From 1936 to 1939, the New Deal's Federal Writers' Project
collected life stories from more than 2,300 former African American
slaves. These narratives are now widely used as a source to
understand the lived experience of those who made the transition
from slavery to freedom. But in this examination of the project and
its legacy, Catherine A. Stewart shows it was the product of
competing visions of the past, as ex-slaves' memories of bondage,
emancipation, and life as freedpeople were used to craft arguments
for and against full inclusion of African Americans in society.
Stewart demonstrates how project administrators, such as the
folklorist John Lomax; white and black interviewers, including Zora
Neale Hurston; and the ex-slaves themselves fought to shape
understandings of black identity. She reveals that some influential
project employees were also members of the United Daughters of the
Confederacy, intent on memorializing the Old South. Stewart places
ex-slaves at the center of debates over black citizenship to
illuminate African Americans' struggle to redefine their past as
well as their future in the face of formidable opposition.
By shedding new light on a critically important episode in the
history of race, remembrance, and the legacy of slavery in the
United States, Stewart compels readers to rethink a prominent
archive used to construct that history.