Folk Life in Black and White

Folk Life in Black and White


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Lawrence D. Riddick was one of the people who did the most to launch the

interviewing of ex-slaves. Teaching black history at Kentucky State College, he

 believed the truth about slavery and Reconstruction could not be fully known

or understood “until we get the view as presented through the slave himself.”



Books by Milton Meltzer

Never to Forget: the Jews of the Holocaust / World of Our Fathers: The Jews of Eastern Europe 

Taking Root: The Jewish Immigrants in AmericaHunted Like a Wolf: The Story of the Seminole War

The Eye of Conscience: Photographers and Social Change; Slavery: From the Rise of Western Civilization to Today

Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?: The Great Depression, 1929-1933Violins & Shovels: The WPA Arts Projects

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Folk Life in Black and White

By  Milton Meltzer


Something new began for black people with the election of FDR. Presidents before him had occasionally asked advice from black leaders. But now, for the first time, blacks entered federal agencies in increasing numbers. Highly trained men and women took part as advisers in race relations and soon showed that they could do far more. Called the “Black Cabinet,” they pressed in every possible way for economic and political equality. Their prime goal was jobs in government and industry on the basis of ability and training—not color.

As a result, about 26 percent of the workers on WPA projects in the South were black. In the country as a whole, about 16 percent were black. In the South, they were paid less than whites, but even their lowest pay rate was higher than most blacks were earning from private industry. The WPA gave jobs to black professional and white-collar workers, too. Actors, artists, musicians, and writers were among those able to use their talent and skills, especially on the big-city projects. By 1939, more than a million blacks were earning their living from WPA.

Recalling those times, Horace Cayton, the black sociologist who headed a WPA research project, said:

In spite of the Depression, there was hope. Great hope, even though the people suffered. To be without money is a disgrace in America today. The middle class looks upon welfare Negroes as morally corrupt because they haven’t worked. But in the Depression, there were so many whites who were on relief.

So the Negro would look, and he wouldn’t see any great difference. Oh, there was a difference: a disproportion of Negroes on labor than on skilled jobs in WPA. But if Negroes were on relief, so where whites: we’re gonna have a better day. That was the feeling. . . . You worked, you got a paycheck and you had some dignity. All the songs they used to have about WPA:

          I went to the poll line and voted

          And I know I voted the right way

          So I’m askin’ you, Mr. President

          Don’t take away this W P and A.

When they got on WPA, you know what they’d mostly do. First, buy some clothes. And tried to get a little better place to live. The third thing, was to get your teeth fixed. When you’re poor you let let your teeth go. . . . WPA . . . There was some humanity then. . . .

The writers project appointed Sterling A. Brown the national editor of Negro affairs and made the novelist and poet Arna Bontemps a supervisor in Chicago. Among other blacks on the project were Claude McKay, Richard Wright, William Attaway, Roi Ottley, Margaret Walker, Robert Hayden, Zora Neale Hurston, Frank Yerby, Fenton Johnson, Ralph Ellison, and John H. Johnson (who later became publisher of Ebony and Black World magazines.

Richard Wright was the son of an illiterate Mississippi sharecropper. His formal schooling ended in the ninth grade. He went to Chicago at the age of nineteen, where he worked as a porter, dishwasher, substitute postal clerk, insurance agent, hospital orderly, and street sweeper. Wright’s early poems and stories, published in radical magazines, won attention. He joined a group of black writers who met to read manuscripts and discuss craft problems. In 1936 he left the relief rolls to join the WPA, first on the Federal Theatre Project and soon on the Federal Writers Project, where he met Nelson Algren.

On the project, Wright’s assignment was researching the black history of Chicago and Illinois. He was one of forty field workers digging up such facts for the Illinois guidebook. He went to the office twice a week to report his findings and to get a new assignment. Late in 1936, Wright’s “Big Boy” story was published in the anthology New Caravan, and was highly praised. He was reclassified on the WPA as a group coordinator at $115 a month.

In the spring of 1937, he left Chicago for New York, but was unable to effect a transfer to the writers project there until the end of the year. Meanwhile he became the Harlem reporter for the Daily Worker. Back again on the WPA, he wrote the detailed, factual section on Harlem for the New York City Guide and the more comprehensive and interpretive chapter called “Portrait of Harlem” in New York Panorama. In 1938, Wright won Story magazine’s $500 prize for the best work submitted by anyone on the writers project. When Native Son was published, its guaranteed success (it was the first novel by a black to be made a Book-of-the-Month Club selection), together with the award of a Guggenheim Fellowship he received, enabled Wright to quit the WPA.

Introduced to Wright by Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, with Wright’s aid, got a job on the New York project in 1938. With the time and energy left him after WPA hours, Ellison wrote some stories and started a novel. (His Invisible Man is considered one of the most important novels of our time.) His WPA research assignments ranged from black history to urban folklore and famous trails. He stayed with the project for four years, until it closed in 1942.

The older, more experienced black writers also profited by their WPA jobs. The project gave them an anchor in a time of despair. Bontemps, for instance, published his third novel, Drums at Dusk, while on the WPA; McKay was able to use research gathered on the job for his book Harlem: Negro Metropolis; and Hurston issued three books while on the Florida project.

But even more significant was the impetus given to serious black studies by the writers project. There were many black writers who needed work, and [Henry] Alsberg hoped to engage them in the task of depicting the role of blacks in American life. Sterling A. Brown, teacher, editor, poet, and critics, took charge, enlisting the aid of many black and white experts. His office gave advice, and it planned and edited materials on black life. In addition to what appeared about blacks in the state and local guides, Brown’s office saw to it that special studies were undertaken and published, such as Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes and The Negro in Virginia.

While Alsberg’s national staff backed the work of Brown’s office, on the local projects (North as well as South) blacks constantly struggled against discrimination and the threat of pink slips. As everywhere else, they were usually the last to be hired and the first to be fired.

The most valuable work in black studies was the gathering of interviews with ex-slaves. In a massive undertaking, about 300 WPA interviewers collected some 2,300 interviews with ex-slaves in seventeen states. The number interviewed is estimated to be about 2 percent of the total ex-slave population still alive at that time. About two-thirds of those interviewed were eighty or older; many were past ninety or a hundred. In 1865, at the time of Emancipation, the age of those interviewed had been from one to fifty. the slave experience they talked about was mainly that of childhood.

Lawrence D. Riddick was one of the people who did the most to launch the interviewing of ex-slaves. Teaching black history at Kentucky State College, he believed the truth about slavery and Reconstruction could not be fully known or understood “until we get the view as presented through the slave himself.”  That evidence had begun to appear as early as the eighteenth century, when the first American slave narratives were published. between 1830 and the Civil War there were hundreds more of these autobiographical accounts by fugitive slaves, most of them issued by abolitionists who wanted to challenge the benevolent portrait of slavery drawn by its apologists.

The 1930s revived interest in accounts of slave life. Historians and sociologists recognized the number of ex-slaves was rapidly diminishing. Now was the time to get the testimony of those who still survived. Scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson were leaders of a new black generation contesting the old sympathetic view of slavery. People who had swallowed punch concocted by such white historians as Ulrich B. Phillips needed an emetic. There was a call for studies of slavery written from the standpoint of the slave.

The first attempts to secure interviews with ex-slaves were made in 1929 through independent projects at Fisk and other Southern universities. With the advent of the New Deal Reddick, who had taken part in the work at Fisk, made a pilot interview study with federal support. When the writers project was launched, John A. Lomax, a white Southerner who had made great contributions to folklore research, was asked to direct Southern work in his field. He introduced the interview method of collecting folklore and life histories. The oral history technique was applied not only to the ex-slaves but to studies of pioneers in Texas and Kansas and to the people of the Southeastern states.

Although Brown’s office urged the hiring of qualified black writers, Washington headquarters had no control over personnel policy in the states. The result was that several Southern states hired whites only. But in others—especially Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Virginia—separate black units were established, whose energy was devoted chiefly to research in black culture.

The WPA collection of ex-slaves’ reminiscences began sporadically in the South. A concerted regional effort was not made until April, 1937, when a sampling of interviews forwarded from the Florida project so impressed John Lomax that he proposed this work be done on a systematic basis in all the Southern and border states. Lomax’s instructions to the field insisted upon the importance of recording interviews exactly as given—with no censorship.

Lomax had no control over hiring or assignments, and the great majority of the interviewers were white. Their biases and methods violated sound interview procedure. The whites, as can be realized from the transcripts, were often patronizing, condescending, and sometimes insulting. The result could be stock responses, evasive answers, or compliant “yassuhs.” Occasionally, white interviewers revealed both sensitivity and insight in their interview technique. In places like Florida, where the interviewers were engaged, candid, direct, deep feelings were openly expressed.

Objectively considered, the ex-slave interviews share the usual shortcomings of many historical sources. But, as the historian C. Vann Woodward wrote of them, they “nevertheless have an unusual character. Confusing and contradictory as they are, they represent the voices of the normally voiceless, the inarticulate masses whose silence historians are forever lamenting.” The evidence they provide, he said, obliges historians to reexamine many old questions and assumptions about the work ethic of slaves, master-slave relationships, slave religion, slave attitudes toward white society, intermarriage, and the profound historical experiences of Emancipation and Reconstruction.

When the project interviewing ended early in 1939, the records lay unused in state archives. Benjamin A. Botkin, the folklorist who succeeded Lomax, had the interviews assembled in typescript and deposited in the Library of Congress in 1941. In 1945 he published his own brief selection from them in the volume Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery. Even though that book directed scholars’ attention to the archives in Washington, until recently, historians tended to neglect them. 

Not until 1972 did a publisher (Greenwood) print a set of nineteen volumes containing both the WPA and the Fisk interviews. Since then, a careful search of WPA materials in Mississippi archives has turned up nearly 2,000 additional pages of ex-slave interviews, apparently never forwarded to Washington. Perhaps still more treasure remains to be discovered in other state files.

Source: Milton Meltzer. Violins & Shovels: The WPA Arts Projects. New York: Delacorte Press, 1976.

Milton Meltzer, historian and biographer, has written more than thirty books. Among his many honors, there have been three nominations for the National Book Award. His books include Never to Forget: the Jews of the Holocaust; World of Our Fathers: The Jews of Eastern Europe; Taking Root: The Jewish Immigrants in America; Hunted Like a Wolf: The Story of the Seminole War; The Eye of Conscience: Photographers and Social Change; Slavery: From the Rise of Western Civilization to Today (2 volumes); and Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?: The Great Depression, 1929-1933. Born in Worcester, Massachusetts, Mr. Meltzer was educated at Columbia University. he and his wife live in new York City.  Guide to the Milton Meltzer Papers

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Violin and Shovels: The WPA Art Projects

A New Deal for America’s Hungry Artists of the 1930s

By Milton Meltzer

a first-rate piece of reporting on the outlet the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided for writers, musicians, actors, directors, and artists of the Depression period. The text is dotted with vivid thumbnail sketches of famous figures from the art/theatre/music world (e.g., Nikolai Sokoloff, Henry Alsberg, Hallie Flanagan, Jackson Pollock, Olive Stanton) and with brief accounts of fascinating incidents from this little-known phase of our artistic history. Written in the same flowing style and with the same accuracy that characterizes Meltzer’s histories, this is the only in depth treatment of the subject available for [a young adult] audience. The fact that Meltzer worked in the New York WPA project and relates his personal experiences is an added bonus.—School Library Journal

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The African Diaspora Revisionist Interpretations of Ethnicity, Culture and Religion under Slavery—By Paul E. Lovejoy—The process of creolization comes much more in focus when the merger of cultures—European and African—is perceived in terms that are more equal than is often the case. The Africa that entered the creole mentality was neither static nor ossified. We can go beyond the pioneering work of Herskovits and his students, who identified sets of cultural traits—”survivals”—that provided colour to the sub-culture of slaves and their descendants. This anthropological approach explores the formulation of distinct societies in the context of slavery; current research is adding an historical perspective to this analysis. For many slaves in the Americas, Africa continued to live in their daily lives. That experience included a struggle to adapt to slavery in the Americas and to re-interpret cultural values and religious practices in context, but frequently maintaining a clear vision of the African past and more than a fleeting knowledge of developments in Africa after arrival in the Americas. Only when fresh arrivals stopped coming from a specific homeland did the process of creolization take root.

As I have suggested, enslaved Africans sometimes interpreted their American experience in terms of the contemporary world of Africa, and consequently, efforts to understand their situation in the Americas has to take full cognizance of the political, economic and social conditions in those parts of Africa from where the individual slaves had actually come. That is, the conditions of slavery were shaped to a considerable extent by the personal experiences and backgrounds of the slaves themselves. They brought with them the intellectual and cultural lens through which they viewed their new lives in the Americas, and they made sense out of their oppression through reference to Africa as well as the shared conditions of auction block, mine and plantation. How to get at this carry-over of experience presents difficulties for historians and other scholars, but there is no reason to doubt that there was a transfer of experience, any more than was the case with other immigrants, whether voluntary or involuntary. . . .

Rather than maintain a few cultural “survivals” that are quaint and symbolic, enslaved Africans brought with them political issues and live interpretations of their own predicament. It is worth stressing that there was a continuous stream of enslaved immigrants coming from Africa during periods of growth and prosperity. Hence individual colonies in the Americas often received slaves from the same places in Africa, thereby updating information, rekindling memories and reenforcing the African component to the cultural adaptations under slavery. The extent to which linkages with Africa were maintained or declined into insignificance needs to be established. The ways in which enslaved Africans subsequently interpreted their conditions in the Americas and the Islamic world lies at the heart of the African contribution to the process of creolization, the forms of resistance, and the extent of accommodation with the slave experience.

There are in fact different paradigms for considering the communities of enslaved Africans in the diaspora than those currently being used: Besides being slaves, Africans in diaspora belonged to immigrant populations and they constituted what amounted to refugee communities, forced to migrate in different ways than modern refugees, who themselves are frequently forced to move. Like immigrant communities and refugees in other times and other places, enslaved Africans identified with communities which maintained links with their countries of origins in a variety of ingenious ways. Enslaved Muslims in Bahia, for example, considered themselves as belonging to the world of Islam; their educational system and common prayers were not “survivals” but active attempts to maintain and extend that world.—Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, II, 1 (1997)—YorkU

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Drums at Dusk

By Arna Bontemps

A story of love, violence, and race set at the outbreak of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, African American writer Arna Bontemps’s Drums at Dusk immerses readers in the opulent and brutal–yet also very fragile–society of France’s richest colony, Saint Domingue.

First published in 1939, this novel explores the complex web of tensions connecting wealthy plantation owners, poor whites, free people of color, and the slaves who stunned the colony and the globe by uniting in a carefully planned uprising.

The novel’s hero, Diron Desautels, a white Creole born in Saint Domingue who belongs to the French antislavery group Société des Amis des Noirs, attempts to spread his message of “liberty, equality, fraternity” in a world fraught with conflict.

Imaginatively inhabiting a wide spectrum of Haitian voices, including those of white indentured servants, female slaves, and Toussaint L’Ouverture, who later emerged as the revolution’s best-known hero, Bontemps’s work reflects not only the intricacies of Haitian society on the eve of the revolution, but also a black artist’s vision of Haiti in the twentieth century, during the U.S. Marines’ occupation and at the brink of war in Europe. A new introduction by Michael P. Bibler and Jessica Adams reveals how Drums at Dusk–even seventy years after its original publication–contributes to contemporary studies of the American South as part of the larger plantation region of the Caribbean, and inspires a reevaluation of assumptions about revolution, race, and nationalism.

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 13 October 2007



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Related files: The 10 Biggest Myths About Black History  The Black Experience in America is Unique  Africa and Afro-American Identity  Folk Life in Black and White

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