Renee shares slave history with students

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Renee Smith, a Columbus, Ohio researcher with Bluegrass roots, showed the students some of the documents she uses in her research. She told them, "The lady in the far left of the picture is a former slave from Manchester Kentucky, Sophia Word. The lady in the middle is Vanilla Potter. Vanilla has recently passed away and I attended her funeral ceremony yesterday. She passed away Monday, July 13 in Clay County. This is her as a little girl." Her married name was Vanilla Potter White. The Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers Project

When Ms. Renee Smith told the young people about her work as a genealogist, she shared the story of her research into the life of Sophia Word. In 1936, when Sophia Word was ninety nine years old, she was interviewed by Pearl House, a writer in the Federal Writer's Project of the
Works Project Administration (WPA). As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal plan to put people to work, writers were recruited to do many public service projects, including conducting oral interviews with former slaves about the conditions they endured under slavery. The Slave NarrativeProject, as it was called,was critically important indocumenting African American history and thecruel history of slavery in the United States. Between 1936 and 1938, writerscollected more than 2,300 first person accounts of slavery from the only people who could really convey the experience: former slaves. The entire collection is on-line at the website of the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress and can be accessed at

The Laurel County African American Heritage Center has copies of many of the
narratives from Kentucky, and the older students were invited to read these narratives. It was an eye-opening experience for them. Although they had been aware of the history of slavery, to read actual first-person accounts gave them a new understanding. It also made them understand the importance of oral histories and the work they themselves were doing. History texts describe the major events and historical figures of the past, but they do not communicate the personal, day-to-day experiences of ordinary people. In particular, they often lack information about minorities, women, children, and people living under oppression. Oral histories fill in these gaps. The narratives collected during the WPA era are important in telling the individual stories of people who lived right here in Kentucky through the oppression of slavery. The stories collected by the Summer Youth Program are important in telling the history of individuals who lived right here in Laurel County before and during desegregation. Several of the people they interviewed talked about their experiences when schools were desegregated. Each seemed to have had a unique experience, some more challenging than others. That is why the stories are important. They are about individuals. They give an idea of the experience of desegregation right here in Laurel County, which was very different from the experiences in other communities and other states.
This project had an especially profound impact on one of the students, Jackie Riley, who discovered that she, too, is a direct descendant of Sophia Word. Here is her story paying tribute to her ancestress. Sophia Word

By Jackie Marie Riley

Sophia Word was an outstanding woman. Sophia had a tough life through slavery. Sophia was beaten brutally after she was told to go in the house and didn’t go, then her mistress dragged her in. “Then I grabs that white woman, when she turned her back, and shook her until she begged for mercy. When the master came in, I wuz given a terrible beating with a whip but I didn’t care fer I give the mistress a good ‘un too." For this I proudly look up to Sophia Word. She has taught me to stand up for what I believe in. I just couldn't imagine what it was like being beaten.
To read Sophia Word's complete narrative, go to