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Behind The Former Slave Narratives Captured By A New Deal Program


School kids have read a few famous accounts of slavery for generations - stories of people like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. These are often tales of resistance, rebellion and daring escapes. Well, the writer Clint Smith has been thinking about the many stories we don't tell that have been lost or buried. His new piece for The Atlantic is titled "We Mourn For All We Do Not Know."

Clint Smith, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CLINT SMITH: It's a pleasure to be here.

SHAPIRO: Begin by telling us just some of the reasons that there are so few accounts from enslaved and recently freed people.

SMITH: Yeah. I mean, the reality is that the vast majority of enslaved people were illiterate. They couldn't read. They couldn't write. And it's not because they were, you know, obviously not inherently incapable of doing so. The reason is because they were specifically and legally prevented from doing so. There were specific punishments in place, often lethal consequences if someone attempted to learn to read and write.

And so as a result, the only way that people could tell their stories was if they somehow subverted the system and learned to read and write or in a context in which they may have escaped and often partnered with abolitionists. But we don't have the stories and words from the vast majority of enslaved people simply because they weren't allowed to share them.

SHAPIRO: There is a trove of stories that come from a program called the Federal Writers' Project. Tell us about what that project set out to do.

SMITH: Yeah. So the Federal Writers' Project is really this remarkable treasure trove of information. It was a project done between 1936 and 1938 as part of the New Deal. The U.S. government realized that there were many different groups of Americans who had lived through these profoundly important and consequential moments in American history. And part of what they wanted to do was ensure that they got firsthand accounts of these stories before these people passed away.

And one of those groups, one of the biggest groups in this context, were formerly enslaved people. So they had about 2,300 formerly enslaved people who ended up being interviewed for this project over the course of two or three years and over the course of 16 to 17 states. And so we have over 2,000 first-person accounts of people who had been children right before abolition took place. And it's just this really important set of stories that don't often get the attention that they deserve.

Read entire article at WAMC