One of the best parts of the New Deal — at least from the perspective of a historically-minded journalist — was the Federal Writers’ Project, which paid writers to collect oral histories, pen travel guides, and otherwise keep busy. (Among the later-to-be-big names on the payroll were Studs Terkel, Nelson Algren, John Cheever, and Richard Wright.)
One of the works produced by the FWP was Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves, a massive 17-volume compilation of just what it sounds like. Between 1936 and 1938, writers fanned out across America, searching out ex-slaves (by then quite old) and asking them about their lives. Their prose is marked by the time, with its exaggerated black dialogue, but it’s an invaluable window into the lives turned by slavery.
The Library of Congress has put more than 2,300 slave narratives online, and they’re worth reading. I picked out one to post here: the story of Lulu Wilson, aged around 97, and a resident of 1108 Good Street, Dallas, Texas. (Good Street is now called Good-Latimer; my guess is that her house was roughly where I-30 and I-45 meet on the southeast side of downtown Dallas.)
The images below are the entire five-page narrative (click on them to zoom to a readable size), but here are a few excerpts:
My paw warn’t no slave. He was a free man, ‘cause his mammy was a full blood Creek Indian. But my maw was born in slavery, down on [her owner] Wash Hodges’ paw’s place, and he give her to Wash when he married. That was the only woman slave what he had and one man slave, a young buck. My maw say she took with my paw and I’s born, but a long time passed and didn’t no more young’uns come, so they say my paw am too old and wore out for breedin’ and wants her to take with this here young buck. So the Hodges sot the n——r hounds on my paw and run him away from the place and maw allus say he went to the free state. So she took with my step-paw and they must of pleased the white folks what wanted n——-s to breed like livestock, ‘cause she birthed nineteen chillen.
On her brothers and sisters:
I gits to thinkin’ now how [her owner] Wash Hodges sold off maw’s chillun. He’d sell ‘em and have the folks come for ‘em when my maw was in the fields. When she’d come back, she’d raise a ruckus. Then many the time I seed her plop right down to a settin’ and cry ‘bout it. But she ‘lowed they warn’t nothin’ could be done, ‘cause it’s the slavery law. She said, “O, Lawd, let me see the end of it ‘fore I die, and I’ll quit my cussin’ and fightin’ and rarin’.’
On the Civil War
Wash Hodges was gone away four years and Missus Hodges was meaner’n the devil all the time. Seems like she jus’ hated us worser than over. She said blobber-mouth n——-s done cause a war.
And on her grandson and the then-new Social Security program:
He’s got four chillun and he makes fifty dollars a month. I’m crazy ‘bout that boy and he comes to see me, but he can’t help me none in a money way. So I’m right grateful to the president for gittin’ my li’l pension. I done study it out in my mind for three years and tell him, Lulu says if he will see they ain’t mo more slavery, and if they’ll pay folks liveable wages, they’ll be less stealin and slummerin’ and goin’s on. I worked so hard. For more’n fifty years I waited as a nurse on sick folks. I been through the hackles if any mortal soul has, but it seems like the president thinks right kindly of me, and I want him to know Lulu Wilson thinks right kindly of him.
Joshua Benton is the director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, among other things. Before that, he was a staff writer and columnist for The Dallas Morning News. (More.)
Any opinions expressed here are solely mine, and not those of my employer. In many cases, they may not even be mine.