“It” can speak: Frederick Douglass and the “brand new fact” of the articulate slave

Frederick Douglass at Age 29
Frederick Douglass, perhaps at age 29.
Image Source: By Unidentified [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) is well-known as a 19th century runaway slave, abolitionist, author, publisher, orator, and civil servant. After escaping from bondage in Maryland at the age of 20, he gained early fame in the 1840s as a speaker for the abolition movement, working with abolitionist luminaries such as William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, and John Collins of the Massachusetts anti-slavery society.

Writing in his book My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) – one of his three autobiographies – Douglass recalled his early experiences as a speaker for the abolitionist movement in the northern states. It’s useful to note that large portions of the North had few if any African American residents, much less enslaved African americans; but white northerners were aware of all kinds of (stereotypical) representations of slaves and negroes in the media of the day.

In that environment, Douglass felt himself something of an oddity in front of white audiences. In the book Pictures and Progress: Early Photography and the Making of African American Identity, Maurice Wallace suggests that Douglass was seen as “circus curiosity” by white audiences.

Douglass observes that many whites simply refused to believe that an articulate person like himself could be of “very low origin”; perhaps to them, enslavement meant that the man or woman was culturally irredeemable. Eventually, Douglass felt the need to establish his bona fides as a former slave; in doing so, his status as a runaway slave was exposed, and he left the country to avoid re-enslavement. But Douglass was driven to prove that the slave could yet be a man; or perhaps, his honor demanded that he put to rest any rumors about the facts of his life. (While in exile in Britain, enough money was raised so that Douglass could buy his legal freedom, and return to the Unites States.)

This is Frederick Douglass, from My Bondage and My Freedom, from the website Documenting the American South (DocSouth):

Among the first duties assigned me, on entering the ranks (of the abolitionists), was to travel, in company with Mr. George Foster, to secure subscribers to the “Anti-slavery Standard” and the “Liberator.” With him I traveled and lectured through the eastern counties of Massachusetts.

Much interest was awakened–large meetings assembled. Many came, no doubt, from curiosity to hear what a negro could say in his own cause. I was generally introduced as a “chattel”–a “thing”–a piece of southern “property”–the chairman assuring the audience that it could speak. Continue reading

Request to the Confederate Army: Treat runaway slaves as traitors – so they can be summarily executed

On to Liberty, Edited
On to Liberty, Theodor Kaufmann, oil painting, 1867; see here for a higher resolution image. (Highly recommended)
Image Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Accession Number: 1982.443.3, Gift of Erving and Joyce Wolf, in memory of Diane R. Wolf, 1982
Source Description: Before coming to the United States in 1850, the German-born Kaufmann studied painting in Düsseldorf and Munich and fought in the 1848 popular uprisings in favor of national unity for Germany. As a Union soldier in the American Civil War, he may have seen retreating Confederate troops take their adult male slaves with them, leaving behind the women and children. Here, his portrayal of a group of fleeing figures suggests the lack of a clear route to liberty. They emerge from darkness into light but must traverse a rockstrewn path before arriving on the smooth road leading to the Stars and Stripes, which, however, remains frighteningly close to the ongoing battle.

In November 1860, on the eve of secession and Civil War, Georgia governor Joseph Brown confidently predicted that “we (white southerners) have… little cause of apprehension from a rebellion of our slaves.” He was responding to concerns that a civil war might provide opportunities for slaves to rebel for their freedom.

Governor Brown, who strongly advocated for secession and a confederacy of slave states, was undaunted. Second, he cited what I call the “anti-insurrection infrastructure,” that is, the policies and practices used to prevent an effective slave resistance movement: “The slaves,” he argued, “are usually under the eye of their masters or overseers. Few of them can read or write. They are not permitted to travel on our Railroads, or other public conveyances, without the consent of those having the control of them. They have no mail facilities… and no means of communication with each other at a distance. They are entirely unarmed, and unskilled in the use of arms.” Brown concluded that a “general revolt would therefore be impossible.”

Additionally, he noted, “nine-tenths of them are truly and devotedly attached to their masters and mistresses, and would shed in their defense, the last drop of their blood.” For all to these reasons, Brown saw no reason to worry about the slaves. That was in November 1860, six months before the Civil War began at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina.

A year and six months after the attack on Ft. Sumter, during which the Confederacy and the Union were engaged in a bloody war, a group of Georgians sent a letter to the Confederate government that, if he saw it, would certainly have caused governor Brown great concern. Writing from Liberty County, which is positioned along the Atlantic coast near Savannah, the concerned citizens complained that by August 1862, 20,000 slaves had fled to Union lines. The runaways were giving “aid and comfort” to the enemy by “erecting fortifications and raising provisions” for the Union, acting as spies and guides, even by being “pilots to their vessels on the waters of our inlets and rivers.” This was not only a loss of labor and assets, but it “demoralized” the remaining slave population.

One problem as some whites saw it was that laws for the protection of slave property and the slaves’ lives made it difficult to appropriately punish these fugitives from labor. So, they proposed a solution: the Confederate military should treat these runaways as traitors, and summarily execute them. Continue reading

Georgia’s Secessionist Governor: Slaves Will “Shed Their Last Drop of Blood” for Their Masters in a Civil War

Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown
Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown: A suspect view of slaves, for sure; a suspect fashion sense as well?
Image Source: New Georgia Encyclopedia

In a civil war between the North and the South, the slaves will stand squarely in support of their masters. Why, they would even die to protect their owners and advance their owner’s interests. Just wait, you’ll see,

That, in a nutshell, is how Georgia governor Joseph Brown saw things as his home state considered leaving the Union following the election of Abraham Lincoln. Men like Brown believed that Lincoln and his Republican Party were a threat to the institution of slavery, and that the reasonable response to his election was to leave the United States by declaring secession.

Advocates of preserving the Union responded rhetorically in various ways. For example, they argued that secession by the southern states would open the door to all kinds of trouble from their slaves, who would take advantage of a north/south conflict to incite for their freedom. Many white southerners were sensitive to that charge.

Not to worry, said Georgia governor Joe Brown. In November 1860, he issued a “Special Message” to the Georgia legislature, in which stated his support for secession and the creation of a new slaveholding nation. In that message, Brown acknowledged that some northerners had warned that slaves would be a problem if war came. But for reasons both structural (such as laws prohibiting slaves from learning to read) and attitudinal (the slaves had an overwhelming love for their masters), the slaves posed no threat to the breakaway southern states. In Browns’ own words (Source: Journal of the Senate of the State of Georgia, Milledgeville, Georgia, page 50):

The sentiment, no doubt, prevails in the Northern States, that the people of the South would be in great danger from their slaves, in case we should attempt to separate from the Northern States, and to form an independent Government. Insurrection and revolt are already attempted to be held in terror over us. I do not pretend to deny that Northern spies among us, might be able occasionally, to incite small numbers of slaves in different localities to revolt, and murder families of innocent women and children; which would oblige us promptly to execute the slaves who should have departed from the path of duty, under the deceptive influence of abolition incendiaries. Continue reading

The American Indian at Hampton Institute, Virginia


This is an earlier blog post that has drawn a lot of interest:

Originally posted on Jubilo! The Emancipation Century:

“Louis Firetail (Sioux, Crow Creek), wearing tribal clothing, in American history class, Hampton Institute, Hampton, Virginia”; late 1890s. From the Library of Congress.

The grace, dignity, and poignancy of the photos in this blog entry belie a bitter memory for many Indigenous people: Indian boarding schools, such as the one at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which is now called Hampton University.

The abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in response to a question he often heard from whites – “What shall we do with the Negro?” – said “Do nothing with us!” Leave us alone, he said… haven’t you done enough to us already?

Those comments were probably echoed by the American Indian of the day. The 1800s were a century long battle between Indigenous and European-descent peoples for American land. Whether destined or not, the European peoples would have the land, and control it from sea to sea by the end…

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Big Stage

We commonly think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a literary phenomenon. But it was on the big stage that this story had some of its greatest impact.

Uncle Tom at the whipping post
Scene from the stage production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
All photos in this post are by Joseph Byron, N.Y., circa 1901
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

In 1860, at the eve of the Civil War, there were 18 free states, where slavery was prohibited. Those states had roughly 18.5 million whites, and 225,000 free blacks. So, only 1% of the free state population was African American. 168,000 of those free blacks lived in just four states: Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio. Millions of northern whites saw ‘real live’ black people only a handful of times in their entire lives, if at all. And as unlikely as it was for them to see a black person, it was even less likely that they would ever see a slave.

There was, of course, no radio, television, telephones or Internet. The kind of immediate, in your face journalism that’s enabled by today’s technology did not exist. Slavery was certainly not an uncommon subject for the press, or other forms of paper communication. But for many northerners, the horrors of slavery were out of sight, and would have been out of mind – if not for people like Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The isolation of northern whites from slavery helps to explain the interest in Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly. The book was published in 1852, following a serialized version in an antislavery newspaper. It opened a window to a world, hidden by distance, that many northern whites never saw or knew.

The book’s negative portrayal of slavery was filled with melodrama and overt religious symbolism and appeals. It was not just a story about the grace and love of little Eva; the abuse of the devout Uncle Tom; the salvation by love of the slave girl Topsy; and the preservation of Eliza’s family. It was, as historian David Goldfield put, “a book about family, God, and redemption-surefire topics to attract a broad audience in mid-nineteenth century America.”

The Auction Scene
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

For several years, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a huge best-seller, second in popularity only to the Bible. It would become an international best-seller as well. Historian James McPherson noted that “within a decade [of its 1852 release] it sold more than two million copies in the United States, making it the best seller of all time in relation to population.”

But Uncle Tom’s Cabin was more than just a literary phenomenon. As mentioned in Wiki,

“Given the lax copyright laws of the time, stage plays based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin—”Tom shows”—began to appear while the story itself was still being serialized… Even though Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, far more Americans of that time saw the story as a stage play or musical than read the book. Eric Lott, in his book Uncle Tomitudes: Racial Melodrama and Modes of Production, estimates that at least three million people saw these plays, ten times the book’s first-year sales… The many stage variants of Uncle Tom’s Cabin “dominated northern popular culture… for several years” during the 19th century and the plays were still being performed in the early 20th century.”

These stage productions allowed the book to be visualized and dramatized, and touched theater patrons in a way that the written word could not. Now the horrors of slavery had a human face that northern people could see. The resulting ire led Abraham Lincoln to tell Stowe in 1863 – apocryphally, it turns out – “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”

Little Eva’s death scene
Source: Library of Congress (click on the link for identification and other information)

Continue reading


I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but this is for sale on the Internet:

Dirt - Soldier - Union Negro copy
Image Source: From the 

Umm, what… graveyard dirt from Union Negroes? Yuck…

No, this is not satire. Somebody is selling this dirt. In fact, today, it’s on sale.

Dirt Union negro soldier vodou edit
Image Source: From the VodouStore.com

All I could think when I saw the ad was, these soldiers must be… dare I say it?… turning in their graves at the very thought of this.

I’ll get back to serious business in the next post.


Civil War Contraband Art

Contraband, Changing Quarters copy
Figure 1: “Contraband, Changing Quarters” In this image, a determined-looking slave exercises his agency and escapes from his master in the Confederate army to seek freedom with the Union army. Presumably, the fine white stallion belongs to his master; so the Union has gotten two properties for the price of one. The cap, I guess, is a fashion statement.
Image Source: The Philadelphia Print Shop, section on Civil War images of Blacks / “Contraband”

You must understand this: Civil War era northerners were intrigued, perhaps even fascinated, by the very idea of “contrabands”: enslaved men and women who were “confiscated” from Confederates, and given asylum from bondage, in return for supporting the Union war effort. That intrigue and fascination played out in the art of the era, as shown in this post.

First, some background. The official Union policy at the start of the war was to do nothing to slavery where it stood. The goal of the Union was to end secession, not to end slavery. Men like Abraham Lincoln were uncompromising that slavery not spread into the territories west of the Mississippi River, but they believed that free persons in the slave states had the right to keep chattel property.

Enslaved people had a different idea. They immediately saw the conflict between Union and Confederacy as an opportunity for freedom. In March 1861 – several weeks before the attack on Fort Sumter ignited the Civil War – two groups of slaves fled bondage and sought refuge at Fort Pickens, a Union occupied ports in northwest Florida. Their hopes for freedom were dashed. First Lieutenant A. J. Slemmer, a commander at the fort, reported to his superiors that “(o)n the morning of the 12th… four negroes (runaways) came to the fort entertaining the idea that we were placed here to protect them and grant them their freedom. I did what I could to teach them the contrary. In the afternoon I took them to Pensacola and delivered them to the city marshal to be returned to their owners. That same night four more made their appearance. They were also turned over to the authorities next morning.”

But just two months later, another group of runaway slaves got a different reception. On May 23, 1861, Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory fled bondage and sought asylum at a Union occupied fort outside of Hampton, Virginia, named Fort Monroe. Per Union policy, the fort’s commander, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, should have returned them to their master. But he reasoned that because the slaves were property being used by Confederate insurrectionists, it was within his rights to confiscate that property and use it for the Union’s purposes. This was the beginning of the Union’s contraband policy. The Lincoln administration, and then legislation passed by the Congress and signed by Lincoln, gave official sanction to the contraband policy. Soon, all across the Confederate States, the Union was enabling the freedom of former slaves.

The Fort Monroe Three: Runaway slaves Frank Baker, James Townsend and Sheppard Mallory meet with Union General Benjamin Butler at Fort Monroe, Virginia, May 1861, seeking freedom from bondage. Butler will decide that this “contraband property” should be confiscated from the Confederates, and re-purposed for Union use.
Image Source: From The Daily Press, Newport News, Virginia

This new policy created a sensation among northerners. Recollect that less than 2% of people living in the free states were of African descent. Millions of northern white Americans went their entire lives without ever seeing a real live African-American, much less a slave. What they did know of slaves was through a popular culture that commonly depicted slaves in a negative way, by, for example, using caricatures that exaggerated and “animalized” their appearance.

What were northerners thinking and feeling about this contraband policy? They might have thought about their Yankee ingenuity, in making what Southerners thought to be a strength – the unencumbered use of slave labor – into a weakness; and in finding a way to legally use the slaves for the Union’s war aims. They might have thought about the irony, and the justice, of slaves gaining freedom just at the time when their masters needed them the most. Some northerners – such as Frederick Douglass – wondered why African Americans were called by a name that reinforced the idea of human beings as property.

They might have wondered: just who were these people, anyway? Who were these enslaved people with dark skin, whom very few northerners had ever seen, but were at the crux of the divisions that caused the war, and were now being seen as being as a key to ending the war successfully for the Union? They might have wondered how the slaves felt about all of this… what did the slaves feel about their masters, the Union, and “freedom?”

And then there was the ultimate question: what did it mean for the Union to ask the support of, and give their support to, a class of people who were seen as ignorant, inferior, docile (when under control of their enslavers) yet savage (when uncontrolled), perhaps sub-human, but surely degraded?

These types of questions informed the popular art of the Civil War and post-war eras, the vast majority of which was produced by white men. Let’s take a look at some of those works:

Butler and slave contraband
Figure 2: Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “One of the F. F. V’s after his Contraband. General Butler “can’t see it.” Image Reference is to General Benjamin Butler; see text in the blog entry. F.F.V is short for ‘First Families of Virginia,’ a name given to the state’s elite class
Image Source: Encyclopedia Virginia; entry titled “Escaped Slaves at Fort Monroe”; image courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society

During the Civil War era, illustrated envelopes were a kind of social media. People used the mails to send these pre-printed envelopes which had artistic, political, or social content. During 1861 and 1862 – that is, right after the contraband policy started, but before the final Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863 – several printers made envelopes which addressed the “contraband” Issue.

The image above portrays a Virginia enslaver, bloodhound in hand, going after his runaway. The groveling bondsman is protected at the point of a sword by Union General Benjamin Butler. Butler, as mentioned above, originated the contraband policy at Fort Monroe. The image is based on an actual event: a Confederate officer, under flag of truce, met with Butler at the fort to retrieve a runaway slave. Butler responded that the slave would be returned, if the Confederate officer would take an oath of loyalty to the Union. Which, of course, the officer did not do.

Fort Monroe Doctrine cartoon
Figure 3: The (Fort) Monroe Doctrine, 1861. From the Library of Congress description: On May 27, 1861, Benjamin Butler, commander of the Union army in Virginia and North Carolina, decreed that slaves who fled to Union lines were legitimate “contraband of war,” and were not subject to return to their Confederate owners. The declaration precipitated scores of escapes to Union lines around Fortress Monroe, Butler’s headquarters in Virginia. In this crudely drawn caricature, a slave stands before the Union fort taunting his plantation master. The planter (right) waves his whip and cries, “Come back you black rascal.” The slave replies, “Can’t come back nohow massa Dis chile’s contraban”
Image Source:  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-36161; above image is from the Virginia Memory website.

This illustration depicts a runaway slave “thumbing his nose” ~ a gesture of contempt that, thankfully, has fallen into disuse ~ at an enslaver as he runs for shelter at Fort Monroe. Behind him, other slaves make a mad dash toward freedom. In fact, hundreds of slaves escaped and found shelter around the fort, which gained the nickname “Freedom Fortress.”

Contraband camps sprang up not only around this fort, but in places as close as coastal North Carolina, as far west as Arkansas, and as far south as Florida. Gaining freedom was not an easy, giddy task for the slaves: images like this do not relate the physical hardships that many slaves suffered as they liberated themselves from their masters and then navigated to the Union lines. On the other hand, the fact that so many slaves did successfully escape underscores how much the South’s slave patrol and control mechanisms crumbled under the pressure of war.

Of note is that the slave who is the central figure of the image calls himself “contraban.” Although the term “contraband” became popular in the northern lexicon, it is not clear to me that enslaved men or women actually applied that name to themselves.

Figure 4: Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Image descriptions per the Library of Congress: “illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.”
Image Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328

The female character in this image is depicted with an almost hideous caricature. The face of the child is not shown; maybe it’s just as well.

But this image may not have been so much about mocking African Americans, as it was satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy; and a statement concerning the desire of the enslaved to be free. Either way, it sends the message that the goal of southern independence had a whole ‘nother meaning for bondsmen and bondswomen. That it is a gendered and family depiction of the contrabands adds to its poignancy… if you can get past the awful imagery of the mother. Continue reading