The Federal Writers’ Project Sparked Inspiration for ("Little Black Shadows") Playwright Kemp Powers

Danielle Bliss
 | Mar 05, 2018
Former Slaves

A portrait of Anderson & Minerva Edwards, ex-slaves in Marshall, Texas. U.S. Works Progress Administration, Federal Writers' Project slave narratives collections.


American Guide Series poster.


William Colbert, age 93, in front of his home in Alabama. Photo collected as part of the Slave Narrative Project.

Kemp Powers, who wrote Little Black Shadows, found deeply inspiring information for the play from research he did in the archives of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). Created in 1935 as part of the United States Work Progress Administration (originally called the Works Progress Administration), FWP was put together to help provide employment for historians, teachers, writers and librarians, among others.

The original idea for the project was to produce a series of guide books called American Guide, which focused on the scenic, historical, cultural and economic resources of the United States. The records held in the FWP archives collections contain documents created between the years 1524 through 1947, however, most of the pieces were created between 1935 and 1942.

“In the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project sent writers out to document the lives of the last generation alive that had been born into slavery,” says Powers. “​What I found so striking was not the atrocities being recounted in their tales, but how, in all of their stories, the slaves seemed to have a kind of appreciation for their masters. They’d be describing something awful that had happened and be like, ‘But, I had it good. It was that slave down the road that had it bad. We had a good master.’ They had this feeling of being almost lost after getting their freedom.”

The title of Powers’ play, Little Black Shadows, holds a striking background story. During slavery, the ​white children in the house would each have their own child slave, called a little black shadow. “First I’d never heard the expression and it really piqued an interest in me,” says Powers. “I started doing my own independent research on it. This wasn’t a play that anyone had actually asked me to write. I was actually supposed to be working on something else, but I felt that this was just so incredible, that I started doing my own, independent research. I needed to find out more.”

The Federal Writers’ Project was directed by Henry Alsberg from 1935-39. He was a lawyer before he became interested in the theatre as a writer and director of off-Broadway productions.

Part of the writer's Project archives is a collection titled, ‘Born in Slavery.’ This collection holds more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery, along with 500 photographs of former slaves.


Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938

These first-person stories were collected by a team of researchers from the FWP between 1936 and 1938. ​During the Depression years, out-of-work writers in 17 different states who were sent out to interview​ former slaves​ and write down their life stories. This group of writers often visited ​their interview subjects more than once to make sure to gather as many recollections as possible. These visits would often include photographs of the former slaves at their homes.
The Federal Writers' Project gave employment to writers such as Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Studs Terkel.

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