What if Slaves Wrote the History of Georgia?


A slave family in Georgia, circa 1850. How would they write the history of Georgia?
Source: New York Historical Society

As the historian Melvyn Stokes has observed, “the traditional focus” of American history has been “on the centers of political, economic, and social power and the doings of elite white men.” He also observed that in the last several decades, historical study has turned its eyes on groups that had largely been “ignored and misinterpreted.”

The history of the United States with respect to the role of enslaved people is a case in point. Much of US history, in our schoolbooks and popular culture, has been told from the perspective of white slaveholders and nonslaveholders; the viewpoint of slaves themselves was often ignored. There has been, though, a sea change in this since the 1950s, thanks to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the growth of an educated African American middle class, and modern historians of all races and backgrounds.

But it’s not as if, throughout history, African Americans have made no attempt at their own telling the story of America. One example of this is the 1890 book A School History of the Negro Race in America, from 1619 to 1890, written by Edward A. Johnson (1860-1944). Johnson was born enslaved, and grew-up to become an educator, historian, attorney, and politician. As noted by Andrew Leiter at the Documenting the American South website,

Edward Johnson wrote this book in 1890 to counteract the lack of African American representation in textbooks, or to correct, as he says, “the sin of omission and commission on the part of white authors.” He offers sketches of slavery as it existed in the colonies–northern and southern. He presents the accomplishments of some of the most distinguished slaves, including poets Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton, as well as the mathematician and astronomer, Benjamin Banneker. Johnson is particularly interested in presenting the valorous roles African Americans played in America’s various wars…

The latter part of Johnson’s book is devoted to the progress of the African American race since Emancipation. He describes the early successes of reconstruction despite southern white resistance… Johnson includes this information on the progress of the race in his textbook “to inspire new zeal and fresh courage, that each one of you may add something more to what has already been accomplished.” Johnson concludes his book with a collection of sketches of notable secular and religious African Americans.

In his book, Johnson provides a brief history of the state of Georgia. Compare this to what you’ve learned and know about the state from school and other sources:

GEORGIA.

From the time of its settlement in 1732 till 1750 this colony held no slaves. Many of the inhabitants were anxious for the introduction of slaves, and when the condition of the colony finally became hopeless they sent many long petitions to the Trustees, stating that “the one thing needful” for their prosperity was Negroes.

It was a long time before the Trustees would give their consent; they said that the colony of Georgia was designed to be a protection to South Carolina and the other more Northern colonies against the Spanish, who were then occupying Florida, and if the colonists had to control slaves it would weaken their power to defend their colonies. Finally, owing to the hopeless condition of the Georgia colony, the Trustees yielded. Slaves were introduced in large numbers.

The famous minister, George Whitfield, referring to his plantation in this colony, said: “Upward of five thousand pounds have been expended in the undertaking, and yet very little proficiency made in the cultivation of my tract of land, and that entirely owing to the necessity I lay under of making use of white hands. Had a Negro been allowed I should now have had a sufficiency to support a great many orphans, without expending above half the sum which has been laid out.” He purchased a plantation in South Carolina, where slavery existed, and speaks of it thus: “Blessed be God! This plantation has succeeded; and though at present I have only eight working hands, yet, in all probability, there will be more raised in one year, and without a quarter of the expense, than has been produced at Bethesda for several years past. This confirms me in the opinion I have entertained for a long time, that Georgia never can or will be a flourishing province without Negroes are allowed.”

Prosperity came with the slaves, and, as in the case of Virginia, the colony of Georgia took a fresh start and began to prosper. White labor proved a failure. It was the honest and faithful toil of the Negro that turned the richness of Georgia’s soil into English gold, built cities and created large estates, gilded mansions furnished with gold and silver plate.

(James) Oglethorpe (who founded the colony) planned the Georgia colony as a home for Englishmen who had failed in business and were imprisoned for their debts. These English people were out of place in the wild woods of America, and continued a failure in America, as well as in England, until the toiling but “heathen” African came to their aid.

Cotton Plantations were numerous in Georgia under the slave system. The slave-owners had large estates, numbering thousands of acres in many cases. The slaves were experts in the culture of cotton. The climate was adapted to sugarcane and rice, both of which were raised in abundance.

As they say, this puts a whole different spin on things.

John Trowbridge’s Visit to the Desolate South (Post-War Atlanta)


This illustration shows a group of freedmen in Atlanta, Georgia, circa 1865, holding a “street convention” to discuss their political status in the wake of the Civil War and emancipation.
Source: The South: A tour of its battlefields and ruined cities, a journey through the desolated states, and talks with the people, by John Trowbridge.

******

In the summer of 1865, and in the following winter, I made two visits to the South, spending four months in eight of the principal States which had lately been in rebellion. I saw the most noted battle-fields of the war. I made acquaintance with officers and soldiers of both sides. I followed in the track of the destroying armies. I travelled by railroad, by steamboat, by stage-coach, and by private conveyance; meeting and conversing with all sorts of people, from high State officials to “low-down” whites and negroes; endeavoring, at all times and in all places, to receive correct impressions of the country, of its inhabitants, of the great contest of arms just closed, and of the still greater contest of principles not yet terminated.

So began John Townsend Trowbridge (1827-1916) in his book The South: A tour of its battlefields and ruined cities, a journey through the desolated states, and talks with the people. (The full, ridiculously long title of the book is The South: a tour of its battlefields and ruined cities, a journey through the desolated states, and talks with the people; being a description of the present state of the country, its agriculture, railroad, business and finances; giving an account of Confederate misrule, and of the sufferings, necessities and mistakes, political views, social condition and prospects, of the aristocracy, middle class, poor whites and Negroes; including visits to patriot graves and rebel prisons, and embracing special notes on the free labor system, education and moral elevation of the freemen, also, on plans of reconstruction and inducements to emigration; from personal observations and experience during months of Southern travel.)

Trowbridge wrote The South under commission of L. Stebbins, a Hartford, Connecticut, publisher. Trowbridge’s “tour” of the post-war South was one of several such first hand accounts of the region that were produced by the press. His book won praise for its impartial, fair-minded approach to the subject, and the detail and breadth of his study.

I purchased a copy of The South during a recent visit to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and found it an interesting and compelling read. The original version is in the public domain; it can be viewed by going here: http://www.archive.org/details/southtourofitsba7228trow

Below, I have provided an interesting excerpt from the book about post-war Atlanta. Large swaths of that city were devastated during Sherman’s march to the sea in late 1864, and the ruin was still evident when Trowbridge visited the area the following year. This excerpt touches on several subjects, including:
• the harshness of post-war life in the South, especially for freed blacks
• Union support among poor southern whites
• relations between blacks and poor whites in the South
• views on who was responsible for some of the ruin in Atlanta (this differs from the view that Sherman’s Union forces were to blame for all of the burning in the city)
• African American dialogue concerning their political future in the post-war South.
****

From John Trowbridge’s The South:

IN AND ABOUT ATLANTA (Chapter LXIII)

A sun-bright morning did not transmute the town into a place of very great attractiveness. Everywhere were ruins and rubbish, mud and mortar and misery. The burnt streets were rapidly rebuilding; but in the mean while hundreds of the inhabitants, white and black, rendered homeless by the destruction of the city, were living in wretched hovels, which made the suburbs look like a fantastic encampment of gypsies or Indians.

Some of the negro huts were covered entirely with ragged fragments of tin-roofing from the burnt government and railroad buildings. Others were constructed partly of these irregular blackened patches, and partly of old boards, with roofs of huge, warped, slouching shreds of tin, kept from blowing away by stones placed on the top. Notwithstanding the ingenuity displayed in piecing these rags together, they formed but a miserable shelter at the best. “In dry weather, it’s good as anybody’s houses. But they leaks right bad when it rains; then we have to pile our things up to keep ‘em dry.” So said a colored mother of six children, whose husband was killed “fighting for de Yankees,” and who supported her family of little ones by washing. “Sometimes I gits along tolerable; sometimes right slim; but dat’s de way wid everybody; — times is powerful hard right now.”
Continue reading

African American Perspectives on the Civil War: A Study from Georgia

The period 2011 through 2015, commonly referred to as the “Civil War Sesquicentennial” or “Civil War 150”, marks the 150th commemoration of the Civil War, a watershed in American history. Throughout the country, national parks, battlefields, and other National Park Service (NPS) sites will offer interpretations of Civil War activity and reflect upon the theme “From the Civil War to Civil Rights,” an idea that requires specific recognition of the change in attitudes of groups impacted by the war over time.

In Troubled Commemoration: The American Civil War Centennial, 1961-1965, Robert Cook asserts, “…race was a principal fault-line. The centennial was built on a racially exclusive interpretation of the Civil War era. This interpretation denied agency to blacks and downplayed the significance of those events, notably emancipation and Lincoln’s use of African American troops, which dominated the marginalized black folk memory of the Civil War.”

Given the intersection of the centennial commemoration of the Civil War with the Civil Rights movement, the emancipationist narrative became lost in the pageantry of the Lost Cause and in segregationists’ attempts to link the glory of the past with the then present. This is evident in the multitudinous memorials and statues that commemorate the role of Confederate forces on the battlefields of Chickamauga and Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia, Shiloh in Tennessee, Vicksburg in Mississippi, and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

The Civil War Sesquicentennial aims to address these issues of the past and to provide a means of ensuring that all histories are adequately represented for modern public audiences.

So begins the introduction to a report from the National Park Service, Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park, and the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University. That report, titled Assessing African American Attitudes Toward the Civil War; The War of Jubilee – Tell Our Story and We Will Come, offers a fascinating and thoughtful look at how African Americans view the Civil War, and also, the public spaces that commemorate the war. The report was issued in January 2011.

The study was prompted by the acknowledgement that in the past, the full story of the Civil War – specifically, the story of African Americans during the war – has been marginalized or even ignored by “public spaces,” such as national parks, battlefield sites, and museums. As a step toward developing programs – including tours, site markers, presentations, and printed materials – that reflect the full history of the Civil War, the staff at the Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park (KEMO) in the Atlanta area conducted research to assess African American views toward the War, and the Park. KEMO partnered with the Center for the Study of the Civil War Era at Kennesaw State University to conduct the research.

{The Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park is located in Cobb County, Georgia, which is in the Atlanta, Georgia metropolitan area. The Park area was the site of heavy fighting between Union forces led by Major General William T. Sherman, during his Atlanta Campaign, and Confederate forces led by General Joseph E. Johnston. KEMO is operated by the National Park Service.}

The study was conducted by holding several focus group discussions with African American organizations and groups in the Atlanta area. Comments from those group discussions are included in the study, and make for very interesting reading.

The research project developed a number of findings:

An analysis of the audio-recorded focus group sessions demonstrates varying levels of skepticism and optimism among respondents regarding the Civil War museum interpretations at Kennesaw Mountain National Battleffield Park and other historical sites. Initial skepticism about KEMO and NPS’s willingness to expand its interpretation is compounded by a suspicion of the nature of that historical interpretation. While the different groups demonstrated a strong desire to know more about the African American experience during the Civil War, there were strong feelings amongst the participants that the history of African Americans and the Civil War will continue to be misinterpreted in the South.

The predominance of the Southern Civil War “Lost Cause” narrative presented a second area of concern. The groups suggested that the Civil War, as it is taught in the South, offers a one-dimensional look at African Americans and reduces the conflict’s complexities to a “memorial” of a distant and better time.

Continue reading