By Michelle Shocklee
Growing up, I heard many stories about the Great Depression. My parents were young children during those difficult times, so they developed an appreciation for hard work and were grateful for everything they had. Mom's family lived in Oklahoma and had to contend with the Dust Bowl too. Although we're experiencing difficult times in our world today, as an historical fiction author, I like to look back in history and find hope in how the generations before us made it through their dark days.
Travel back to 1936 with me.
The Great Depression has been raging since the stock market crashed in October 1929. Millions of people are out of work. President Roosevelt and the folks in Washington DC are working to create jobs through the New Deal initiatives and put Americans back to work in all sorts of occupations--construction workers, teachers, farmers, and yes, even writers.
One of the New Deal programs was called the Works Progress Administration. Under the WPA umbrella, a program called the Federal Writers' Project was created. By the beginning of World War II, over 10,000 people had found employment with the FWP. One of their best known projects was the American Guide Series, consisting of guides to the (then) 48 states, as well as the Alaska Territory, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C.
But it is the FWP Slave Narratives that captivated this author.
While I was researching slavery in Texas for my historical plantation series, I discovered the Slave Narratives, the telling of life in bondage by former slaves. It had been 70 years since the Civil War ended. The former slaves were in their 80s, 90s, and 100s. If their stories were going to be preserved, it had to happen soon. Equipped with a list of questions, the FWP interviewer asked each former slave a question and then let them answer in their own words. The interviewer would record every word spoken, even the more difficult to understand dialect and slang words. Some told of being a slave on a plantation or farm. Others lived and worked in town. They spoke about family, freedom, and life after the war. The word-for-word interviews are utterly fascinating, yet they are so much more than mere historical documents.
Reading these narratives has taught me an important truth: everyone has a story to tell, and everyone should be able to share their story, no matter how difficult it may be to hear. More than 2,300 former slaves from 17 states participated, bravely telling what it was like to be owned by another human being. Some of the tales are brutal to read, while others tell of good times despite living in bondage. None of them wallow in the hardships they endured; they simply tell the story of their life. Many of the participants allowed the FWP employee to take their photograph, so there are over 500 priceless black-and-white photographs archived in Washington DC's Library of Congress along with the narratives.
While perusing the Library of Congress site, I came across a picture of a former slave woman taken by an FWP employee. This woman, sadly unnamed in the records, was a sharecropper in Mississippi. There isn't much information on her, but she commanded my attention when I saw her. Looking closely, you see that her simple skirt and the cuffs on her blouse are soiled, yet she is wearing earrings and a wedding band. Her short hair is braided and she has a contemplative look on her face. But it is her hand in her lap that stole my breath.
Do you see it?
Her hand is disfigured. When I saw that, I immediately asked, "What happened to her hand?"
The answer will forever remain a mystery, but simply reading through the narratives, one can imagine all kinds of terrible reasons why her hand was deformed. I explore this in my new novel Under the Tulip Tree. Frankie, a former slave woman who is interviewed by an FWP writer, tells her story to readers in much the same way the former enslaved people told theirs back in 1936. I imagine her looking very much like the precious woman in the photo.
Although the affects of the Great Depression were devastating to a large portion of our country, some good actually came out of those hard times. Had the economy been strong, its doubtful the Federal Writers' Project would have ever been created. And even though some narratives had already been collected by Fisk University and others, the FWP collection is by far the largest body of work of its kind. They are a priceless treasure that will (hopefully) be available for generations to come thanks to the Federal Writers' Project.
Had you heard of the FWP and the Slave Narratives? If you're interested in reading more about them, visit the Library of Congress.
Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at michelleshocklee.com.
UNDER THE TULIP TREE
Releases September 8, 2020
Sixteen-year-old Lorena Leland’s dreams of a rich and fulfilling life as a writer are dashed when the stock market crashes in 1929. Seven years into the Great Depression, Rena’s banker father has retreated into the bottle, her sister is married to a lazy charlatan and gambler, and Rena is an unemployed newspaper reporter. Eager for any writing job, Rena accepts a position interviewing former slaves for the Federal Writers’ Project. There, she meets Frankie Washington, a 101-year-old woman whose honest yet tragic past captivates Rena.
As Frankie recounts her life as a slave, Rena is horrified to learn of all the older woman has endured—especially because Rena’s ancestors owned slaves. While Frankie’s story challenges Rena’s preconceptions about slavery, it also connects the two women whose lives are otherwise separated by age, race, and circumstances. But will this bond of respect, admiration, and friendship be broken by a revelation neither woman sees coming?