May 20, 2015: Celebrating Emancipation Day in Florida

Emancipation-Day Florida 2015
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: Tallahassee resident Brian Bibeau (center) portrays Brigadier General Edward McCook and presents a dramatic recitation of the Emancipation Proclamation from the front steps of the historic Knott House Museum. He is joined by the Leon Rifles 2nd Florida Volunteer Infantry Regiment Co. D, Captain Chris Ellrich Commanding, and the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit & Living History Association, led by Sgt. Major (Ret.) Jarvis Rosier.
Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com

May 20, 2015, marked the 150th anniversary of the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in Tallahassee, the capital of Florida. That date is observed as Emancipation Day in the state; thus, Florida Emancipation Day is the equivalent of Juneteenth in Texas. Activities were held throughout the state to commemorate the event, including a reenactment of the Proclamation reading in Tallahassee.

Here’s the history behind the Day: on May 10, 1865, Union soldiers under the command of Brigadier General Edward McCook entered Tallahassee. This was weeks after April 1865, when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his forces in Virginia, and Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston surrendered his forces in North Carolina. Successive waves of Confederate surrenders followed throughout the South. McCook and his men came to Tallahassee from Macon, Georgia, to facilitate the end of hostilities in the state and begin Union control. On May 20th, General McCook announced the Emancipation Proclamation in the city. Freedom in Florida was now “official.”

Of course May 20, 1865, was not the first time that slaves in Florida had heard of the Emancipation Proclamation or gained freedom as a result of the war. Union forces made forays into Florida throughout the Civil War. The state was not strategically important enough for the Union to conduct many operations there. But Union troops did, for example enter Jacksonville during the war, and that city changed handed hands several times throughout the conflict. Some of the Union forces consisted of men from the US Colored Troops (USCT). In NE Florida for sure there was an awareness of the Emancipation Proclamation, and slaves seesawed from slavery to freedom and back more than once as the Union and Confederacy took turns at controlling Jacksonville.

As noted here, the 2nd Infantry Regiment, USCT, did time in Florida. The source notes:

The 2nd U.S.C.T. was attached to the District of Key West, Florida, Department of of the Gulf, in February, 1864, and saw duty in New Orleans and Ships Island, Mississippi. In May the unit also participated in an attack on Confederate fortifications at Tampa, resulting in the destruction of the Confederate positions. The 2nd participated in several operation along Florida’s west coast between July 1st and 31st, 1864; including raids from Fort Myers to Bayport, and from Cedar Key to St. Andrew’s Bay. During the St. Andrew’s Bay expedition the 2nd skirmished with Confederate troops on the 18th of July.

There is a monument to the 2nd USCI in Fort Myers, FL, which is south of Tampa/St Petersburg:

My guess is that many slaves in west-central Florida – and admittedly, the huge part of the slave population resided in the northern part of the state – would have been aware of the Proclamation from Union soldiers.

Emancipation-Day FL  2nd USCT Reenactor speaks to school children
From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: a member of the 2nd Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops Reenactment Unit speaks to a group of school children.
Source: Museum of Florida History, via CapitalSoup.com


From the 2015 Emancipation Day Celebration in Tallahassee: USCT Reenactors at the Knott House Museum
Source: Photograph copyright WTXL TV, “2015 Knott House Museum Hosts Emancipation Day Celebration”

Fort Pickens was an island fort just outside Pensacola, Florida that remained in Union hands throughout the war. It is somewhat infamous in some circles as one of the first federal locations where slaves sought refuge from bondage, but were turned back. (This happened after the first rash of Confederate secessions, but before the attack on Fort Sumter). The book Blockaders, Refugees, and Contrabands: Civil War on Florida’s Gulf Coast, 1861-1865 by George Buker talks of how the war affected Florida’s western coast. The book notes that as the war progressed, many slaves (also called “contrabands”) escaped, and some sought out the Navy blockaders as a path to freedom. Some slaves joined the U.S. Navy and Army. (During the Civil War, the Union established a naval blockage over southern ports to prevent Confederate commerce with other nations.)

One of the most famous Civil War battles in the state was the Battle of Olustee, also called the Battle of Ocean Pond. It occurred in Baker County, Florida, roughly 50 miles west of Jacksonville, on February 20, 1864. The battle, which included several USCT regiments (54th Massachusetts Infantry, the 8th Infantry USCT {from Pennsylvania}, and the 35th Infantry USCT {from North Carolina}), was a loss for the Union, and a bloody one at that.

So, although General McCook did read the Emancipation Proclamation (EP) in Tallahassee at the time noted, many slaves throughout the state were aware of the EP; an untold, perhaps relatively small number gained freedom as a result of Union occupation or the proximity of Union army and navy forces; and a number of African American soldiers and sailors were involved in military activities in the state. So there is a depth of black Civil War experience in Florida that goes beyond just the reading of the EP on that day in May 1865. Of course, the surrender of Confederate forces and a more widespread Union occupation made the proclamation of freedom into the reality of freedom. But if the “grapevine telegraph” was at all active throughout the state, it was probably abuzz with the idea that freedom might be coming, and McCook confirmed that the rumors and their hopes were true.

Emancipation Day has been observed throughout the state for many years. However, just in the past few days, I have met a handful of Florida residents who were not aware of it. Which is further proof that we must do more to ensure that our history – America’s history – of freedom, emancipation, and service are remembered and commemorated.

Emancipation Day Parade- Lincolnville, Florida 1920s 1
Emancipation Day Parade: Lincolnville, Florida (1920s). Lincolnville was community in St. Augustine, FL that was founded by former slaves after the Civil War.
Source: FloridaMemory.com Blog, “Emancipation Day Celebrations in Florida”

St. Paul A.M.E Church float- Lincolnville, Florida 1920s
St. Paul A.M.E Church float, Emancipation Day, Lincolnville, Florida (1920s)
Source: FloridaMemory.com Blog, “Emancipation Day Celebrations in Florida”

The Queen and her court- Lincolnville, Florida 1920s)
The Queen and her court, Emancipation Day, Lincolnville, Florida (1920s)
Source: FloridaMemory.com Blog, “Emancipation Day Celebrations in Florida”

Nina L. Brown and Children


Nina L. Brown with Daughters [Photograph of Nina L. Brown with Frances and Lois (daughters)], probably very late 1890s or early 1900s; additional details are here.
Source: Ohio Historical Society; from the Hallie Q. Brown/Frances Brown Hughes Collection. The photograph is located at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, OH.

These photographs are from the Hallie Q. Brown/Frances Brown Hughes Collection at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio. Hallie Q. Brown (1845? – 1949) was a teacher, elocutionist, civil and women’s rights advocate, and Wilberforce University graduate, instructor, and trustee. Nina L. Brown was Hallie Q. Brown’s sister-in-law.

The photos are part of an online exhibit at the Ohio Historical Society’s website, the African-American Experience in Ohio 1850-1920.


Nina L. Brown and Jere Brown Jr., circa 1906-07; additional details are here.
Source: Ohio Historical Society; from the Hallie Q. Brown/Frances Brown Hughes Collection. The photograph is located at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, OH.

On the eve of the Civil War, in 1860, Ohio had the third largest population of blacks in the free states/the “North,” with 36,000 African American residents. Among northern states, only Pennsylvania (57,000) and New York (49,000) had more free blacks than Ohio. In fact, Ohio had more free blacks than any Confederate state, except the state of Virginia (58,000). Maryland, a “border” state that was considered part of the South, but was not part of the Confederate States of America, had the most free blacks of any state (84,000).

Hallie Q. Brown’s alma mater, Wilberforce University, was opened in the late 1850s as a place where youth of African descent could gain an education. It is one of the oldest private, historically black universities in the United States. It was named after William Wilberforce, the 18th century abolitionist. It was a joint collaboration of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, although the AME became its sole operator during the course of the Civil War.

Contrasting Icons of Anti-slavery Art: Richard Ansdell’s “The Hunted Slaves” and Eyre Crowe’s “Slaves Waiting for Sale Richmond, Virginia”

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“The Hunted Slaves,” 1861, by English artist Richard Ansdell
From here: “Painted in 1861, the year of the outbreak of the American Civil War, this picture portrays two runaway slaves, turning to face the pack of mastiffs which has pursued them. When the painting was first exhibited the artist included a quotation in the catalogue from the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem ‘The Dismal Swamp,’ which describes the flight of an escaped slave. The painting… is now in the ‘Legacies’ section of the International Slavery Museum.”
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Slaves for Sale Crowe
“Slaves Waiting for Sale Richmond, Virginia,” 1861, by English artist Eyre Crowe
From here: “Inspired and outraged by a visit he made to slave auction rooms in Richmond, Crowe commemorated the subject first in an engraved sketch which appeared in the Illustrated London News on 27 September 1856 (Slave Auction at Richmond, Virginia), and then by this oil painting which was exhibited at the British Academy in 1861. The original sketch, made on 3 March 1853, was published by Crowe in his book ‘With Thackeray in America’… “Slaves Waiting for Sale” is now held in the Heinz private collection in Washington D.C., United States.”
Image Source: Eyre Crowe.com;
a high-resolution image is here.

The above paintings are icons of anti-slavery art, although quite different in their approach to the subject. Both pictures are the work of English artists; they show that interest in American slavery and anti-slavery extended beyond the boundaries of the United States. Both were made just as the American Civil War was beginning; these artists may have perceived that the war was about slavery, and were keen to show the stakes involved. Continue reading

The Blackville Gallery, late 1890s


Image Description: 1897 Picture of the Blackville Gallery. Elegant hand colored wood engraving titled,”The Blackville gallery,” from Leslie’s Weekly. Shows scene of a rehearsal of the Blackville Choir. 11 x 16in. $150
Source: Image and Description from Prints Old & Rare, an art seller. The description includes the price of the print.

These are several of the “Blackville Gallery” photographs by Knaffl & Bro. studios of Knoxville, Tennessee, that in appeared in Leslie’s Weekly in the late 1890s.

Per Wikipedia, Leslie’s Weekly, born as Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, was “an American illustrated literary and news magazine founded in 1852 and published until 1922. It was one of several magazines started by publisher and illustrator Frank Leslie… Throughout its decades of existence, the weekly provided illustrations and reports – first with wood engravings and Daguerreotype, later with more advanced forms of photography – of wars from John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry and the Civil War until the Spanish-American War and the First World War.”

In 1897/98, the magazine featured a set of photographs called the “Blackville Gallery” series. The photos show contemporary African Americans, presumably from Knoxville, engaged in various aspects aspects of domestic life, such as attending church or weighing a young child to check its growth. Some might say the photos are caricature-ish, and close to being minstrelsy. But as I look at the pictures, I am struck by the energy and enthusiasm that these amateur models (and these are staged images) bring to the photo shoots. They seem to be having fun with it. It’s as if they are comfortable with poking fun at themselves, and don’t see every attempt at humor at their expense to necessarily be degrading or insulting. Or so it seems to me.

The photographs were produced by Knaffl & Bro. of Knoxville, Tennessee. Wikipedia talks about Joseph Knaffl (October 9, 1861 – March 23, 1938) here.

These images are (or were) being sold as prints at the “Prints Old & Rare,” site. I have included the description of the images at the site, as well as their selling price, to give an idea of the current value of these pictures.


Image Description:1897 Photogravure featured in Leslie’s Weekly titled, “The Blackville Gallery, — No. III.” Caption reads, “The Blackville Cotillon, — “Mr. Johnsing, Turn Me Luse!” Image shows a small jazz ensemble playing for some dancers as a man claps to the rhythm of the music. The sign above his head reads, “Welcum.” Copyright by Knaffl & Bro., Knoxville, Tennessee. 22 x 16 in. $300
Source: Image and Description from Prints Old & Rare, an art seller. The description includes the price of the print.


Image Description: 1898 Photogravure by Knaffl & Bro., Knoxville, Tenn. featured in Leslie’s Weekly titled, “Weighing the Christmas Baby in Blackville.” Authentic portrait of a family at home trying to weigh a baby with their makeshift scale. A woman at left pours some water from an old kettle which was heated in the stovepipe as a child has a bite to eat at center. 22 x 16 in. $300
Source: Image and Description from Prints Old & Rare, an art seller. The description includes the price of the print.
Continue reading

Washington, DC, April 2015

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Picture taken in Washington, DC, in April 2015, near Ford’s Theater. At left is Marquett Milton, a Civil War/US Colored Troops reenactor, with one of man’s best friends, along with other folks in Civil War era dress.

The past few months have seen a number of Civil War events in Washington, DC, such as the commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration, Lincoln’s assassination, and the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.

Perhaps the biggest event will be the Grand Review Parade, scheduled for May 17, 2015. Be there, so you can take a picture of a Civil War reenactor with a dog… or something like that.

Remembering Willis Howcott: a Civil War monument to a Mississippi slave

Howcott-memorial copy
Monument in Memory of Colored Servants of Harvey Scouts. Canton Miss. Erected by W. H. Howcott Click here for a larger image.
Per here: Monument erected by William H. Howcott, a veteran of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit. The base reads “To the memory of the good and loyal servants who followed the fortunes of Harvey’s Scouts during the civil War.”
Image Source: Howcott Memorial, from the blog Finding Josephine; photo courtesy Joel Brink.

The blog Confederate Digest – which claims to provide “historically accurate” commentary about the Confederate States – has a blog entry about a rare type of monument in Canton, Mississippi: it was erected in honor of a Confederate slave.

The monument honors Willis Howcott, who was the slave of William Howcott. William Howcott was a member of Harvey’s Scouts, a Confederate cavalry unit from Mississippi made up of around 128 soldiers. A history of Harvey’s Scouts, written by John Claiborne and published in 1885, is here. While the names of the Scout’s soldiers are listed, neither the names of the slaves who were with the soldiers, nor a count of those slaves, is indicated in Claiborne’s history.

The Confederate Digest blog entry says that “William was 15 years old when he joined Harvey’s Scouts in 1864. Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend. Willis was, tragically, killed in combat sometime in 1865 at the age of 14.” This is based on family memoirs and memories.

This same blog entry makes the claim, which is largely discredited, that an “estimated 65,000 or more African American men, both free and slave, were Confederate soldiers.” Was Willis Howcott one of these black Confederate soldiers?

First, some quick background. During the Civil War, many masters took their slaves with them as they went off to war. These slaves performed a number of tasks: they cooked, foraged for food, washed laundry, cut hair, cared for animals, etc. These slaves were not enlisted in the army; slave enlistment was prohibited by the Confederate government until March 1865. (One month later, Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia.)

I read through Claiborne’s history of the Scouts, and found no mention of Willis Howcott. Claiborne’s list of the unit’s dead (12 men in all) does not include Willis Howcott’s name. If Willis Howcott did die in battle, it is not recorded in this history, which was developed “out of a considerable amount of material furnished by different persons, and placed at his (Claiborne’s) disposal.”

In fact, Claiborne’s history of Harvey’s Scouts makes no mention of the unit’s slaves at all. Interestingly, Claiborne does document an encounter the Scouts had with a group of US Colored Troops, black men who enlisted in the Union army. Claiborne writes that the “Scouts fell in with a long wagon train from Natchez, guarded by a colored regiment. A desperate fight ensued. The negroes had been taught that we would show them no quarter, and fought like devils.” But there is no mention of the negroes who were with the Scouts. In Claiborne’s history, the slaves are not soldiers, but rather, invisible men.

Regardless of Willis Howcott’s role in his master’s army unit, there is no doubt that his death was heartfelt by William Howcott: in the 1890s, William paid for a 20-foot high granite obelisk monument to the memory of Willis in Canton, MS. While there are hundreds of monuments to Confederate soldiers, monuments recognizing slaves who accompanied Confederate military units are quite rare. (Consider the monuments here and here.) The inscription on the monument William Howcott dedicated to Willis Howcott poignantly reads, “A tribute to my faithful servant and friend, Willis Howcott, a colored boy of rare loyalty and faithfulness, whose memory I cherish with deep gratitude.” Of note is that Willis Howcott is identified as a servant who was loyal to his master, not as a soldier who was loyal to his country. And there is no mention of how Willis died. In any event, William Howcott was clearly hurt by the loss.

Did William Howcott ultimately blame himself for the loss of his slave and friend? Should he have?

The monument raises the question: how should we, today, look at the death of Willis Howcott? When soldiers fight and die for a great cause – such as the independence of their country, or liberation from bondage – we thank the soldier and honor his sacrifice. But Willis Howcott died a slave. He died because his master chose to bring him into a war zone, for the master’s convenience. In death, Willis Howcott paid the highest price that could be paid by a slave in his service to his master. Is it honorable or right that a slave master should put his slave in that position? Beyond his master’s respect and gratitude, what did the slave stand to gain by being placed in such hazardous conditions… is what the slave stood to gain “worth” the loss of his life? Is the death of this exploited laborer much more tragic than it was possibly heroic (assuming that the 14 year old Willis did die in battle)?

(The Confederate Digest post says “Willis, his childhood playmate was only 13 but would not be dissuaded from going off to war with his friend.” Really?… a 13 year old slave boy had the authority to dictate that he would join his young master in a military unit? Willis Howcott’s presence in the unit was surely not his decision to make, and probably not solely William Howcott’s decision; William’s parents or guardians at least would have approved it. The parents/guardians of William no doubt felt better about William’s military service with servant Willis at his side to help out with the rigors of camp life. And it’s not unlikely that young Willis wanted to accompany his master. The idea of going off to war might have been a thrill for both these young teenagers. It is unknown if Willis’s parents approved, or had veto power over, the taking of their son.)

The black man in the above picture is unidentified. He stands almost like a sentinel, as if he was guarding the memory of Willis Howcott itself. Was he a relative of Willis?  African Americans, in Mississippi and elsewhere, typically lacked the resources to erect their own such monuments. So the family’s feelings about Willis’s death were not etched in stone, for us to see. This possible relative might well have been thankful that Willis received due recognition for his sacrifice, no matter what the circumstances of his death. This, as opposed to so many unnamed and unnoticed black men and women, who did the very best they could do under trying times, and yet have nothing in the commemorative landscape to show for the lives they lived. Willis Howcott’s death is worth remembering. As to how that death should be remembered… that is another question.

EDIT: As noted in a response from Francis Howcutt (see comments below), the Willis Howcott monument was moved a few years ago from the site shown in the picture to a burial ground near the Old Jail at Canton, Mississippi.

“Bid Em In” – A Video for Oscar Brown Jr’s Biting Riposte on Slave Auctions

This video is based on Oscar Brown Jr’s song “Bid Em In.” This was the subject of one of my first posts when I opened this blog four years ago. I find the video moving even after numerous views.

Thanks and congratulations to Neal Sopata for his excellent animation work.