Unknown, “Viola Muse in 1966,” The Viola Muse Digital Edition, , University of North Florida, in collection: Photographs from Ritz Theatre and Museum.
African American, Ethnography, Federal Writers’ Project
Viola B. Muse
Viola B. Muse was one of dozens of fieldworkers who were ethnographers for the Federal Writers Project (FWP) about whom we have too little information. From 1936 to 1940, she worked in the segregated Florida Negro Unit led by Zora Neale Hurston, of the Florida Writers’ Project gathering information to tell the stories of past and current Black lives in the communities of central Florida.
Viola B.Walker was born in Alabama and was a graduate of Indiana University (1925). As an undergraduate, she was a founding member of a college writing group to which she contributed poetry. After marrying Florida native, John P. Muse and settling in Florida, she worked as a hairdresser in Jacksonville where she became well connected to Jacksonville’s Black community, which later served her well in her research with the FWP. In 1936, she joined the Negro Unit of the Florida Writers’ Project as a fieldworker. During her time with the project, she conducted numerous substantive interviews with members of all social classes in the prominent African American suburb of LaVilla in Jacksonville and other Black neighborhoods of central Florida. Her interviews are notable for capturing the humanity and diversity of everyday Black Floridians in the 1930s. She paraphrased the words of interviewees, in order to interrupt the distorting and demeaning transcription practices often used at the time by Southern white fieldworkers working with African Americans. Among those she interviewed were former slaves; furniture makers and about their business practices as craftspeople; and prominent community leaders like T. Thomas Fortune, who later became the editor of the New York Age, the best-known Black newspaper of the time. She also documented children’s artistic drawings and poetic writings in school.
The limited information available about Muse is representative of the dozens of fieldworkers of color, hired to document the traditions of communities of color in many states during the FWP, whose lives and accomplishments have been obscured or minimally documented. Along with scores of fieldworkers, she was committed to working for the benefit of her community, producing valuable resources that have tended to be hidden only in local community archives.
Among Viola B. Muse’s publications is:
The Sanctified Church (1936)