The Florida Negro: A Federal Writers’ Project Legacy. – book reviews
Richard B. Sherman
Between 1935 and 1943 the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) of the Works Progress Administration undertook a series of projects designed to discover, preserve, and make available to the public many aspects of America’s past and present. The best known books resulting from this work were those in the American Guide Series, with a volume on each state, but there were numerous other publications on local or regional topics, including some on the history of selected ethnic and racial groups. Ultimately, the FWP collected more information and planned more books than ever got published. One such project was a study of the history, folk traditions, and life of African Americans in Florida. For this, a group of black investigators assembled a considerable amount of data, including interviews with 72 former slaves. Eventually several authors, mostly black but some white, produced a manuscript on “The Florida Negro.” Rejected for publication by Macmillan and Company in 1939, this work has, until now, been gathering dust in the Florida Historical Society. Thanks to the efforts of Gary W. McDonogh, it has finally found its way into print.
Divided into sixteen short chapters of varying length, The Florida Negro begins with a history of blacks in the state from 1528 to the 1930s. This is followed by two chapters on slavery, and by chapters on such topics as employment, religion, education, and notable Florida blacks. Considerable attention is also given to popular activities, songs, superstitions, folklore, voodoo, and to the then highly popular gambling game of bolita. The Florida Negro remains a curious document. A product of many different authors, it is uneven in style and content. More important, different parts vary significantly in tone and point of view. For example, the passage in chapter I welcoming the arrival of the first black slaves contrasts with the harsh portrayal of slave life in chapter 2 based on interviews of former slaves. As Gertrude Fraser correctly points out in the afterword, in certain passages the “we” of the text are white outsiders viewing Florida blacks as objects of an anthropological study, while in other sections there is a more obviously black perspective. Although today’s readers are likely to perceive a touch of condescension in much of the book, the message is largely upbeat. This is certainly seen in the short sketches of successful blacks and in the positive description of Pensacola for its successes in interracial activities and black participation in public affairs.
McDonogh’s introduction and notes are helpful in explaining the origins of the manuscript, identifying the sources and authors of various sections, and pointing out some of the works intriguing variations in tone and emphasis. Still, The Florida Negro invites many questions about its omissions and interpretations. The original manuscript itself makes a short book of only 115 printed pages. Most of the discussion pertaining to the contemporary (i.e. later 1930s) education, employment, public affairs, and race relations leaves much unasked and unanswered. Inevitably, this book will be compared, probably not very favorably, with other FWP publications, especially the larger and more polished work, The Negro in Virginia. Despite its weaknesses, however, The Florida Negro has some interesting material. More importantly, its factual limitations and its varying and occasionally ambiguous points of view tell us something about changes in racial attitudes since the 1930s.
Richard B. Sherman The College of William and Mary
COPYRIGHT 1994 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.
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