Portrait of a Washerwoman for the Union Army, around Richmond, VA, with a flag pinned to dress

Unidentified-Washerwoman-Who-Worked-for-Union-Army
Ambrotype photograph of an unidentified washerwoman for the Union Army, circa 1865, Richmond, Virginia.
Source: Photographic History Collection, Division of Information Technology and Communications, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

At the website for National Public Radio, Shannon Thomas Perich offers an interpretation of this image:

The flag (on the woman) especially raises questions as it is called out by the coloring. Why is a woman who is disenfranchised because of her skin color and her gender wearing the flag, often a symbol of freedom? Is that what it meant for her? If so, how did she describe freedom for herself and the nation? Is she wearing the flag by choice? Did she purchase this image? Did she own it? If not, then who did?

…This photograph was not made casually or by accident. Before she even sat for the camera, her dress was clean and pressed, and her hair coiffed. The pinning of the flag, and its coloring and the pink tint on her cheeks, are deliberate actions. The woman holds herself steady, with pride, perhaps assisted by a hidden head brace, and by her arm on the draped table. She holds our gaze with her eyes, which do not reflect happiness or relaxation, but seem to signal a bit of trepidation.

The enitre article from Perich, titled A Flag Of Freedom?, is here.

A different view of secession


Front of a Civil War era envelope, titled “Secession.” Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-11328

Ah, you can’t beat that old time humor. This is a Civil War era envelope that I saw in the Library of Congress (LOC) online archives. This is from the LOC description of the item:

Date Created/Published:[between 1861 and 1865]
Medium: 1 print : wood engraving on envelope ; image and text 5 x 4.5 cm, on envelope 8 x 14 cm.
Summary: Picture shows an African American boy and mother with a bundle running.
Notes: Title from item.
Gladstone’s inventory code and notes: Envelope 20; illustration of black mother and child; mother has animal-like head.

The characters in the image are, to say the least, unflatteringly depicted as stereotypical caricatures. Of course we of today find this outrageously offensive. But this is how they rolled back in the day. Note that, the face of the child in this picture is not shown; maybe it’s just as well.

But I suggest that observers not get too hung-up about the picture’s visual vulgarity. This image wasn’t so much about mocking African Americans. It was about satire and irony at the expense of slaveholders and the Confederacy, and secondarily, 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 (a term used in the North to describe runaway slaves) adds to its poignancy.

There were tens of thousands of enslaved people who liberated themselves during the war, and their story is not well known or understood in American memory. But as this tiny bit of humor indicates, it was on the minds of wartime Americans. As we commemorate and consider this 150th Anniversary of the Civil War and Emancipation, it’s something that should be on our minds as well. But I’m not sure if people have focused on this much as we reach the halfway point of the Sesquicentennial.

Perhaps it’s because the process of emancipation was not always a pretty sight. But we can’t look away at truth and insight, simply because it’s ugly.

Shotgun Wedding, Civil War Style? (“A Subject of Morality”… and More)

Slavery and wartime, too, can make for strange bedfellows. Or just plain strangeness.

Consider the following Civil War “incident” that is at once bizarre, amusing, disturbing, outrageous and wonderful, but also, uniquely American. It raises all kinds of questions about race, slavery, and family; and about the authority of an occupying power to control, and even force certain behaviors on, an occupied population.

The story comes from Army Chaplain Henry McNeal Turner. As I mentioned in my previous post, Turner was a leader in the black church of Washington, DC, and part of the First Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry. He was also a wartime correspondent for the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in which this story was published.

First, some backstory. It’s June/July of 1865. Several months earlier, Confederate General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Union General William Sherman in Durham, North Carolina, one of the steps in the end of the Civil War and the demise of the Confederacy. But going as far back as early 1862, the Union Army has captured and occupied various parts of the North Carolina coast. This includes Roanoke Island, the site of a large contraband camp/freedmen’s village.

During this occupation, the Union is “the law.” A Colonel named Holman is acting as judge, jury, and… executioner… while he addresses “legal” and other interactions among the inhabitants in the east NC area under his control. Holman has asked Chaplain Turner to help mediate a case involving “morality”… Turner tells the story:

Roanoke Island is still the theatre of many interesting incidents. Every imaginable phase of characters, every question having… virtue, however hatched with uncertainties through the phantasm scope of suspicion, or open in the vulgar revelry of the unconscionable audacious, are ever and anon before the bar of adjustment… It is nothing uncommon to have reports of the dogs barking, and such trivial affairs, handed in at Head Quarters… Colonel Holman, however, listens to them all, passes judgment upon them, and the parties respectfully retire.

But here is a circumstance to which I most respectfully invite your attention. The narrative runs as follows: Near Edenton, (a place about one hundred mile from the island,) lives an old rich slave-holder, who in the days of southern rights wielded an immense power in that community, or, in other words, he was one of the lords of the land.

He visited Wilmington about twelve years ago, and there saw a very handsome mulatto girl, or rather lady, and conveyed to his country mansion, and admitted to the lofty honors of sacred concubinage. In that very wholesome situation she has remained ever since, giving birth to six children, all illegitimate production of purchased connection. Providentially, both of these individuals had business before the Colonel, and during the investigation the Colonel’s attention was called to their mode of living.

The matter was referred to the Chaplain for counsel and advice, as it was a subject of morality, who decided with the Colonel that he should marry her at once. But he (the slaveholder) could not see the point; he showed many reasons why it would not do to marry a colored woman, in that part of the country. He argued skillfully in the false logic generally produced by slave-owners; finally, he was dismissed, and left with an exultant sense of his victory over Yankee morality.

Colonel Holman, after weighing the matter again, sent for me and finding the parties already there, rose upon his feet, and commenced as follows: “Sir, (looking at the slave-owner,) I have talked to you as a brother and friend: you have had this woman twelve years acting as your wife; she, in the sacred honesty of a lady, has in return given to you, your country and your God, six children: you brought her away from her home, her relations and friends, as a man would convey his wife; you have also devoured the flower of her youth, and torn from her cheeks the flush beauties of maiden-hood; you have reaped and consumed these charms, which God gave her to find a happy partner in life, and make her existence pleasant to the grave, ay! and to an eternal future. You have desecrated the sanctity of the matrimonial institution by force and unjust authority.

“But your day is gone: this is my day, and this great nation’s day-and as an officer of the United States, invested with power to execute justice, and carry out the proclamations of the President,–I tell you and your comrades, I tell all in my military district, such conduct shall not be tolerated. You can take your choice, either marry the woman or endow her and her children with property sufficient to support them for life, or I will demolish everything you have, hang, shoot, or bury you alive, before you shall turn that helpless woman and your ill begotten children away to die, or to be fed by my country, and your property given to hellish rebels. You starved our prisoners to death, and murdered in cold blood the best men God ever made, to sustain your infamous rotten oligarchy, and now, to add insult and injury, you propose to turn out your children. By the eternal God, I will sweep you all with one blast.”

At this point he (slave-owner) raised his voice, and in a trembling voice said: “Colonel, you need not say anymore. I can’t marry Susie and stay here; but if you will allow me time to dispose of my personal property, I will take her and go to the North, or to Canada and there marry her; I will sell my lower plantation, but my upper one I will hold on to.”

“Well, “ said the Colonel, “do you promise in the presence of myself and the chaplain to marry Miss Susan?”

“Yes, sir, I will: for I know it is wrong to throw her and the children away, for Suse has been a mighty good gal.”

At this point we all shook hands over the prospects, and the court adjourned, to meet again when he gets ready to marry Susan and go North.

The floor is open – what are your thoughts on this?

Note: The text from Turner is in An African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War: The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner by Andre E. Johnson.

Social Revolution, Writ Small: Wartime Emancipation, a Mother, and a Mistress in Smithfield, North Carolina

colored-troops-in-north-carolina
Colored Troops, under General Wild, liberating slaves in North Carolina.
Source: Harper’s Weekly, January 23, 1864; from www.sonofthesouth.net

The American Civil War was the start of a social revolution. The Union government policy of emancipating African Americans and enlisting them in the military led to a wartime transformation in the relations between white and black, master and slave, and the powerful and the powerless. In ways large and small, subtle and dramatic, encounters between black and white Union soldiers and black and white southerners led to a new navigation through the rushing and uncharted waters of social change.

Consider this reporting, dated May 15, 1865, from Army Chaplain Henry McNeal Turner. Turner, a leader in the black church of Washington, DC, was part of the First Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry that was recruited and mustered from the District of Columbia. He was also a wartime correspondent for the Christian Recorder, a newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In his correspondence to the Recorder, Turner spoke of an incident involving a black woman and her mistress:

Shortly after our arrival in Smithfield (NC), one of our sergeants called my attention to a colored lady, whose child a rebel woman had hid. I immediately started for her sacred premises, and having entered her piazza, in company with the sergeant, colored woman, and a few others, the following conversation ensued: “Have you got this woman’s child?” “No! Her master carried it off.” “Where is her master as you call him?” “He is gone to the country.” “What did he carry the child away for?” “Because he wanted to.” “Did he not know the child belonged to this woman?” “Yes. But if it is her child, it is his negro. You Yankees have a heap of impudence. What are you meddling with our negroes for? You may think the south is conquered, but she has surrendered to superior numbers. But, sir, you are sadly mistaken.” “Stop, stop!” I replied, “I don’t want anymore of your rebel parlance. You are not too good to be hung, and you had better dry up, or you might get a rope around your neck in short order.”

At this stage in our dialogue, one of the General’s Staff rode up, and she began to tell a long story about me, weaving in a lie here, and a lie there.” But he soon silenced her by saying, “Oh, well! He has a right to say what he thinks proper! Madame, I want to know why this child is not given up!”

So she proceeded to chit chat the subject with him, and having heard as much as my stomach could digest at once, said I to the officer, “It is reported that the child is hid in town, but she says her husband has taken it into the country. I now propose, as he has five children standing here, that we take one, to be held as a hostage, until the colored child is returned to its mother.” The words had barely left my mouth, before such running, crying, and squealing took place among the children, that my indignation melted down into laughter. The very utterance of these words frightened the children nearly to death, and made the mother tremble.

At this juncture, learning that the General had taken the matter in hand, I left. But look at the inconsistency. To have taken one of their children, would have been pronounced, by the slave oligarchs, an act of fiendish cruelty, but for them to perpetuate the same crime on a poor slave woman, was only an inconsiderable circumstance. If a few of our Northern slave advocates had the tables thus turned on them, it would materially change the tone of some of their brutal sophistry, as well as morally improve that remonstrating gibberish, too often used to stay the designs of the administration, whose ultimate purpose seems to be the upbuilding of an depressed people.

Notes:
1. The January 23, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly provides the backstory for the above illustration. The person being referenced above is Brigadier General Edward A. Wild. According to the book Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867, which was written by William A. Dobak, “In December 1863, Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild led more than seventeen hundred men from five black regiments through northeastern North Carolina, freeing slaves, hunting Confederate guerrillas, and enlisting black soldiers.”
2. Some details about the 1st Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry are here.
3. The full version of Turner’s May 15, 1865 letter to the Christian Recorded is in the books Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner, edited by Jean Cole; and An African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War: The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner by Andre E. Johnson. Turner’s correspondence is discussed in other works, such as Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War Era, edited by John David Smith.
4. Turner was a notable African American figure in the war and post-war eras. I hope to write more about him in future posts.

They are coming!


Law graduating class at Howard University, Washington, D.C., circa 1900
This is one of many photographs of African Americans that was assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition by W.E.B. Du Bois and Thomas J. Calloway. This picture is in the on-line archives of the Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-USZ62-35752; click here for more details.

THEY ARE COMING
by Josephine Heard (1861-1921)

They are coming, coming slowly -
They are coming, surely, surely -
In each avenue you hear the steady tread.
From the depths of foul oppression,
Comes a swarthy-hued procession,
And victory perches on their banners’ head.

They are coming, coming slowly -
They are coming; yes, the lowly,
No longer writhing in their servile bands.
From the rice fields and plantation
Comes a factor of the nation,
And threatening, like Banquo’s ghost, it stands.

They are coming, coming proudly
They are crying, crying loudly:
O, for justice from the rulers of the land!
And that justice will be given,
For the mighty God of heaven
Holds the balances of power in his hand.

Prayers have risen, risen, risen,
From the cotton fields and prison;
Though the overseer stood with lash in hand,
Groaned the overburdened heart;
Not a tear-drop dared to start -
But the Slaves’ petition reach’d the glory-land.

They are coming, they are coming,
From away in tangled swamp,
Where the slimy reptile hid its poisonous head;
Through the long night and the day,
They have heard the bloodhounds’ bay,
While the morass furnished them an humble bed.

They are coming, rising, rising,
And their progress is surprising,
By their brawny muscles earning daily bread;
Though their wages be a pittance,
Still each week a small remittance,
Builds a shelter for the weary toiling head.

They are coming, they are coming -
Listen! You will hear the humming
Of the thousands that are falling into line:
There are Doctors, Lawyers, Preachers;
There are Sculptors, Poets, Teachers -
Men and women, who with honor yet shall shine.

They are coming, coming boldly,
Though the Nation greets them coldly;
They are coming from the hillside and the plain.
With their scars they tell the story
Of the canebrakes wet and gory,
Where their brothers’ bones lie bleaching with the slain.

They are coming, coming singing,
Their Thanksgiving hymn is ringing.
For the clouds are slowly breaking now away,
And there comes a brighter dawning -
It is liberty’s fair morning,
They are coming surely, coming, clear the way.

Yes, they come, their stopping’s steady,
And their power is felt already -
God has heard the lowly cry of the oppressed:
And beneath his mighty frown,
Every wrong shall crumble down,
When the right shall triumph and the world be blest!

Continue reading

Wisconsin Union Soldiers and Runaway Freedwoman

Wisconsin-Union-Men-and-Freedwoman
Cropped photograph of Wisconsin Union soldiers who helped a runaway teenager from Kentucky escape to freedom in 1862.
This is titled “Jesse L. Berch, quartermaster sergeant, 25 Wisconsin Regiment of Racine, Wis. [and] Frank M. Rockwell, postmaster 22 Wisconsin of Geneva, Wis.” in the Library of Congress photograph collection.
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-10940

This Civil War era image depicts a self-liberated teenaged woman (AKA runaway slave) from Kentucky who was eventually escorted to freedom with the aid of Union soldiers from Wisconsin. Recollect that Kentucky, while loyal to the Union, was a slave state throughout the course of the Civil War. (Maryland and Missouri, which were also Union slave states, abolished the institution before the war ended.)

The story behind the picture is provided at the Oxford African American Studies Center website. The two men in the photograph were part of Wisconsin’s 22nd Infantry Regiment, which was “composed of numerous sympathizers to the abolitionist cause.” They escorted the young woman in the picture from Nicholasville, Kentucky, to the home of Levi Coffin, an Underground Railroad operator in Cincinnati, Ohio, disguising her as a “mulatto soldier boy.” The picture was taken in Cincinnati. The young woman, whose name is not identified, was eventually sent to Racine, Wisconsin. An expanded version of the story is below the fold.

I want to offer a hat tip to Deborah Willis and Barbara Krauthhamer for highlighting this interesting image in their book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery.

Continue reading

CSA President Jefferson Davis on the Emancipation Proclamation: “millions of the inferior race… are doomed to extermination.”


Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis and family, circa 1885 (20 years after the end of the Civil War).
Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number LC-DIG-ppmsca-23869; see here for more details

In the lead-up to the final version of the Emancipation Proclamation, there was some concern that it might be interpreted as inciting slaves to engage in bloody insurrection against slaveholders. President Abraham Lincoln sought to address these concerns by placing the following language in the Proclamation, which was issued on January 1, 1863: “And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence.”

Such language did not prevent a predictably outraged reaction from the Confederate States of America. In mid-January 1863, CSA President Jefferson Davis made an infuriated response that was recorded in the Journal Of the Confederate Congress:

The public journals of the North have been received containing a proclamation dated on the first day of the present month signed by the President of the United States in which he orders and declares all slaves within ten States of the Conferderacy to be free, except such as are found in certain districts now occupied in part by the armed forces of the enemy.

We may well leave it to the instincts of that common humanity which a beneficent Creator has implanted in the breasts of our fellowmen of all countries to pass judgement on a measure by which several millions of human beings of an inferior race, peaceful and contented laborers in their sphere, are doomed to extermination, while at the same time they are encouraged to a general assassination of their masters by the insidious recommendation “to abstain from violence unless in necessary self-defense.”

Our own detestation of those who have attempted the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man is tempered by profound contempt for the impotent rage which it discloses. So far as regards the action of this Government on such criminals as may attempt its execution I confine myself to informing you that I shall unless in your wisdom you deem some other course more expedient deliver to the several State authorities all commissioned officers of the United States that may hereafter be captured by our forces in any of the States embraced in the proclamation that they may be dealt with in accordance with the laws of those States providing for the punishment of criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection. The enlisted soldiers I shall continue to treat as unwilling instruments in the commission of these crimes and shall direct their discharge and return to their homes on the proper and usual parole.

Davis undoubtedly echoed the thoughts of many Confederates when he spoke of “our detestation” to “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.” To him, the Proclamation was clearly an incitement to violence. And Union officers woud pay the price for that: Davis warns that Union men who command blacks will be punished like “criminals engaged in exciting servile insurrection.” One penalty for such crimes was execution. Continue reading

Dressed in Her Sunday Best


Source: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-124808 (click on the link for identification and other information)

This beautiful image, probably taken in 1899, is part of a collection of African American photographs assembled for the 1900 Paris Exposition by scholar/activist W. E. B. Du Bois. The girl’s name is unknown. The picture was probably taken in the Atlanta, Georgia area.

The picture collection is maintained at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Many of the photos have been digitized and can be viewed on line – go here.

Scene in Pleasant Valley, Maryland, October, 1862


Scene in Pleasant Valley, Maryland; Staff of Union General George McClellen, circa 1862
Source: Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War. The book and its contents are available for browsing on the web at several sites, such as at the Library of Congress, the George Eastman House site, and Luminous Lint: for Collectors and Connoisseurs of Fine Photography.
This is a cropped image; the full image can be seen here (this is a link to a large file that might take a little bit to load to your web browser).

This picture, by Alexander Gardner, is from the book Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War, Volume 1. Gardner was a photographer with the famous Matthew Brady studio, which was responsible for a large number of Civil War photographs. The image is described in the book:

The house of Mrs. Lee, situated in Pleasant Valley, Maryland, was selected by General McClellan, after the battle of Antietam, as a temporary home for Mrs. McClellan, who paid a brief visit to the army. The General spent much of his time here, when not occupied with military matters, and in the vine-clad porch the officers of the Staff whiled away many a pleasant October day.

Two of the officers shown in this group were members of General Burnside’s Staff, and one of General McClellan’s. It was intended that General McClellan should make one of the group, and all the necessary arrangements had been perfected by the photographer, when heavy cannonading on the Virginia side of the Potomac, caused by a reconnoitring party of cavalry, drew the General away.

The photo description in the book makes no mention of the black woman at the edges of the picture.

According to Donna Thompson Ray at Picturing U.S. History,

Pleasant Valley was a rest location for the Union Army after the Battle of Antietam, and the scene depicts the temporary residence of General McClellan’s wife, among Generals McClellan and Burnside’s staff, and their wives.

[This] scene in Pleasant Valley, Maryland, may have been far from tranquil for the lone black female figure that occupies a space of margin among the seated and standing group. During the war, black men and women escaped from their owners and resided at Union camps as contraband. In exchange for their freedom, many slaves labored at the camps and offered information about the environs to aid military advances of the Union Army.

This picture was taken in October 1862, just after the preliminary version of the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by Union president Abraham Lincoln. The story of black women and men would have a more significant impact in the future than this picture would indicate.

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, had the most free blacks of any state (84,000).

Wilberforce was (and still is) the location of Wilberforce University. Wilberforce was opened in the late 1850s as a place where youth of African descent could gain an education; it is considered the oldest private, historically black university 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.

Desperate


“…but I did not want to go and I jumped out the window…”
Source: “A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, in the United States,” by Jesse Torrey, 1817 (Page 43)

When most people think of the “horrors” of slavery, the first thing that comes to mind is physical abuse, and perhaps second, the sexual exploitation of slave women by their male masters. But for the slaves, nothing was more devastating than the loss of family.

Slaves had no marriage or family rights. Slave owners could, and did, split up families as necessary to meet their needs or interests. It didn’t happen “all the time”; but if it happened once in a slave’s lifetime – that would be horrible enough, and something a slave would not forget or forgive.

So devastating was the loss of family that some slaves… just lost it. Or at least, that is the story told by New Yorker Jesse Torrey, Jr (or Jesse Torrey “Jun” in some places) in his book “A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, in the United States,” which was published in 1817. {The full title of the book is “A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, in the United States: with reflections on the practicability of restoring the moral rights of the Slave, without impairing the legal privileges of the possessor; and a Project of a Colonial Asylum for Free Persons of Colour: including Memoirs of Facts on the interior Traffic in Slaves, and on Kidnapping. Illustrated with Engravings.” Folks in the 19th century were sometimes given to long-winded oratory and long-winded book or pamphlet titles.}

As noted here (page xv),

Torrey did not seek or anticipate immediate abolition of slavery. For the present he desired humane treatment of the bondmen, and urged their owners to be “guardians, patrons, benefactors and neighbours” to them; in the future he advocated gradual redemption by governmental purchase. He was especially moved by the wrongs suffered by slaves who had been freed and afterwards kidnapped into slavery again, brought legal suits himself to secure the restitution of their liberty and aided in raising subscriptions to defray the legal expenses of the trials. In recognition of his efforts, the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes unlawfully held in bondage, voted him a formal letter of thanks in August, 1816.

In his book, Torrey recounts the story of a slave woman who, so distraught over losing her husband when she and her children were sold, throws herself out a window, shattering her back in the process. Torrey captures the event in the engraving at the top of this blog entry. In that image, the slave woman seems to float in the air, almost frozen in time; the viewer is struck by the surreal sight of this black woman in white, surrounded by dark and suspended over the street below. In Torrey’s book, the caption beneath the picture foretells the woman’s fate, once time unfreezes: “…but I did not want to go and I jumped out the window…”
Continue reading

Three Children with Nanny


Children on Lawn at Brook Hill [Nanny hiding behind the children] (circa 1905); for detailed information, go here.
Source: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries Digital Collections » Through the Lens of Time Collection
Copyright is held by the Valentine Richmond History Center.

This is from a digital collection of photographs titled Through the Lens of Time: Images of African Americans from the Cook Collection. The online collection has over 250 images of African Americans dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, selected from the George and Huestis Cook Photograph Collection at the Valentine Richmond History Center. The digitally scanned images on this site are of prints from glass plate negatives or film negatives taken by George S. Cook (1819-1902) and his son Huestis P. Cook (1868-1951), primarily in the Richmond and Central Virginia area. The physical Collection consists of over 10,000 negatives taken from the 1860s to the 1930s in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Although George and Huestis Cook were white, much of the photo content in the collection includes images of African Americans. Huestis Cook is credited as being one of the earliest Southern photographers to picture African Americans in realistic settings.

This image from the collection has a probably unintended symbolism that is inescapable today.

Training School for Wives and Mothers, Baton Rouge, LA, 1888

This photograph is from the book “In Christ’s Stead”: Autobiographical Sketches, which is the memoir of Joanna P. Moore, a white missionary who dedicated her life to improving the condition of African Americans in the South. A summary of the book is here.

This is from the book, which tells of how Moore’s training school in Baton Rouge was shut down:

After the close of the school at Point Coupee, I moved with all my belongings to Baton Rouge, where I opened under promising auspices a school which I hoped might be permanent, but which continued but two years and a half.

I was very enthusiastic, as were also all the teachers associated with me. The Women’s Baptist Home Mission Society paid my salary and that of Miss Button while she was with me. Besides this expenses were provided for by God who thus set the seal of His approval on the work.

While in Baton Rouge I received one hundred dollars from the Happy Thought League, under the care of Mrs. P. G. McCollin, who is now in heaven. That money came in a time of great need. I would weary my reader if I told of the many answers to prayer in so many ways during my short pilgrimage. The money came pouring in, so that I had $2,000 in my hands with which to purchase the home in which my school was held, but the bargain was not closed when all my hopes were shattered and my school destroyed. This is the sad part of my story. God help me to tell it wisely, kindly, and truthfully.

I find among my records a conversation I had with one of my pupils about two months after this calamity:

“Sister Moore, is our school for colored women really closed?” “Yes, my scholars all went home, and so far I find it impossible to have them return.”

“Why did any one disturb your school?” “I cannot tell; I thought everything was peace and safety. I did not think any of the white people had very serious objections to my school.”

“What was in the notice put on your gate?” “There were the emblems of death–a skull and cross-bones and the notice stated that I was ordered by the ‘White League’ to close my school and leave the place.”

“Why did they do such a cruel thing when we were having such a blessed, quiet school and not molesting any one?” “The reason given in the notice is exactly in these words, ‘You are trying to educate the niggers to consider themselves the equals of the white people.’”

“Oh, I am so sorry! What do the white people mean? If we steal or fight they punish us, and then when some one comes to tell us in a kind loving way how to be good and do right, then they want to drive her away.”

“I don’t understand it myself, all that seems to be now in my power, is to ask the Lord to open some other door by which my dear women may get an education, and be taught the Bible and the duties of home life.”

“What did you do when you found the notice at your gate?” “I got my bonnet and went down town and showed it to three or four of the best white people in town.”

“What did they say?” “They were indignant, and said it was an outrage, and promised they would do what they could do to protect me. I also showed it to the mayor and other officials, and they promised the same.”

“Have they made any effort to find the guilty persons?” “I don’t know that they have.”

“Oh, Miss Moore, what will become of the colored people?” “God will take care of them, my dear child, if not on earth, there is a safe place up in heaven. Persecutions are a part of the bargain God makes with His children. Let us be patient. God knows it all, and Rom. 8:28 is true. “All things work together for good to them that love God.” This trouble will in some way work together for good. We must trust God’s promises.”

The above is a sample of many conversations with my women.

The photo is from an online version of the book at the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South website. It is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which had made it available to be freely used by individuals for research, teaching and personal use.

Awesome Truth: Sojourner’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” Speech

Isabella was born in the Catskills region of New York, north of New York City and south of Albany, in 1797, when New York was still a slave state. She did hard work in the fields during her early life, building strength and stature that she would point to with pride later in life.

Perhaps the second most important and transformative moment in her life was in 1827-28, when she successfully sued for the return of her five year old son, who had been sold South to Alabama in violation of New York’s gradual emancipation laws. She became the first black person to win this kind of case ever. Her victory was achieved with the help of Isaac and Maria Van Wagener, an antislavery couple who took her in during 1826 (and whose last name she took until the 1840s), the Quakers, and Dutch lawyers in Ulster County, New York. The first most important moment was probably the establishment of her relationship with God, as she would become a fervent believer and evangelist. Using today’s language, we would probably call her a Pentecostal.

Isabelle Wagener “re-branded” herself as Sojourner Truth in 1843.


Sojourner Truth, circa 1870 – National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Sojourner Truth would go on to become one of the most prominent black female supporters of abolition and woman’s suffrage in the 19th century. She is certainly one of the most well known black women from the era in modern American memory. Much of that fame stems from her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech.

Truth was illiterate, but she developed into a powerful speaker nonetheless. Nell Painter, a Sojourner Truth biographer, notes that fellow negro abolitionist Frederick Douglass described Truth as giving “quaint speeches” that had a “strange compound of wit and wisdom, of wild enthusiasm and flint-like common sense.” In an age where oratory ability and education were held in high esteem, Truth gained fame for having the former, despite lacking the latter.

In 1851, Truth attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, where she gave her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech:

Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

An excellent rendition of the speech is given by actress Cicely Tyson:

Birthing a Slave: Reproduction and Inhumanity during America’s Slavery Era

Most people know of slavery, but we don’t know about slavery. Specifically, we don’t know how dehumanizing it was to be a slave.

We might understand what it’s like to be denied freedom or dignity at an intellectual level. But for many of us, we don’t have a grasp on how horrible the institution was, in the day to day life of an enslaved person. Most of us don’t “get” what it was about inhuman bondage that made it so inhuman.

For example: what was it like to be slave mother?

Some insights on this are given in the book Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South, by Marie Jenkins Schwartz. The book tells the history of a somewhat esoteric subject: the need of slaveholders, and the doctors they hired, to control and manage the bodies and reproductive lives of slave women.

But while the subject is esoteric, the details of how this played out in plantation life are chilling and disturbing.

Birthing-a-Slave
Cover of Birthing a Slave: Motherhood and Medicine in the Antebellum South by Marie Jenkins Schwartz.

The first chapter of the book, titled “Procreation,” has a gripping account of the stakes involved in the reproductive ability of slave women. I’ve provided some excerpts from that chapter below. Upon reading this, you will understand how lacking in humanity and dignity this peculiar institution was:

…an important aspect of slavery… has been all too often ignored: slaveholders expected to appropriate and exploit the reproductive lives of enslaved women. Control of one’s body was not a fundamental right of slaves. Emboldened by law and custom to do with human chattels as they wished, (slave) owners felt entitled to intervene in even the most intimate of matters. Women’s childbearing capacity became a commodity that could be traded on the open market.

During the antebellum era the expectation increased among members of the owning class that enslaved women would contribute to the economic success of the plantation not only through productive labor but also through procreation. The idea was at once both powerful and seductive and shaped the way women experienced enslavement, the way owners thought about the future of slavery, and the way doctors practiced medicine.

As of 1808, when Congress ended the nation’s participation in the international slave trade… the only practical way of increasing the number of slave laborers was through new births. If enslaved mothers did not bear sufficient numbers of children to take the place of aged and dying workers, the South could not continue as a slave society.
***

Women entering their childbearing years-especially those who had proven their fertility through the birth of a baby-sold easily and for a high price. Former slave Boston Blackwell, who witnessed the sale of two women in Memphis, Tennessee, reported that a girl of fifteen who had no children sold for $800, but a breeding woman sold for $1,500.

Human reproduction was so important to the continuation of slavery that members of the South’s ruling class willed their heirs the unborn children of slaves as well as living people. Anna Matilda King of Georgia assured her daughter that she would inherit not only the slave Christiann but also “her child and future children.” This wish to benefit future generations of slaveholding families pressed owners to look for ways of ensuring that enslaved mothers bore plenty of children. “If it was not for my children I would not care what became of the negroes,” Elizabeth Scott Neblett wrote her absent husband during the Civil War… Neblett maintained that she would gladly do without slaves to save the bother of managing them, but for her children’s sake she could not let them go.
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