In 1936, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiated a program to collect oral biographies from former slaves. Field workers solicited and edited thousands of slave narratives, some of which were sent to the Library of Congress, while others went to libraries in various states. Although most of these interviews have been previously published, in Homeless, Friendless, and Penniless, Ronald L. Baker has compiled for the first time all the Indiana interviews with former slaves who settled in the Hoosier state.
The slave narratives must be read with caution. Rather than reproducing exactly what the former slaves related, field workers customarily edited the interviews. Most of the field workers were white, and it is impossible to know how accurately the former slaves recounted unpleasant episodes to white questioners.The narrative of Hettie McClain illustrates the impact of slavery on free states. Hettie was the daughter of a slave, Hulda, and her owner, William McClain. To ensure that Hulda and Hettie would not be separated, McClain took them across the freedom line from Kentucky to Indiana, bought them a cottage and emancipated them. Many owners took their slave mistresses and children to a free state, a practice which often led to lawsuits.
Former slave John Rudd "recalled seeing seven ex – slaves hanging from one tree . . . just after the close of the war."Several slaves remembered families broken up by owners, and John W. Fields related that "Twelve children were taken from my mother in one day!" The final word belongs to Thomas Lewis: "There was no such thing as being good to slaves."
Ronald Baker, professor of English at Indiana State University, has done an excellent job of editing the WPA interviews, bringing them into a single edition and adding several previously unpublished interviews. Both scholars and interested readers will find this volume fascinating to read and easy to use.
James D. Hardy, Jr. is associate dean of the Honors College at LSU.