Long Past Slavery

Representing Race in the Federal Writers' Project

By Catherine A. Stewart

372 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 10 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-2626-0
    Published: April 2016
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-2627-7
    Published: February 2016

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Awards & distinctions

A 2016 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

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, Catherine A. 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. Stewart demonstrates how project administrators, such as the folklorist John Lomax; white and black interviewers, including Zora Neale Hurston; and the ex-slaves themselves fought to shape understandings of black identity. She reveals that some influential project employees were also members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, intent on memorializing the Old South. Stewart places ex-slaves at the center of debates over black citizenship to illuminate African Americans’ struggle to redefine their past as well as their future in the face of formidable opposition.

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.

About the Author

Catherine A. Stewart is professor of history at Cornell College.
For more information about Catherine A. Stewart, visit the Author Page.


"A compelling read which will provide an invaluable contribution to scholarship around the Federal Writers' Project and for those interested in the construction and representation of competing historical memories of race."--Slavery & Abolition

“Enters the interdisciplinary realm by offering a nuanced examination of how the fields of sociology, anthropology, history, and folklore intersected with New Deal politics. . . . Essential reading for anyone hoping to make use of [the WPA Ex-Slave Interviews] archive.”--Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"Essential for those interested in African American history and the Great Depression."--Library Journal

“This excellent, penetrating study presents much-needed information about the Ex-Slave Project’s creation. . . . An important book deserving of wide readership. Highly recommended.”--CHOICE

“This is a superbly researched, engaging, and insightful book, which deserves to be read by all social historians . . . as well as any scholars interested in American racial politics. Indispensable.”--Institute of Historical Research

"It is a rare delight to read a book as authoritative and captivating as this one. Stewart narrates the racial politics of the Federal Writers’ Project, tracing with clarity and force an on-the-ground reading of how race operates in American society and culture."--Leslie A. Schwalm, University of Iowa

Multimedia & Links

Read: Rebecca Onion at Slate discusses Stewart's book in the article "Is the Greatest Collection of Slave Narratives Tainted by Racism?" (7/6/2016)

Read: Stewart's guest blog post: "Looking Backward: On Memory and the Challenges of Oral History"" (4/20/3016)

Read: Stewart's guest blog post: "Having an Honest Conversation about Slavery---Now and Then" (4/20/3016)