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.