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About the WPA Life Histories Collection

[About the Collection]   [Interviews and Interviewers]   [Ex-slave Narratives]   [Social-ethnic Studies]
[Youth Studies]   [Folklore Studies]   [Administrative History]   [Related Resources]

About the Collection

The Library of Virginia WPA Life Histories collection consists of approximately 1,350 life histories, social-ethnic studies, and youth studies; more than 50 interviews with former slaves, and a small number of folklore studies, all of which were created by the staff of the Virginia Writers' Project.

The Virginia Writers' Project (VWP) was the state-sponsored segment of the Federal Writers' Project, which in turn was an agency of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), known as the Works Progress Administration until 1 July, 1939. See below for additional information on the administrative history of the VWP and WPA.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government, through the WPA, provided jobs to 8,500,000 unemployed workers. These jobs were primarily construction work, repair work, and other types of employment requiring manual labor. The WPA also established federal art, music, theater and writers' projects to provide relief jobs for artists, musicians, actors, and white-collar and professional workers. The mission of the Federal Writers' Project, in addition to providing security wages for unemployed clerks, writers, editors, lawyers, teachers, librarians, and similar workers, was the compilation of anthologies of oral history (life histories), folklore, and music, as well as state, local and specialized guidebooks.

State projects were established to achieve these objectives at the local level. At its peak, the Federal Writers' Project employed approximately 6,500 men and women around the country, paying them a subsistence wage of about $20 a week. Workers in the Federal Writers' Project recorded the life stories of more than 10,000 men and women from a variety of regions, occupations, and ethnic groups.

The major achievements of the Virginia Writers' Project were two notable publications: Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion (New York, 1940) and The Negro in Virginia (New York, 1940). Other significant accomplishments included the collection and transcription of local folklore and folk songs, with over 3,850 items collected from 62 counties between mid-1937 and mid-1942. The VWP also interviewed 300 former slaves in 1936 and 1937, and completed approximately 1,350 life histories, social-ethnic studies, and youth studies between October 1938 and May 1941.

Hamilton J. Eckenrode was appointed part-time director of the VWP on 28 October, 1935. The project languished for a variety of reasons, and Eckenrode was forced to resign on 27 February, 1937. Eudora Ramsay Richardson became full-time director on 9 March, 1937. Richardson was a woman of great energy and force of personality, and the Virginia Writer's Project was launched in earnest.

A major aim of the WPA/VWP Life History project was to gather information about various occupational groups in urban and rural environments and about the experiences of individuals during the depression. Many interviews conducted in Virginia, however, capture recollections from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ideally, the life histories were intended to provide detailed information about the individual's address, age, race, religious denomination and church attendance, family situation, education, family income, job history, housing conditions, membership in societies and clubs, leisure activities, and information about the individual's parents.

The life histories document family life, health conditions, employment and educational opportunities (or lack thereof), gender roles, religious beliefs, as well as personal and community economic and social conditions in Virginia in the 1930s. The narratives are also an important source of information about race relations, changing employment patterns, and the impact of public events and social trends on private lives.

The VWP life histories are a remarkable "snapshot" of the lives of ordinary people coping with extraordinary times. The narratives describe memorable events in the lives of these people such as births, illness, marriages, and deaths, as well as their reactions to important historical, national, and global events such as the Civil War, Emancipation, World War I, and the Great Depression.

Interviews and Interviewers

The staff of the Virginia Writers' Project consisted of almost 40 members, eight of whom conducted almost 1,100 interviews: Leila Blanche Bess, Gertrude Blair, Maude R. Chandler, John W. Garrett, Lucille B. Jayne, Margaret Jeffries, Essie Wade Smith, and Mary S. Venable. All of these individuals were native Virginians and all were white. Garrett, the only male in this group, was from a working-class background.

The interviews are divided into three categories: life histories, social-ethnic studies, and youth studies. The differences among the three types of interview are not very distinct, particularly between the life histories and the social-ethnic studies, and the headings on the interviews were sometimes changed by the editors in the Richmond office. The interviews vary considerably in length and style, and the information they contain differs in substance and detail. The life history narratives at the Library of Virginia are generally between two and sixteen pages in length and are usually written as first-person narratives with commentary by the interviewer. Some of the life histories and most of the youth studies are accompanied by printed survey forms. These forms are always the "youth survey" form regardless of the age of the interviewee. Less than 10 percent of the interviews were conducted with African Americans.

The interviews themselves usually consisted of conversations between the VWP field worker and the individual being interviewed, supplemented by questions, sometimes from survey forms, asked by the field worker. Most interviewers worked within their own communities and were familiar with many of the people whose life histories they recorded. Sometimes the interviewers added their own personal judgements and comments.

Most interviews were typed, either by the field worker, or upon receipt in the Richmond office, where they underwent an editing process that was at times extensive. Some of the interviews exist in several revised versions, and some were completely rewritten. Fictitious names were sometimes used to protect the identity or privacy of the informants.

Not all life histories were actual interviews. For example, in 1940 Garrett wrote a life history of his father-in-law, Thomas Jefferson Broyhill, who had died several years previously (LH00834). Some narratives were constructed from personal knowledge on the part of the field worker. Finally, a small number of narratives were based on research on specific topics such as economic conditions in a specific locality rather than on interviews. One of the items in the collection, Letters Concerning Field Work (LH01421), includes seven letters by field workers Rone Sidney, William T. Lee and G. G. Randolph to Mr. Howe and Eudora Ramsay Richardson concerning interviews, questionnaires, and research.

About 70 life history narratives have been published in Talk About Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression, edited by Charles L. Perdue Jr. and Nancy J. Martin-Perdue (Chapel Hill, 1996). The Perdues also included genealogical data on selected informants and short biographies of VWP interviewers Bess, Blair, Garrett, Jeffries, Smith, Venable, and Susie R. C. Byrd, who worked primarily within the Negro Studies unit but did contribute some life histories. Byrd also wrote her own life history for the project (LH01417).

Life histories of other field workers include:

Ex-slave Narratives

On 8 November 1936, an all-black unit of the Virginia Writers' Project under the direction of Roscoe E. Lewis was formed. The objectives of the Virginia Negro Studies project, based at Hampton Institute and consisting of 16 workers, were to provide employment for educated African Americans on relief and to collect and publish material on African-American life in Virginia from Jamestown to the present. Lewis, a chemistry and later social sciences professor at Hampton Institute, had been interested in African-American oral history for some time and was an excellent choice for project director. During the next year more than 300 ex-slaves were interviewed. The interviews plus research in libraries and courthouses resulted in the publication of The Negro in Virginia in 1940. About half of the interviews have been lost. The rest are located at various repositories throughout Virginia. Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-slaves, first published in 1976 by the University Press of Virginia, represents an attempt to assemble all extant Virginia ex-slave narratives. Altogether 20 percent of the personnel of the Virginia Writers' Project was black.

Youth Studies

The Library of Virginia Life Histories collection also contains some youth studies, which were surveys of Virginia rural and urban youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who were not attending school at the time of the survey. This was a joint project of the WPA and the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station, the State Department of Education, the Virginia Extension Service, and the Virginia Unemployment Compensation Commission. The youth studies surveys sought to obtain information on the demographic, social, and economic situation of young people who had left school as well as the specific reasons for doing so. A survey of urban black youths was conducted by the Negro Studies unit at Hampton Institute.

Social-ethnic Studies

The social-ethnic studies project in Virginia was never truly implemented because of the relative lack of diverse ethnic groups in the state. Some of the life histories in the collection were incorrectly labeled as social-ethnic studies.

Folklore Studies

Folk tales and stories were collected by VWP workers between mid-1937 and mid-1942. Over 3,850 items were collected from 62 counties in Virginia. Over 70 workers participated, with the bulk of the material contributed by 12 workers. Most of the black folklore was collected by black field workers. The seven folklore studies that are part of the LVA Life Histories collection are most likely part of the larger VWP folklore project. Most of this material was transferred to the Alderman Library of the University of Virginia when the WPA closed in 1943. A number of folk studies have been collected in Virginia Folk Legends, published by the University Press of Virginia in 1991.

Administrative History

The Federal Writers' Project was part of the Work Projects Administration, which was the agency responsible for the execution of the federal government's work-relief program as a whole. Prior to the WPA, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), established by act of Congress on 12 May 1933, and the Civil Works Administration, established by Executive Order on 9 November 1933, conducted the government's relief efforts. The Civil Works Administration was abolished in March 1934 and its records transferred to the Emergency Work Relief Program of FERA. The administration of the work-relief program was taken over by the Works Progress Administration when it was created in May 1935.

The Federal Writers' Project originated as part of an overall plan for all the "arts" (labeled Federal One). This project resulted from a series of meetings held in 1934 between Jacob Baker, the Civil Works Administration assistant in charge of special and professional programs; his assistant, Henry Alsberg; and Katherine Kellock, a writer familiar with international and social organizations, as well as other individuals. The new program was administratively divided by specialty (art, theater, writing, music, etc.) with each area being headed by a professional in the field. The Federal Writers' Project was established by Executive Order on 6 May 1935 and was approved for federal funding in June 1935. Henry Alsberg was appointed as director. While the first public announcement of the Federal Writers' project was on 30 August 1935, final presidential approval, funding, and procedural instructions were not forthcoming until October.

The Virginia project was technically the Virginia office of the Federal Writers' Project from October 1935 until 31 August 1939, when it passed into state-control and officially became the Virginia Writers' Project. The President's Reorganization Plan No. One, effective 1 July 1939, transferred the WPA to the Federal Works Agency. The WPA was officially abolished on 30 June 1943.

Related Resources

American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1940 (part of the Library of Congress' American Memory project). These life histories were written by the staff of the Folklore Project of the Federal Writers' Project.

The Negro in Virginia, compiled by workers of the Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in the state of Virginia (New York: Hastings House, 1940; Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, 1994).

Talk About Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression edited by Nancy J. Martin-Perdue and Charles L. Perdue, Jr. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

Virginia: a Guide to the Old Dominion, compiled by workers of the Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in the state of Virginia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1940; Richmond: Virginia State Library and Archives, 1992).

Virginia Folk Legends edited by Thomas E. Barden (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991).

Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-slaves edited by Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Barden and Robert K. Phillips (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976).

The Work Projects Administration. Records, c. 1933-1942. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Va. [328,200 items, consisting of 5 records series. The Life Histories are part of the Virginia Writers Project record series.]