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Pernella Anderson (1903–1980)

Pernella Mae Center Anderson of El Dorado (Union County) was one of Arkansas’s two African-American interviewers for the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP). She interviewed former slaves between 1936 and 1939.

Pernella Center was born on April 12, 1903, in Camden (Ouachita County). She was the youngest of Willis Center and Sallie Washington Center’s ten children. Her father, a carpenter, and her mother, a housewife, were born in Louisiana but moved the family to Arkansas by 1894. Center’s mother died when Center was two years old, and her father remarried two years later.

Center married her first husband, Theodore Haynie Jr., around 1920, and the couple had three children. Despite her home responsibilities, she was motivated to further her education and attended Arkansas Baptist College between 1922 and 1924, earning a liberal arts degree. After an apparent divorce from her first husband, she married William W. Anderson in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on April 21, 1931. On the marriage license, she provided her residence as Smackover (Union County) and his residence as El Dorado.

Anderson taught school in Lockesburg (Sevier County) in 1935. However, by 1936, she and her husband were living in El Dorado, where she began work for the Federal Writers’ Project, a component of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). After the project, Anderson again turned her focus to her education. She officially received a teacher’s license in 1944. Anderson later received a BS in education from Grambling College in Grambling, Louisiana, in 1952. After receiving her degree, she taught at Carver Elementary School in El Dorado from 1953 to 1955.

Twenty-six of Anderson’s interviews dealing with slavery were published in the seventeen-volume Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves (1941). However, this was not the totality of her work. As a junior writer for the FWP, she focused on folklore, including readings, stories, sayings, riddles, and superstitions. Anderson collected the folk stories of black residents ranging in age from nineteen to ninety-two. With only a few exceptions, her material was recorded in dialect. Recording the stories in dialect was likely encouraged by her district supervisor or the national office.

The earliest date attributed to her interviews is September 5, 1936; she continued through 1938. Although a small number of African Americans had been employed with the Arkansas Writers Project at various times and in various capacities, Anderson was the first black interviewer in the field. Arkansas’s more well-known black interviewer, Samuel S. Taylor of Little Rock, did not begin until 1937. According to Arkansas: A Guide to the State, published by the FWP, approximately 4,000 African Americans lived in El Dorado during this time. Although oil was a major industry, few black residents found work in the oil fields; most were employed as domestic servants and laborers. The Guide also notes that the majority lived in Fairview, located in the southeast corner of the city. These same facts are observed in Anderson’s submissions, as she records the ages, residence, and occupations of interviewees. Most took place in Fairview Quarters, Douglass Addition, St. Louis Addition, and the Rock Island Quarters neighborhoods, where she herself lived. A few interviews were also recorded in her native Ouachita County. On April 10, 1937, Floyd Sharp, WPA administrator of Arkansas, and Dot Kennan, director of the women’s division, acknowledged and mailed “some very interesting stories by ex-slaves” written by Anderson, “a Negro worker on our Writers’ Project,” to George Crony, associate director of the Federal Writers’ Project of the WPA in Washington, DC.

Additionally, some of Anderson’s personal interests and talents are evident through her submissions. Her knowledge of music surfaces, as the words and tune of one particular song, “Dis Train,” obviously collected during her interviews, was set to musical notes. A smattering of her own poetry was also submitted to the collection.

At the end of the 1955 school year, Anderson moved from El Dorado to Detroit, Michigan, where she taught in the Detroit school system. She died on March 5, 1980, in Detroit.

For additional information:
Potts, Howard E. A Comprehensive Name Index For the American Slave. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Rawick, George P. TheAmerican Slave: A Composite Autobiography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Works Projects Administration, Federal Writers’ Project Collection, Ex-Slave Narratives, Folklore, andCorrespondence. Arkansas History Commission, Little Rock, Arkansas.

Linda McDowell
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated 6/7/2013

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