Why do some slave narratives from the WPA seem so positive?

For example:

Freedom is all right, but de niggers was better off befo’ surrender, kaze den dey was looked after an’ dey didn’ get in no trouble fightin’ an’ killin’ like dey do dese days. If a nigger cut up an’ got sassy in slavery times, his Ole Marse give him a good whippin’ an’ he went way back an’ set down an’ ‘haved hese’f. If he was sick, Marse an’ Mistis looked after him, an’ if he needed store medicine, it was bought an’ give to him; he didn’ have to pay nothin’. Dey didn’ even have to think ’bout clothes nor nothin’ like dat, dey was wove an’ made an’ give to dem. Maybe everybody’s Marse and Mistis wuzn’ good as Marse George and Mis’ Betsy, but dey was de same as a mammy an’ pappy to us niggers. WPA

  • 8
    Different people have different opinions. However, you should realize that was a black person talking to a white person in North Carolina during the height of the Jim Crow terrorist system (1930's). Answers given about politically sensitive subjects under those conditions might have been somewhat less than fully frank.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 20:09
  • 6
    Please define what the acronym "EPA" means here. I can't see how it would relate to the most common Environmental Protection Agency...
    – jamesqf
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 20:15
  • 3
    @jamesqf: Since the source references the WPA, I think the definition of EPA is that the E key is close to the W key.
    – Giter
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 20:57
  • 3
    What the heck is WPA? Woman's Progressive Action? Will Prove Anything?
    – Jos
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 2:46
  • 2
    @Jos My guess: the Works Progress Administration, a Federal make-work program under FDR.
    – bof
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 3:17

1 Answer 1


This is a really good question. The interview in question was compiled from a WPA effort during Roosevelt's new deal, The Federal Writers' Project (1935-1939). The super set, "Slave Narrative Collection" was a combination of this federal effort and the follow-up state sponsored effort which came after (1939-1942).

The WPA idea was to send out writers / interviewers paid for by the federal government to both employ writers in worth while make work projects during the Great Depression and to document these important historic stories for future generations. The Slave Narrative Collections were meant to document the views, experiences and opinions of surviving former slavers then 7 decades after the conclusion of the civil war and emancipation before these now very old folks, were all gone.

Question: Why do some slave narratives from EPA seem so positive?

Interview Bias and intimidation. The "federal interviews" were often local white citizens, not journalists, and not unbiased in the life stories they were documenting. Just as the former slaves in question were alive, so were direct relations of former slave owners.

The interviewers were almost universally white folks. Interviewers themselves could be direct relations of former slave holders. These people brought their own bias and intimidation with them to the interviews. Whether conscious intimidation or not. I've had the experience of listening to taped interviews of these meetings and you can hear the interviewers leading and correcting the folks being interviewed. I listened to one interview with a young woman who was very familiar with the man being interviewed, calling him by first name in a familiar tense and referring to her grandfather his old owner. That young woman had clearly know this older man all her life and lived in the same community with him. The Jim Crow segregated south.

It's quite an experience to listen too a young woman tell an older former slave about how much he liked his slave experience. Historians believe that the combination of control over who was interviewed, the bias of the interviewers, and the trepidation of these former slaves sometimes had the effect you are observing in asking this question.

I did hear another tape of a former slave who was not at all intimidated by the interviewer and openly resisted attempts to change his answers, so this explanation is not a universal one.

Here is a list of some of the taped interviews you can listen too from the Library of Congress. So you can hear the interviews yourself.

I think we can also observe that the Federal Government at the time was run by the Democratic Party, as was the Southern State governments throughout this period. These people were in power along with Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the new deal. The Democratic Party was the party at the time of Southern Conservatives who's representatives would be in a position to dictate WPA processes and programs. At the federal level this effort was run for 5 years along with the WPA. When it was defunded in 1939 it would be run by the local state governments in the South in some states for another 3 years.

wikipedia: Slave Narrative Collection.
Though the collection preserved hundreds of life stories that would otherwise have been lost, later historians have agreed that, compiled as it was by primarily white interviewers, it does not represent an entirely unbiased view. The influential historian of slavery John Blassingame has said that the collection can present "a simplistic and distorted view of the plantation" that is too positive.[5] Blassingame's argument proved controversial; one historian in the 1990s described support for Blassingame's position as "rare," but defended him on the grounds that "all historical evidence has to be measured against a minimum standard of truth that would allow historians to use it properly. Historians have not, to date, applied this stipulation to the slave narratives."[6]

More recently, even as the narratives are more widely available through digital means, their use by historians has been more precise, including an examination of responses to conflict among the Gullah community;[7] a history of representations of the black body extending to the present;[8] and a study of the period of their transmission, the 1930s, rather than the period they document.[9] Though most of the narratives are preserved only in the notes of the interviewers, large numbers of photographs and tape recordings were made as well, which have proved valuable for such purposes as examining changes in African American Vernacular English over time.]

United States Library of Congress
wikipedia: Federal Writers Project
wikipedia: Slave Narrative Collection

  • 5
    This is unknown territory to me, but I read the whole interview with my lit-crit hat on, and noticed that the positive remarks come immediately after the interviewee had reported on life after emancipation - how she and her husband could live together instead of just weekends, how they saved enough to buy a farm, etc. I can almost hear the interviewer prompting "Was there nothing good about slavery?" and the old lady hastening to oblige her (white) visitor!
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 22:43
  • 4
    @TheHonRose - The thing that strikes me about it is how much it parallels the story about slavery put forth by white intellectuals behind the (now discredited) Dunning School in the 1930's. I'm not saying I know she didn't really feel this way, but if you were a black person in the South in the 1930's and wanted to say exactly what would satisfy a white audience and give you the least pushback from them, this is exactly the kind of thing you'd say.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 14, 2018 at 23:29
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    @notstoreboughtdirt True. You could probably find similar attitudes from 19C British servants/tenants on aristocratic estates "Her Ladyship/His Lordship were always good to us!" Girls of my generation aspired to be air hostesses, not pilots. It's about custom, expectations, raised consciousness - or lack of it
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 1:01
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    @TheHonRose I don't think it is akin to Stockholm or battered wives syndrome where long after the power differential is gone the effects linger. I think these elderly people, in Jim Crow segregated south, where the government employed people like Bull Connors(1960's MLK fioll) maintained a wariness of open opposition, and like it or not the accepted norms in the late 1930's south was that the Civil war was a war of Northern Aggression and African American s were better off in slavery than not. Objecting to that truth could be akin to taking one's live into ones hands.
    – user27618
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 3:12
  • 1
    @JMS I totally take your point - Martin Luther King was assassinated some 100 years after the Civil War! I still suspect there is some remnant of psychological dependence, for want of a better term. Teasing out which is which is way beyond my skill set!
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Feb 15, 2018 at 12:46

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