Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers”

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 1
From the 1901 book Candle-Lightin’ Time by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, photographer Leigh Richmond Miner, and illustrator Margaret Armstrong. The book is available at Archive.org.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was an African-American poet who gained national prominence in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Born in 1872, he was raised in Dayton, Ohio, where he was the lone black student in his high school. His father was an escaped slave from Kentucky who served in the 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War.

In 1901, Dunbar published Candle-Lightin’ Time. The book was an artistic calloboration, featuring poems by Dunbar, photographs by Leigh Richmond Miner of the Hampton Institute Camera Club, and illustrated decorations by Margaret Armstrong. The work includes an ode to African American Civil War soldiers titled When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers, which is presented further below along with photographs from the book. The poem was no doubt inspired by his father.

The poem is interesting in that, while centering on the suffering and loss of a black mother for her son, it also speaks to the suffering of a white Confederate family. The poem’s narrator is the mother of a black Union soldier, but also, has a slave master who served in the Confederacy, along with the master’s son. Both master and son would feel the pain and anguish of war. In this, the slave mother and her mistress would share a bond that transcended race, section, and politics.

Candle-Lightin’ Time features other, non-Civil War content and makes for a fine read not only for its poetry but for its photographs.

Dunbar died in Dayton, Ohio at the age of 33 from tuberculosis.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers

Dey was talkin’ in de cabin, dey was talkin’ in de hall;
But I listened kin’ o’ keerless, not a-t’inkin’ ’bout it all;
An’ on Sunday, too, I noticed, dey was whisp’rin’ mighty much,
Stan’in’ all erroun’ de roadside w’en dey let us out o’ chu’ch.
But I did n’t t’ink erbout it ‘twell de middle of de week,
An’ my ‘Lias come to see me, an’ somehow he couldn’t speak.
Den I seed all in a minute whut he’d come to see me for; –
Dey had ‘listed colo’ed sojers, an’ my ‘Lias gwine to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 2

Oh, I hugged him, an’ I kissed him, an’ I baiged him not to go;
But he tol’ me dat his conscience, hit was callin’ to him so,
An’ he could n’t baih to lingah w’en he had a chanst to fight
For de freedom dey had gin him an’ de glory of de right.
So he kissed me, an’ he lef’ me, w’en I’d p’omised to be true;
An’ dey put a knapsack on him, an’ a coat all colo’ed blue.
So I gin him pap’s ol’ Bible, f’om de bottom of de draw’, –
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 3
But I t’ought of all de weary miles dat he would have to tramp,
An’ I could n’t be contented w’en dey tuk him to de camp.
W’y, my hea’t nigh broke wid grievin’ twell I seed him on de street;
Den I felt lak I could go an’ th’ow my body at his feet.
For his buttons was a-shinin’, an’ his face was shinin’, too,
An’ he looked so strong an’ mighty in his coat o’ sojer blue,
Dat I hollahed, “Step up, manny,” dough my th’oat was so’ an’ raw,-
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

Ol’ Mis’ cried w’en mastah lef’ huh, young Miss mou’ned huh brothah Ned,
An’ I did n’t know dey feelin’s is de ve’y wo’ds dey said
W’en I tol’ ’em I was so’y. Dey had done gin up dey all;
But dey only seem mo’ proudah dat dey men had hyeahd de call.
Bofe my mastahs went in gray suits, an’ I loved de Yankee blue,
But I t’ought dat I could sorrer for de losin’ of ’em too;
But I could n’t, for I did n’t know de ha’f o’ whut I saw,
‘Twell dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

Mastah Jack come home all sickly; he was broke for life, dey said;
An’ dey lef’ my po’ young mastah some’r’s on de roadside, – dead.
W’en de women cried an’ mou’ned ’em, I could feel it thoo an’ thoo,
For I had a loved un fightin’ in de way o’ dangah, too.
Den dey tol’ me dey had laid him some’r’s way down souf to res’,
Wid de flag dat he had fit for shinin’ daih acrost his breas’.
Well, I cried, but den I reckon dat’s what Gawd had called him for
W’en dey ‘listed colo’ed sojers an’ my ‘Lias went to wah.

When Dey Listed Colored Soldiers 4

 



This video excerpt, from the 1990 video “The Eyes of the Poet,” features Herbert Woodward Martin performing the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dr. Martin, University of Dayton professor emeritus, is an acclaimed scholar and interpreter of Dunbar’s works.
University of Dayton; Published on Oct 14, 2014

William Wells Brown’s Fugitive Slave Lament: “Where art thou, mother?”


“The author and his mother arrested and carried back into slavery.” From Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself., first edition published 1847, in London, England. The image shows the capture of Brown and his mother after their unsuccessful escape from bondage in 1833.
Image Source: from the Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself. The book is online at Docsouth.org and is available for all users.

LAMENT OF THE FUGITIVE SLAVE
by William Wells Brown, from the Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself.

I’ve wandered out beneath the moonlit heaven,
Lost mother! loved and dear,
To every beam a magic power seems given
To bring thy spirit near;
For though the breeze of freedom fans my brow,
My soul still turns to thee! oh, where art thou?

Where art thou, mother? I am weary thinking;
A heritage of pain and woe
Was thine, — beneath it art thou slowly sinking,
Or hast thou perished long ago?
And doth thy spirit ‘mid the quivering leaves above me,
Hover, dear mother, to guard and love me?

I murmur at my lot: in the white man’s dwelling
The mother there is found;
Or he may tell where spring-buds first are swelling
Above her lowly mound;
But thou, — lost mother, every trace of thee
In the vast sepulchre of Slavery!

Long years have fled, since sad, faint-hearted,
I stood on Freedom’s shore,
And knew, dear mother, from thee I was parted,
To meet thee never more;
And deemed the tyrant’s chain with thee were better
Than stranger hearts and limbs without a fetter.

Yet blessings on thy Roman-mother spirit;
Could I forget it, then,
The parting scene, and struggle not to inherit
A freeman’s birth-right once again?
O noble words! O holy love, which gave
Thee strength to utter them, a poor, heart-broken slave!

Be near me, mother, be thy spirit near me,
Wherever thou may’st be;
In hours like this bend near that I may hear thee,
And know that thou art free;
Summoned at length from bondage, toil and pain,
To God’s free world, a world without a chain!
*******************

“My child, we must soon part, to meet no more this side of the grave. You have ever said that you would not die a slave; that you would be a free man. Now try to get your liberty!” — William Wells Brown’s Narrative

William Wells Brown may never have forgiven himself. All he could was lament.

Wells, enslaved in Missouri in 1833, had just lost his sister to the slave trade. Perhaps angered by this loss, he convinced his mother to join him in fleeing north to “liberty.” An escape party of two would make things more difficult than if he had fled alone, but he did not want to leave his mother behind. But Brown and his mother were captured; and as a consequence, she too was “sold down the river.” That was when Brown was 19 or 20; he lived to be 70, and never saw his mother again. Continue reading

The Union Line

Fugitive African Americans Fording the Rappahannock River Virginia, August 1862
African Americans, fleeing bondage, ford the Rappahannock River and enter Union lines, circa July-August 1862; near Rappahannock, Virginia, close to the site of the Second Battle of Bull Run (AKA Second Manssass).
During the American Civil War, tens of thousands – perhaps a hundred thousand and more – African Americans escaped enslavement and sought refuge in Union occupied territory. Before the war, they might have been captured by slave patrols, groups of men who guarded their neighborhoods against runaway or wayward slaves. The presence of Union troops in the South, and the loss of white southern men to Confederate military service, gave slaves the opportunity to free themselves from captivity. The Union gave refuge to the runaways in return for their labor and other support. Many of the African American men in these groups become Union soldiers or sailors.

Image Source: Library of Congress; see also here.

The Union Line
by Alan Skerrett

Baby girl is crying so loud
Maybe mother’s milk isn’t right
If she’s too loud, a patroller might hear
And if we get taken back to massa
Lord knows what he’ll do to us
But we’ll be free
If we can make it
to the Union line

Young son is shivering
It’s not always this cold in November
Is it bad luck? Or a warning?
But I made up my mind
I heard the Yankees have tents and blankets
We’ll be warm
If we can make it
to the Union line

Where are you mama? Where are you papa?
They sent me down that river so long ago
You told me never to forget you
And to be a good nigger
I guess I can do one
And maybe not the other
Maybe I won’t be a nigger at all
If we can just make it
To the Union line

I’m holding my wife and children’s hands so hard
I’ll never let them go
The road, it whips us
The rain, it whips us
The hunger is whipping us
Well, we’ve been whipped before
But we ain’t whipped yet!
Our hands are strong
Strong enough to push and pull ourselves to freedom
Once we make it
To the Union line

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