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Documenting the African American Community: Viola B. Muse and the Federal Writers Project in Jacksonville

Background: THE FWP

The Federal Writers Project (FWP), a division of the Work Projects Administration (WPA), provided employment to many of the people working in cultural fields that found themselves unemployed during the Great Depression (1929-1939).  The FWP (1935-1941) embarked on the creation of the “American Guide Series”, a series of guidebooks for each state that included customs and folklore.

Dr. Carita Doggett Corse (1891-1978) was the state director of the FWP in Florida. She was a Jacksonville native with an incredible zest for documenting the lives of all the citizens in the state. The FWP was based out of Jacksonville; their “Negro Unit” was located at the Clara White Mission run Eartha M.M. White on Ashley St. Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was in charge of that unit, although she mostly worked out of her home in Eatonville. Viola B. Muse worked as one of the African American fieldworker for the FWP between 1936 and 1937.

The responsibility of the fieldworkers was to interview and document the common folk, and the “old-timers”. These fieldworkers were able to collect an enormous amount of firsthand information, about the lives and lore of the people. Among the categories sought after were customs concerning birth, courtship, marriage, and death; songs; religious practices; community festivals; art; literature and publications.

Through her interviews and writings Viola B. Muse gives us a capsule of what life was in Jacksonville’s best known African American neighborhood in the mid-1930s. Often referred to as the Harlem of the South, Lavilla was Jacksonville’s first suburb. It was annexed by the City in 1887 and, during its height it was considered “a mecca for African American culture and heritage” in Florida.

Viola Muse

Viola Muse was born in Alabama in 1898 and according to the 1940 census was a college graduate. She married John P. Muse (ca.1884-1964), a Florida native, in the early 1920s. Mr. Muse was a lawyer who practiced in Jacksonville from 1922 to 1963. His office was located in the Masonic Lodge. During the 1920s, Mrs. Muse appears in the Jacksonville City Directory as a hairdresser. After her stint as a fieldworker for the FWP, she owned the Jack and Jill Kindergarten. She died in Jacksonville in 1981. She is buried in Riverside Memorial Cemetery.

She was very much a member of the Black community in Jacksonville and as such must have had access to many of its members. From her work as a hairdresser, she must have known many of the stories that she documented for the FWP. The collection of her papers stored at the Jacksonville Historical Society are the notes that she took while interviewing the residents of Lavilla. These notes would have been sent to the white staff of the FWP where they would have been edited by white editors with their own perceptions and prejudices regarding the Black residents. The Black fieldworkers were never invited to the editor’s meeting. This collection of interviews is so important because it contains the raw material of her interviews with introductions written by Mrs. Muse and reference material documenting who she spoke with, where they lived, their age and their occupation.

The fieldworkers for the FWP received a specific script to follow when interviewing or collecting information. Copies of these scripts are included in Mrs. Muse’s papers. She used every possible small scrap of paper to take notes, including old FWP forms. She divided her work into two major topics, slavery and art. Following is part of her introduction to an interview with a former slave.

“Particularly interesting information can be drawn from the untutored mind of an ex-slave who still possesses a keen and unbroken memory of happenings during slavery and early reconstruction of our country.

Facts concerning incidents which History records, interspersed with individual experiences of joy and sorrow paint a picture before the minds (sic) eye which rivals the most striking paintings of the old artists who portrayed the life and activity of the Southern plantation during slavery.”

Former slaves interviewed by Mrs. Muse were “Father” Charles Coates who was 108 years old; Willis Williams, 80 years old; Ann Scott , 90 years old ; Irene Coates, around 77 years old ; and Rebecca McIntosh Fulton, over 80 years old, whose father had been a white plantation owner. She had documented her family to 1782. Muse’s interviews covered their lives from slavery to freedom, using their idiomatic expressions and experiences.

Mrs. Muse also documents many others in the community. Among them is Harden Woodham Stuckey who was born blind but was able to attend Benedict College and graduated with a degree in theology; T. Thomas Fortune, who became the editor of The New York Age, the best known Black newspaper of the time,; artists Harry H. Sutton, Emerson B. Bryant, Benjamin A. Richardson, John Henry Adams and William Barnes who was a cigar maker by trade but build miniature ships as a hobby. She talked to writers John Henry Titus, W.E. Dancer, Thomas H.B. Walker and poets Pattie Louphelia Busby Green and Anna Louise Rogers. She interviewed Isaac Johnson who was the only taxidermist in Jacksonville at the time; furniture makers Harry Hanks and David Porter; Hattie Chisolm who made waxed flowers and Minnie E. Washington who was a home economics expert and a registered dietician. She went in the neighborhood school La Villa Park School where the principal was William M. Raines and collected poetry and drawings created by 6th graders. Here is a lovely example of one of the poems.


When the budding trees are swaying,

And the mother birds are swinging,

And you hear the laughter ringing,

Then you know its Spring!

When you hear the banjos strumming,

And you hear the drone bees humming

Springs and brooklets seems to murmur

Let’s be happy it is Summer!

Dorothy Lambert, age 11 attending Mrs. S. E. Brooks sixth grade class at La Villa Park School

Viola Muse also wrote biographical sketches of James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston; essays about Memorial Cemetery and descriptions of the four newspapers that served the Black community at the time: The Tatler edited by Portia Taylor; The Jacksonville Advocate edited by W. Hely Smithwich, the Florida Times Union “Star Edition” edited by Edward A. Ellerbe and the Jacksonville Journal “Star Edition” edited by Leroy M. Washington.

This collection gives us a rare glance into another time and another lifetime. It shows us what a vibrant community Lavilla was in the mid-1930s. It reminds us why it is so important to save our history, so we can learn from it, so we can emulate the good that was done and do not make the same mistakes that were performed before our time.

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