Thursday, July 2, 2020

Recounting Freedom: Writers' Project Records the Stories of Freedmen

This shows a hand-written transcript of a narrative
from an enslaved person in about 1937.
By Brian Irby

At the height of the Great Depression a group of writers and artists, paid by the federal government through the Works Progress Administration, fanned out across the country in search of the few remaining African Americans who had been born into slavery. By this time, many of those freed men and women were elderly. It was important to record their memories as quickly as possible in order to save them for future generations. Their priceless testimonies can be found at the Arkansas State Archives.

Prior to 1916, there had been little effort to record the stories of African Americans who had been born into slavery. In 1916, historian Carter G. Woodson, founder and publisher of The Journal of Negro History, urged his fellow historians to explore the stories of formerly enslaved people. In 1929, Charles S. Johnson of Fisk University and John B. Cade at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, began the process of interviewing formerly enslaved people throughout the country. The scope of their work remained relatively small due to low budgets and meager staff to conduct the field interviews.

As the nation sank further into the Depression, the Federal Writers’ Project (which employed writers and artists otherwise left out of public works programs) undertook an ambitious project: interviewing formerly enslaved people.  This federal relief program would provide support for an ambitious plan of traveling across the nation to record voices and stories that had been long ignored. Beginning in 1936, writers visited every southern state except Louisiana, recording the memories of the formerly enslaved. Arkansas produced more narratives than any other state.

Many of these narratives recount the horrors of slavery. They also provide a glimpse of what it might have felt like to be told that one was free. The narratives people who were enslaved are full of rich descriptions of the moment when slavery officially ended.

Charles Green Dortch was born into slavery in Princeton, Arkansas, in Dallas County. He recalled that in 1865, “there came up a rumor all at once that the Negroes were free.”  He told the interviewer that the Union soldiers that came through Dallas County told all of the slave owners they were taking all of the freed slaves to Little Rock and “[I]t wasn’t no time afterwards before here come the teams and the wagons to take us to Little Rock.”  For some, they remembered the day freedom came as full of celebration. Ellen Brass remembered, “They had us all out in the yard dancing and playing.” 

Sometimes the stories were more dramatic. Annie Grieg of Madison County told a surprising story. She explained that on the day of her emancipation, she had not gotten the news. As a result, she was going about her usual routine of washing the masters’ clothes. Unaware she had been freed, she was preparing to cook for her master’s family, when the master’s wife came into the room to scold her for not starting cooking already. The master’s wife was holding freshly plucked switches with which she planned to use to beat Greig.

Grieg had left chickens in a pot full of boiling water. Grieg picked up the pan to move it, but the master’s wife misinterpreted her actions as a threat. She immediately called upon her husband to return to the house to punish Grieg. However, when her husband heard his wife’s story, he declared, “Mary Agnes, she is free as you are or I am. I’m not going to ever hurt her again, and you better not.”  Grieg concluded her story remarking, “That is the first I ever heard about freedom.”

Some narratives tell of the beginning of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a governmental agency set up to ensure newly freed enslaved people were treated fairly in their employment and to help protect their rights. Elijah Hopkins, being interviewed in Little Rock, told the story of Freedmen’s Bureau agents visiting farms around Arkansas. When an agent approached a farm where African Americans were working, he would ask the laborers, “How are you working?  You are free. What are you getting [in wages]?”  If the agent learned the workers were not being paid, he would bring the case to court.

All these stories can be found in the raw transcripts from the WPA Writers’ Project preserved at the Arkansas State Archives. Additionally, in 2003, Dr. George Lankford published a book of compiled narratives of formerly enslaved people in Arkansas. “Bearing Witness: Memories of Arkansas Slavery: Narratives from the 1930s WPA Collections” is an invaluable collection of some of Arkansas’s African American history.

For more information on Arkansas history, contact the Arkansas State Archives at 501-682-6900 or via email. The Arkansas State Archives is open to the public in a limited capacity and by reservation. Some research services are available by calling the Arkansas State Archives or by visiting