Catherine A. Stewart: Having an Honest Conversation about Slavery—Now and Then

Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers' Project, by Catherine A. StewartWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Catherine A. Stewart, author of Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project. 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, 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. 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.

In today’s post, Stewart argues for the ongoing need for a much-avoided and uncomfortable conversation for many Americans today: the history of slavery in the United States.


Recent public conversations have revealed how ignorant most Americans remain about slavery, and also how resistant many are to hearing the truth about it. Reporting from the frontlines of this battle over Civil War memory are those doing public history: the educators, interpreters, and docents at historic sites, who engage a large number of visitors exhibiting a wide spectrum of assumptions and ideological perspectives—many of them mistaken—about the relationships of slaveholders and the enslaved.

Former tour guide Margaret Biser discusses the misconceptions that she encountered about slavery during her six years working at a historic site on Twitter as @AfAmHistFail. And, in the Web series “Ask a Slave,” which has become a cult phenomenon, actress Azie Dungey plays the role of a fictional house slave, Lizzie Mae, maid to first lady Martha Washington. Dungey created the series based on her own experiences portraying the life of Caroline Branham, one of the slaves owned by the Washingtons at Mount Vernon. The questions Lizzie Mae fields in the series are based on actual questions posed by tourists, and they suggest that the American public is largely clueless about the history and institution of slavery. As Dungey explains the show’s rationale, “I am not talking about slavery . . . I’m talking about modern racism, and I’m talking about modern ignorance.”

Yet despite Americans’ illiteracy about slavery, they clearly want to have a conversation about it, if the sold-out symposium this past September sponsored by Slate and GWU, “How to Talk Honestly About Slavery,” is any indication. Media attention to racial inequality and violence against black Americans and public awareness raised by Black Lives Matter and other social justice organizations have made race and the continuing legacy of slavery a topic of national conversation, one even political leaders have joined. In a much-discussed podcast interview in June 2015, President Obama observed that “the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, in almost every institution of our lives . . . casts a long shadow and that is still part of our DNA that is passed on and we are not cured of it.”

But this current conversation is not the first time Americans and political leaders have attempted to talk honestly about slavery. In the 1930s, the federal government began an unprecedented and revolutionary discussion of slavery and its legacy by hiring unemployed writers to interview the last living generation of African Americans to have experienced slavery. The Federal Writers’ Ex-Slave Project sparked conversations between direct descendants of Confederate slaveholders and former slaves. This project, with its radical objective of recovering and reclaiming African Americans’ experiences with slavery and freedom, along with its failings and limitations, has much to tell us about why conversations about the past of slavery remain so difficult for Americans today.

The FWP’s Ex-Slave Project marks a historic moment in which the federal government both invited and enabled African Americans (as informants, interviewers, and in one case, as a federal director of the Project) to talk about black identity, but it also created a space in which they could address Jim Crow. The Ex-Slave Project set in motion a series of profoundly earthshaking and revelatory encounters as black and white Americans from different regions, educational backgrounds, and economic classes spoke to each other across the racial divide.

But the compromising circumstances of the color line in 1930s America made it almost impossible for blacks and whites to speak to one another freely about slavery. At all levels of the project, white employees’ varied assumptions about black identity and the historical legacy of slavery came into contact, and often conflict, with African American perspectives. Although the project did employ a number of African Americans as interviewers—most notably in the states of Virginia, Louisiana, and Florida, all of which established racially segregated Negro Writers’ Units—the majority of FWP interviewers involved in collecting these oral histories were southern whites.

There were many factors that shaped these conversations and their primary outcome, the ex-slave narratives, but one of the most surprising discoveries I made in my research was Confederate involvement in the project. A number of FWP employees working on the Ex-Slave Project were also members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the organization founded in 1894 to memorialize Confederate heroes but also to enshrine the Confederate narrative in public memory. The narrative of the “Lost Cause” asserted, then and now, that the Civil War, or the “War between the States” as pro-Confederates called it, was about states’ rights and southern independence—not slavery—even as it idealized slavery as a mutually beneficial system based on benevolent white paternalism and loyal black dependents. Elite southern women played a central role in crafting and popularizing the Lost Cause as history and sought public vindication for the Confederacy by strategically rewriting the historical narrative in textbooks for schoolchildren and sponsoring essay contests and college scholarships. These women were brilliant strategists who recognized how powerful a role education could play in shaping future generations’ views of the nation’s past.

The 1930s saw a resurgence of UDC initiatives to sway public opinion on southern race relations. In 1934, the UDC began publishing its own magazine; a lengthy article from 1936, the year the Ex-Slave Project began, defended the Ku Klux Klan and its methods as necessary for the protection of the South from African Americans and “Negro rule.” Back in 1911, the UDC’s historian general, Mildred Rutherford, had urged members to engage in the work of historical production. Answering this call over the next three decades, many members wrote and published biographies of famous Confederate leaders, along with numerous essays on antebellum life and culture emphasizing the loving relationships between slaveholders and their devoted slaves. UDC members worked on the Ex-Slave Project as interviewers, editors, and in one case, as a state director for the FWP.

Not surprisingly, a number of the narratives in the collection recall the kindness and generosity of ex-slaves’ former masters and speak longingly of the “good old days” before emancipation. Some of these “faithful slave” narratives were selected during the 1930s for circulation in southern public school districts, helping to inculcate Confederate perspectives on slavery in younger generations. When I teach about slavery in my northern college classroom, I am reminded of the long reach of southern textbooks and Confederate perspectives by occasional southern students for whom the documented brutalities and exploitative system of slavery directly challenge the narrative familiar to them of benevolent masters and fortunate slaves.

In the heated arguments that take place today over slavery, the Confederate flag, and continuing racial inequality, it seems as if the Union may have won the Civil War but lost an important battle over how slavery would be remembered. There have been surprising and encouraging steps taken to draw the distinction between a truly national narrative of the history of slavery and Confederate nostalgia for a mythic Southern heritage, most notably with southern states’ decisions to remove the Confederate flag from capitol grounds and state license plates. But the battle continues over which version of the history of slavery will stand in school texts, as the 2010 controversy over depictions of slavery in Texas textbooks—or as I call them, “Tex-books,” for leaving out essential elements—attests. Like the federal directors of the Ex-Slave Project, textbook publishers hope to strike an uneasy compromise between historic fact and Confederate mythology. The Texas Board of Education has been joined by other conservative school board councils in Colorado and Wisconsin also seeking to alter the public school curriculum by excising American leaders and movements for social justice, with the aim of schooling children in a quiet, unquestioning form of patriotism. Fortunately, these attempts have been met with the very forms of public discussion and protest they intend to quell.

We need to keep talking to each other about our nation’s history and we need to keep conversing honestly about slavery. Otherwise, the legacy of that past will continue to directly shape and inform our nation’s future.

Catherine A. Stewart is professor of history at Cornell College. Her book Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project will be published this month.