Born in Slavery

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, unemployment in America reached 25%.  To help alleviate this historically all-time high unemployment rate, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935. Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA hired 8.5 million out-of-work men and women to work on projects that would boost employment, stimulate economic growth, and benefit the American public.             Most of the WPA funding supported construction projects, which included over 600,000 miles of streets and highways, 10,000 bridges, and hundreds of parks, zoos, airports, and other public facilities throughout America. One of the smaller programs funded by the WPA was the Federal Writers’ Project, which hired unemployed writers, including historians, to research and writes local, state, and regional histories.

Their most significant achievement was the Slave Narrative Project, which was designed to record the reminiscences of elderly African Americans who had been born as slaves before the 13th Amendment ended slavery in 1865.             Between 1936 and 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project sent teams of writers to locate and interview former slaves who were living in seventeen southern states. The result was a collection of 2,358 oral histories or “slave narratives” that together constitute over 10,000 pages of reminiscences. The narratives were typed and bound into 17 volumes (one for each state) that now reside in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The Library of Congress has digitized the longest and most informative of the typescripts and posted them on its digital site, “Born in Slavery:  Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938” (  (Links to an external site.) ).

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Historical Context To read, understand, interpret, and analyze the slave narratives critically, you should consider the context in which the interviews were conducted. As you read and write, please keep in mind that: About three-fourths of the Federal Writers’ Project interviewers were white, and about one-fourth were American American. To avoid offending their white interviewers, the former slaves often portrayed their owners as exceptionally kind and benevolent. Therefore, you should avoid concluding that “slavery was not as bad as I thought it was.” The interviewers were told to record the former slave’s’ words exactly—“as nearly word-for-word as possible.” However, some of the interviewers recorded the former slave’s’ responses in the stereotypical racist dialect that southern whites considered humorous during the 1930s, thus obscuring their true words. Others adopted the third person—“he says that” or “she recalls that”—and therefore eliminated the original language entirely.

The former slaves who produced the narratives were at least seventy years old when they were interviewed, and some were over 100. They were therefore children or at most young adults during their enslavement. As a result, their reminiscences often provide a childhood perspective on slavery that omits the harshest circumstances that their parents would have endured and done their best to shield their children from experiencing. The former slave’s’ lives were, to a large extent, circumscribed by the white racism that pervaded the American South throughout much of the region’s history. Their narratives sometimes reflect and repeat the racist language that whites imposed upon them, including horrendous racial labels designed to damage their self-image and diminish their self-worth. You should repeat this language only as part of direct quotations that are enclosed in quotation marks.  Otherwise, you should refer to the former slaves as African Americans.

Your Assignment      Read excerpts from the narrative of Mr. Lorenza Ezell, an elderly former slave who was born in South Carolina and moved to Texas, in the PowerPoint entitled “Texas Slave Narratives.” Use your familiarity with Chaps. 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7 in Peter Kolchin’s American Slavery to write a 500-word essay that identifies and discusses six specific reminiscences that you consider illustrative of the experiences of African Americans who were born into slavery, gained their freedom as a result of the Civil War and spent the rest of their lives as former slaves in the postwar South. Please be sure to follow these stylistic guidelines for your essays: Write a 500-word essay answering the essay prompt Use 12-point Times New Roman typeface Left-justify and double-space the text Set 1-inch margins all around (left and right, top and bottom) Do not add headers or footers of any kind. Get assignment help here

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