New Deal Origins
The Negro in Virginia emerged from one of a broad range of federal agencies established by U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, chiefly the Works Progress Administration (WPA), founded in 1935 and renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939. The WPA’s main purpose was to transition an estimated 3.5 million “employables” on Depression-era relief rolls back to work—both on large-scale public works projects as well as on smaller-scale, but still vital, cultural works projects.
Established as part of the WPA, the Federal Writers’ Project—along with sister projects in music, theater, and the visual arts—was assigned to create state-level initiatives to provide employment for writers. The targeted group included professional and aspiring writers and journalists, as well as historians, teachers, librarians, and white-collar workers in related areas whose needs could not be met by New Deal programs aimed at the manual-labor workforce. The FWP’s “American Guide” series was its most important achievement, with FWP teams producing travel guides for the forty-eight contiguous states and territories, including Alaska; for important American cities such as Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C.; for major highway systems, including U.S. 1, Ocean Highway, and the Oregon Trail; and for scores of towns, villages, and counties.
These guides were comprehensive, combining travel information with provocative essays on geography, architecture, culture, history, and commerce. But the writers did not stop there, also producing ethnic studies, collections of folklore, local histories, and nature writing—more than 1,000 books and pamphlets in all. The American novelist John Steinbeck, who managed to acquire the whole series, wrote in 1962 that “the complete set comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has even approached it.”
Congress ended federal sponsorship of the project in 1939 but allowed it to continue under state sponsorship until 1943. In addition to The Negro in Virginia, the Virginia Writers’ Project produced Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion (1940); collected approximately 1,350 “life histories” between 1936 and 1941; published the Virginia Historical Inventory, comprising more than 19,000 survey reports, more than 6,000 photographs, and about 100 annotated city and county maps; and produced around 50 radio plays on historical and cultural topics that aired on radio stations around the state.
The Making of The Negro in Virginia
In January 1936, H. J. Eckenrode, the state director of the Virginia Writers’ Project, wrote a letter in response to a query from the national project director, Henry G. Alsberg. Eckenrode’s letter seemed almost apologetic in tone. No, he admitted, there were as yet no “colored persons working on the Federal Writers’ Project in the state,” an omission that appears to have ignored an explicit aim of the Roosevelt administration. However, he added, T. C. Walker had offered to provide “very complete data on his race in the state of Virginia.”
“Very complete data” turned out to be something of an understatement. Indeed, Thomas Calhoun Walker—who was born a slave in Gloucester County in 1862 and who, during this period, served as an advisor and consultant on African American affairs to the Virginia Emergency Relief Administration—appears to have had in mind a comprehensive project, one that was to become one of the most ambitious New Deal initiatives of its kind. Working in consultation with Sterling Brown, recently named director of the FWP’s Office of Negro Affairs, Walker sketched out a proposal for an all-black unit within the statewide organization. While there were black workers in most southern states, only Louisiana and Florida had all-black units. In Walker’s plan, the Virginia Negro Studies Project would undertake a broad-ranging effort to collect the reminiscences of former slaves. Officially submitted by Eckenrode in October 1936, the plan was quickly approved—so quickly, in fact, that initial staff was in place and hard at work by the end of November.
At the same time, work on collecting ex-slave narratives was occurring in a broader national context. A Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) effort—centered in the Ohio River Valley states of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Ohio, and southern Indiana and Illinois—had gotten off to a promising start in 1934 under the Fisk University–trained scholar Lawrence D. Reddick, then a faculty member at Kentucky State University. But despite support from eminent scholars, including Carter G. Woodson, founder of the path-breaking Association for the Study of African American Life and History, and Fisk University’s Charles S. Johnson, the project foundered in 1935, plagued by problems of coordination and a lack of qualified personnel. This early failure seems to have served as a disincentive for FERA’s successors, the WPA and the FWP. In 1936, when the earliest requests to continue work on slave narratives began to trickle in from states such as Georgia and Florida (where Zora Neale Hurston was placing her indelible stamp on the work), they were met with an ambivalent response from Alsberg, the FWP’s director. Brown’s Office of Negro Affairs was, of course, a reliable and strong advocate. But the role played by the folklorist John Avery Lomax, who briefly served as head of the FWP’s Folklore Division, turned out to be decisive.
“I have enjoyed very much reading this batch of reminiscences from ex-slaves,” Lomax wrote in 1937 after being asked to review a batch of materials from the Florida office. “It seems to me that they are of very great value and I congratulate you on being the first to open up, as you have done, this field of investigation.” Lomax was, of course, mistaken about Florida’s role as “the first.” At the time of his writing, the first draft of the volume that was to become The Negro in Virginia was nearly complete. But Lomax’s enthusiasm has been credited with ensuring that the collection of ex-slave reminiscences would become central to the activities of the FWP. Indeed, he formally proposed expanding the collection of narratives to elicit entries from all the southern and border states, and he asked that the effort be spearheaded by the Folklore Division. In April 1937, Lomax’s request was granted. Indeed, it has been speculated that his prestige was responsible for ensuring the cooperation of writers’ projects in the Deep South, where officials might have ignored requests or even taken offense at the oversight role by the Office of Negro Affairs.
Of course, it was not just in the Deep South that the collection of African American materials proved a delicate balancing act for African American researchers. In 1938, for example, Maude Fuller, a member of the Virginia Negro Studies Project, offended Charles H. Heinemann, president of Petersburg-based J. B. Worth Peanut Company, by daring to visit the plant to gather information from the work force.
“We wish to protest against the use of negro labor in obtaining statistical information from Manufacturing Plants operated by the white race in the South,” Heinemann fumed in a letter, dated October 26, 1938, to the state WPA administrator, William A. Smith. Noting Fuller’s assumption of a “rather superior and authoritative manner, in a position she seemed to enjoy,” Heinemann argued that the presence of African Americans in such positions seemed “calculated to promote bad feeling” and went so far as to ask that the “negro labor … be eliminated.”
Roscoe Lewis, the Negro unit’s supervisor, explained in a follow-up letter to Ann Heaton, the VWP’s head of field assignments, that he had since asked Fuller—and all of his field staff—to visit subjects at their homes in the future, and not at their places of employment. He added, “[W]e cannot afford to have another complaint such as was sent in by” Heinemann.
But Lewis was not immune from the difficulties that plagued his workers. Indeed, he seems to have repeatedly clashed with the VWP’s state director, Eudora Ramsay Richardson, who replaced H. J. Eckenrode in 1937. Though considered a liberal, especially in comparison with her predecessor, Richardson had real difficulties with some of the chapters Lewis had written, particularly the stories of slaves’ mistreatment and the outright brutality of their white owners. “It is not reasonable to believe,” she wrote to Alsberg in November 1937, “that slaves were fed only corn bread and fat-back and sometimes only corn bread and that rations would be exhausted before the end of the week.” Her complaint would be complicated by later generations of scholarship. (In fact, while some slaves were given more food and some were able to supplement their diets, others did live on rations similar to what Lewis described.) Richardson concluded that a “good Negro was valuable property that an owner would not neglect.”
Richardson’s objections are of a piece with a general skepticism of slave narratives that pervaded academia in the early twentieth century. “Seldom before or since has racism been so pervasive and so academically respectable in America as during the early years of the twentieth century,” noted Norman R. Yetman in his history of the FWP’s Slave Narrative collection. The myth of the plantation and the Lost Cause were dominant cultural forms expressed in the work of local-color writers of the 1880s and 1890s as well as in popular entertainments, from Uncle Remus tales to “Tom shows” to the blockbuster film Birth of a Nation (1915).
The popular went hand in glove with the authoritative, as histories of slavery mimicked antebellum proslavery arguments by presenting the institution as benign, civilizing, and Christian, and asserted the “Sambo” image of the submissive and contented slave. Meanwhile, historians’ accounts of Reconstruction emphasized the victimization of a “prostrate South” at the hands of rapacious “carpetbaggers” and their corrupt southern allies on both sides of the color line. They also disdained the use of slave reminiscences of any kind as valid and reliable sources of historical data. Only by World War II (1939–1945), and the editing of The Negro in Virginia, had these attitudes very gradually begun to change.
The chapter on slave punishment, “Thirty and Nine,” seems to have been a particularly difficult passage in the Lewis-Richardson relationship. “[S]o distressed” was Lewis by her deletions that Richardson actually felt moved to justify her actions by traveling to West Point, Virginia, to interrogate a former slave whose story she believed to be a “gross exaggeration.”
Richardson changed her mind, however, after meeting the woman in question and hearing her story. “She looks exactly as Mr. Lewis describes her and [she] told me, almost word for word the story Mr. Lewis relates. I had no difficulty finding her, merely by asking on the street where I might locate the old woman who had been severely beaten by her mistress.” After that experience, Richardson decided to reinstate much of the material she had originally cut, while “qualifying and moderating” the tone.
After three chapters detailing the arrival of Virginia’s first Africans, the gradual evolution of the labor force from servitude to slavery, and the American Revolution, The Negro in Virginia breaks with the historiographic practice of the time by adding a chapter titled “The Narrators.” The chapter introduces, by name, the people whose reminiscences were used to inform and enrich the section of the book on antebellum Virginia. It also describes the methodology used to question these people and addresses more broadly any questions as to the reliability of former slaves’ testimony.
Chapters 5 through 17—carrying titles such as “In the Great House,” “Jump the Broomstick,” “Set the Flo’,” “Thirty and Nine,” and “Sold to Georgia”—discuss the vicissitudes of everyday life for the enslaved, while chapters 18 through 22 describe from the African American point of view the Civil War, the legal and educational reforms of the Reconstruction period, and the vicious backlash encoded in the 1901 state constitution. The book concludes with seven chapters on contemporary social conditions for Virginia’s freed population, including accounts of the rise of churches, schools, and arts organizations, along with a biting analysis of labor conditions and of town life versus rural life.
Publication and Legacy
The Negro of Virginia was published in the summer of 1940, and of the FWP’s many planned books on African American life, it was the only one to be published. Six editors contributed to several manuscript versions and at least four revisions, the last of which, according to folklorist Charles L. Perdue, cut the word count by 12 percent. With so many hands involved in seasoning the soup, errors crept in, Perdue wrote in an introduction to the 1994 edition of the book. Some were errors of attribution by editors, while others appear to have been caused by attempts to make the accounts “read better.” Perdue provided comparisons to original sources to show instances where the words of former slaves were transformed into more stereotypical black dialect.
Even so, The Negro in Virginia was warmly received. W. E. B. Du Bois, writing in the journal Phylon in 1941, called it a “compact, well-written document … phrased in attractive and lively style.” He especially praised the “striking” photographs illustrating the final seven chapters on contemporary conditions. The volume became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in June 1940, drawing praise from the Saturday Review of Literature, H. L. Mencken’s American Mercury, the Baltimore Sun, and the New York Herald Tribune.
The FWP was officially terminated in 1939, and though several projects were to continue under state sponsorship for a few more years, such was not to be the fate of Roscoe Lewis’s position. Indeed, Perdue’s review of the correspondence reveals that Lewis was forced to give up his leadership of the Virginia Negro Studies Project in October 1940, when it was determined that it was illegal for him to be employed simultaneously by that project and by the Hampton Institute.
Lewis chose Hampton, where he embarked on a new career, leaving the chemistry department and devoting himself to sociology. But by then his signature achievement, The Negro in Virginia, had been published and his vision for it had remained intact. Slave testimony remained at the center of the book’s “warts and all” accounts of punishment, escape, life, and death on slave row. Indeed, commonplaces of more recent scholarship—such as accounts of African American troops in the Civil War; of the freedmen’s hunger for education, land, and justice during Reconstruction; and of the industry and institution-building of former slaves in the period following the withdrawal of federal protection—were controversial enough to have drawn accusations of Communist sponsorship.
The fact that an account that stood in such stark contrast to the era’s dominant narrative achieved publication is a testament to both the vision and the commitment of Roscoe E. Lewis and his team in the Virginia Negro Studies Project, as well as to their statewide project director, Eudora Ramsay Richardson.