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Writer and educator Samuel Shinkle Taylor was one of only two African-American interviewers for the Arkansas Federal Writers’ Project 1936–1938 collection of oral history narratives from ex-slaves. He also wrote and compiled Survey of Negroes in Little Rock and North Little Rock, served as a minister and professor, and was an associate editor for the Arkansas State Press from 1949 to 1956.
Samuel Taylor was born on November 21, 1886, to the Reverend Marshall W. Taylor and Catherine Hester Taylor in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father was the first black editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate and author of A Collection of Revival Hymns and Plantation Melodies. Taylor’s father died in 1887, and his mother moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, where Taylor was raised. His mother died in 1907, and Taylor, who was attending DePauw University, quit school and later moved to Louisiana, where he entered Strait College, now Dillard University, in New Orleans. He completed both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in education.
After being drafted in 1917, he served as a private with the Ohio Engineers and then settled again in New Orleans, where he met and married Exie Carter in 1920. The couple had five children. Taylor became the supervisor of Negro Public Schools in New Orleans in 1923 and was rewarded for his good work with a school board fellowship to study at Columbia University in New York.
After moving to Little Rock (Pulaski County) with his family in 1927, Taylor was head of the Department of Education at Philander Smith College from 1927 to 1929, and he taught mathematics at Dunbar Junior High School in the early 1930s. When Washington DC officials of the Federal Writers’ Project put pressure on the Arkansas project to employ more African Americans, director Bernie Babcock hired Taylor in 1937 to assist with the writing and editing of the Urban League Project, Survey of Negroes in Little Rock and North Little Rock. In 1937–38, Taylor collected and wrote 129 interviews of African Americans in Arkansas for the project’s ex-slave narratives.
Taylor’s interviews are highly regarded. Historian John Blassingame praised Taylor as “the most skillful of the WPA interviewers,” and George Rawick, who compiled and reintroduced the WPA slave narratives in 1972, refers to Taylor’s interviews as “generally among the best in the collection.” The Arkansas collection accounts for nearly a third of the ex-slave narratives recorded nationwide, and Samuel Taylor collected roughly seventeen percent of these.
The heavy employment of white interviewers in all of the project’s eighteen states causes some reservations about the validity of this Depression-era 1936–1938 collection. African-American interviewers were rare on the project. Taylor was one of only two African-American interviewers hired in Arkansas, and the entire national collection includes interviews taken by only a handful of African Americans. Scholars wonder whether the informants were truthful about their experiences, especially when talking to white interviewers from the U.S. government, the source of some informants’ relief checks. Some editorial comments in the interviews appear to show the writers’ racial prejudice and an inclination to romanticize the days of slavery. Taylor, already a Little Rock educator and scholar, was an extremely capable interviewer who took his notes in shorthand and established good relationships with the informants, who seemed somewhat more open to being interviewed by him. Consequently, many consider his interviews to be exemplary for their realism and accuracy.
In 1946, Taylor became registrar and Dean of Education at Shorter College in North Little Rock (Pulaski County). He also worked with the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for improvements in education and civil rights. As associate editor of the Arkansas State Press, he penned weekly editorials which, in the last two years of his life, frequently commented on the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas ruling and on the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, about which he wrote, “[I]t is from a moral and financial standpoint a complete success for the boycotters….There are few movements in our time which have been so generally approved.” Taylor was also a Methodist minister who in his last years led a congregation at the Lonoke (Lonoke County) St. James Methodist Episcopal Church.
Taylor died on May 17, 1956, after being hospitalized with a critical illness at the Little Rock Veteran’s Hospital. He is buried in Little Rock’s National Cemetery.
For additional information“Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936–1938.” Library of Congress American Memory. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome.html (accessed June 6, 2008).
Greater Urban League of Little Rock. Survey of Negroes in Little Rock and North Little Rock. Little Rock: Works Projects Administration, 1941.
McDowell, Linda. “Samuel S. Taylor: Arkansas Federal Writers’ Project Interviewer.” Pulaski County Historical Review 55 (Spring 2007): 2–12.
Linda LovellNorthwest Arkansas Community College
Last Updated 7/31/2009
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