Between 1936 and 1938 interviewers working on behalf of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) collected more than 2,300 interviews with former slaves living in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. The contents of the interview transcripts and more than five hundred black-and-white photographs of interviewees compose the largest collection of primary source materials from individuals who lived and toiled under the system of American slavery. 

The narratives do have limitations. The interviewers—selected by project director John Lomax, a folklorist and Mississippi native—were almost all white southerners. Operating under Lomax's direction that "truth to idiom be paramount, and exact truth to pronunciation secondary," some interviewers employed stereotypical black speech patterns in their transcriptions that may be offensive to modern readers. Also problematic for present-day audiences is the repeated use of the word "nigger," one of the most charged and controversial words in American English, by the former slaves themselves. In the interest of presenting sources as they originally appeared and as products of specific moments in time, however, the transcriptions and language have been faithfully reproduced in this exhibition. 


External Resources

Visit the links below to learn more about Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938 and other resources from the Library of Congress. 

An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives 

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938 

Voices and Faces from the Collection 

Voices from the Days of Slavery: Former Slaves Tell Their Stories


Click on the next chapter to continue

A Great Forced Migration