About the Comprehensive Index—Howard E. Potts

Howard E. Potts has completed a B.A. in International-Intercultural Studies, an M.A. in Latin American Studies, and all coursework for a doctorate in History. He has traveled extensively to over twenty countries on four continents. Mr. Potts is presently Assistant Professor of Political Science and History, at Waycross College, Waycross, Georgia, Home of the Great Okenfenokee Swamp. He is currently compiling stories from The American Slave series to complete a novel on slavery that is in progress.

"Potts has done a praiseworthy job of cross-referencing the immense amounts of data in ways valuable to scholars. . . . The indexes are easy to read and make it only a few minutes' work to look up an ancestor or a region to see whether pertinent information exists. This work will become necessary to anyone using the Rawick series. The amount of nongenealogical information in these interviews is astoundingłthe folklore alone is fascinating" Choice

An Interview with Howard E. Potts

GEM: Why did you compile the index?

Howard Potts: I was initially introduced to The American Slave series as a graduate student at the University of Alabama in the fall of 1987, while studying American Slavery with Dr. Charles Joyner. The American Slave is a collection of thousands of interviews with former slaves conducted under the Works Progress Administration, primarily in the 1930s. As I began research on two volumes labeled, The American Slave: South Carolina Narratives, I quickly noted that although many of the narrators had been slaves in South Carolina, many slaves had endured bondage in other states. The titles only indicated where the former slaves were interviewed, not necessarily where they lived as slaves. It became clear the only way to find all the slaves who endured slavery in any state was to read through all volumes of The American Slave. Thus I began my task of indexing the first of the three series, unaware of the enormity of the work.

GEM: How did you compile the index?

HP: First, I consulted with my adviser, Dr. Charles Joyner, to determine the appropriate information to be included in the index. The narrator's name (former slave), the narrator's probable birth year and location by county and state during slavery were considered to be of primary importance. The master's name, the interviewer's name and the volume and page number are also included. Lasts, the total number of narrative pages for each narrator are included. I then read each page of each narrative in the three series of The American Slave to compile the information. Each narrative had a separate data sheet that I filled in by hand as I read each narrative. The data sheets were eventually entered into a computer database in 1996. The final index was completed in late 1996 and published by Greenwood Publishing Inc. in 1997.

GEM: How long did it take you to complete it, from start to finish?

HP: I began this project in the fall of 1987. During the following years, I completed graduate school, experienced the illness and death of my father and mother, family surgeries, and the 1987 birth, heart surgery, and life of our special handicapped daughter Jamie. The completed index was published in May 1997. Jaime died on November 30, 1999. A Comprehensive Name Index for the American Slave is dedicated to Jamie Potts and to Gloriss Potts, her sister, who helped care for her for over twelve years.

GEM: Were you surprised by anything you found while working on this project?

HP: I was surprised by the diversity of the slave experience. The stories reflected the myriad of experiences-including not only the inhumanity and cruelty of bondage, but also stories, both good and bad that illuminated the human spirit of this historical period in American history.

GEM: What, in your opinion, is the significance of the WPA narratives?

HP: The WPA Federal Writers Project, in the 1930s, was a comprehensive interview program in seventeen states that interviewed former slaves about their lives during bondage. These interviews show firsthand the experiences of the field hands, house servants, and craftsmen over diversified geography and a variety of lifestyles and masters. In my opinion, the WPA narratives are the most important source of primary information on understanding the 19th-century American South and its slave legacy.

GEM: Do you ever speak to groups about the narratives?

HP: Yes. These groups have expressed great interest in the personal lives of the slaves.

GEM: You are a professor-do you ever teach with the narratives or point them out to students?

HP: Yes. In fact, as I began research for the index, I began to notice many interesting slave stories. I started a collection of the stories to use in my history classes. I have collected over 500 narrative stories. My history students responded overwhelmingly to the slave narrative stories with fascination in a new outlook on Southern history. I am evaluating these 500 stories and am currently writing a novel based on the best of the stories. I hope to have the book completed soon.

Howard Potts
Waycross College