Why you should care

America’s racial divide will never heal without an accurate grasp of the history of slavery.

The film 12 Years a Slave, 2013’s Oscar-winning Best Picture, featured a devastating portrait of slavery. But all of the Hollywood hype over the film left some wondering: How much was real — historically accurate — or typical of the slave experience?

For an answer, you might look to the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, the make-work program that employed millions in the 1930s in an effort to revive the economy. The WPA left a big legacy: 651,000 miles of roads and many thousands of schools, playgrounds, hospitals and airports. Tucked away under the WPA umbrella was the Federal Writers’ Project, which at its peak employed more than 6,600 writers, some of whom set to work compiling oral histories, including 2,300 accounts provided by former slaves. Known as the Slave Narratives, many of these volumes can now be downloaded as free e-books.

Like other aspects involving slavery and African-American history, the project has been plagued by controversy. The Writers’ Project started off as an effort to produce guides to American states, cities and localities, and then broadened to include coverage of American folklore, including life histories and African-American life. The Roosevelt administration had included black intellectuals in the New Deal leadership, who in turn pressed to include blacks in the Writers’ Project, and a few black employees began to collect slave narratives on their own initiative. By 1937, the project had gathered steam as an organized effort.

The stories are often tragic, filled with violence and deprivation.

The narratives are a rich tapestry of survivors and strong personalities, often recorded in full dialect (unlike Steve McQueen’s movie, where slaves are made to speak in a more familiar English vernacular). The stories are often tragic, filled with violence and deprivation. Mary Armstrong, interviewed at 91, described her mother’s owner, Polly Cleveland. “She come and took the diaper offen my little sister and whipped till the blood just ran — just ’cause she cry like all babies do, and it kilt my sister, but I got some even with that old Polly devil.” Years later she hurled a rock into Cleveland’s eye, after she’d been sold to a new master.

Then there’s Frank Bell’s story. Interviewed at 86, Bell was owned by a barkeeper in New Orleans who chased off Bell’s wife when Bell was just 17. One night Bell sneaked out to see her, and his owner “takes a big, long knife and cuts her head plumb off, and ties a great, heavy weight to her and makes me throw her in the river. Then he puts me in chains and every night he come give me a whippin’ for a long time.”

Rear view of former slave revealing scars on his back from savage whipping, in photo taken after he escaped to become Union soldier during Civil War.

The rear view of a former slave reveals scars on his back from savage whipping, in a photo taken after he escaped to become a Union soldier during the Civil War.

Source Getty

Some in the narratives describe plantation life as relatively stable and comfortable, with owners who tried to be kind. And there’s no doubt that post-slavery life in Jim Crow America was miserable for millions, even possibly more miserable than slave life. Yet, “there are a hell of a lot of problems” with the narratives, says Norman Yetman, professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, who compiled and published volumes from the collection. As for the interviewers, he says, “overwhelmingly they were white.” And the answers given to whites showed markedly more favorable attitudes toward slavery compared to answers given to black interviewers.

In the far distant past, historians discounted the autobiographies of former slaves, often edited by abolitionists. They saw these kinds of narratives as biased, and the resulting picture of slavery was relatively benign. This began to change in 1972, when the Yale historian John Blassingame published The Slave Community, told from the perspective of the slave and based largely on slave autobiographies. Yet Blassingame rejected the WPA Slave Narratives, arguing that they would lead to a “simplistic and distorted view of the plantation as a paternalistic institution” characterized by “mutual love and respect between masters and slaves.”

Cornell University historian Edward Baptist, by contrast, embraced the Slave Narratives in his widely praised 2014 book The Half Has Never Been Told. Baptist argues that slavery was not an unprofitable dying institution, but rather part of a violent and sophisticated interstate trade in human labor that was key to the thriving cotton industry and at the heart of American capitalism. The title of his book came directly from the narrative of Virginia slave Lorenzo Ivy, as told to his black interviewer in the WPA project.

Aspects of the Slave Narratives might be flawed but, like nearly any historical source, they can be useful when those flaws are understood, Yetman says. As for 12 Years a Slave, Hollywood is getting closer all the time to the truth about America’s history of slavery. But it could still be much worse yet.

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