The U.S. government established the program in 1935 to provide jobs for out-of-work writers during the Great Depression, who in turn produced publications ranging from the American Guide Series to oral histories to children’s books. We recently spoke with David Taylor, writer and co-producer of The People’s Recorder, to learn more about the Spark Media-made podcast, which is slated to premiere in late August 2023.
Virginia Humanities: Your podcast promises to discuss the Federal Writers’ Project’s successes as well as its failures. Can you give us a peek into these insights you gleaned during your work on the project?
David Taylor: For the podcast, I was excited to see how the Project’s legacy has received more attention. In Virginia, we follow Roscoe E. Lewis, who led the small unit of Black writers and researchers of the Virginia Negro Studies Unit, which was based at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). The first-hand accounts his team left, about finding and interviewing the last survivors of slavery, read like the work of undercover historians working behind the lines of Jim Crow segregation.
That whole archive of interviews about slavery has gotten close scrutiny in recent years. Catherine Stewart’s book Long Past Slavery unpacks the context. For one thing, the national effort to document African American history got undermined in many states by local hiring practices that sidelined African American communities. And in many states, those interviews with the survivors of slavery were compromised by the fact that the interviewers were white staff who brought their bias to the task, and who failed to build trust with their sources. By contrast, Lewis and his team, including Susie Byrd in Petersburg, often gained trust in part from their shared background and mutual respect with their interviewees.
We talked with Julian Hayter, historian at the University of Richmond, who shared that Lewis’s team was laying a foundation for the civil rights movement. I think that’s a good way to recognize that generation.
A description for the podcast reads: “As Americans grapple with the unprecedented crises of our time, we gain strength and insight from seeing how our communities responded to emergencies in our past.” What can we learn from the FWP?
DT: We can learn how to listen in a time of crisis. It’s normal that we get rattled by, say, the crisis of a pandemic and massive inequality. But amid the Depression, the Writers’ Project created an opportunity for thousands of unemployed to listen to their neighbors about their lives, the ups and downs. This June at a day-long gathering about the Writers’ Project at the Library of Congress, historian Alessandro Portelli called the Writers’ Project “a huge listening project.” I like that description.
The Project created a life-sized portrait of America in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Guides to the states (and cities), and in thousands of individual life stories. We find in them the immediate reactions to disasters like the Dust Bowl and the Financial Crash.
Besides what they created as a group, we can learn from them individually, in the many ways that WPA workers faced unemployment and weathered hard times. When Ralph Ellison’s mother died, he had to drop out of Tuskegee Institute, where he’d been studying music. He drifted to New York where he spent his first nights on a park bench. If he could regain his footing, get a relief job listening to everyday people’s stories and writing them down, and piece together the Great Migration, then we can learn from that.
We’re excited to be digging into these themes with a recent development grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. We wouldn’t have gotten there without early support from Virginia Humanities, along with humanities councils in Florida, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and California.
“Amid the Depression, the Writers’ Project created an opportunity for thousands of unemployed to listen to their neighbors about their lives, the ups and downs.”David Taylor
One of the most important works to come out of the FWP is the 1940 book The Negro in Virginia, which, as you explained in The Washington Post, documented personal accounts of slavery and marked a milestone as the first modern history of Black Americans in North America. In researching the dozen Black interviewers who worked on the book, what have you learned about its lasting impact—both in Virginia and across the U.S.?
DT: Julian Hayter talks about that book as a foundational history of Black American life, saying it “informs generations of scholarship that helped get us to now.” The book starts in 1619 and takes the African American experience in Virginia right up to 1940. Hayter says Lewis and his team were people who knew “how absolutely essential Black life was to the establishment of the Commonwealth of Virginia.” Everything they poured into The Negro in Virginia in many ways looks forward to the Civil Rights Movement.
Of the interviews with the elders that those dozen interviewers did, Hayter says, “it’s nothing short of remarkable that someone recognized the urgency in getting these voices down on record before they were gone. Because you know damn well someone down the line will try to say, ‘This stuff never happened.’”
One story we heard for the podcast involved a white editor of the WPA Guide to Virginia, Eudora Ramsay Richardson. As Lewis’s supervisor, she tracked what his team found in those interviews. From her position as a white Richmond resident, she was skeptical of the recollections of slavery that came in. She especially didn’t believe one woman’s account of abuse she suffered from her enslaver. Richardson insisted on meeting that woman, Henrietta King, thinking that would disprove the statements. She and Lewis drove out and visited King, and they saw she had told the truth. Richardson had her mind changed, and Ms. King’s story appeared in The Negro in Virginia as she told it.
The People’s Recorder draws upon the documentary Soul of a People: Writing America’s Story and its companion book, which you wrote. Did your experience working on the podcast differ from your experience writing the book?
Yes, it did. Coming back to this topic after over a decade since I worked with the team at Spark Media, led by Andrea Kalin, to make Soul of a People, I was struck by how much new research has come out—stories that had not been shared before, and context that showed even more dramatically what they had achieved and what had gone wrong during those years. A lot more has been digitized now than when we worked on the film, and with audio we can delve into more stories in an immersive way. The podcast also gives us freedom to tell each story organically, without having to force it into a cookie-cutter episode length.
What’s one of the more memorable anecdotes you have from your work on the podcast?
I met Audrey Davis over 20 years ago when I was a volunteer at the Alexandria Black History Museum. As we researched Roscoe Lewis’ life for the podcast, I reconnected with Audrey and heard about her grandfather’s friendships with Lewis and Sterling Brown. Mid-pandemic, it was amazing to see Audrey again on Zoom and hear her stories, and see an old photo she had of those three friends laughing together around a dinner table.
Another story that comes to mind is our conversation with Kiki Petrosino, when she told co-producer James Mirabello and me about her poetry and her travels with her mother to uncover their ancestors’ stories in Louisa County. By the end of the conversation, we had discovered connections to the Writers’ Project that none of us knew about beforehand.
Premiering in late August 2023, The People’s Recorder is produced by Spark Media with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Florida Humanities, Virginia Humanities, Wisconsin Humanities, California Humanities, and Humanities Nebraska. Listen to a trailer for the podcast and subscribe to updates about its release here.
About Virginia Humanities Grants
Our grants support nonprofit projects that explore the stories of Virginia—its history, people, communities, and cultural traditions—as well as issues and questions that impact the lives of Virginians in the present day. Our next upcoming deadline is Monday, July 31, 2023 for regular and rapid grants.