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Works Progress Administration

The Children of the Whitney

In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration – a network of hundreds of agencies designed to put to work the millions of Americans who had lost their jobs in the Great Depression. One of these agencies was the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). Led by noted folklorist John A. Lomax, the FWP was sent across the country to record the histories and experiences of everyday Americans.

In 1936, the Federal Writers’ Project had an active African American unit who took it upon themselves to interview former slaves. John Lomax and his associate director Sterling A. Brown immediately realized the importance of preserving the story of slavery as expressed by its survivors. The formal collection of slave narratives ended in the spring of 1939, except in Louisiana where most of the oral stories were collected in 1940. At that time, 75 years had passed since the end of the Civil War. The majority of the former slaves that the FWP interviewed were children at the time of emancipation. For the most part, their stories recall their time spent in slavery as children and teenagers.

The Children of Whitney, a series of sculptures by Ohio-based artist Woodrow Nash, represent these former slaves as they were at the time of emancipation: children. Whitney presents the stories of these children as told in their own words. The visitors are introduced to the lives of the enslaved workers based on the recollections of those who endured, and who shared the stories of their lives as children in slavery.

Born in the late 1940s in Akron, Ohio, Woodrow Nash is in the tradition of the great masters. His consuming passion to elevate the human spirit takes the form of clay sculptures. Through his pieces, Nash achieves his goal of integrating expression, complex symbolism and sophisticated aesthetics to yield striking embodiments of the human soul. When approached while working on the Children of Whitney, Nash said: “We are both detail-oriented people and we want these pieces to be as genuine to true slave life as possible. This project has been a challenge that I’ve looked forward to for a long time. My pieces will breathe life into the whole plantation.”