Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion

Virginia Writers Project

The Virginia Writers Project was formed in 1935 as part of the Works Progress Administration, a federal program designed to combat the Great Depression. With a staff of approximately forty Virginia teachers, writers, librarians, clerks, and other professionals, the VWP interviewed thousands of Virginians from all walks of life about their lives, work, and memories. In addition, VWP interviewers collected and checked information about the geography and history of Virginia, a process that resulted in two important books: the 700-page Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion (1940) and The Negro in Virginia (1940), which included oral histories from Virginians who had lived through slavery and the American Civil War (1861–1865). The VWP shut down in 1943, but its material was archived—much of it at the Library of Virginia—where it continues to be useful to those interested in primary resources about Virginia's past. MORE...

 

The Virginia Writers Project began in 1935 as part of a nationwide writers program set up under the federal Works Project Administration (renamed the Works Progress Administration in 1939). Nationally the agency's purpose was to give employment to writers and other workers by assigning them to conduct interviews that would be life histories of the working people of America, to produce guides and directories to the geographical and natural features of each state, and to write commentaries on the history of each state. In Virginia, many of the interviewers conducted these research conversations in their own communities, submitting their material to the central office in Richmond for transcription and editing.

Guided by an official government handbook, the interviewers were paid twenty dollars a week and generally conducted three sorts of interviews: life history, social history, and youth history. Subjects often filled out forms and surveys, but the main part of the interview involved subjects speaking directly to interviewers about the events of their lives, as well as their religious beliefs, community, family, and social customs.

The Virginia Writers Project's first director was Hamilton J. Eckenrode, who was appointed to the part-time post late in 1935. Two years later, Eudora Ramsay Richardson took over as the full-time director and the agency commenced a period of increased energy and focus. In 1936, a VWP unit of African American interviewers—known as the Virginia Negro Studies Project—began collecting narratives and histories about slave life in Virginia. Overseen by Hampton Institute professor Roscoe E. Lewis, project staff members interviewed more than three hundred former enslaved people, which resulted in The Negro in Virginia. In the decades since, the work of Lewis and his interview team has provided valuable material for those researching not only the history of Virginia but the history of slavery as well.

Time Line

  • 1935 - The Virginia Writers Project is formed as part of the Works Progress Administration, a federal program designed to combat the Great Depression.
  • 1940 - The Virginia Writers Project publishes the results of its interviews as a book titled Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion.
  • 1940 - The Virginia Writers Project publishes the results of its interviews as a second book titled The Negro in Virginia.
  • 1943 - The Virginia Writers Project is shut down, but its material is archived, much of it in the Library of Virginia.

References

Further Reading
Martin-Perdue, Nancy and Charles L. Perdue Jr., eds. Talk About Trouble: A New Deal Portrait of Virginians in the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
The Writers' Program of the Works Projects Administration in the State of Virginia. The Negro in Virginia. New York: Hastings House, 1940; Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, 1994.
The Writers' Program of the Works Projects Administration in the State of Virginia. Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1940; Richmond: Virginia State Library and Archives, 1992.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Dexter, K. Virginia Writers Project. (2011, April 7). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Virginia_Writers_Project.

  • MLA Citation:

    Dexter, Kerry. "Virginia Writers Project." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 7 Apr. 2011. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: November 6, 2008 | Last modified: April 7, 2011


Contributed by Kerry Dexter, an independent writer and photographer who specializes in folklore, history, and music.