Data discovery illuminates a piece of Black History ‘that I never got to see’



As ICPSR's social media team was looking for data about the experience of African Americans in the United States to highlight this month, collections like the National Survey of American Life Self-Administered Questionnaire, (February 2001-June 2003) and National Black Politics Study, [United States], 1993 came to mind.


However, we kept coming back to one dataset in particular: Quantitative Data Coded from the Federal Writers' Project Slave Narratives, United States, 1936-1938. This dataset includes recording and coding information from slave narratives, gathered as part of the Federal Writers Project. Between 1936 and 1938, federal authorities organized teams of interviewers in 17 states who gathered recollections of over two thousand former slaves. 


ICPSR staffer Margarett McBride, now a PhD student in Developmental Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, discovered this dataset in the ICPSR archive as she was looking for potential social media content. She decided to adopt the dataset as part of Love Data Week in 2019. 



As McBride got to know the dataset better, she nicknamed it Archie, after her great, great, great, great grandfather, who was born into slavery and died after the survey was completed." When I first looked at it, it made me feel like it was a piece of history that I never got to see," McBride tweeted. She took to Twitter to note some of the data collection’s important variables.



The typescript of these interviews from the Federal Writers' Project Slave Narratives project, running to more than ten thousand pages, was deposited in the Library of Congress and has been available on microfiche for many years. Information on the actions, attitudes, beliefs, and experiences of slaves was coded from a total of 2,358 slave narratives. 


“I remember when Margarett discovered this data collection here at ICPSR, and her absolute amazement about having a link to something believed to be lost to history … recorded memories that can connect some dots for countless descendants of slavery in the United States,” said ICPSR Content Manager Dory Knight-Ingram. “The slave narratives collection is definitely on my list of ICPSR data to encourage people to continue to explore.”


This study, as of this writing, has been downloaded 155 times and the study home page lists two data-related publications. It is provided by the Resource Center for Minority Data (RCMD).

Editor's note: Special thanks to ICPSR/NACDA staffer Kathryn Lavender for her contributions to this report.

Citation information: Escott, Paul D. Quantitative Data Coded from the Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narratives, United States, 1936-1938. Ann Arbor, MI: Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research [distributor], 2018-05-08.




Feb 21, 2020

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