On BET TV tonight: debut of “The Book of Negroes” Miniseries, about 18th Century slavery and freedom

Tonight (2/16/2015), “The Book of Negroes” miniseries, about 18th Century slavery and freedom, will debut on the BET TV cable network. The film, based on the novel of the same name by Canadian author Lawrence Hill, is about a woman from western Africa who is sold into bondage in the British American colonies; escapes from Manhattan at the end of the Revolutionary War; emigrates to Nova Scotia, Canada; and finally returns to Africa. The cast includes lead actress Aunjanue Ellis, Academy Award winner Cuba Gooding Jr., and Academy Award and Primetime Emmy Award winner Lou Gossett Jr. This is a 6-part miniseries, with parts 1 and 2 airing tonight.

Although it is not well known, many African Americans were supportive of the British during their war – the Revolutionary War – with the American Patriots. When the War ended, some 3,000 African American slaves and loyalists (persons who were loyal to Britain) fled Manhattan in British ships and were resettled in Nova Scotia; the British had promised freedom to the slaves, and for these people at least, the promise was kept. If memory serves me, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were among the Patriots who lost slave property during the War. A ledger called the Book of Negroes was used to record the names of those who left the American colonies to have their freedom.

This looks to be an interesting film, for at least a couple of reasons. First, the lead character is an African woman (she’s born in Africa and eventually returns there), and we don’t see that much in American film. (The film’s director,like the author of the novel, are Canadians of African descent.) Second, it covers the 18th Century, including the Revolutionary War. Not too many people are aware that many historians believe that more Africans supported Britain over the American colonists, in this war that created the United States.

The BET website has details of the miniseries here.

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

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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.

Robert Houston, US Colored Troops reenactor; and a list of USCT reenactor/living historian groups

This Youtube video from AL DÍA News Media features Robert F. Houston, a United States Colored Troops reenactor.


From the video description: Published on Jun 26, 2013: Robert F. Houston, a 20-year Civil War re-enactor for the 3rd Regiment Infantry, United States Colored Troops. Houston advocates for living history to engage youth in history, while remembering his own. The 3rd Regiment Infantry U.S.C.T. is a nationally recognized non-profit dedicated to presenting and preserving the role of freedom fighters of African descent during the Civil War.

Houston is one of several hundred African Americans who are engaged in the craft of Civil War reenacting and living history. The US Colored Troops Living History Association (USCTLHA) has been formed to educate the public about the role of African Americans in the Civil War, and to promote the participation of African American in reenacting/living history activities, as performers and attendees. Their Facebook page is here. Houston’s 3rd Regiment United States Colored Troops Reenactors operates in the Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware area, and beyond.

The USCTLHA maintains a directory of these USCT units and organizations. The following is a recent list of living history/reenactment groups with locations, if known (thanks to Yulanda Burgess of the USCTLHA for this). I encourage readers of all backgrounds to consider using these folks as a resource for educational and commemorative events; and I encourage African Americans to consider taking part in this important project to ensure that the service and sacrifice of African American soldiers, sailors, and civilians during the Civil War is not forgotten.

List of African American Civil War Reenactors/Living Historians per the US Colored Troops Living History Association

First Mississippi Volunteer Infantry (African Descent)

First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, Savannah, GA

2nd Infantry Regiment of United States Colored Troops, Tallahassee, FL

2nd Regiment US Colored Light Artillery, Battery B

Battery B, 2nd United States Colored Light Artillery, Wilmington, NC

3rd USCC, Philadelphia, PA

3rd USCI, Philadelphia, PA

4th USCT, Benicia, CA

5th USCI, Co. C (Toledo), Toledo, OH

5th USCT, Co. G. (Cleveland), Cleveland, OH

6th Regiment United States Colored Troops and 1st Rhode Island Regiment Reenactors Inc), NJ

8th USCI, Co. A, Central Pennsylvania

8th USCT, Co. B, Tampa, FL

12th USCHA, Nicholasville, KY

13th USCT Living History Association, Nashville, TN

14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery, Providence, RI

22nd USCT (USCI)

23rd Regiment USCT, Spotsylvania, VA

26th USCT, NY Metro, New York Metropolitan Area, NY

26th USCT, Albany, NY

29th USCT, Illinois

Company F, 29th Infantry Regiment USCT, Milwaukee, WI

30th USCT, Dinwiddie, VA

37th USCT, Kinston, NC

38th USCT, Co. D., Richmond, VA

44th USCT, Knoxville, TN

54th Mass, FL

54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Company A and Colored Ladies Christian Relief Society, Boston, MA

54th Massachusetts Infantry, Co. H (Vancouver, Washington), Dallas, OR

54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Company, Hyde Park, MA

54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, Company B Reenactors , Washington, DC

54th. Mass. Volunteer Infantry, Co. I, SC

62nd USCT and 65th USCT, St. Louis, MO

Co. B, 102nd USCT/Black History Group, Detroit, MI

33rd USCT, Mount Pleasant, SC

Gospel Army Black History Group , Grand Blanc, MI

Stone Soul Soldiers, (Peter Brace Brigade), Springfield, MA

United States Colored Troops Living History Association, Louisville, KY

“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.

The Confederate soldier’s view of the colored soldier, Part 2: Sketches from Prison (“De’ Bottom Rails on Top Now”)

lunchcountersitin:

John Jacob Omenhausser was a Confederate soldier who was captured by Union forces during the American Civil War. He was held at Point Lookout, a prisoner of war camp in southern Maryland. While there, Omenhausser produced over 100 watercolor paintings that tell a vivid story of life in a P.O.W. camp.

Co-authors Ross M. Kimmel and Michael P. Musick have recently produced a book of these paintings titled “I Am Busy Drawing Pictures”: The Civil War Art and Letters of Private John Jacob Omenhausser, CSA.” I have not seen the book, but the subject matter is of much interest.

One notable characteristic of Point Lookout was that many of the Union soldiers guarding the camp were African American. This situation, of black men keeping white men in captivity, made for an interesting dynamic at the camp. In an older blog post, I wrote about that dynamic, using several of Omenhausser’s pictures as a point of reference. I reblog that post below.

Originally posted on Jubilo! The Emancipation Century:


Drawing of a US Colored Troop prison guard and a Confederate prisoner at Point Lookout, Maryland. The guard tells the prisoner: “Git away from dat dar fence white man or I’ll make Old Abe’s Gun smoke at you I can hardly hold de ball back now. De bottom rails on top now.”
Source: “Guard challenging Prisoner,” from Point Lookout Sketches

****

In antebellum America, and in the American South in particular, the black male slave had no honor or manhood. He was considered “degraded,” lacking any rights that a white man was bound to respect, and lacking any dignity that a white man was bound to recognize.

And then the Union decided to arm the slaves in its war against the Confederacy. And everything changed.

What a sight it must have been for Confederate soldiers to see: former slaves on the battlefield, armed, dangerous, and fighting for a different vision…

View original 843 more words

Toy Soldiers

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Figurines of United States Colored Troops from the American Civil War.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

These are pictures of some very cool figurine displays that were posted to the Facebook page of the United States Colored Troops Living History Association. Unfortunately, the site of these displays is not clearly identified. Too bad; I’d love to see them in person. If anybody knows where these are, please drop me a line.

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Figurines of soldiers from the American Revolutionary War. The figure to the far right is wearing the uniform of the First Rhode Island Regiment, which fought with the Patriots.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

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I suspect this scene is based on the story of Henry “Box” Brown, a 19th-century Virginia slave who escaped to freedom by having himself mailed in a wooden crate to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania abolitionists.
Image Source: United States Colored Troops Living History Association, added on January 18, 2015.

How will you observe National Freedom Day?

Considering the arc of American memory, why is it no surprise that few people have heard of National Freedom Day – a day observing the end of slavery in the United States?

But yes, there is a National Freedom Day. It commemorates the date (February 1, 1865) that Abraham Lincoln signed a joint resolution of the US Congress which proposed the 13th amendment to the Constitution, to abolish slavery in the United States. The amendment was ratified by the required number of states in December 1865. National Freedom Day was proclaimed a national day of observance by President Harry Truman in January 1949:

Whereas, near the end of the tragic conflict between the Northern and Southern States, the Congress adopted a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution which would outlaw slavery in the United States and in every place subject to its jurisdiction; and

Whereas the resolution was signed by President Lincoln on February 1, 1865, and thereafter led to the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment to the constitution; and

Whereas that Amendment is a corner stone in the foundation of our American traditions, and the signing of the resolution is a landmark in the Nation’s effort to fulfill the principles of freedom and justice proclaimed in the first ten amendments to the Constitution; and

Whereas, by a joint resolution approved June 30, 1948 (62 Stat. 1150), the Congress authorized the President to proclaim the first day of February of each year as National Freedom Day in commemoration of the signing of the resolution of February 1, 1865; and

Whereas the Government and people of the United States wholeheartedly support the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948, which declares that “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”:

Now, Therefore, I, Harry S. Truman, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate February 1, 1949, and each succeeding February 1, as national Freedom Day; and I call upon the people of the United States to pause on that day in solemn contemplation of the glorious blessings of freedom which we humbly and thankfully enjoy.

Truman proclaims National Freedom Day copy
Image source: “A beacon to oppressed peoples everywhere”: Major Richard R. Wright Sr., National Freedom Day, and the Rhetoric of Freedom in the 1940s,” by Mitch Kachun. See also the Library of Congress’s America’s Story from America’s Library website.

National Freedom Day is one of many conflicting, and to some, conflicted celebrations of the end of slavery in the United States. Perhaps the most prominent day designated for commemorating emancipation and abolition is Juneteenth (June 19th), which is celebrated in Texas and several other states. But National Freedom Day is the first and only day that the federal government has established for a nationwide observance of slavery’s end. Continue reading