How To Research The WPA Slave Narratives For Genealogy

The WPA slave narratives are a collection of first-hand accounts from formerly enslaved African Americans. The narratives were collected during the Great Depression by the WPA (Works Progress Administration).

Over 2,300 interviews were conducted across 17 states. The interviewees were elderly individuals who had experienced slavery during their childhood or early adult years.

The narratives cover a wide range of topics:

  • living conditions and work routines
  • relationships with slave owners
  • family life and religious practices
  • acts of resistance
  • the experience of emancipation

Origins Of The Collection

The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) was established in 1935 by the U.S. government as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

It was a New Deal program designed to combat the widespread unemployment caused by the Great Depression.

The WPA was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The FWP was a component of the larger Federal Project Number One that aimed to support the arts and culture sector during the economic crisis.

Henry G. Alsberg was the national directory of the FWP. He was a journalist, editor, and playwright.

Alsberg led the project from its inception in 1935 until 1939. He was replaced by George Cronyn.

The reason the FWP was created was to provide employment for writers, editors, researchers, and other related professionals.

They were tasked to document the diverse culture and history of the United States.

The FWP produced a wide range of publications, including state guides, local histories, folklore collections, and oral histories.

That included the slave narratives I write about here.

Where The Interviews Were Conducted

If you’re researching your ancestors, you probably want to know which states are covered.

The interviews were conducted in these seventeen states:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Indiana
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Maryland
  • Mississippi
  • Missouri
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Virginia

These states were chosen because they had significant populations of formerly enslaved African Americans who were still alive during the 1930s.

How To Access The Slave Narratives

The American Folklore Center of the Library Of Congress holds the entire collection.

Thankfully, they have digitized the material and it can be accessed and searched online. Here is the link on the government site to the collection.

The collection is arranged by state. If you know where your ancestors resided, you can browse through the interviews for a specific state.

The titles of the individual books seem to indicate there are only two names included e.g. “Part 1: Abbott-Byrd”.

But that is telling you that the book includes names starting with Abbott and ending with Byrd.

Each book is a collection of images. About the third in each book is a full list of the names.

You can also search the full collection by keyword e.g. entering a name.