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How researchers preserved the oral histories of formerly enslaved Virginians

Roscoe Lewis sets up to record an interview of formerly enslaved people in Petersburg, Va., as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. (Hampton University Archives)

For several days in June last year, I found myself driving through Virginia on the trail of undercover historians. I was working on a podcast about the Federal Writers’ Project, which had sent researchers across the state during the 1930s to talk with formerly enslaved Virginians. These historians, all of whom were Black, were undercover in the sense that had they been too obvious in their aim to expose the realities of slavery, they could have been harassed by local officials, had their funding slashed by Congress and been subjected to the ire of their White editors. They also worked at a time when Jim Crow still prevailed.

Their project was part of a national Black history initiative within the Federal Writers’ Project, which was established by the Works Progress Administration. That initiative, led by Howard University’s Sterling Brown, included a plan to interview thousands of formerly enslaved people across the South before they died. Brown entrusted one of the larger pieces of that effort to a dozen interviewers in Virginia, under the leadership of a bespectacled chemist named Roscoe Lewis.

I first came across Lewis — who grew up in D.C., graduated from Brown University in 1925 and held a master’s from Howard — while researching a 2009 book and documentary. Since 1927 he had taught science at 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 in local archives and conduct interviews. Altogether they found some 300 elders who agreed to talk about their youth in slavery. The research was intended to be published in a book.

One of the interviewers was a teacher in Petersburg named Susie R.C. Byrd. She discovered a trove of history just two blocks from her home, where a community of about 40 formerly enslaved people lived. She talked with them individually and as a group, capturing frank and moving moments. “Lord, baby, I hope you young folks will never know what slavery is, and will never suffer as your foreparents,” Charles Crawley told her in February 1937.

But Lewis’s White supervisor in Richmond, Eudora Ramsay Richardson, harbored doubts about the research. According to historians at the Library of Virginia, Richardson insisted that some of the accounts of slavery and its brutality were unreliable. She strongly doubted the story of a woman named Henrietta King. The manuscript said King “bears the scars of slavery on her face. … [H]er face is a hideous mask” from having been crushed under a rocking chair. Lewis defended the account. Ultimately, Richardson visited King herself. She returned sobered. When the team’s research was published, the account stayed in.

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, starting from enslaved Africans’ arrival at Point Comfort in 1619. A Book-of-the-Month Club pick, it drew raves from W.E.B. Du Bois and H.L. Mencken. “The story of the Negro in Virginia is also the story of the American Negro,” Lewis wrote in the preface. The aim, he wrote, was “to tell impartially of the springs that watered those roots and of the droughts that withered them.”

At the time, Hampton’s president, Arthur Howe, praised Lewis’s work in a Black local newspaper, noting, “His modesty has kept him in the background, but the service has been so important and significant.” Though Lewis returned to his job as a Hampton professor, the history of slavery kept its hold on him. Soon he was pursuing more interviews. One trip sent him driving more than 600 miles into rural Georgia to find Mark Thrash, a freedman born in Virginia who served in the Civil War.

Lewis’s write-up, published in the journal Phylon more than a decade later, highlighted a problem that other scholars have identified: Slavery’s survivors 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. When Lewis visited, he recorded both the canned, benign version Thrash told to White tourists who were there that day — and, after they left, the old man’s thornier replies to Lewis’s questions. One involved Thrash’s mother’s pain when her other children were torn from her: “I know that mother mourned for them all the rest of her days,” he said.

Julian Hayter, a historian at the University of Richmond, draws a line from Lewis’s work to the civil rights movement. “ ‘The Negro in Virginia’ really does help set the stage,” he told “The People’s Recorder,” the podcast where I am a producer and writer. (The podcast is produced by D.C.-based media company Spark Media with a grant 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.”

These days it takes a feat of imagination to convey the surrealism of the Black interviewers’ situation. Historian-novelist P. Djèlí Clark conjures that 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” posing as 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 that idea of the Klan as monsters?’ I say, ‘The WPA archive,’ ” Clark told me in a phone interview.

Audrey Davis directs the Alexandria Black History Museum. Her grandfather, Howard professor Arthur P. Davis, was friends with Lewis and Brown. (All three graduated from D.C.’s Dunbar High School.) 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 amazing history, who are part of our country, who you owe the greatness of America to, and recognizing that greatness.”

Lewis continued to publish in scholarly journals, pursuing equality through historical research, until his death in 1961 at age 57. (His son, Roger, died in 2013; a grandson declined to be interviewed.) He never got to publish the book he envisioned containing all 300 of the Virginia interviews. In a small cemetery on the Hampton campus, his headstone is straightforward. His epitaph says, “With bias towards none.”

David A. Taylor is a writer in Washington.