Using the WPA Slave Narratives

Episode 11, Season 2

From 1936 to 1938, the Federal Writers’ Project collected stories from people who had been enslaved. The WPA Slave Narrative Collection at the Library of Congress is a valuable resource; these oral histories are also problematic. Interpreting these narratives within literary and historical context, students can develop primary source literacy. Historian Cynthia Lynn Lyerly outlines unique insights these texts can add to your curriculum.


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Hasan Kwame Jeffries: African-American history is American history. As our friends at the 1619 Project have reminded us, there is a strong case to be made that centering African-American history is key to understanding the complete history of the United States. So whether you’re listening to this episode during Black History Month or not, remember that as educators we’re called to teach African-American history from slavery through freedom all year round.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This special episode of Teaching Hard History is about the WPA slave narratives. We receive a ton of questions about using this collection, so here’s some guidance for educators on this valuable resource.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: My three daughters were all born in the 2010s in Columbus, Ohio, at The Ohio State University Medical Center. For all of you college sports fans listening, you will appreciate that the labor and delivery ward for OSU hospital sits just beyond the south end zone of Ohio Stadium, the fabled Horseshoe, where the eight-time national champion Ohio State Buckeyes play their home football games. So I do not exaggerate when I say that each of my girls spent their first night swaddled in scarlet and gray, a touchdown pass away from "The Shoe," which probably explains why all three of them are so fanatical about the Buckeyes. In fact, I can’t even say "Michigan" in my own house. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I’m about to be in trouble for having just mentioned "The Team Up North" by name.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Now my brother and I, we were born in the early 1970s. First him. Then me. We came into the world in Brooklyn, New York—shout-out to the BK! Where Brooklyn at? And there we lived in Crown Heights until we went off to college—Binghamton in upstate New York for him, Morehouse down South for me. But before we left, we experienced the best the borough had to offer, from little league baseball games at Prospect Park to Sunday service at Cornerstone Baptist Church. We also experienced the worst of Brooklyn, from corner boys slinging crack to white mobs beating young Black men to death. After college, my brother moved back to the borough, where he continues to live in a building only a few blocks from where we grew up. I, on the other hand, never returned. I chose instead to make a life for myself far beyond the Republic of Brooklyn.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Our father was born at the tail-end of the 1930s, on the other side of the Hudson River, in Newark, New Jersey. But as a boy he often found himself in Brooklyn, sitting in Ebbets Field, cheering on Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers. To hear him tell it, he always had the best seats in the ballpark because his father—my grandfather—who had more than a little street hustler in him, had the "hookup" with some Italian gangsters. Again, to hear him tell it. Either way, he grew up attending Dodgers games and developed into a mighty fine baseball player himself, perhaps not quite the Hall of Famer that he led my brother and I to believe when we were youngsters, but I’ve looked up his stats—I'm a historian after all—and he really could ball, hitting for power and average as a fleet-footed, left-handed outfielder for Newark’s Barringer High School. In fact, my father was good enough to earn a scholarship to play baseball at Central State in Ohio, thereby escaping a life of industrial drudgery in Newark’s beer bottling and smelting factories.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Now my father’s father, my grandfather, was born in the 19-teens, exactly one century before my girls. I remember Grandpa Jeffries well, his hearty laugh and his massive hands. He was born in rural Jasper County, Georgia, but grew up in Akron, Ohio. His mother took him north when he was only three years old, following the death of his father, her husband, "at the hands of party’s unknown." She died a decade later, prompting his oldest sister to bring him to Newark. The Brick City is where he came of age, where he played semi-pro baseball against Negro League barnstormers, where he married my grandmother, where they had my father, and where he scored those Dodgers’ tickets.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Now my grandfather’s father, my great grandfather, was born in the early 1870s, also in Jasper County, Georgia. Jasper, by the way, is about two hours southeast of Atlanta. Monticello, the county seat, was named to honor the Virginia roots of the enslavers who displaced the Cherokee and Muscogee Creeks who had called the area home for countless generations. My grandfather didn’t have any personal memories of his father—he was too young when my great grandfather died, but many of his older siblings remembered their father well. And they shared what they knew: stories of Jesse Jeffries acquiring his own land, rising in leadership within the Masons, helping to establish a Black primary school across the road from the church where he is buried. The old folks passed down these stories for years, stories that finally reached my ears when I was in college.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Now Jesse’s father, my second great grandfather, was enslaved in Jasper County. That’s it. That’s all I know. I don’t know where or when he was born, where else he might have lived or even where he is buried. There are no known stories about his life for me to pass down to my daughters. In fact, the only evidence that he even existed is us: his son, his grandson, my father, myself, my daughters. Such is what it means to be a descendant of enslaved African Americans. Your family tree can end abruptly right around 1865.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I have often wondered what life was like for my second great grandfather as an enslaved person in Jasper County. On whose land did he live? Did he have any family nearby? What kind of work was he forced to do? How did he resist his bondage? How did he learn about emancipation and what did he do immediately afterward? But the answers to these questions are unknowable. Or at least I thought they were.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: While recording this episode of Teaching Hard History, I asked historian Lynn Lyerly to share the most compelling WPA slave narratives that she has come across while researching and teaching American slavery. The WPA narratives are interviews with formerly-enslaved persons that were conducted in the 1930s as a part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Out of a couple thousand possibilities, Professor Lyerly chose the narrative of 85-year-old Charlie Rigger of Palestine, Arkansas.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Rigger’s interview is indeed compelling. He talks about his family being sold to Floyd Malone, whose wife he called a "terrible piece of humanity." He discusses his mother working as a cook and a weaver, and his father—whom he identified as part Creek—as a field hand. He recalls his mother running away several times. He remembers a whipping that she received and one he did too. And he mentions Union soldiers conscripting his brother, whom he never saw again.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But what struck me most about Charlie Rigger’s interview was the very first thing he said: "I was born six miles from Monticello, close to the line of Morgan and Jasper County." Charlie Rigger, it turns out, had been enslaved and emancipated in Jasper County, Georgia, exactly where my people are from. I have no reason to believe that I am kin to Charlie Rigger. But I have every reason to believe that his experiences as an enslaved person in Jasper County are reflective of the kind of experiences my second great grandfather would have had. Rigger’s interview is a window through which to view slavery in Jasper County from the perspective of the enslaved, to glimpse what my second great grandfather would have had to endure and to see how he might have endured it.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I still don’t know much about my second great grandfather, including his name. But thanks to a WPA narrative, I know more about the place where he was enslaved. I know more about how people just like him, how people he may even have known, lived and survived and resisted their enslavement. This is the power of the WPA narratives. They bring us closer to the last generation of enslaved African Americans, revealing what slavery was like for them, from their own perspective, and in their own remarkable words.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, a special series from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This podcast provides a detailed look at how to teach important aspects of the history of American slavery. In each episode we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material, and offering practical classroom exercises.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Talking with students about slavery can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges, so teachers and students can develop a deeper understanding of the history and legacy of American slavery.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The WPA Slave Narrative Collection at the Library of Congress can be a valuable resource in your curriculum about slavery. But these oral histories from formerly enslaved people are complicated texts. In this episode, I talk with Cynthia Lynn Lyerly about how to teach American slavery using the WPA narratives, including how to transform the challenges that these sources present into teaching opportunities. We discuss best practices for explaining the historical context in which these interviews were conducted, so that you can incorporate these rarely-heard voices and the history they illuminate into your lessons.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’ll see you on the other side. Enjoy!

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm so very happy to welcome Dr. Lynn Lyerly. Lynn, I'm so glad that you are able to join us.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: It's my pleasure to be here today.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I have a special thanks, not only for joining us on this episode, and we have some great material and topics to cover, but really a special thank you for co-editing the book that really served as the inspiration for the podcast, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, Understanding and Teaching American Slavery. So a double thank you, and we're really excited to dive into this material with you today.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Oh, excellent.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the things that we have been talking about over the course of the podcast is to try to get teachers to think beyond the textbook. We know that textbooks are problematic when they come to talking about slavery. So we've been trying to get them to draw increasingly on primary sources. And of course, one of the terrific primary sources that will allow us to get at sort of what slavery was like, certainly from the perspective of the enslaved person, enslaved African Americans, are the WPA narratives. Could you just explain for those who aren't quite as familiar with the WPA narratives, what they are and how they came to be?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Absolutely. The WPA narratives began during the New Deal. The Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration decided to collect life histories and interviewed over 3,000 formerly enslaved men and women. And so they sent out interviewers who were largely white women, not solely but largely white women, because you had to be able to type, and you had to have a certain level of education. So these are largely middle-class and upper-class white women to interview formerly enslaved African Americans. And so that's the kind of genesis of the collection was to collect their life histories.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And if you could give us, in very broad strokes, a general demographic profile of those whose life histories would have been captured in the 1930s during the New Deal in this project.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Well, we have to remember that the people being interviewed were largely children during slavery. So their parents, their grandparents and other family members protected them to the extent that they could from some of the worst abuses and brutality of slavery, because they're seriously old by the 1930s. So we're talking about largely very elderly people. And it's not uniform. There's certain places in the South that no WPA interviewer went to, huge areas of the region are left out. So we don't have, for example, a lot of interviews with former enslaved people who are Catholics in Louisiana, that I'd love to have. The collection is over 3,000, so it is broad, it's extensive, but it's not in any way systematically collected. So we have to be careful because of that.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: These are very useful resources for teachers and for history students to delve into to understand. There's a lot of aspects of enslavement especially in the mid- and late-19th century: enslavement, emancipation, the Civil War, family dynamics, religion. A lot of different subject matter is included in these interviews. They do have problems that teachers have to be aware of before using them, but they're exceptionally rich resources. And these interviews are now available for teachers online through the Library of Congress, the American Memory website.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What are some of the other unique aspects of this particular collection that, before even delving into using them teachers should generally be aware of?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: The first thing that a teacher has to be aware of and has to explain to her students about, is that these collections are taking place in the Jim Crow South where race relations are incredibly fraught. And formerly-enslaved men and women, and particularly formerly-enslaved men, are not going to want to talk with white women in their communities about certain things that happened in slavery. There's racial taboos that are in place. We also have cases in these interviews I find very interesting where it's the daughter of the person who enslaved them is the person conducting the interview. So we have the power dynamics of race in the 1930s South that has to be taken into account.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: We also have these interviewers, some of whom were very diligent and tried to get the whole story. Many of them were interested in painting a rosy picture of slavery. So they wanted to hear about the good times, not the bad times. And they were interested in certain aspects of enslaved people's lives, like folklore, superstition, and not in other things. So they don't go at these interviews with open-ended questions. And you can often see in the interviews when the interviewers are trying to steer the conversation towards what white people would think of as safer places to go, places that don't reflect as badly on white people who enslaved people.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So how would those power dynamics, say, color what an enslaved person would say with regard to what life was like for them? Can you think of some examples of how we would have to read into what was being either asked or answered?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: One of the things that my students and I have found over the years in using these narratives, is if you read carefully enough you can often see the formerly-enslaved people finding spaces to tell the truth about slavery despite the fact that the interviewer wants them to tell a rosy story. So one of the things I think that's persistent throughout these is— I'm going to use the language that you'd see in the narratives— "My master was good. Didn't whip us very much, fed us very well. But the people down the street, they were really terrible." So this idea, I'm not going to speak ill of the white people to whom I was connected in slavery, because I know that that's very dangerous in my community, but boy I can tell you about in the neighborhood just adjacent to mine, they beat them all day long, they never had enough food. And so that's a really common trope in these narratives is for the person to absolve their own white enslavers, but then to condemn slavery by talking about slavery on other plantations. So that's one of the dynamics we see.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah, I can certainly see how that would require a certain degree of awareness on the part of the formerly-enslaved person, with regard to who's interviewing them, for example, the descendants as you had mentioned of their former enslavers, sort of absolving them just like you said, but yet indicting the institution as a whole. And I would imagine if, when you look at a bunch of them and everyone is saying, "My master was good, but everyone else's was bad," it gives you a different kind of sense of what people were actually facing at the time.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Here's one of my favorite examples of enslaved people using qualifications is Maria Hines from Norfolk, Virginia. Here's what she says. "I lived with good people. My white folks treated us good. There was plenty of them that didn't fare as we did. Some of the poor folks almost starved to death. Why, the way their masters treated them was scandalous. Treated them like cats and dogs. We always had plenty of food. Never knowed what it was to want food bad enough to have to steal it like a whole lot of them. Master would always give us plenty when he'd give us our rations. Of course we slaves were given food and clothing and just enough to keep us going good. My master would buy cloth by the loads and heaps, shoes by the big box full. Then he'd call us to the house and give each of us our share. Plenty to keep us comfortable, course it wasn't silk nor satin. No ways the best there was, but it was plenty good enough for us and we was plenty glad to get it."

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: I'm sorry I'm laughing there, because I just think she frames it as we had plenty. The food we got was plentiful, but it wasn't good food. The clothing ration we got was sufficient, but it wasn't the same thing that you would give your white children. So we see these kind of qualifications, where ostensibly she's saying, "Yes, everything was fine," but if you read very carefully and read her qualifications in the interview, you can see that she's saying, "Look, we understood that we were getting sub-par clothing and sub-par rations. Even if it was enough to eat and we had clothes to wear."

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: And it's clear she understood that there was a huge gap between the quality of food and clothing that this enslaver allotted to his enslaved people and what white people wore.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And it's all right there. It literally is all right there. You just read carefully and she's saying everything about the experience that was true within the context of the times.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Including people had to steal.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Because they were starving. It was scandalous. Treating them like animals.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So one of the keys it sounds like, to effective use of these sources or a close reading of them, is being aware and paying attention to the qualifications that the enslaved people are making.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Absolutely. That's key. Look for the way they qualify, how they describe "good." Or another thing I see a lot is, "Yes, my master was good," and then a paragraph later some horrible incident like, "He sold me away when I was 11. Never saw my mother again." That kind of thing. So here's another example. This one is Mom Ryer Emmanuel. That's how she's identified. And she says, "My mammy, she was the house woman to the big house and she says that she would always try to mind her business. She never did get no whipping much. Yes ma'am. They was mighty good to my mother, but them other what never do right, they would carry them to the cow pen and make them strip off their frock, bodies clean to the waist. Then they would tie them down to a log and paddle them with a board. When they would whip the men, the boards would oftentimes have nails in them."

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: So here's a case where my mother knows she's fine, yep. She did well. But she clearly witnessed brutality.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And the kind of brutality. I mean, it's a sadism to it. And it's just hard to wrap your mind around it, but these narratives really personalize it in a way that you just can't escape from it.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: And it's telling that the sentence starts out, "Yes ma'am. They was mighty good to my mother." So she's answering a question: Were they good to your mother?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mm-hmm.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: But she quickly then takes control of it. "But them other people who never did right," oh that's a frame for white people. That they would carry them down and then they would strip them to the waist and they would beat them over this board, right? It's absolutely—I mean, I just think that's not what the interviewer wanted to hear here.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. And the pivot, right? Like you were saying, it's a great example of that, okay here's the answer to your question, and now here's the truth behind what you were not looking for.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Absolutely. And I think these interviews are so rich with that. They'll talk the talk, but then when you hear the details of what happened with that enslaver, you see the brutality, the ripping apart of families, the disregard for the humanity of the enslaved.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Really powerful. One of the things that leaps out immediately when you read the WPA narratives, is the use of dialect in the transcriptions of these conversations. Could you explain a little bit about what's going on there, and why to a certain extent it's both problematic and reflective of racial attitudes of the moment?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: In many of these WPA offices, the interviewers were told, we want to render the speech of the people who you're interviewing exactly. But these are white people who come from an era of minstrel shows, where minstrel dialect is how Black speech is rendered on the radio and in movies. And so many of the interviewers render whatever the formerly-enslaved person is saying, they render it into minstrel dialect. And sometimes it's in spelling and sometimes it's in other ways. So one of the things you see frequently is w-u-z for "was," for w-a-s. Now they're pronounced exactly the same, so there's no reason to write w-u-z when somebody says "was," but it makes the person speaking look like they're less educated if they spell it incorrectly. So these white interviewers interject these spellings that make it look like plantation dialect from the minstrel stage.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Obviously, if we hand excerpts or a full narrative to students, that's probably the first thing that's gonna leap out at them. I mean, it's in the first paragraphs, that sort of dialect. What would be your recommendation or advice for teachers, in advance of their students getting this and that being the first thing they lay their eyes on?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Well, there's several things you could do in the classroom that would be interesting. One is you could first introduce them to these variant spellings. You could write on the board, "w-u-z," "w-a-s," or "k-u-m," "c-o-m-e." These are some phonetic things that you see in the narratives, and ask your students to pronounce them, and remark on how, "Boy, that sounds like that's exactly the same word you just said." So—and then talk about what does it mean if I spell what you say this way versus spelling it that way. You could also just give them a brief lesson in, the interviews are gonna have these things that you're gonna have to sound out to figure what's being said there. And occasionally I can't even figure it out. It's rendered so deeply into some white racial imaginary, that I can't figure what word they're trying to use. So even a seasoned person with these can struggle with them. I tell students sound it out in your head and figure out what they're trying to say, and be aware that some of these are very egregious spellings of alleged dialect. So I warn them right up front about that.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It sounds like going into using these in the classroom, that establishing the context not just for—not just the context of enslavement, but the context of the 1930s, and when they are—when these historical documents are actually being created is critically important for effective use in the classroom.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: I think that's absolutely true. In many of these interviews, the formerly-enslaved person is asked about things like the Ku Klux Klan or Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Booker T. Washington. So they reveal a lot. You could actually write papers from these interviews on Reconstruction, on the Ku Klux Klan, on Black education in the 1930s. I think that context, that racially-charged, racist South context of the racial power dynamics are crucial. If you put these in context, they show you how brilliant many of these people who are being interviewed were at getting the truths out, despite the fact that their interviewers did not want to hear them.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, there are always critics of sources, and particularly oral history, and this is very much a kind of oral history. What have been some of the criticisms of the WPA narratives, and what is your thought about those criticisms?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Some of the criticisms have been the questions are often loaded. You can literally see that in some places where the interviewer will include their question, "Wasn't your master good to you?" In other places, it's clear from the answer that the person was just asked a loaded question. So I think that's true. There are some that get heavily edited after they're done. I think that you go into these willing to say, "I'm not gonna use this next narrative because it's so suspect, and the intervention seems so deliberate and egregious." Or have your students come to that conclusion, that this is not a good representation of things. I think also historians have looked at the age of the people being interviewed. They were children in slavery, so it speaks more towards childhood, these narratives do, often, than the experiences of adults. That said, a lot of these interviewees talk about their parents' experiences. So it's not that you just get childhood experiences in the narrative. So like any source, these have problems and they're polluted in ways that you really have to go in consciously.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It seems that, almost with any good source—and thinking about the WPA narratives as not being a single source, but as you mentioned you're talking about several thousand, so it's a collection. And I think it's safe to say that not all of the narratives are equal, not only because of the interviewees but also—and perhaps more so—because of who was doing the interview.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: That's absolutely true. There's some Fisk University students, so they're African American who do some of these interviews, and those interviews show more brutality, more of the family separation. So as we would expect, Black interviewers elicited more honest answers when they were doing the interviewing than these white women who come from middle- and upper-class families.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There's a lot of different ways to use these narratives and, of course, they will become revealing about the enslaved experience. But also it seems that a useful exercise would be comparing what's being told in interviews that are conducted three-quarters of a century from slavery, from 1865 to the 1930s by, as you mentioned, these African American students from Fisk, a historically Black college, versus interviews being made by sort of middle-class Southern women. If and when those who was asking the questions is identifiable.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Oh, yeah. That would be an excellent exercise, and people have done that in their classrooms I know to good effect. You can also—I mean, there's also in South Carolina, in particular the Sea Islands, there is one interviewer, Genevieve Chandler, who is very interested in folklore and in Gullah language. So she also does the dialect in her interviews, but she's really focused on trying to get the precision of the language. So in her case, even though she does—she uses some of the same egregious dialect things that I've been talking about, she also gets Gullah grammar patterns in there. And so hers are a goldmine for things like, if you're interested in Gullah language or the African survivals and proverbs. So Genevieve Chandler, for example, as an interviewer is very good with folklore, but not every interviewer cares as much about it. So even with white interviewers, there's a variety of different good interviews and bad interviews in the collection.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: We've already talked about and thought about the interviews as documents and sources. And keeping all of that in mind, what are some of the historical gaps and holes in our general understanding of what the experience of slavery was like, that these narratives, these oral histories fill for us? Where are they especially useful in providing us with insights into the experience of enslaved people and what slavery was?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: One of the things I think that the WPA narratives get at that maybe no other source does quite as well, is children. You're teaching students who are just out of childhood, so they're gonna have more empathy with children. And so the experiences of children under this brutal system really come through in these narratives. Children having to watch their parents being beaten. And so I think they can see through the eyes of children this institution, and I think it's gonna speak to them because they're just out of childhood themselves. And I think they're especially useful for the dynamics of the families, enslaved families. You see the ubiquity of family separation and some of the psychological costs of that, even though the interviewers don't ask what are the psychological costs, it comes through. "I never saw my mother again," right? "I left and I never saw my mother again. I was five years old." So I think the separation of families and the heartbreak that that rends is in these interviews. I think the importance of family comes through in these interviews. They're pretty good about the material culture of slavery: the living conditions, the food, clothing. Because they are asked about that. The white interviewers wanted to hear good things, but they do ask those questions. I think they're especially good about what kinds of work people did in slavery.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: And they're very good about the Civil War. The Civil War, I should have probably began with that, because they do ask about where you were when the Civil War started? What do you remember about the war? And there's a lot of reminiscences about the Civil War in these narratives, and how the enslaved experienced the war.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And from your reading, just to pick up on the Civil War aspect, I mean all of these are fascinating. Certainly the family separation, labor and work, which I imagine you can also extract some of just sort of the daily routine of enslaved people through some of what they're saying. I wonder though, immediately about the Civil War. I mean, wars often change those daily routines. Is there a way to pick up on the differences between enslaved life before the war and during the war? Or is what's being offered more about, "Well, this is just where I was and what was happening?"

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: You do get a sense that war changes everything. That the enslaved realized what the war was about. They're not confused; it was about slavery. And food shortages happen. I mean, that's something you see across the different narratives. For the people who were enslaved near front lines, they talk about hearing the cannons booming, seeing deserters come through, armies come through. You get also, I think—one of the exciting things about these narratives, you get the sense that freedom was palpable. They realized it was gonna be tangible and it was coming soon. And so that excitement of the end to slavery, I think, runs through these narratives. And how it comes. It doesn't always come with Union soldiers. Sometimes it comes with their former enslaver coming to tell them, "Get off the place," or "You're free now because the government told me I had to tell you that."

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The delivery of the actual news of freedom, you know, it really—Lynn, it really strikes me the point that you had made about this sense that freedom is palpable, that freedom is possible, that it may even be near. I think when we take that and keep in mind that, you know, slavery in what becomes the United States begins in 1619, so you're talking about, you know, fully two and a half centuries, that if you were enslaved in 1700 or 1750 or 1800 or 1825, you know, freedom wasn't near.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And there's no hope on the horizon. And so it's almost hard to fathom that suddenly, you know, if you're enslaved on a particular plantation for three or four generations—James Madison's enslaved people, three or four generations, that this becomes something that you could almost touch. It would almost seem unbelievable.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: I think that that does come through in the narratives. And it's often described in religious terms. Jubilee, you know, God's intervention. That this is a world historical event, that God has intervened in human history here to stop this—this sin. I mean, I think that really comes through.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It would seem that, you know, if you literally are going back generations of being enslaved, that it would be framed as that kind of intervention needed in order to end the institution that you had been held in bondage to. It also seems that the narratives get at something that is hard for students to wrap their mind around because of the way we talk about slavery and enslaved people. And that is that they were not only feeling people, right? So that they felt the pain of slavery, but then also felt the love of the bonds of family. And sometimes we're a little bit better at that, but it definitely seems like we can get at family and family connections through the narratives.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But also the idea that we almost never get at is that these are thinking people. That they are fully aware, as you had mentioned, of sort of what's going on, and dynamics beyond just the immediate plantation, and that part of taking enslaved people seriously as human beings is taking them seriously as thinkers and political thinkers in a very real kind of way. What do you think about that?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: You're making me think of this exercise I use in my classroom. I have my students read the poetry of George Moses Horton who was an enslaved poet in Chapel Hill. And he has—"My genius like a bird, fluttered in my heart never to depart. It was like a cage," he talks about in his poetry. And I ask them to think about the intellectual theft that slavery was, and how much we lost of the gifts, the intellectual gifts of enslaved people by bondage. So I think the George Moses Horton poetry illustrates that very well, but I also think the WPA narratives do.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Part of the reason that I think I want students to struggle with these narratives and thinking about how they were created and thinking about how the Black people being interviewed creatively worked within this system of the interview itself to talk about the truths of slavery. And I think you really see how clever they are. Here's one example. Often the interviewer asks about Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln. What are your thoughts, what are your opinions? And what's really clever is how many formerly-enslaved people come up with stories. "Oh I don't—Jefferson Davis stole—I think he was a man who stole a lot of things," right? "And Abraham Lincoln, he snuck down here pretending to be a beggar but he told us to have hopes." So there's all this Lincoln lore in the WPA narratives about Lincoln wearing—showing up in disguise on plantations and talking to the enslaved people there. And they're just very clever in the way they talk about Lincoln and Davis without ever saying, "Jefferson Davis, you know, stole my people. And Abraham Lincoln helped free my people." They don't say it that overtly. It's clever. It's in this folkloric tradition that they wrap—you know, "Lincoln came down here dressed as a beggar, but he whispered in our ear and told us that freedom was on the way." That's clever. You know, to think about how you tell these stories, how you say we wanted freedom, we did not like slavery, when there's a white woman sitting there who doesn't want to hear that. I think there are intellectual gifts in getting their truths out in these narratives is something that comes through to me.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What do the narratives tell us about resistance to slavery on the part of enslaved people, and the ways in which they were able to resist slavery or how they manifested this desire? And not only for freedom, but also to make life in bondage a little bit more bearable?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Well, I think the narratives speak—in terms of resistance, they talk about—running away is frequently found in the narratives, even if the person being interviewed is not the person who ran away. Running away is talked about a lot. There's a remarkable amount of physical resistance revealed in the narratives. I didn't bring the excerpt with me, but there's a woman who refuses to have sex with her overseer, and she gets whipped for it all the time. But she absolutely physically stands up to him. So we see literal acts of physical resistance. I think one of the ways the narratives speak to resistance is in talking about—I've mentioned this a lot, but family. And another way is religion. I really do think religion is something that white people were not—they were interested in, they asked about it. And the people being interviewed, the African Americans being interviewed, talked a lot about religion and the values that they held dear in religion, that you can see as a psychological resistance against the dehumanization of slavery. I think those things stand out to me.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thank you, because it's so important that we talk about resistance and to be able to use these narratives to sort of piece together the ways in which African Americans resisted their enslavement is so vitally important for teaching. So I'm glad that there are things in the narratives that point to that that teachers can use.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Well, I think the narrative structure too, as I was talking about earlier, despite what the white people wanted to hear, the Black interviewees smuggled in often information about the horrors of slavery, I think shows you resistance, too. A creative kind of intellectual—verbal in this case, too—adroitness that I think was resistance to what bondage could do to your mind and your heart.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Just to introduce your students to the narratives, I selected two that are, like, one-page narratives. They don't have a lot of problematic language, but they clearly show that the interviewer is steering the conversation, and what the interviewer is asking. And they also show that the person being interviewed is trying to tell some truths about slavery. So one is Charlie Rigger, he's of Arkansas, and the other is Lydia Jones. She's also of Arkansas. I thought those two are excellent interviews that show that the conversation is being steered by the white person and the Black person is pushing at it in significant ways to get their truths out there.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So those two really seem to exemplify what you were pointing out earlier that, you know, understand the power dynamics and this aspect of steering. And yet African Americans, the formerly-enslaved, are determined and find ways when you read carefully and in context, to get at the truths of their experiences and the reality of what slavery actually was. So Lynn, how would you use them in the classroom?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: These are pre-selected. You could read them out loud. There's not problematic language in them. For Lydia Jones's interview, the header is: "Interviewer: Mrs. Bernice Bowden. Person interviewed: Lydia Jones." Who we find out in the interview was married, so she should be Mrs. Lydia Jones, but that's the racial caste system of the 1930's South. Her age is 93. She's interviewed at 228 North Oak Street, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. So here's how Lydia Jones interview opens: "My name's Lydia. Lydia Jones. Oh my God, I was born in Mississippi. I wish you'd hush. I know all about slavery. I never had but one master, that was old John Patterson. No, he wasn't good to me."

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: So you can see there was a question asked right there. "I wish you'd hush. I had two young masters: Master John and Master Edward. Master John go off to war, and say he gonna whip them Yankees with his pocket knife. But he didn't do it. They said the war was to keep the colored folks slaves. I tell you I've heard them bullwhips a-ringing from sun to sun. After the war, when they told us we was free, they said to hire ourselves out. They didn't give us a nickel when we left."

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: So this is just the first three paragraphs of Lydia Jones's interview. But you can see that, unless she's a schizophrenic person which she's not, that clearly the interviewer is asking questions. "Who did you belong to?" "Wasn't he a good person?" "What did you do after the war?" "How did you find out you were free?" These are questions that are being asked. That's why the interviews jump around. So I think that you could have students read this out loud and then have them as an exercise, go back and put the questions in. What question was asked to elicit this next sentence? So they can recreate the actual interview itself by imagining what was asked to get these answers. So I think that that way that takes them back to the production of these narratives.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I could easily see a follow-up question too to that exercise, is why do you think this question was asked in this particular way? What was the hoped-for answer, and then how does that compare to the answer that she actually gave?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Absolutely. I mean, I think that that's—I like that she doesn't only say no he wasn't good to me, he wasn't good to me. She says, "I wish you'd hush!" With an exclamation mark. So I mean her—which is a kind of Southern folk expression. I wish you'd hush, right? Almost like my mother would say, "Bless your heart," right? You're so simple-minded. So basically no, he wasn't good. Give me a break. And so I think we see these interjections here where Lydia Jones emphatically refuses to proceed down the yellow path that the interviewer is trying to get her to go down.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. What are some other ways to use either these narratives, or some of the others?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Well, I have excerpts that—when I introduce students to these narratives, I have excerpts from narratives that do things like qualify, or that do the "My master was good, but down the street." So there's Charlotte Foster, who the interviewer actually is summarizing Charlotte Foster's words. "She said her master never whipped any of the slaves, but she had heard cries and groans coming from other plantations at five o'clock in the morning where the slaves were being beaten and whipped. Asked why the slaves were being beaten she replied rather vehemently"—and now here we're quoting Charlotte Foster. "'Just because they wanted to beat them. They could do it and they did.'" She said she had seen the blood running down the backs of some slaves after they had been beaten." So here's a case where Charlotte Foster very vehemently says they beat them because they enjoyed the cruelty of beating them.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Wow.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: So I think finding excerpts like that, you don't have to read the whole Charlotte Foster interview, you could just read that particular paragraph to talk about brutality.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Another example I can read for you here is Charlie Rigger, who's interviewed. I think it's another good interview if you wanted to introduce your class to these. I'm not going to read the whole thing, but I just want to read a couple paragraphs of it. At the top of the interview for Charlie Rigger we have, "The interviewer was Miss Irene Robertson. Person interviewed: Charlie Rigger." And Professor Jeffries and I both know what this means. This is very typical, that the white person gets a title—Miss—and Charlie Rigger doesn't get Mister. So that sets off the power dynamic. "His age is 85-plus. Doesn't know his age. And the interview took place on a rural RFD three miles out of Palestine, Arkansas."

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: "I was born six miles from Monticello, close to the line of Morgan and Jasper County. Mother belonged to the Smiths. Her father was part Creek." And the interviewer put Indian in parentheses. "They all was sold to Floyd Malone. His wife was Betsy Malone. They had five children. When I was a child I lay under the loom day after day picking up the sickle. Ma was a cook and a weaver too. Malone was a good man, but his wife was one of them. She was a terrible piece of humanity. Father was a farmhand. They had a gin, a shoe shop and a blacksmith's shop all on Floyd Malone's place. I picked a little cotton before emancipation. Floyd Malone had to buy my mother to get her where my father was. Some of the boys wore dresses 'til they was 12 or 15 years old. One fellow rode a mule or cow, one of the others was preaching. When he sit talking to his gal at the window, a steer came up and et off his dress tail. Boys got to courting before they got to take off their long shirts. They wasn't so good to mother. She run off several times. She went about one and a half miles to her mother on the Compton place. They didn't whup her. They promised her a whipping. They whipped her and me too, but I never known them to whip my father. When they'd whip my mother, I'd run off to the place we lived and crawl under the house."

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: So we see from Charlie's interview here, you can tell there's a number of different subjects that are addressed. It jumps around, so you can see the interviewer's interventions here. But you also see—I mean, Charlie hid under the house when his mother was being beaten when he was a child. You see that cruelty there. And even though he said his master was "a good man," he claimed that his wife was "a terrible piece of humanity." And I think there's just all kinds of richness in this interview about clothing and what work children had to do, being sold, a father being part Indian. So we have all kinds of rich material in this just one-page interview here.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And as you were saying, I mean it speaks to so much in that short amount of time and space. As you mentioned, that description of the wife as a terrible piece of humanity. I mean, that says so much. The mother running away, and not just to some random place, or even trying to run away to freedom, but to her mother's. You know, where her mother was being held.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Speaks to this notion that flight was often sort of these temporary escapes, right? And reconnecting with the bonds of family. You know, I also—Lynn, I just wondered, I know you said that this was recorded in Arkansas, but they mentioned a Jasper County near the town of Monticello. I wonder if there's any reference to Georgia in there?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Well, there's Morgan and Jasper County, but you speak to a bigger issue, that where the interviews are recorded is not always where the person was enslaved.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Often, they were enslaved somewhere states away. And this may very well be the case. I'm not sure if it's Montecheller or Montaseller. I'm not sure what Charlie's saying here. But he could easily have been a Virginian.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: These experiences could be Virginia experiences. I was also moved by the humor that Charlie interjected in here of the kid who's at church, who has got his steer that he rode to church has eaten the tail of his shirt. I just think we don't see a lot of the humor of the enslaved, and I think that would have been a joke that a lot of people would have talked about. That time that this kid's steer that he rode to church ate the tail of his shirt as he was talking to a pretty girl.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. And are there other narratives that leapt out to you as particularly powerful in any particular way?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Well, one that really moved me was by Tom Robinson, because he was enslaved in Catawba County, North Carolina. That's where I was born and raised. And he says, "Where was I born, ma'am? Why, it's my understanding that it was Catawba County, North Carolina. As far as I remember, Newton was the nearest town. I was born in a place belonging to Jacob Sigman." And there's a lot of Sigmans around where I grew up. "I can just barely remember my mother. I was not 11 when they sold me away from her. I can just barely remember her. But I do remember how she used to take us children and kneel down in front of the fireplace and pray. She'd pray that the time would come when everybody could worship the Lord under their own vine and fig tree. All of them free. It's come to me lots of times since. There she was a-praying, and on other plantations women was a-praying. All over the country the same prayer was being prayed. Guess the Lord done heard the prayer and answered it."

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hmm. I guess the Lord done heard the prayer.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: We got religion there.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: And that he remembers this distinctly with his mother. And I think it speaks to something that students are always, in my classrooms when I talk about slavery, they're like, "Well, how did the slaves know so much of the Bible? How were the enslaved able to recite so much of the Bible?" And I'm like, "Well, even people who don't read and write can memorize huge portions of the Bible if they hear it frequently." And we see here, "their own vine and fig tree." Right from scripture, right? That language there, probably heard it at church. And so I think we see biblical literacy in this interview as well as the prayer for emancipation and this memory of mother.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Wow. And the connection as we had mentioned earlier when we were talking about the coming of the Civil War and the possibility of freedom, and it being framed in this sort of religious, sort of God intervening on behalf of African Americans. Like, that just doesn't pop up out of nowhere, right? These are deeply spiritual people. And certainly that helps explain why they would see the coming of the end of this period of bondage—their Exodus if you will—as being framed and couched as this religious experience and requiring the intervention of God.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: And enslaved mothers. I think this idea that enslaved mothers all across the South we're doing this with their children. I mean, that image is powerful.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Wow. You know, this is somewhat off subject, but to go back again to the Charlie Rigger story. As you were sharing it and I was listening to what he was saying, I couldn't help but think when you mentioned Monticello I was like, "Oh!" And Jasper. And I was like, "Oh, that's very interesting." This is why I asked you about that, because Monticello is the county seat of Jasper County, Georgia. Which one of the neighboring counties to the north is Morgan County, Georgia. And Jasper County, Georgia, is where my enslaved ancestors were held in bondage. My great-great grandfather, my family on the Jeffries side all come out of Jasper County, Georgia. Isn't that something?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: And that would make perfect sense, because the fact that his father was part Creek, Georgia would be a likely place for that.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hmm. Wow. And that wasn't set up. I didn't tell you about that before.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: You didn't. No.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Isn't that something? Wow. Well, thank you. A special thanks for sharing it. You know Lynn, thinking about the narratives as a whole, what do you think can be gained the most by students about knowing what slavery was and what that slave experience was from using these narratives in the classroom?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Well, I think what the narratives do—and I'd use them in combination, obviously. You wouldn't just use the narratives, you'd also use the autobiographies, you'd use music, you'd use runaway slave advertisements. I mean, there's all kinds of sources out there. But what I think the narratives do is they give us a picture of family life, of the violence on the plantations, of the continued fraught dynamic of Black people living in a racist society in the 1930s. I think they reveal the creativity of African Americans who—you talked about generations earlier, for generations have been taught this is the way you have to talk to white people. And so this isn't, you know, mom and dad help frame these narratives because the people who are—you know, the elderly people being interviewed in the 1930s, their parents, their grandparents, their great grandparents were all taught by their elders, you can't talk to white people in a certain way because they'll beat you, they'll kill you, they'll sell you. So you have to speak in these coded—this coded language. And so I think we see multiple generations speaking through the people who are being interviewed.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What advice would you give to teachers who are thinking about using these narratives in the classroom?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: The most important thing is you need to pre-pick the narratives that you're gonna use for illustration. Because you don't want—I mean, content-wise, especially for middle schoolers, there are a number of these narratives that talk about the sexual violence in slavery, some in graphic ways that would not be appropriate for middle schoolers. So you want to prepare that.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Some of the violence depicted is probably not appropriate for certain age groups, so you want to—that's why you want to have this all done ahead of time. You want to give your students the context of the interviews, and you want to—I give them questions. So I ask my students what is asked. And after they go and research in the narratives and read about a dozen or so, I ask them what was never asked? What did the interviewers never ask in any one of these that we would desperately like them to have asked? And one question that seems obvious to me is, "How did you psychologically cope?" And they never ask that. Nonetheless, the interviews reveal a lot of psychological coping mechanisms. So I think that thinking about what was asked, what wasn't asked, that these are shaped by racial conventions and by two people with very different goals in the room when they were made.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: I think that that really helps students work through that all sources have problems and contexts that must be understood before we can interpret them. I think that these interviews make students into good historians.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And you can't ask for much more than that, right?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Right. Right. That's what we hope for, right?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That's what we aim for, right? Not only to learn the material, but as a bonus, to actually become good historians, meaning that you can read text, you can analyze—critically analyze sources, and do this hard work of not just accepting at face value what is on the printed page or what they see on TV screens or movie screens. Lynn, let me ask you too, where could these narratives as historical sources be used in a curriculum beyond just sort of the immediate and obvious okay, you know, we're spending a little time on slavery, let's use the WPA narratives. Are there other areas? You mentioned perhaps there's a lot of conversation in this dialogue—the conversation around the Civil War. Are there other areas that you think these narratives could be useful or woven into the American experience?

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: Well, I think the Civil War's an obvious one. I think the New Deal in the 1930s, the Great Depression. A number of these interviews start with the African American interviewee saying, "Are you from the pension office? Are you with the Social Security people who are gonna get me my check because I don't have any food," right? So we see the desperate poverty and hunger of the 1930s, as formerly-enslaved people are the poorest of the poor in the US. So I think they speak—they tell us a lot about the Depression. I think that the narratives could be used to talk about Reconstruction and the KKK. In fact, I've used them that way in classrooms. I think that they are extremely useful in just thinking about the power dynamics of race in the 20th century, the 1930s in particular.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: My husband and I watched some program that was on TV the other night, and it had an Australian who was climbing to the top of Mount Everest and he was interviewing his Sherpa. His Sherpa was in the interview and he said, "You know, I feel like we're almost, like, using you, because you suffer all the danger." The Sherpas are the ones who, you know, do all the dangerous stuff and take all the packs up for the rich, white people who want to go up to Mount Everest. And he's got this Sherpa on camera and saying, you know, "Are we abusing you?" And the Sherpa says, "No. When we're climbing we're all one family." And my husband turned to me and he said, "That's the WPA right there," right? That on camera, the Sherpa has to say, "When we're climbing, we're all one family." So I think that the power dynamics in these interviews and thinking about their production will be useful beyond even thinking about slavery.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: But other circumstances where the power differential is such that the person cannot openly speak truth. And how do you speak truth covertly? I think that that's a very useful thing for students. So they could be used in that way to talk about other kinds of interviews, oral histories, or contexts where the power situation is similar.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Dr. Lynn Lyerly, thank you so much for your scholarship, your research, your insights, your suggestions, as well as your reminders. This has just really been an informative and helpful interview. And I'm sure our teachers will really benefit from it as well as their and our students. So thank you so much.

Cynthia Lynn Lyerly: It was a pleasure to talk to you, Hasan.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Cynthia Lynn Lyerly is an associate professor of history at Boston College. She and Bethany Jay co-edited Understanding and Teaching American Slavery, which won the 2018 James Harvey Robinson Prize from the American Historical Association. Dr. Lyerly is finishing work on a biography of Southern writer Thomas Dixon, author of The Clansman.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, with special thanks to the University of Wisconsin Press. They’re the publishers of the collection of essays Understanding and Teaching American Slavery. Throughout this series, we have featured scholars to talk about material from a chapter they authored in that award-winning collection. We’ve also adapted their recommendations into a set of teaching materials, which are available at These materials include over 100 primary sources, sample units and a detailed framework for teaching the history of American slavery.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, providing free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can also find these online at

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Thanks to Dr. Lyerly for sharing her insights with us. This podcast is produced by Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our Associate Producer, with additional support from Barrett Golding. Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. And Kate Shuster is our Executive Producer. Our theme song is “Different Heroes” by A Tribe Called Red, featuring Northern Voice, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is by Chris Zabriskie.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University and your host for Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.


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