A federal project in the 1930s found some 300 former slaves to share their experiences
Their project was part of a national black history initiative within the Federal Writers Project, which was created by the Works Progress Administration. This initiative, led by Sterling Brown of Howard University, included a plan to interview thousands of former slaves in the South before they died. Brown handed one of the biggest chunks of that effort to a dozen investigators in Virginia, led by a bespectacled chemist named Roscoe Lewis.
I first met Lewis — who grew up in DC, graduated from Brown University in 1925 and earned a master’s degree from Howard — while researching a book and a 2009 documentary Since 1927 , he taught science at the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University, an HBCU). He accepted Brown’s offer to lead the Virginia Project in 1936 and began hiring staff to research local archives and conduct interviews. In total, they found some 300 elders who agreed to talk about their youth in slavery. The research was to be published in a book.
One of the investigators was a Petersburg teacher named Susie RC Byrd. She discovered a treasure trove of history just two blocks from her home, where a community of about 40 former slaves lived. She spoke with them individually and in groups, capturing candid and moving moments. “Lord, baby, I hope you young people will never know what slavery is and never suffer like your ancestors,” Charles Crawley told him in February 1937.
But Lewis’ white supervisor in Richmond, Eudora Ramsay Richardson, had doubts about the search. According to historians at the Library of Virginia, Richardson insisted that some of the accounts of slavery and its brutality were unreliable. She highly doubted the story of a woman named Henrietta King. The manuscript says that King “bears the scars of slavery on his face. … [H]Our face is a hideous mask” of having been crushed under a rocking chair. Lewis defended the account. In the end, Richardson visited King herself. She came back sober. When the team’s research was published, the account stuck.
Their 1940 book – “The Negro in Virginia” – marked a milestone: it was the first modern history of Black Americans in North America, combining personal accounts with social history, from the arrival of the Enslaved Africans at Point Comfort in 1619. A Club Pick Book of the Month, it drew praise from WEB Du Bois and HL Mencken. “The story of the Virginia Negro is also the story of the American Negro,” Lewis wrote in the preface. The goal, he wrote, was “to relate with impartiality the springs that watered these roots and the droughts that dried them up.”
At the time, Hampton chairman Arthur Howe praised Lewis’s work in a local black newspaper, noting: “His modesty kept him in the background, but the service was so important and meaningful.” Although Lewis returned to his job as a teacher at Hampton, the history of slavery kept its grip on him. Soon he was pursuing more interviews. One trip sent him traveling more than 600 miles into rural Georgia to find Mark Thrash, a Virginia-born freedman who served in the Civil War.
Lewis’ paper, published in the journal Phylon more than a decade later, highlighted a problem that other researchers have identified: Survivors of slavery would talk about their experiences differently depending on whether their interviewer was black. or white. Thrash, a centenarian, often had white visitors who wanted to meet a Civil War veteran. During Lewis’ visit, he recorded both the canned and benign version that Thrash told the white tourists who were there that day – and, after they left, the old man’s thorniest answers to questions of Lewis. One was about Thrash’s mother’s pain when her other children were taken from her: “I know my mother mourned them for the rest of her life,” he said.
Julian Hayter, a historian at the University of Richmond, draws a line between Lewis’s work and the civil rights movement. “‘The Negro in Virginia’ really helps set the stage,” he told “The People‘s Recorder,” the podcast where I’m a producer and writer. (The podcast is produced by DC-based media company, Spark Media with a fellowship from Virginia Humanities, among others.) “It still holds water, now more as a historical document – an initiator, if you will, of a strain of history that is now widely accepted.”
Today, it takes a feat of imagination to render the surrealism of the situation of black investigators. Historian-novelist P. Djèlí Clark discusses this experience in his 2018 dark fantasy short story “Night Doctors”, which begins by quoting a WPA interviewee in Virginia, Cornelius Garner, and his story of “Ku Kluxers” being made pretend to be doctors. Clark, while researching a master’s thesis in history, immersed himself in the interviews at the Library of Congress. “People always ask me, ‘Where did you get this idea of the Klan as monsters?’ I say, “The WPA archives,” Clark told me in a phone interview.
Audrey Davis directs the Alexandria Black History Museum. His grandfather, Professor Howard Arthur P. Davis, was friends with Lewis and Brown. (All three graduated from Dunbar High School in DC.) Their work in black culture and education “was so incredibly important,” she said in an interview for the podcast. They were “trying to show America that there is a group of people who have an incredible history, who are part of our country, who you owe America greatness to, and who recognize that greatness.”
Lewis continued to publish in scholarly journals, pursuing equality through historical research, until his death in 1961 at the age of 57. (His son, Roger, died in 2013; a grandson declined to be interviewed.) He was never able to publish the book he envisioned. containing the 300 interviews of Virginie. In a small cemetery on the Hampton campus, his headstone is single. His epitaph reads, “With a bias for none.”
David A. Taylor is a writer in Washington.