Are Slave Narratives Useful to My Family Tree Research?

Tracing Your Roots: A primer for using the Federal Writers Project collection, among others.

Minerva and Edgar Bendy of Woodville, Texas, in 1937
Minerva and Edgar Bendy of Woodville, Texas, in 1937 Library of Congress

Dear Readers,

In the past we have advised you to take advantage of holiday gatherings and the summer-reunion season to collect information from your relatives about family history. Get your kin talking, pull out a digital voice recorder, and before you know it, you will have begun a collection of oral histories that will provide a gold mine of genealogy information for you and for future generations.

It’s too bad we can’t debrief our slave ancestors in the same way, to know what life was like for them in bondage. As Professor Gates has written before, only a couple hundred book-length narratives by slaves and former slaves have been published; voices of the vast majority of enslaved Africans are lost to us. However, there are a few slave narrative collections that can aid our attempts to know our own antebellum ancestors better, whether their own words were recorded, or not.

The Federal Writers Project

The Federal Writers Project is a collection of written works, photographs and documents created by the Works Progress Administration to employ writers during the Great Depression. As a part of this larger project, more than 2,300 firsthand accounts by enslaved African Americans were collected, as well as more than 500 photographs of former slaves. Today the Library of Congress holds this collection of documents, titled “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.”

Most of the interviews, stories and written accounts created by the writers were compiled into a 17-volume set. Each volume is dedicated to a single state included in the project. The states in this collection are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. The Library of Congress has made the entire “Born in Slavery” collection available online in both pdf and txt files. A more detailed explanation of the history of the project can be found in the article “An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives.

How the FWP Collection Can Aid Family History Research

There are several ways in which this collection might help you find more information about the lives of your ancestors. For instance, you can search the collection to see if one of your ancestors was interviewed for the project. Although this is a large collection of narratives, it still tells the stories of only a small fraction of those who were enslaved.

Don’t be discouraged if you can’t find your ancestor; there are still other ways that this collection may be useful for your research. For instance, these narratives still may include recollections of slaves who worked on the same farm or plantation as your ancestors. If you already know where your ancestors worked or the name of the person by whom they were enslaved, you can do a search of the entire text of the collection to see if there were stories from other people who were slaves in the same location. Narratives of slaves who were living in the same county as your ancestors can be useful, too, since they can reveal what slavery was like in a certain region.

If you are unable to find stories from slaves in the plantation or region where your ancestors were living, this collection may still have value to your research. There are few documents that capture the details of everyday lives of enslaved African Americans, especially in their own words. So while it may not give you an exact account of your ancestors’ lives, it can help inform you of what others in their situations experienced.