Exploring History: the Slave Narrative Collection at HMRC

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration began the Federal Writers’ Project to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and others who work in similar fields. The original project was to create a series of guide books to the United States called the American Guide. To do this, interviewers were sent out to collect the life stories of ordinary Americans.

At first only four states began including and collecting the stories of African-Americans who had been slaves – Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. John A. Lomax, the National Advisor on Folklore and Folkways for the FWP was so interested in the freed slave material that in 1937 he directed the remaining states involved in the project to carry out interviews with former slaves as well. Federal field workers were given instructions on what kinds of questions to ask their informants and how to capture their dialects. They often visited the people they interviewed twice in order to gather as many recollections as possible. Occasionally they took photographs of the freed slaves and their houses.

The Houston Metropolitan Research Center has a collection of the Slave Narrative Project in Texas conducted in 1937 and 1938. Our collection contains correspondence about the project, transcripts of interviews, photographs, and other materials used for the project.  Most of the interviews in our collection came from freed slaves living in the Houston, Galveston, and Beaumont areas.

Written to capture the way each interviewee spoke, the transcripts read like you are standing there talking with that person yourself. The freed slaves discuss the hardships and trials they had to endure, as well as the abject cruelty of their white masters. Josephine Howard said of the owners' reluctance to free their slaves, “Why dey don’t even give us freedom when dey oughter, an’ twan’t till de sojers come to de place an’ tell us we is free as de white folks an’ not to work fo ‘em ‘less we gets paid for it, dat we know we is free.”

The freed slaves also talk about what Houston and Texas were like when they arrived and worked there. William Davis, a freed slave who lived in Houston since 1870, describes the city as it was when he arrived, “Course, Houston was jes’ a little bit of place to what it is now—dey wasn’t no big buildin’s like dey is now, an’mud—I tell you de streets was jes’ like a swamp when it rain. You know ‘bout what at Gray street is? When I come here dat was way out in de country.”

Another, Daniel Ransom, describes the hurricane that hit Galveston in 1900, “We live there till the 1900 storm. That sure was an awful sight. I was at my house that day when it hit and my wife was visiting some folks. I knew the wind was blowing hard, but didn’t think much about it until the house kinda rocked. I opened the door and the water rushed in. Then, I knew we had a real storm. I went to the front door and jumped in the water and I don’t know to this day if I swam through the gate or over the picket fence. That was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and I swam for two and one-half hours and rescued forty-five people from houses that had blowed down or was just about to, and swam with them to a brick building where hundreds of people were. It wasn’t till two days after that I found my wife. She was in a house that hadn’t gone down.”

The Slave Narratives Collection, MSS 0154, is available for viewing in the Texas Room and many of the photographs are available on the Houston Area Digital Archives. The photos in this post are also from that collection, although we don’t have photos of the people quoted above.

Photo below: Betty Simmons


Photo below: Frank Rosett


Photo below: Aunt Lucy and Uncle Cinto

Written by Emily Scott, Houston Metropolitan Research Center

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