Birmingham Public Library to Host Workshop on WPA Slave Narratives Series

BPL is hosting a Black History Month program on assessing WPA Slave Narratives.


Paul Boncella, map conservator at the Birmingham Public Library since 2012, has a passion for educating library patrons. 

Over the past few years during BPL’s celebration of Black History Month, he has touched on parts of Birmingham’s dark racist past, including how the government used laws to segregate black and white homeowners. 

From 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Wednesday, February 24, 2021, Boncella will tackle another sensitive topic: “Good, Bad, and Ugly: Accessing and Assessing the WPA Slave Narratives.” Advance registration is required. Click below to register for this Zoom online event 

In a recent interview, Boncella talked about the lecture with BPL’s PR Department.

BPL: For those unfamiliar, what are the WPA Slave Narratives? 

Boncella: Approximately 100,000 former slaves were still alive during the Great Depression, and from 1935 to 1938 the Works Project Administration provided unemployed writers with jobs that required them to collect oral histories from survivors of slavery. The stories they gathered, the slave narratives, were published in a 41-volume collection during the 1970s. 

BPL: What specific need in the community does this program fulfill?

Boncella: Much has been written about slavery and its aftermath. Little effort, however, has been made to connect the public with the broadest range of slavery stories collected from those who actually lived the experience, the complete WPA slave narratives collection.

BPL: How did you identify the need for this topic as part of our Black History Month programming? 

Boncella: As I was searching the WPA slave narratives for evidence of various things, I came to realize that this massive collection could easily overwhelm anyone other than the most experienced researchers. I saw the opportunity to make it more readily accessible to a much broader audience. 

BPL: What do you hope viewers of this virtual lecture learn?

Boncella: I would like them to come away with an accurate concept of what the full WPA slave narrative collection actually contains, the practical uses to which it might be put, and where and how best to access it. 

Paul Boncella 

 BPL: The topic of slavery is difficult for many African-Americans. But how can this help them answer questions such as how to uncover who their ancestors were? 

Boncella: The WPA slave narratives could be a rich genealogical resource for African-Americans because they contain the names of, as well as changes of surnames for, thousands of slaves and their descendants across a broad geographical area. Indeed, their full potential for genealogy has not yet been recognized or realized. 

BPL: Anything else to add? 

Boncella: The raw, sometimes disturbing WPA slave narratives have provided me with a more varied and vivid portrait of the twilight of American slavery than any I have seen elsewhere.

Others can have the same experience if they are willing to harness the power of authentic firsthand accounts of slavery that boldly tell it all—good, bad, and ugly. 

For more information about Southern History’s three genealogy workshops offered during Black History Month, click here