The WPA Slave Narratives consist of 3,500 relatively brief oral histories (most of them two to four pages long), representing about 2 percent of all ex-slaves surviving in the late 1930s. The sample for Mississippi was somewhat smaller: out of perhaps 20,000 living former slaves, 450 were interviewed by the WPA. All states and territories that had slaves in 1865 are represented, except Louisiana which did not participate.
Unfortunately, the quality of the interviews rarely matched the quantity. Few of the WPA interviewers were adequately trained. With the rarest exceptions, the interviews were not tape recorded and the finished transcripts were not so much word-for-word representations of what ex-slaves actually said, but reconstructions based on the interviewers’ memory or field notes. Nearly all of the interviewers were white Southerners and most of them were women. Far too often the tone and even the content of the interviews reflected the white supremacist values of the 1930s. The WPA workers often patronized or insulted the ex-slave interviewees, reconstructing their speech in the crudest “plantation style,” referring to them as “old darkies,” or as “auntie” and “uncle.” Too often interviewers accepted Old South mythology as truth, assuming that all slaves were contented, all masters kind, and all plantations idyllic.
Not surprisingly, during the interview process former slaves often seemed uncomfortable and cautious, eager to please their interviewers by supplying the “right answers” and by wearing the mask of racial submission. Yet some of Mississippi’s former slaves spoke so bluntly about harsh conditions and cruel treatment that state FWP officials, apparently offended by such candor, chose to violate WPA guidelines and not forward their narratives to the Library of Congress in Washington. Thousands of pages of “bad” slave memories were discovered in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in the 1970s.
(From “WPA Slave Narratives” by Dr. Neil R. McMillen professor emeritus of history, the University of Southern Mississippi, posted February 2005 in Mississippi History Now, a publication of the Mississippi Historical Society)
I was born in Calhoun County at Pittsboro July 4, 1855. My papa was Nelson Woodward who was born in Richmond, Va., an’ my Mama was Dolly Pruitt from Alabama. My brothers was Jeff, Sam, Ben an Jim an my sisters was Tilla, Lena an’ Rosetta. “My job durin’ de war was to lead (blind) Bob Conner all through de war. You know Massa Conner was de papa of Mr. Fox Conner who is now such a big man in de’ army. “We belonged to de Wiley Woodward family but Mr. Wileys brother, Ike, was administrator for de estate after Mr. Wiley’s brother killed him. He lent me out to take de job of leadin’ Mr. Conner in de war. “Course I didn’ make no money workin for Mr. Conner. Money is one thing us niggers didn’t see.
My Missus, Massa Wileys wife had a son John Woodward. Dey was 690 acres on de Woodward plantation. I just don’t know how many of us niggers he owned but he was said to be de biggest slave owner in dis part of de country. De white folks sho’ didn’t ‘low us niggers to see a newspaper or nothin we might learn to read an ‘rite from. We went to de white folks church to worship an’ sometimes us niggers would hold meetings of our own at our quarters. White folks read ‘de Bible to us at Massa Conner’s on Sunday mornin’.
One slave we called Alex Woodward ran away lots o’ times an’ de white folks would have to catch him with bull dogs. Dey always used de “Bull Whip” on him when dey caught him. Major Woodard was good ’nuff to give ‘de slaves truck patches that dey could work Sunday, Sunday nights or any other moonlight nights but dey sho must be ready for their regular work on Monday mornin an’ work through Saturday evenin’.
Lots o’ times dey would scare us chillun with homemade ghosts. When slaves got sick a “Granny” would look after ’em. Us niggers sho’ did get good treatment when we was sick. You know white folks sho didn’t want a nigger o’ theirs to die—they was worth somethin! Back then if de white folks did let us niggers go anywhere they would write us a pass describin’ who we belonged to, our name, description an’ where we was goin’, cause some white folks might take us up thinkin’ we was a run-a-way slave.
When dem Yankees come through from de north travelin’ south dey stole lots of de wealthy peoples good stock an’ left their ole wore out plugs in their places. When de war was over didn’t nobody at Massa Conners tell us niggers we was free. One mornin’ several days after de 8th o’ May de white folks sent me to de well down in de valley below de house to get a bucket o’ water. When I started to draw de water I saw my brother comin through de woods ridin a blazed face mare. He never said a word but galloped to de well, picked me up an put me on de horse with him an’ carried me from Massa Conners to de Woodwards. Massa Woodward had told my papa if he’d stay on with him an’ work when crops was gathered he’d give him half we made, so we did.
I has been married twice. My first wife was July Wade, we married when I was 17 years old and we had 10 chillun. Carrie Bell lives close to Calhoun City, Sammie Lee she lives there close by an de others are scattered about in other states. Most of ’em farms. My next wife was Lizzie Moore an’ we ain’t got no chillun. Young people now have better times.