Who Was Vivian Morris?

During the Great Depression President Roosevelt’s New Deal included a program called the Work Projects Administration. It was launched to ease the pain of unemployment that the depression was inflicting. It spanned from 1935 to 1943. As part of that New Deal, the Federal Writers Project was created in that same year. This project provided employment for writers, teachers, and historians, and was directed by Henry Alsberg.

The task was for the writers to create the American Guide Series for every state (except Hawaii). The information from those guides combined essays on geography, architecture, history, travel, ethnic studies and folklore. The project employed more than 6000 writers and the names include a who’s who of 20th century writers such as Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algrenm, Saul Bellow, Arna Bontemps, Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison, Phillip Roth, Suds Turkel, Margaret Walker and Zora Neale Hurston among many others.

But among those literary giants stood another great writer who was just as good and in most cases, better than those writers mentioned above. Even now, after years of exhaustive research, her real identity is unknown. The name of this great writer is Vivian Morris, one of the African American writers hired to collect information and folklore in Harlem.

After the Federal Writers Project ended in 1943, Morris disappeared, never to be heard from again in any form. There are no records of her at all. It is as if she never existed. But what she left behind was an absolutely incredible collection of interviews and essays about life in Harlem and the Bronx. Her writing does more for revealing the everyday life of Harlem residents during the depression than a million stuffy textbooks would ever hope to do.

The Harlem she paints is the underbelly of the Harlem Renaissance that took place after World War I and lasted until at least the stock market crash of 1929. You will not find Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Aaron Douglass or James Van Der Zee on her pages. Instead we visit unemployed workers, conjure men, union leaders, hookers, domestic workers, and regular people in the street. From their own words, we see the unpleasant results of the post renaissance Harlem; racism, unemployment, and the rise of American socialism among the African American population.

Her writing and interviews bring to light the soul crushing effects of racism. No matter who the person is she’s interviewing, the specter of racism and the effect on her interviewees is almost painful to read. Whether it is people in an employment agency, a sailor on leave, a patient in Harlem Hospital, or labor leaders, the common thread that runs through their tales is racism and the consequences it inflicts on their lives. She sheds light on interesting subjects and people that you would never find in history books or fiction novels; her description of the working conditions of laundry workers, “Shirts, thousands of white shirts that produced such a dazzling glare that the women who work in this department wore dark glasses to protect their eyes.” Or a conjure man that lived in a dilapidated, stench riddled shack in the middle of the city, “The thing about him that compelled my attention the most, however, was his large bloated stomach that rose and fell at intervals like some giant toy-balloon.”

She uncovered a what was then called a slave market in the Bronx, where women stand on the corner to be picked up by rich people and literally toiled as domestic workers for pennies a day. She attended meetings of the Workers Alliance where black and white workers came together to fight the poverty they both faced, She went into great depth and detail about the culture surrounding black beauty parlors in Harlem. And then there were the-man-in-the-street interviews; a sailor talks about his life traveling the world, and another man who laments that he’d be better off in Africa, then to face the everyday struggles of living in America.

Vivian Morris’s writing was lyrical. It felt very personal, even though it was written in an objective point of view. The empathy she displayed in her writing did nothing to diminish objectivity. I wonder what type of education she received. She would be a top journalist if she were around today. I also wonder where did she go after the program ended.

In the documents found on the Library of Congress Website, she has an address of 225 West 130th Street. This address is on all of her original documents. In his book, A Renaissance in Harlem, editor Lionel Bascom noted; “…every attempt made over a series of years to profile Vivian Morris has failed. In one instance, a librarian who was unaware of these stories, told me after an exhaustive search that Ms. Morris simply did not exist in Harlem as a writer, at least not under this name.” The dates of her original papers at the Library of Congress Website suggest she only worked in the project for approximately a year and a half, from January of 1938 to July of 1939.

References to her WPA writing can be found in dozens of other books. My search turned up nothing of a Vivian Morris as a writer. She has totally vanished. I was hoping to find a first-hand account of her. With her talent and subject matters of her pieces, it is just difficult to grasp that someone would willingly walk away from their own talent. It can be that she was not interested in writing at all. Maybe she did it during a bad time and just wanted to receive assistance. Unlikely, but who knows? There are stranger literary mysteries out there.

But what we know is this: A very talented writer opened a door to a world that only its inhabitants knew existed. The information she collected is an important piece of the American landscape and even thought she didn’t stick around to receive our doting adulation, she left something with us that adds an unapologetic, potent reality to our knowledge of history.

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