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‘Lawdy! I was sho’ happy when I was a slave!’: Manipulative editing in the WPA former-slave narratives from Mississippi

‘Lawdy! I was sho’ happy when I was a slave!’ : Manipulations éditoriales dans les entretiens menés par la WPA auprès des anciens esclaves dans le Mississippi
‘Lawdy! I was sho’ happy when I was a slave!’: Manipulaciones en la redacción de las entrevistas de la WPA a los antiguos esclavos de Mississippi
‘Lawdy! I was sho’ happy when I was a slave!’: Manipulações editoriais nas narrativas WPA dos antigos escravos do Mississippi
Ellen Hampton


L’examen des tapuscrits et des manuscrits des entretiens menés par la WPA auprès d’anciens esclaves, conservés dans les archives d’Etat du Mississippi, révèle les modifications éditoriales souvent lourdes et manipulatrices intervenues avant la publication des récits. Des changements ont été apportés aux textes originaux à la fois à l’échelon des Etats et au niveau fédéral, apparemment dans le but de minimiser les aspects négatifs de l’esclavage en tant qu’institution et de renforcer les stéréotypes, hérités des Minstrel Shows, représentant les Afro-Américains comme ignorants et pittoresques. Plus de 2 000 entretiens ont été collectés dans 17 Etats, dans le but officiel de préserver une certaine connaissance de l’expérience de l’esclavage dans le Sud des Etats-Unis. Au bout du compte, il est peut-être plus exact de dire qu’ils ont préservé la mémoire des préjugés raciaux qui ont continué à prospérer pendant plus de 70 ans après l’émancipation des esclaves. Les modifications éditoriales introduites dans ces entretiens, disponibles sur le site de la Library of Congress dans la rubrique American Memory, est aussi un moyen de rappeler aux historiens que même des sources considérées comme « primaires » peuvent recéler un motif caché.

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1James Lucas said he was 104 years old when Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviewer Edith Wyatt Moore, a white local historian in Natchez, Mississippi, came to visit him in 1937. He had been born a slave in southern Mississippi, and was a young man at Emancipation. Moore had a list of questions approved by the WPA field office, but she did not have to prompt Lucas. He was “a voluble talker,” she noted, with a “remarkably clear” memory (Moore, typescript). Yet the WPA editors in Jackson and in Washington D.C. found the need to rewrite his answers as follows:

2Edith Moore’s typescript:

“Yes” he reiterated, “wives made a big difference. Dey wuz kind an
went about amongst de people (negroes) looking after em.
Dey give out food, an clothes, an shoes an doctored de little babies.”

3The Jackson field office editors changed it to:

“Yes Ma’am, wives made a big diffe’ence. Dey was kind
an went bout amongst de niggers lookin after ‘em.
Dey give out food, an’ close, an’ shoes an’ doctored de little babies.”

4Then Washington editors gave it a final edit before publishing:

“Yes’m, wives made a big diffe’nce. Dey was kin’ an’ went
’bout mongst de slaves a-lookin’ after ‘em. Dey give out food
an’ clo’es an’ shoes. Dey doctored de little babies.”

5Changes made to James Lucas’s interview are consistent with those made on many other former-slave interviews from Mississippi, 26 of which are available today on the Library of Congress’ American Memory website (American Memory). The language was degraded from the original, the endings of words taken off, syllables eliminated. “Clothes” went to “clo’es”, “about” to “bout”. The ubiquitous Southern “ma’am” was added, where neither Lucas nor Moore had found it necessary. Worse, in Jackson, “people” – whose race the interviewer had felt obliged to indicate in parentheses – was downgraded to “niggers.” Then the editors in Washington got hold of it, and cleaned it up somewhat to “slaves.” But it was still not back to what the man said, which was “people.” While historians have long argued over the validity of the former-slave narratives from the slave’s perspective, this article aims to show that the editing of the interviews also offers a clear indication of how racism has continued to affect the historiography of slavery. Much of the editing of the Mississippi interviews was done to bring the narratives in line with Lost Cause ideology portraying slavery as a benign institution spoiled by a few “poor quality folks,” terminology for cruel or particularly heinous slaveowners. These tainted narratives have then been picked up by historians who believed they had original material and have been used in major works about American slavery, from Eugene Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll to Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm Too Long.

6The idea of interviewing former slaves grew from the federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), created during the 1930s Depression. The WPA aimed to provide jobs for the unemployed, primarily in manual labor, but also through art and writers’ projects. The Writers’ Project initially was conceived as a series of American Guides, using teams of interviewers, writers and historians to collect local histories and folklore. Florida project editors began interviewing former slaves as part of the Guides, an idea adopted with enthusiasm at the federal level. George Cronyn, associate director of the WPA Writers Project, sent a letter in April 1937 to state WPA offices remarking on the value of such interviews and asked if other states could also contribute. John Lomax, the WPA director of folklore, wrote back urging that the manuscripts be sent in unedited, underlining the “un” part twice and heavily. Lomax, born in Mississippi and a longtime resident of Texas, had been working specifically on folk songs, and he insisted on replication of the subjects’ speech patterns. “All the interviewers should copy the Negro expressions,” he wrote, again underlining for emphasis (American Memory, administration files).

7Thus between 1936 and 1939, some 2,300 former slaves from 17 states were interviewed, more than two-thirds of whom were over 80 at the time, and most of whom had been quite young when they were slaves. The 75-year distance from Emancipation to WPA interview, the desperate poverty of the Depression, as well as the race and relationship of the WPA interviewers and subjects, all led to distortion in the perspective provided by the narratives, as historians have noted since the 1970s.

8Yet the narratives continue to draw historical interest as valuable sources. The general assessment has been that the interviews may not be perfect, but that they at least represent the voices of those who experienced slavery first-hand, while histories of slavery previously had been content to describe it only from the slave-owning side of the “peculiar institution.” But do the interviews actually reflect what the former slaves said? In Mississippi, evidence indicates some heavy-handed editing of the exact sort John Lomax hoped to avoid.

9The interviews sat undisturbed for a quarter-century before being collected into accessible form in the 1970s. When the WPA project ended, the interviews were organized into 17 bound volumes as the WPA Slave Narrative Collection in the Library of Congress in 1941. In 1945, Benjamin A. Botkin, who led the Writer’s Project Folklore Division, published a collection of anecdotes and folklore drawn from about 20 interviews in Lay My Burden Down: A Folk History of Slavery. Then it was not until 1970 that University of Kansas historian Norman Yetman published Voices from Slavery. 100 Authentic Slave Narratives, based on interviews drawn from the collection. Two years later, Northeastern University Professor George P. Rawick began compiling the WPA narratives with those from other archives (for a total of 3,500 from 26 states) into the 48-volume series The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, published between 1972 and 1981. From unindexed, inaccessible typescripts in the Library of Congress, the former-slave interviews burst into wide historical use in the 1970s.

10Eugene Genovese included material from the interviews for Roll, Jordan, Roll: the World the Slaves Made (1974); Herbert Gutman for The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom (1977), Lawrence Levine for Black Culture and Black Consciousness (1978), and Leon F. Litwack for Been in the Storm Too Long: the Aftermath of Slavery (1980), just to name some of the works of major scholars of American slavery. However, other historians have refused to touch the WPA interviews. John Blassingame, author of The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Ante-Bellum South (1972), noted in the Journal of Southern History in 1975 that the WPA interviews contain more information on music, songs and genealogy than any other source on slavery. But he maintained that the self-censorship employed by the former slaves in the face of leading questions from white caste superiors in the Jim Crow South meant that little the former slaves said could be trusted. “Uncritical use of the interviews will 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,” Blassingame wrote (490). He noted that editing on some of the Georgia and Virginia narratives, both at a state and federal level, had distorted the original interviews.

11Technology then stepped in to further complicate matters. In 2001, the Library of Congress put nearly 10,000 pages of former-slave narratives online on its American Memory website, searchable by state and by name. Norman Yetman wrote an extensive introduction to the website, placing the narratives in an historical context and discussing the methodological problems that they present, including the age of the interview subjects and the distance from the period of time they were asked to discuss. Yetman noted the interviewees’ often palpable sense of nostalgia for their youth, and for a time when they had security, if not freedom. In the late 1930s, many of the former slaves were living in desperate straits, and they remembered slavery as a time when they had enough to eat.

12As an example of the difficulties presented, in one of the Mississippi interviews, 88-year-old Elizabeth Finley was quoted as saying: “We was mighty proud of our freedom – but times is a lot harder now than it was in dem times. Now we can’t get enough to eat and dere’s nobody to look after us, but de white folks what takes pity on us, and heps us sometimes. Times is gettin’ harder it seems to me.” No doubt it was hard: she was old, poor and alone, an African-American in the rural South, thus the most vulnerable of those devastated by the Depression. Or was she simply saying what she thought the interviewer wanted to hear, putting the “white folks” in a positive light?

13Some subjects believed the interviewer was from the government, and would give them money or food in exchange for a pleasant interview. Others had worked for the interviewer’s family, or had been enslaved by the interviewer’s family. Marcella Joiner interviewed Harriet Sanders, who asked, “Miss Marcella, don’t you ’member when I washed for you?” Sanders said she was born in 1867, so she hadn’t known slavery, but she had known the interviewer. Others familiar with the WPA narratives have noted that by the 1930s, many African-Americans angered by their poverty and oppression had moved north. Black Mississippians left the state by the thousands weekly between 1910 and 1930.

  • 1 Conversation with Jan Hillegas at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Miss (...)

14All of these elements certainly lead to a biased sample of interviews. But what the Mississippi interviews also clearly show is the bias on the part of some editors. In 1937, there were an estimated 20,000 former slaves still living in Mississippi. About 560 of them were identified in WPA materials, and 450 interviewed, but only 26 narratives were sent to Washington and were included in the WPA project. Afterwards, assembling the narratives for American Slave, George Rawick asked Mississippi researchers Kenneth Lawrence and Jan Hillegas to look for the interviews that had not been sent to Washington. Lawrence wrote in the introduction to Volume 6 that they found 232 boxes with some 2,400 pages of WPA material – scattered, handwritten, carbon copies, and some edited versions with no original – in the Mississippi state archives. Hillegas went through and typed up the interviews, using the earliest possible version she could find, and eliminating obvious editing or rewriting that altered the meaning. Neither she nor Lawrence reconstructed the original 26 interviews that had already been published.1

15Just over a third of the Mississippi interview subjects (204) were born between 1851 and 1860, which would put them between 5 and 14 years old at the end of the war in 1865. At the time of the WPA interviews, they were between 77 and 86 years old, and slavery was more than 70 years behind them. Two of at least 20 identifiable Mississippi interviewers were black; none of the interviews they conducted were among those sent to Washington. Most of the interviewers were women, and biographical information was kept on a few (Edith Wyatt Moore and Marjorie Austin among them), but little information was available on the others. They were paid $ 42 per month for their work, decent money in the context of the Depression. Mississippi had six district offices conducting interviews and feeding the results to the state WPA office in Jackson, where a two-person team identified on typescripts as Pauline Loveless and Clara Stokes rewrote and edited many of the interviews sent to Washington. The identities of the editors on the federal project were not known.

16In 2001, Columbia University historian Sharon Ann Musher wrote an article in the American Quarterly pointing out problematic revisions in the Texas and Mississippi narratives. I went to Mississippi to investigate the extent of it, and see why so few of the interviews had been included in the federal project. A survey of the interviews showed no difference between those sent and not sent, in terms of content. Some of the interviews that were included were more negative about slavery than those excluded. While no evidence remains of the parameters used in choosing which interviews to include, there are some margin notes on the liveliness and interest in the former-slaves’ stories that were part of the federal collection. The selection seems to have been based on how good the stories were. Then the WPA project ended abruptly in 1938, which may have saved the other manuscripts from being rewritten, as Lawrence noted in the introduction to American Slave Volume 7. As to the editing and rewriting on the interviews sent to Washington, some of it was for clarity and flow, but some of it also was aimed at degrading the language and distorting the meaning.

17James Lucas, asked about freedom, said (according to interviewer Edith Wyatt Moore):

Dey all had different ways ob thinkin’ ’bout hit but most ob ’em wuz like me, dey didn’t know what freedom meant. Hit wuz jest a word dats all.
Folks dat ain’t ebber bin free don’t rightly know de feel ob bein’ free,
or de meanin ob hit.

18The Jackson editors decided that freedom was something only white people talked about:

Dey all had diff’ent ways of thinkin’ ’bout it but mos’ of ’em was lak me, dey didn’ know what freedom meant. It was just somp’n white folks
talked about an dats all. Folks dat ain’t evah been free don’ rightly
know de feel of bein’ free, an dey don’t know de meanin’ of it.

19Washington editors felt the need to further elaborate, while also infantilizing the language beyond what Jackson had done:

Dey all had diffe’nt ways o’ thinkin’ ’bout it. Mos’ly though dey was jus’ lak me, dey didn’ know jus’ zackly what it meant. It was jus’ somp’n dat de white folks an’ slaves all de time talk bout. Dat’s all. Folks dat ain’ never been free don’ rightly know de feel of bein’ free. Dey don’ know de meanin’ of it.

20Aside from downgrading and infantilizing the language, there were additions made to some of the narratives that aimed to defend slavery as an institution, such as in the following example from James Lucas’s interview. He was asked about songs he remembered from slavery times, and said: “De songs has all left me. When you is gone I’ll think ob dem but only one I kin reckolict is “Drink ob de wine…” Jackson editors pencilled in: “Slaves dat was happy didn’ sing ‘bout no freedom, but I recollec’ one song dat us could sing, ‘Drinkin de wine’…” And Washington published: “Slaves like us, what was owned by quality-folks, was sati’fied an’ didn’ sing none of dem freedom songs.” Editors repeatedly slipped in references to “quality folks” or “poor quality folks” as though the type of owner made all the difference to the experience of slavery. This idea of individual slaveowners of lower social caste being cruel, while the upper-class slaveowner was paternalistic and kind, was central to the Lost Cause version of slavery promoted by historians such as Ulrich Bonnell Phillips and William A. Dunning.

21Charlie Moses was 84, a retired preacher in Brookhaven, MS, when interviewer Esther de Sola went to see him. “When I gets ta’ thinkin’ back on them days I feels like risin’ out o’this heah’ bed an’ tellin everybody ‘bout the harsh treatment us colored folks was given.” A Jackson editor added “when we was owned by poor-quality folks.” Moses went on to say how bitterly he felt about slavery. “I wants to tell you now I pray the Lord to let us be free always. God Almighty nevah ment human beings to be lak animals. Us niggahs has a soul, an’ a heart, an’ a mind, an’ we isn’t lak a dawg or a horse.” The editor cleaned up the spelling, and then inserted an entire sentence: “If all masters had been good like some the slaves would have been happy, but masters like mine ought never been allowed to own niggers.” Then Washington editors further refined the idea and published it: “If all marsters had been good like some, the slaves would all a-been happy. But marsters like mine ought never been allowed to own Niggers.”

22Thus 75 years after Emancipation, people in Jackson and in Washington D.C. were still defending slavery as an institution, still pretending that a few bad individuals had wrecked what was essentially a happy system. The narratives, through their editing, were made to conform with Lost Cause mythology about the antebellum South, and in so doing, tell us more about the time in which they were written than they possibly could about slavery. The subjects’ memories were perhaps accurate, but certainly were distorted by distance in time, and more indicative of their state of mind when the interview occurred. Between the two World Wars, the United States saw the some of the ugliest racism it has known, with lynchings, the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, and race riots in many major cities. While the violence had begun to wane in the 1930s, racism continued to draw a hard line in American society, particularly in the South. The editing on these narratives reveals the white supremacist mentality that fed the violence, and shows how African-Americans still were not allowed to have a voice, even about their own pasts. The white editors at the state and federal levels imposed their own racist paradigms on the former slaves’ narratives.

23A second lesson to be taken from these tainted narratives is particularly important for a generation of historians relying ever more heavily on the Internet for research. The American Memory website of the Library of Congress is a wonderful resource of primary materials, interviews, photographs and audio recordings. But the fact that the edited and rewritten materials are the ones accessible means that some of those resources come with a hidden, embedded agenda. Even before the narratives were put on line, some major historians included the versions published in American Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Eugene Genovese used the edited version of Charlie Moses’s quote in his Roll, Jordan Roll, published in 1974 and winner of the Bancroft Prize the following year (132). Leon F. Litwack, in the introduction to his monumental Been in the Storm So Long (published in 1979, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award) noted all the objections that have been cited to the former-slave narratives. “Such objections suggest not that these records are invalid but only that historians need to use them with care and subject them to the same standards of historical criticism they would apply to other sources” (212-13). And then, no doubt unknowingly, he used the edited version of James Lucas’s narrative, in which slaves who were happy didn’t sing freedom songs. Just what white Jim Crow Mississippi wanted the reader to believe.

24One of the interview questions on the approved list was what the former slaves thought of young people at that time, in the 1930s. The answers were as predictable as for any age: young people didn’t know what hard times were, they just wanted cars, clothes and fun. Isaac Stier, 99, said they “want the moon with a fence around it.” Gabe Emmanuel apparently didn’t complain enough about young folks. “What does I think ob’ de’ niggahs today? Why de’ is de same as de’ wuz always, ‘ceptin’ de is getting money to spen’.” The Jackson editor felt the need to add: “only aint got nobody to make ‘em ‘[be]have deyse’ves an’ keep out o’ trouble.” Emmanuel had been a house servant under slavery and reminisced in his interview about grand parties where his job was to serve drinks. He said in a straightforward manner, “I wuz happy when ah was a slave.” The Jackson editor turned him into a minstrel character: “Lawdy! I was sho’ happy when I was a slave.”

25C. Vann Woodward, author of The Strange Career of Jim Crow and many other analyses of Southern society, noted in his 1974 review of American Slave that the WPA interviews offered “rich insights.” But he urged historians to proceed with caution in using them.

26“It should be clear that these interviews with ex-slaves will have to be used with caution and discrimination. The historian who does use them will have to be posted not only on the period with which they deal, but also familiar with the period in which they were taken down, especially with the nuances of race relations in that period” (479-80).

27Mississippi was not alone, though was perhaps more consistent than other states in its deliberate editing of the former slaves’ language. In the 1996 collection The WPA Oklahoma Slave Interviews, the authors noted changes made by WPA editors to the original typescripts, but only once among 130 narratives was it a substitution of “niggers” for “Negroes” (137). In another situation, the state editor of Virginia narratives collected by 16 African-American interviewers complained that they took everything the former slaves said as the literal truth, when they should instead have evaluated the exaggeration thrown in for effect, especially on verifiable details like the subjects’ ages. The (white) editor took it upon herself to rewrite the interviews, which were then published in 1940 as The Negro in Virginia (xxiii).

28Thus the telling of slavery has had nearly as rough a time as the former slaves themselves, with much material falling into the gaps between what the former slaves said, what the interviewers noted, what the editors rewrote, and what the publishers printed. On an historical level, these narratives are troubled waters. Still, the former slaves’ voices filter through with a resonance of the pain and joy, suffering and happiness that made up their difficult lives, and that echo gives the narratives strong literary value. They may not be all we would want, but they are all we have.

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American Memory, Born in Slavery, Library of Congress website, accessible at

BAKER, T. Lindsey, and Julia PHILIPS BAKER (eds.). The WPA Oklahoma Slave Collection. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996, p. 137, Joanna Draper Interview, footnote 3.

BLASSINGAME, John. “Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves: Approaches and Problems.” Journal of Southern History 41: 4 (1975): 473-492. Yet Blassingame based much of his discussion of the slave trade and journey to America on the narrative by Olaudah Equiano, part of which scholars now believe was possibly invented as Equiano may have been born in South Carolina.

GENOVESE, Eugene. Roll, Jordan Roll: the World the Slaves Made. New York: Random House, 1974, p. 132.

LAWRENCE, Kenneth. Introduction, Volume 7, The American Slave: a Composite Autobiography. Westwood, Conn.: The Greenwood Press, 1972-1981 (48 volumes). Available online at

LITWACK, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long. The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979, p. xiii. James Lucas quote, pp. 212-13.

MOORE, Edith Wyatt, typescript of interview with James Lucas. All former-slave narratives quoted are from manuscripts and typescripts in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Mississippi. Retrieved from microfilm records, boxes 37102 and 37013.

MUSHER, Sharon Ann, “Contesting ‘The Way the Almighty Wants It’: Crafting Memories of Ex-Slaves in the Slave Narrative Collection.” American Quarterly 53: 1 (2001): 1-31.

PERDUE, Charles L., Jr., Thomas E., BARDEN, and Robert K, PHILLIPS. Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia’s Ex-slaves. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1976, p.xxiii.

RAWICK, George P. (ed.). The American Slave: a Composite Autobiography. Westwood, Conn.: The Greenwood Press, 1972-1981 (48 volumes).

WOODWARD, C. Vann. “History from Slave Sources.” The American Historical Review 79: 2 (1974): 470-481.

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1 Conversation with Jan Hillegas at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Mississippi, July 13, 2010.

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Ellen Hampton, « ‘Lawdy! I was sho’ happy when I was a slave!’: Manipulative editing in the WPA former-slave narratives from Mississippi », L'Ordinaire des Amériques [En ligne], 215 | 2013, mis en ligne le 11 juillet 2014, consulté le 28 mai 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/orda.522

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Ellen Hampton

Sciences Po, Laboratoire Suds d’Amériques-UVSQ,

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