experiences and recollections to the thousands that gathered about to see and hear them.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

“Lookee here, Mister, I jes an old colored woman, an I knows my place, an I wisht you wouldn’t walk wid me counta what folks might say.” The old woman saying this, Josephine Anderson, was formerly enslaved. It was October 30, 1937 when Anderson sat with Jules Frost, who was interviewing her in Tampa, Florida, for the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). In her telling of the story, “mister” suddenly vanished. “He was gone; gone, like dat, without makin a sound. Den I know he be a hant.”

The ghosts of slavery still haunt. The Federal Writers’ Project’s Slave Narratives; A Folk History of Slavery in the United States was an enormous effort to collect the untold stories of those formerly enslaved.

The seeds for a collection of these oral histories were first planted in the 1910s and 20s, as scholars began taking note that those who had been enslaved were aging and their stories would die with them. Charles Johnson at Fisk University and John Cade of Southern University were eager to record those stories. Lawrence Reddick, a student of Johnson’s, had suggested a federally funded project through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration in 1934. The FERA project was subsequently adopted by the Works Progress Administration. By 1936 the slave narrative interviews were fully underway and continued through 1938.

Zora Neale Hurston interviews Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown for the FWP

Zora Neale Hurston interviews Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown for the FWP
Eatonville, Florida, 1935
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

The Slave Narratives were a simultaneous effort among 17 state FWP branches. In addition to recording oral histories of the last living generation of former slaves, the FWP also documented African-American culture of that era, including songs, games and more. Card games, like “Georgia Skin,” “the most favorite gambling game among the workers of the South,” were described and discussed. Songs, like “I Surrender,” were sung. Josephine Anderson offered up some folk tales about witches: “Some folks reads da Bible backwards to keep witches from ridin em, but dat doan do me no good, cause I kaint read.”

African-American enslavement is a subject often relegated to elective classes rather than woven into the U.S. history curriculum. Black history is American history. American history is Black history, and the FWP recognized that.

Born in Slavery

Orelia Alexia Franks, 1937

Orelia Alexia Franks, 1937
Beaumont, Texas.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938 contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs of former slaves. These narratives were collected in the 1930s under the WPA. At the conclusion of the Slave Narrative project, a set of edited transcripts was assembled and microfilmed in 1941 as the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. In 2000-2001, the Library digitized the narratives and scanned 500 photographs for this online collection, including many never before publicly available.

Although the New Deal was tainted by racism, the stories of over 2,300 African Americans who had been born into slavery were deliberately preserved for the ages. The oral histories of men and women like Acie Thomas, Fannie McCay, Prophet Kemp, Mamie Riley, The Reverend Squires Jackson, Belle Buntin, Welcome Bees, Kiziah Love and many more, including that of Josephine Anderson, are imperfect. Many of the interviewers were white and they were interviewing Blacks in the Jim Crow South—many of whom were hesitant in speaking about their experiences.

“The compromising circumstances of the color line in 1930s America,” notes Catherine A. Stewart in her book, Living Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project, “made it almost impossible for blacks and whites to speak to one another freely about slavery.”

Elijah Cox, 1937

Elijah Cox, 1937
Texas (town unknown)
Photo Credit: Courtesy LIbrary of Congress

Of course, some interviewers were Black, notably the writer Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston had already published her magnum opus, Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937, when she joined the Florida division of the FWP as a folklorist and contributor. “Well,” she wrote in one essay entitled “Turpentine,” “I put on my shoes and I started. Going up some roads and down some others to see what Negroes did for a living.”

Hurston knew, as do we today, that what Blacks did and do for a living, who they were and are, beyond the horrors of slavery, as the surging Black Lives Matter movement attests. Changes are afoot in classrooms around the country to share more of the Black experience.

Abe Livingston, 1937

Abe Livingston, 1937
Beaumont, Texas
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress

The San Francisco School Board, for one, recently passed a resolution to teach the history, culture and contributions of African Americans to every K-12 student by the 2022-23 school year.

There is, as yet, no national curriculum or set of standards for teaching Black history in the United States. Only a handful of states require it, including Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi and New York. Other states, however, are looking to join them. Black history will be in Connecticut’s curriculum in 2022. Colorado has recently mandated that minority groups be included in the teaching of civic government. Rhode Island, Virginia, Vermont and other states are working with their school districts to establish curricula, as well.

New Jersey is making moves to mandate Black education. Ebele Azikiwe, a 7th grader at Cherry Hill, New Jersey’s Beck Middle School, recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Black history is history and it’s a history everybody should know.”

The ghosts of Josephine Anderson and many others are still among us—conserved at the U.S. Library of Congress so that we may all learn from them.

A Light Went On: New Deal Rural Electrification Act

Girl in front of family home described as "representative" of the "poorer" houses in the area.

Girl in front of family home described as "representative" of the "poorer" houses in the area.
Union County, Tennessee
Photo Credit: Norris Report (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1940)

The cities were electrified; rural areas were not. A light went on when Nebraska Senator George Norris had an idea: Rural homes across the country should have greater access to electricity. Rural Americans weren’t being given a fair chance, Norris said. They were “growing old prematurely; dying before their time; conscious of the great gap between their lives and the lives of those whom the accident of birth or choice placed in towns and cities.”

Morris needed to have President Franklin D. Roosevelt understand that truth. By 1930, nearly 90 percent of urban homes had electricity; only ten percent of farms did. The high cost of bringing electricity to rural areas left rural residents to languish under the flickering lights of candles, gas lamps, oil lanterns. Electricity would revolutionize their lives.

“Electricity for All”

“Electricity for All”
TVA Pamphlet, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1934
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

Roosevelt heard Morris’s call for change. As part of the New Deal, FDR signed the Rural Electrification Act (REA) on May 20, 1936, providing federal loans for the installation of electrical systems in rural areas. It was three years after Roosevelt had signed the TVA Act, establishing the Tennessee Valley Authority to address the Valley’s need for energy and economic development by creating a public corporation.

The REA established the Rural Electrification Administration, which provided thousands of much-needed jobs. Crews, including teams of electricians, travelled nationwide stringing thousands of miles of wire.

Many believed privately owned power companies were charging too much for power, did not employ fair operating practices, and were subject to abuse by the utility holding companies that owned them. By 1939, 288,000 households had electricity provided by hundreds of rural electric cooperatives. Most of these electric coops received loans from the REA.

Workers on Pole (1938)

Workers on Pole (1938)
Installing electrical wires. San Joaquin Valley, California.
Photo Credit: Dorothea Lange, Courtesy Library of Congress

Just as Norris thought it would, impoverished regions of America became more productive and more prosperous. REA funding and the work of the newly formed cooperatives transformed rural life. In 1942, half of US farms had electricity. By 1950, 87 percent of farms had electrical service. By the mid-50s most all of them did.

The Rural Electrification Administration still exists today as the Rural Utilities Service, under the US Department of Agriculture. Nearly 900 rural electrical coops are still in operation, providing service coast to coast.

New challenges for rural Americans have arisen, however. Many today are living in digital darkness—10 times more likely to lack broadband internet access than their urban counterparts.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a New Deal agency established in 1934, estimates that today a quarter of rural Americans and a third on tribal lands do not have access to broadband internet, defined as download speeds of at least 25 megabytes a second. Fewer than 2 percent of urban dwellers have this same problem. A 2018 analysis by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association noted that 13.4 million people lack adequate high-speed internet service.

“Our lines” Poster

“Our lines” Poster
Rural Electrification Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Photo Credit: Lester Beall, Courtesy Library of Congress

“Light” Poster

“Light” Poster
A farmhouse with light beaming from its windows
Photo Credit: Lester Beall, Courtesy Library of Congress

 

REA Coop (1942)

REA Coop (1942)
Members of the U.S. Rural Electrification Administration (REA) cooperative in Hayti, Missouri.
Photo Credit: Photographer: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy Library of Congress

As it was in the early 1930s, the issue is cost. Stringing fiber optic cable costs about $20,000 per mile. There are many miles to cover in rural America and not a lot of customers populating those miles. The estimated cost hovers at $40 billion. Federal action is required. President-elect Biden has pledged to spend $20 billion on digital infrastructure.

Senator George Norris would be pleased if the federal government did more on this front. Rural Americans deserve a fair chance. Lacking broadband isn’t just an inconvenience—not being able to watch Netflix or shop Amazon. Studies have proven lack of access to broadband internet is a major hindrance to employment, health, civic engagement and education—particularly in light of COVID and the need for online learning. A better life should only be a mouse click away.

REA Poster

REA Poster
Courtesy National Museum of American History
Photo Credit: Smithsonian Institution

Meters (1942)

Meters (1942)
Checking electric meters at the U.S. Rural Electrification Administration (REA) cooperative headquarters in Hayti, Missouri.
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy Library of Congress

 

A Near-Forgotten Black World’s Fair, Remembered

Official program and guidebook

Official program and guidebook
American Negro Exposition that opened the Chicago Coliseum on July 4, 1940.
Photo Credit: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The official program of the Diamond Jubilee of Negro Progress, which opened at the Chicago Coliseum on July 4, 1940, proudly states, “This is the first real Negro World’s Fair in all history…The Exposition will promote racial understanding and good will; enlighten the world to the contributions of the Negro to civilization and make the Negro conscious of his dramatic progress since emancipation.”

Duke Ellington played during the Bronze America beauty contest. Arctic explorer Matthew Henson was lauded, as was Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the man who performed the first successful open-heart surgery. The popular dance team, Pops and Laurie, performed in a production of “Tropics After Dark.” Mechanical Man greeted visitors to the Labor section of the fair. Paul Robeson sang ‘Ol’ Man River’ and poet Langston Hughes co-wrote a musical pageant for the Jubilee. Not to be outdone, choral director J. Westley Jones led a chorus of voices, a thousand strong, under seven large religious murals painted by Aaron Douglas.

Truman Gibson, executive director of the American Negro Exposition

Truman Gibson, executive director of the American Negro Exposition
With replica of Springfield’s Lincoln Monument at the Chicago Coliseum.
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune

The Firestone Rubber Company sponsored an educational exhibit on Liberia, the West African nation founded by freed slaves, then the focus of a Black repatriation movement by the American Colonization Society. The fair’s journalism booth showcased the mastheads of 235 Black newspapers. The greatest collection of Negro art ever assembled was on exhibit, as was the Court of Dioramas—33 dioramas the Exposition’s program extolls as “spectacularly beautiful,” and “historically important… illustrating the Negro’s large and valuable contributions to the progress of America and the world.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt opened the fair with the press of a button from his Hyde Park, New York home. The fair was the brainchild of James Washington, a Chicago real estate developer. He successfully lobbied the Illinois legislature to appropriate $75,000 for the project. Soon after, Congress matched those funds. Washington hoped the fair would counteract the stereotypes of Black people perpetuated by the 1933 World’s Fair that also took place in Chicago. That fair included a “Darkest Africa” exhibit that offered visitors voyages in canoes “manned by dusky natives.”

Hall of Flags overlooking the American Negro Exposition

Hall of Flags overlooking the American Negro Exposition
The columns in the center surround the Court of Dioramas.
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune Archive

The fair was hoping to draw two million visitors to the mammoth convention hall to celebrate the contributions of Blacks to America since emancipation 75 years previous. The President was honored to participate, and Chicago Mayor Edward Kelly said, “The nation pays a debt of gratitude to the Negroes today.”

The exposition was dominated by booths showcasing the many New Deal programs and accomplishments. There was a booth for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC); another for the Federal Works Agency (FWA). “The contribution of the Federal Government to the social and economic progress of the American Negro,” reads the official program, “is the theme of the Exhibit of the Federal Works Agency occupying a commanding space in the Exposition Hall.” The program goes on extolling the virtues of the FWA, citing that the previous year, 300,000 Negro workers were employed on WPA projects and were paid some $15 million in wages.

Mechanical Man

Mechanical Man
A popular exhibit of the U.S. Dept of Labor
Photo Credit: American Negro Exposition Official Program and Guidebook

The Illinois WPA’s Writers’ Program wrote a book on the fair, Cavalcade of the American Negro, published by the Diamond Jubilee Exposition Authority, it highlighted Black history along with the fair’s extensive offerings, including 33 plaster dioramas, which took center stage at Coliseum.

The dioramas depicted contributions of Africans and others of African descent to world events and culture since Black slaves built the Great Sphinx of Giza. Measuring about 4 by 5 feet, and exquisitely detailed, each diorama was populated with sculpted figures of wood or clay. One diorama depicts the Boston Massacre that ended the life of Crispus Attucks, thought to be the first colonist to die in the American Revolution. Another is of enslaved Africans disembarking a ship onto Virginia soil in 1619. There’s one of dancers celebrating Juneteenth, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States, dating back to 1865. Another one honors the Black soldiers of World War I.

Pin

Pin
American Negro Exposition
Photo Credit: Live Auctioneers

African American artist Charles Dawson designed the 33 dioramas and supervised the 120 Black artisans employed to create them. Twenty of the dioramas are housed at Alabama’s Tuskegee University’s Legacy Museum. Conservators with the Alliance of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) oversaw the restoration of the dioramas, introducing Black students to the field of art conservation.

Dr. Jontyle Robinson, Curator and Assistant Professor at the Legacy Museum notes that those “who organized the 1940 Negro Exposition in Chicago understood the importance of African Americans to American History.” The dioramas reflect that, and are part of that history themselves.

Restoration. Kiera Hammond works on the diorama of the Boston Massacre death of Crispus Attucks.

Restoration
Kiera Hammond works on the diorama of the Boston Massacre death of Crispus Attucks.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Winterthur Museum

Other than these twenty dioramas, little else remains of those 1940 Jubilee days. The fate of the13 missing dioramas remains unknown. The Mechanical Man who drew crowds has rusted into oblivion. The remnants of the Chicago Coliseum itself were finally cleared in the early 1990s. Coliseum Park, a dog park across from where the imposing building once stood is the only acknowledgement of the Coliseum in the neighborhood’s history.

When the exposition closed on September 2, 1940, only 250,000 visitors had taken in the exposition, far fewer than the producers had hoped. In the eyes of many, it was deemed a failure. Yet, the first real Negro World’s Fair still resonates 80 years later. As Dr. Robinson says, “All the police brutality, mass incarceration, lynching, health disparities, red lining, Jim Crow laws and economic discrimination cannot disrupt the truth.”

And the truth is, Black Americans contributions continue and continue.

Ticket Stub

Ticket Stub
American Negro Exposition celebrating 75 years of progress and achievement.
Photo Credit: Swan Auction Galleries

Diorama Detail

Diorama Detail
“The Landing of Slaves in Virginia, 1619”
Photo Credit: Julianna Ly

 

Watch: Preserving Dioramas of African American History  (6:40 minutes) CBS Sunday Morning

Gordon Parks, “Showing America to Itself”

American Gothic, Washington, DC, 1942

American Gothic
Washington, DC, 1942
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, FSA Public Domain

“What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it.” These are the words of photojournalist Gordon Parks (1912-2006). From his work as a New Deal photographer in the 1940s, through the tumult of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and into the 70s, 80s and beyond, Parks’ images of Black America made visible the country’s racist legacy and the struggles to overcome it.

Parks was born in 1912 in segregated Fort Scott, Kansas. His parents, tenant farmers, died when Parks was a child. By age 15 he was on his own, scraping by as a singer, piano player, busboy, and waiter. During the Depression, Parks, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, toured as a semi-pro basketball player. Inspired by photographs of migrant workers, Parks bought his first camera and taught himself how to use it. He got work as a fashion photographer and made portraits of society women, while also turning his eye to the social conditions of African Americans living on Chicago’s South Side. It was this work that earned Parks a fellowship and, in 1942, a job with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). He was the only Black photographer on the staff. It was the beginning of a long career that showcased the lives Black Americans.

Gordon Parks, March on Washington, 1963

Gordon Parks
March on Washington, 1963
Photo Credit: Photographer unknown, Courtesy: Gordon Parks Foundation

Mrs Ella Watson, a government charwoman, with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, july 1942[1]
Gordon Parks Washington, D.C. Mrs. Ella Watson, a government charwoman, with three grandchildren and her adopted daughter, July 1942 gelatin silver print sheet: 18.3 × 23.7 cm (7 3/16 × 9 5/16 in.) mount: 24.1 × 29.2 cm (9 1/2 × 11 1/2 in.) Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

 

“I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs. I knew at that point I had to have a camera.”

—Gordon Parks

Parks admired FSA photographers like Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, Arthur Rothstein and Jack Delano. Under the FSA’s demanding director, Roy Stryker, Parks began making what he called, “stark photographs [that] accused man himself,” protesting the inequities he observed with keen eyes, nimble fingers, the light of a flashbulb. One of his best known photographs, “American Gothic,” a portrait of domestic worker Ella Watson, reflects Parks’ own encounters with racism in the nation’s segregated capital. Stryker feared that the photograph would so outrage white Congressmen that all the FSA photographers would be fired.

A family says grace before dinner, Anacostia Housing Project, 1942

A family says grace before dinner
Anacostia Housing Project, 1942
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks, FSA

“I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the world, including racism, intolerance and poverty,” Parks told The New York Times in 2002.

The same can be said for those documenting America’s current social justice movements, like Yachin Parham in New York City. “A photograph makes the story real. You see the emotion, the love, the shapes, the light,” he says. In Boston, OJ Slaughter is also documenting the civil unrest. “While photography helps tell history, it can also alter history,” he says. Chloe Collyer, who is covering protests in Seattle, observes, “There are photographers in every large city in the country documenting a new global movement for Black lives. And that’s uplifting for me both as a photojournalist and a descendant of enslaved people.”

Says New York photographer Andre D. Wagner, who was inspired by Parks, “In America we want to sweep our history under the rug, but any real art won’t let you.”

With the highest caliber cameras and lowliest smartphones, there are a thousand Gordon Parks showing America to itself.