Open Book History

The Limits and Strengths of the WPA Missouri Slave Narratives

Until the late 1930s, the narratives of former slaves living in Missouri were unheard. As many slaves were illiterate, documenting their experiences was commonly impossible. Due to the predominance of illiteracy, oral histories of former slaves were collected by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1936 through a series of interviews with former slaves. As with all oral histories, events, names, dates, and details can be fleeting. The accuracy of oral histories is always a concern of historians working with such sources. Specific concerns regarding the WPA narratives such as sample size, residential location of interviewees, and racial bias have led some historians to discount the collection altogether. While many of the concerns surrounding the accuracy of the narratives are valid, the 1930s collection of slave experiences is instrumental in visualizing Missouri’s unique form of slavery, the soldier-slave relationship, and guerrilla violence throughout the state both during and after the close of the Civil War.[1]

A theme highlighted well by the WPA narratives is the perspectives of slavery as seen by former slaves. Several stories include severe beatings and mistreatment, but others paint Missouri slaveholders as caring, generous, and kind. Harriet Casey recalled that her master “would whip with cat-o-nine tails and den mop de sores with salt water to make it sting.”[2] Grace White recalled similar violence when she asserted that her husband “often came home bloody from beatings his old nigger overseer would give him.”[3] Others discussed being sold by their masters to slave traders down south to avoid confiscation from Union troops. “They permitted the slaves to say good-bye to their children and Ellaine said she would never forget the few words her mother spoke to her just before they were separated. “Ellaine, honey mammas ran way off and ain’t never goin to see her baby agin”. “An I can see myself holdin onto my mamma and both of us crying and then she was gone and I never seed her since.”[4] These narratives express the hardships and injustices of slavery and some argue that “slavery wuz a curse on human nature” that “done de other fellows some good but nevr done de colored people no good.”[5] However, for some Missouri slaves the peculiar institution had different outcomes and left contrasting impressions.

While there are accounts of the mistreatment of slaves, many of the accounts recalled their time as slaves as peaceful and their master as “kind.”[6] More than stories of discontent, several were authored by slaves who opted to stay with their masters after the war and whose masters provided them with more support than the federal government after emancipation.

I was paid nothinf after slavery but just stayed with de boss and, dey gave me things like a calf, clothes, and I got to go to church with dem and to camp meetings and picnics. We all set down and ate at de same table with de white folks and tended de sick together. Today, if de parents would make their children do like dey did in slavery, den we would have a better race. I was better off dan de free people. I think dat slavery taught me a lot.[7]

Other accounts support this viewpoint such as “Aunt” Rhody’s who complained that “most of de people around here don’t know nothin’ ’bout work. A little slavery would do dis young age some good.”[8] These accounts illuminate how different Missouri slavery was from plantation slavery of the deep South. Many of the narratives expressed some gratitude toward their masters or the institution itself for teaching “valuable” life skills and providing for them throughout the slavery period and afterward. The accounts of slavery also exhibit themes of loyalty and mutual respect between slaves and Missouri slaveholders. While common conceptions of slavery denounce the existence of contentment, at least some of Missouri’s slave narratives seem to disprove this.

While the narratives surrounding former slaves’ view of slavery are compelling, they have significant limits. It is likely that some slaves stayed with their masters out of convenience and necessity rather than by preference. Additionally, there is evidence to support some of those interviewed were fearful of speaking out against slavery.  W.C. Allen’s response, when questioned about his thoughts on slavery, was “I ain’t eligible ‘-enough to express ’bout slavery. I ain’t sayin’ nothing.”[9] Some interviewees were even suspicious of the motives of WPA interviewers. The wife of Charles Douthit expressed concerns regarding the return of slavery and scolded the WPA interviewer while speaking with her husband. “Say! What are they gittin all dis stuf fur anyway? I bet I know. They want ta find out how dey treated de ole slaves, so deyfll know how to treat the youngins when dey makes dem slaves. I bet they’re goin’ a try to have slaves again.”[10] Due to possible intimidation or fear felt by some interviewees, it is possible that some of the positive recollections of slavery are inaccurate or completely fabricated. However, this does not mean that all positive accounts are false or embellished but within especially this subject of questioning, there is a possibility that responses were sometimes censored by the interviewees.

The racially charged political and social environment at the time of the interviews and the race of the interviewee may have had an impact on the stories told and the answers given to interviewers. Consequently, the accuracy of the many positive recollections of slavery within the narrative collection is of specific concern to historians. John Blassingame discounts the slave narratives because they “lead almost inevitably to a simplistic and distorted view of the plantation as a paternalistic institution where the chief feature of life was mutual love and respect between masters and slaves.”[11] Blassingame’s concern is valid as some of the accounts are questionable. “Aunt” Hannah Allen’s account is a prime example when she suggests that children who experienced slavery were better off than those who had not.[12]

Additionally, the race of the interviewers may have played a part. Historian Norman Yeatmen points out that “26 percent of those responding to white interviewers expressed unfavorable attitudes toward their former masters compared to 39 percent of those who responded to black interviewers.”[13] While these results exhibit a difference in responses based on the race of the interviewer, it is impossible to know whether interviewees in either category would have answered the same questions differently if asked by the opposite interviewers. Without this comparison, Yeatman’s assertion that the race of the interviewer skewed the results may be overstepping the parameters of the data. However, there is a noticeable difference between the responses to questions asked by white interviewers versus African American interviewers.

While former slave’s opinions of the peculiar institution may be in question, the accounts of Union occupation and confiscation are a more reliable narrative. While some accounts recall looting and violence, many stories such as Emma Knight’s, recall Union troops as being helpful and kind. “Union soldiers come and told us that we was free like dey was and told us not to be afraid, dey wouldn’t hurt us.”[14] Grace White even recalls attending school in a Union camp. “I attended school at Benton Barracks and went about six or seven months with de soldiers.”[15] Despite these accounts of gentility and care given to slaves from Union soldiers, the experience of encountering Union troops was no less frightening for African Americans who had been conditioned to fear them.

Me and my mother and my brother who was deaf and dumb went with dem, but de soldiers captured us and de old man jumped off de mule and high tailed it to de woods. My mother got out of de wagon and took my brother to de woods too. De soldier rid up to de wagon and said little boy, you don’t need to be afraid, Im after your father. I started to get out of de wagon and fell down under de mule and dere I was on de ground. I got up and made for de woods and got in a hole where de hogs was a-wallerin. I had on a dress and was standing in de mud up to my knees. I got lost out in de woods for three days.[16]

Soldiers also utilized slaves as a resource for meals and supplies. Joe Casey recalls that the “soldiers would come a night and rout de slave women out of bed and make em cook de soldiers a square meal.”[17] Smokey Elunburg also recalled visits by Union soldiers requesting meals made by African American slaves. “Many a time we seen soldiers pass on de road hut dey nver molested us none, cept to Come in and eat everything that was cooked—and sometime have de women cook up some more.”[18] These accounts indicate that some Union soldiers and slaves had an understanding of mutual benefit. The soldiers were fed, the slaves were not harmed, and in some cases, they were taken by troops and freed. However, threats of violence were always present and for those who valued their lives within their master’s households, the idea of leaving or harm coming to their master’s family was undoubtedly frightening.

Guerrilla warfare, looting, and murder was a significant problem in Missouri and the tensions were felt by southern sympathizers, conditional Unionists, and slaves alike. George Boilinger tells of the murder of several men when “a big corn shukin'” was interrupted by a company of Federal soldiers.

Men ride thru’ dat pile ‘er shucks’ en in dey hair. Den de sojers ask’s ’em things ‘en iff’n de answers didden seem good; dey hit ’em over de haid wid dere guns. I wuz standin’ right here, an’ I saw ‘Ole Massa’ git hit on de haid once, den anudder time; an’ he fell. I sho’ thot he wuz daid, but warn’t. Aunt Polly fix him up atter de sojers wuz gone, but de bushwackers got him. Dey must a heerd about de chest o’ money he had buried. Dey try to make him tell, but he wouldn’t. Den dey put ‘er rope ‘roun’ his neck an’ pulls him up. Den dey lets him down; but he wouldn’ tell no how—so dey finished him.[19]

The threat of violence and guerrilla warfare did not stop with the war as “during and after the war ‘Guerillas’ steal, kill, and tare up, everywhere.”[20] While most Union Guerilla violence in Missouri was directed at slave owners rather than slaves, at least for the duration of the Civil war, the brutality of guerrilla raids left all Missourians and their slaves on edge.

Despite the plethora of information that can be extracted from the slave narratives regarding violence, attitudes about slavery, soldier-slave relationships, and loyalty, one of the most concerning limits is the lack of documentation of the questions asked by the WPA interviewers. Because of the absence of the interview questions, there is room to speculate that some of the testimony of former slaves were somehow tailored for a specific outcome due to the nature of the questions asked. This also makes it impossible to know what topics were covered in the interviews or what else could have been asked to obtain the most well-rounded and accurate narratives. Additionally, the WPA slave narrative collection is not an accurate depiction of overall or absolute patterns, attitudes, or slave experiences during the Civil war. Because the accounts vary so widely, the reader cannot come to a consensus regarding attitudes toward slavery or in constructing a general picture of Missouri’s slave culture outside of the importance of religion within slave communities.[21] However, the collection’s faults do not render it useless.

Valuable themes can be seen within the narratives such as slave accounts of guerilla warfare, soldier-slave relations, violence, which have been examined here, but also freedman’s work and employment after the war and the importance of religion within the slave community. While Yeatman argues, “recollection of the past is always a highly subjective phenomenon, one continually susceptible to modification and distortion,” historians using these documents are generally aware of these issues.[22] Concerns regarding sample size, geographical areas of residency among interviewees, and the possibility of racial influence rightly raise concerns for historians. Consequently, the WPA project is seen as flawed. However, taken individually and read with critical analysis and discretion, the narratives offer an abundance of useful information. When used with caution, the WPA project has the potential to be extremely valuable to the field of African American studies, the study of slavery and emancipation in the Civil War and post-Civil War era, and slavery in 1860s Missouri.

Browse the Slave Narratives, here.

African Missouri- Browse USML Library resources

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William Simms information linked to the above image.

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Bibliography

Allen, “Aunt” Hannah. “Ex-Slave Story.” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.14-17. Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941.

Allen, Aunt Hannah. “God Got a Hold on Her.” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. 8-13. Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941.

Boilinger, George. “An Interview with George Boilinger.” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. 40-43. Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941.

Bryant, Robert. “Slave Married 4 Times.” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. 61-69. Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941.

Casey, Harriet. “Ex Slave Story.” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.73-77. Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941.

Eulenberg, Smokey. “Smoky Eulenberg.” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.109-12. Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941.

Holsell, Aunt Rhody. “Slaves Happy to be Free.” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.191-99. Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941.

“Interview with wife of Charles.” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves, 107. Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941.

Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. Washington D.C.: Federal Workers Project Administration, 1941.

Taylor, Tishey. “Folklore- an Interview with Mrs. Tishey Taylor.” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. 342-47. Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941.

White, Grace E. “She Loves Army Men.” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. 25-31. Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941.

White, Grace E. “Smoked em’ Upside Down.” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. 179-83. Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941.

Wright, Ellaine. “Ex Slave.” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves. 378-82. Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941.

Yeatman, Norman. “An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives.” Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/articles-and-essays/introduction-to-the-wpa-slave-narratives/.

[1] Other themes such as the place of religion in slave culture and slave family dynamics are also present. While these themes are mentioned, they are not examined in this essay.

[2] Robert Bryant, “Slave Married 4 Times,” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves, 61-69. (Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941), 74.

[3] Grace E. White, “She Loves Army Men,” 25-31. (Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941), 27.

[4] Ellaine Wright, “Ex Slave,” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, 378-82, (Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941), 378.

[5]  Grace E. White, “Smoked em’ Upside Down.” In Slave Narratives, 185.; Bryant, “Slave Married 4 Times,” 68.

[6] Aunt Hannah Allen, “God Got a Hold on Her,” In Slave Narratives, 8-13. (Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941), 10.

[7] Allen, “God Got a Hold on Her,” 10.

[8] Aunt Rhody Holsell, “Slaves Happy to be Free,” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves, 191-99. (Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941), 198.

[9]  “Aunt” Hannah Allen, “Ex Slave Story,” In Slave Narratives A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves, 14-17, (Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941), 19.

[10]  “Interview with wife of Charles,” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, 107, (Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941), 107.

[11]  Norman Yeatman, “An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives,” Library of Congress, n.d., https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/articles-and-essays/introduction-to-the-wpa-slave-narratives/.

[12]  Allen, “God Got a Hold on Her,” 10.

[13] Yeatman, “An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives.”

[14] Emma Knight, “Emma was Really Rough,” In Slave Narratives A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, 218-21, (Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941), 219.

[15]  White, “She Loves Army Men,” 26.

[16] Bryant, “Slave Married 4 Times,” 61.

[17] Harriet Casey, “Ex Slave Story,” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, 73-77, (Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941) 75.

[18] Smokey Eulenberg, “Smoky Eulenberg,” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, 109-12, (Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941) 111.

[19] George Boilinger, “An Interview with George Boilinger,” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, 40-43, (Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941), 41.

[20] Tishey Taylor, “Folklore- An Interview with Mrs. Tishey Taylor,” In Slave Narratives a Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves, 342-47, (Washington D.C.: Workers Projects Administration, 1941) 346.

[21] Almost all the narratives examined from the WPA collection mention religion, going to church, or the importance of marriage and family. There is no reason to question the accuracy of these accounts as there seems to be no political agenda attached to these stories like those of the opinions of slavery. The importance of religion within the slave community is evident and abundant in the collection. This overall theme and its presence within the WPA project seem to be the most reliable information that can be extracted from the source. However, due to the general nature of the entries and the brief mentions of religion, they did not seem to be appropriate nor plausible to examine for this essay.

[22] Yeatman, “An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives.”

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