Voices: WPA Narratives

Oral histories conducted with former slaves and the generation born after emancipation speak to the resilience and initiative shown by African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Beginning in 1936, a unit of the Virginia Writers' Project staffed by African Americans conducted interviews with more than 300 formerly enslaved men and women. The interviews and research in libraries and courthouses resulted in the publication of The Negro in Virginia in 1940. About half of the interviews have been lost and the rest are located at various repositories around the state. Approximately fifty are part of the Library of Virginia's collection of WPA Life Histories.  Many of the extant interviews were published as Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-slaves (University Press of Virginia, 1976).

Although the narratives should be read carefully, they do provide an opportunity for formerly enslaved men and women to tell their own stories about life under slavery and freedom. The interview with former Hampton student Lorenzo Ivy presents a fascinating case study in the highly mediated environments of these oral histories. In 1937 Interviewer Claude W. Anderson transcribed Ivy’s speech with heavy dialect, although Ivy's voice shows no indication of vernacular inflection in the 1874 publication Hampton and Its Students.  Placing these two sources side by side demonstrates the different agendas and perspectives that arbitrated the experiences of African Americans after the end of slavery.