Researching African American Ancestors in Government Documents Part 3 : WPA Projects and Slave Narratives
What additional records can you use to research African Americans in the United States? You might be surprised to learn of the many documents created by WPA projects during the 1930s. These projects provided thousands of jobs and recorded hundreds of first-hand accounts of slavery from interviews of the previously enslaved still living at that time. Learning more about these records can give you another avenue to research in your quest to discover family connections.
This series is based on information I learned in “Researching African American Ancestors: Government Documents and Advanced Tools” coordinated by Deborah A. Abbott, PhD. The course was part of the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research (IGHR), held virtually the last week of July. Previous articles discussed researching African Americans in other records created by the United States government.
The New Deal
What was the “New Deal” and how did it impact the lives of African Americans living in the United States during the great depression of the 1930s? President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) took office in 1933 during a time when one out of five Americans had no work. Among the African American population the percentage of unemployed was even higher. FDR initiated a variety of projects that he termed the “New Deal.” For an excellent resource to learn about New Deal projects by state and to view an interactive map shown in the screenshot below, see the website, The Living New Deal.
Exploring the map which reports 16,419 sites throughout the United States, you can search by categories, agencies, or simply a location. Zoom in on the place an ancestor lived to discover what projects they might have worked on. You might be surprised at the sheer number of local landmarks and buildings you discover were constructed through New Deal projects.
WPA: Works Progress Administration
The Works Progress Administration created opportunities for employment with its projects involving building bridges, dams, roads, housing, and public buildings to name a few.
The WPA worked under a unique partnership between the federal, state, and local governments. The local city and county governments proposed the projects and upon approval by the federal government could hire local unemployed individuals to do the work and the federal government paid their wages.
The final report of the WPA program, which lasted until 1943, showed that over 10 million people had been employed at one time or another. With this many people involved, there is a good chance that your African American ancestor was employed by the WPA.
What kind of occupations were available? Most of them centered around unskilled labor for the construction projects, but there were also opportunities for the skilled, semi-skilled, and white collar jobs. Sadly, discrimination against African Americans kept them from receiving the same opportunities as their white counterparts.
What clues can point to an ancestor’s involvement in the WPA? A good starting point is always family knowledge and sources. Ask older relatives if they heard of anyone working for the WPA. Look for photos that might show an individual at work on a project. Membership cards were issued and could have been saved.
The 1940 census asked specific questions about employment during the week of March 24-30, in 1940, so an ancestor may have worked on a WPA project before or after that week and not have answered yes to the question. The census is a good place to start however, in case you find positive information that the ancestor was employed by the WPA.
Line 21: Was this person at work for pay or profit in private or non-emergency Govt. work during week of March 24-30? (Yes or No)
Line 22: If not, was he at work on, or assigned to, public EMERGENCY WORK (WPA, NYA, CCC,etc.) during week of March 24-30? (Yes or No)
NYA: National Youth Administration
What do those abbreviations on the 1940 census mean? We have already defined WPA as the Works Progress Administration. NYA stands for the National Youth Administration, the program designed for youth ages 16 to 25. The NYA was established as part of the WPA and again was administered on the local level. The individual state projects were aimed at teaching young people a variety of occupational skills from construction to nursing. Search for information about the NYA in the state your ancestors resided. For example, the Oklahoma Historical Society has an excellent article detailing the NYA in the state of Oklahoma. It specifically discusses the involvement of African American NYA participants.
To locate records for your ancestor who worked in a WPA program, first discover as much information about him or her as possible: complete name, birth date, social security number, birthplace, hometown at time of employment, parent’s names, and spouse’s name: all categories on the NARA Form 14137 Request Pertaining to WPA Personnel Records. Submit the form to the National Archives at St Louis, Missouri.
CCC: Civilian Conservation Corps
The Civilian Conservation Corps was the largest employer of young African American men under the New Deal era. To be employed a man was to be single and between the ages of 17 to 28 years. The employees lived in work camps and the conservation projects included soil erosion, timbering, improving recreational facilities and constructing roads.
The National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri, houses the records for the CCC. Obtaining a service record is well worth the effort as it may contain the following: vital statistics, the closest relative, address, date of enrollment, salary, education, physical characteristics, date and locations of service, and camp assignment numbers. See the webpage, “Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Enrollee Records, Archival Holdings and Access,” for the NA Form 14136, fee information, additional CCC holdings and resources, and sample CCC documents.
Federal Writers Project
The Federal Writers Project (FWP) was one of the most significant of the New Deal projects and of great use for genealogists. Among the unemployed during the great depression of the 1930s were writers, teachers, librarians, historians, and others skilled with the written word. Henry Alsberg directed the FWP which eventually included The American Guide Series, Slave Narratives, and Historical Records Survey among other projects.
American Guide Series
The American Guide Series was created to stimulate travel and the economy by providing the American public with a comprehensive guide to scenic, historical, archaeological, cultural, and economic resources of the United States. If you are looking for context for your ancestor’s life in this era, the guides will inform your research.
The guides cover regions and territories, states, and cities. The Wikipedia page “American Guide Series” includes a table with the guides by location and a link to the digitized book or pamphlet on Google Books, Hathi Trust, or Internet Archive. For a listings and descriptions, see Catalog: American Guide Series, published in 1938 available as a digital book on Hathi Trust.
The Slave Narratives project is probably the best known of the group with more than 2,300 accounts of slavery told by formerly enslaved people. The narratives are organized by location and then by surname. The narratives are often accompanied by photographs and are a compelling collections.
The Library of Congress hosts a large collection, but is not all inclusive. For example “The African-American Experience in Ohio” web page includes 27 interviews that are only available on the Ohio History Connection such as the example shown below.
In researching the slave narratives, remember to use the FAN club principle. Look for the friends, neighbors, or associates that might have been part of your ancestor’s life. Learning their stories can shed light on your ancestor.
The example shown below is the written account of an interview with William P. Hogue, who was born into slavery in 1861. He described the slave owner, the home, his father’s experience in the Civil War and life after the war.
The Editor’s note at the end of the narrative reads: “William P. Hogue, 76, tall, still straight, slender of build, and wears a moustache and beard, iron grey, like his hair.”
Historical Records Survey
Knowing what records are available in any locality is important for every research project. The Historical Records Survey project involved workers completing surveys of federal archives, county records, church records, manuscripts and more. for example, if you are interested in knowing about the African American churches that were functioning in the 1930s and before, the inventory for your county of interest might give the information you need.
Search the FamilySearch Catalog by keyword “historical records survey” and your location of interest to see what inventories are available. Many of these have been digitized and are available online. Google searches will discover other websites hosting these collections as well such as Hathi Trust, Google Books, Internet Archive, and more.
For example, in 1941, the Michigan Historical Records Survey Project as part of the WPA created a “Calendar of the John C. Dancy Correspondence, 1898-1910.” Digitized by FamilySearch, all 37 pages can be viewed online.
The New Deal programs produced millions of records that could provide clues to an African American ancestor’s life. Although these records will take effort to discover, they are well worth it.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!