Prof. David Blight: Historical Narratives of Slavery in America

welcome to the Macmillan report I’m Marilyn Wilshire host and today our guest is Professor David blight the class of 1954 professor of history at Yale University professor blight is the director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of slavery and abolition at the Macmillan Center he has written numerous books on race and American history and lectures widely on Frederick Douglass and W EB do-boy and problems in public history and American historical memory today we will be talking with Professor blight about his newest book a slave no more two men who escaped to freedom including their own narratives of emancipation welcome professor blade Thank You moon delighted to do this thank you a slave no more is remarkable in that it marks the discovery of two new emancipation stories tell us how you came by them well it was one of those scholars dreams I never planned to write this book these two rare autobiographies by former slaves almost literally fell into my lap the first authored by John Washington was brought to me by a literary agent who was working on behalf of the manuscripts owner the second manuscript authored by Wallace Turnage came to my attention within the same six months independently from the Greenwich Connecticut Historical Society I was invited there to give a lecture and while there the director said that her staff believed they had an authentic slave narrative and would I have a look at at that one and the truth is I hadn’t paid enough attention even to the first jet because it was at a moment in my life when I was moving to Yale this was five years ago but when I sat down with the two of them I realized what I were to post-civil war autobiographies by former slaves and their stories are largely about how they escaped from slavery in the midst of the Civil War and they’re quite rare documents we don’t have very many of these yeah my understanding is it’s basically just a handful of emancipation stories well there are really two parts of the genre of slave narratives there’s the pre Civil War genre from roughly about 1745 until the end of the American Civil War we have approximately sixty-five autobiographical treatments by former slaves published in English but from the end of the Civil War until about the 1920s when the last of American slaves were dying off who wrote about themselves we have only about 55 and some of these are quite short that Rakhal um’s and newspapers one of them is very famous Booker T Washington’s book called up from slavery in 1901 but what makes these two documents so extraordinary is that these had never been published they had never been through any kind of editing or filtering process and they arrived in my lap as raw pieces of writing in one of the two cases possibly never seen by anyone except the author’s closest family members and even in the other case it hadn’t been seen by anyone beyond family members except possibly a few people so they arrived without anyone having touched them and my challenge then was to decide what to do with them what I simply published them and write an introduction or would I try to uncover the lives of these heretofore unknown seemingly ordinary American slaves and nevertheless one in 1873 and the other undated but probably in the 1880s sat down and decided to write up their story especially the story of their emancipation so I did indeed ultimately publish them in this book but I also with the help of a tremendous genealogist at the New York Public Library Christine McKay was able to locate enough and in some cases a lot of documentation particularly about their post-war lives so that I was able in the end to try to write in effect a kind of dual biography of two otherwise

heretofore unknown American slaves and to write a book that is essentially about the process the story of how emancipation of four million slaves actually happened in the midst of the chaos and disorder of the civil war let’s talk about the actual journals themselves what did they look like you know were they pieces of paper wasn’t a bound and was it difficult to decipher at all the writing it was not difficult to decipher the writing and it was actually not difficult to authenticate them that actually was the easy part in the case of John Washington his manuscript survived and his family it survived actually with a granddaughter who lived to be quite elderly in the 1970s her name was Evelyn Washington easterly and she was living in Massachusetts but before she could do anything with it she died but she had left it to a very close friend a woman named Alice Jackson Stewart and mrs Stewart worked with the manuscript and collected a lot of documentation including fabulous family photographs but she too became elderly and in the 1980s she died and she left the manuscript to her son who an african-american retired judge in Boston his name is Julian Huston and he’s now the owner of the manuscript in Washington’s case he wrote it on essentially loose paper in the other case Wallace Turnage he actually wrote it in a leather-bound stationery book that he bought at a stationery shop in lower Manhattan because it still has the insignia of a shop on it his survives and an even more extraordinary way it was preserved by his daughter he had three surviving children and his daughter whose name was Lydia Turnage Connolly lived to be 99 years old she died in Greenwich Connecticut in 1984 having moved there because she married and an Irish immigrant labor named Tom Connolly she worked as a maid in a hotel and he is a porter they were poor but when she died she had one friend left in the world she died in a nursing home in 1984 she had one friend left an elderly woman named go out Gladys watt well mrs. watt it turns out kept one box of material from her friend for 18 years until one day in 2003 she watched a public television documentary called Unchained memories which is a film about the WPA oral history narratives done in the Great Depression she watched that film and as the people at the Greenwich Historical Society tell it it was almost literally the next day she called them up he said I may have something that would interest you they sent someone out and indeed she did what she simply had was one box and in that box was and is a black clamshell box clamshell in the sense that it has a top that you take on and off into which this narrative fits perfectly excuse me and he wrote it as I said blue line paper in this stationary book it’s as though his daughter was serving it either as such a precious thing or possibly because she was hiding it because we do know now that Lydia was passing for white she explained her tan complexion according to her surviving friend by saying she was Portuguese now I don’t know exactly why she preserved it that way but it was beautifully preserved and the only other thing in the Box were five photographs for them of Wallace Turnage all of which he had taken as a good working-class guy would in studios in New York City from somewhere in the 1880s until probably the latest one about 1910 and then one photograph of Lydia herself the daughter this is all we had to go on in Wallis turn ages case when we started to research his life five photos and the narrative but through senses manuscript City directors bank records church records a lot of newspaper research and a lot of other material we were able able to uncover not only a fair amount about his life as a slave but also of his post-war life and in Wallis turn in his case he lived until 1916 as a common

laborer in New York City married three times two wives died he had seven children three of whom lived to adulthood and in John Washington’s case he lived till 1918 he and his wife Annie lived most of their adult lives in Washington DC they had five sons and as I said it was through the daughter of his youngest son that this manuscript survived let’s talk about John Washington and Wallis Turnage the two gentlemen whose narratives you came john Washington was born in Fredericksburg Virginia in 1838 his father was a white man though he never named him if he knew who his father was he didn’t tell us in fact the greatest frustration and my research on this that I have never been able to determine his paternity nor even how he got the name Washington won speculation I have is that he made it up that if you’re in central Virginia you be a Washington why not do lots of them he grows up in a town largely a city Fredericksburg Virginia his mother by the way was a slave woman named Sarah who was literate and taught him his first alphabet and his first letters in that sense he was a very lucky guy he’s very talented he’s skilled he’s highly valued by his owner by the 1850s when he was a teenager they began to hire him out which was a relatively common practice especially in urban slavery he was hired up to do odd jobs he was often hired off for a year at a time at one point he was hired out to a tobacco factory where he said he actually really enjoyed the routine of the work in part because he got to learn all the black work songs he also fell in love he felt crazy in love because among the documents that have survived with John Washington are extraordinarily rare love letters and fragments of a diary and most of that diary is actually about his courtship of a young free black woman named Annie Gordon whom he will later marry now he bided his time and John’s escape came at the very first arrival of the Union Army on the Rappahannock River in Fredericksburg in April of 1862 he describes an extraordinary scene he’s working at a hotel in Fredericksburg called the Shakespeare and he was again a highly valued worker he was it was sort of a steward the owner would give him the payroll to pay off the the slaves who took the money home to their masters but at that moment all the white people are evacuating Fredericksburg and he describes taking the dozen or so black workers up on the roof of the hotel where they could see across the river and he said they could see the gleam of the yang bayonets and then he brought all of his fellow black workers down into the kitchen and he poured a round of drinks and then he held a toast with his fellow slave workers and the toast he said was to the Yankees and then he simply walked down to the river he witnessed the formal surrender of Fredericksburg and then he tells us he walked approximately a mile upriver in the direction he said of the sound of a union band and then he crossed the river he said at Ficklin mill and the old stone ruins of that mill is still there so I know exactly where he crossed and he was liberated after getting out of his rowboat by a captain in the 21st New York volunteers and he said at the moment they told him he could be free if he wished to he said he thanked God out loud and laughed and then John Washington had spent the rest of that summer of 1862 as a camp and a servant and and for quite a bit of it as a mess cook for the Union Army all over Northern Virginia and he dates his arrival in Washington DC as part of the first big wave of freedmen into the capital as September 1st 1862 frustratingly his narrative though ends that fall the last line in his narrative is a sentence about his wages he says I’m working two jobs one is bottling liquor and the other is working on the wharves and I make a dollar 25 a week those were his last words in the narrative and of course you want to grab him at that point and say no don’t stop who are you where did you go what happened to you I first found a shred of evidence of him a good shred in late 1863 in a directory he’s living on 19th Street in Washington

DC at an address that is today Constitution Hall about two and a half blocks southwest of the White House and at that point he had his wife Annie their newborn child his mother Sarah and his 68 year old grandmother Molly living with him exactly how he got them out of Virginia I don’t know because he didn’t tell us now in well it’s Turnage this case his escaped if anything is even more dramatic he was born on a little tobacco farm in North Carolina and there’s snow hill and he too had a white father and a slave mother his mother’s name was Courtney he knew exactly who his father was his father’s name was Sylvester Brown Turnage and and wallets named his father on every document the rest of his life as though he was saying I know who my father was but he was sold at the age of 14 by his indebted owner to a Richmond Virginia slave trader and thankfully Wallace names a lot of names and places and dates in his narrative because it really helped me out in finding him he was owned for about six months by the largest slave trader in Richmond his name was Hector Davis he lived in a three-story slave jail for from the winter to late spring of 1860 there was preparing slaves and what was called the dressing room to take them out to the auction floor and one day he was simply told the boy you’re in the auction and he was sold to an Alabama cotton planter named James Chalmers in 72 hours later he found himself on a huge cotton operation near Pickens Ville Alabama which is right on the Mississippi border and Central West Alabama most of Turnage is narrative after that is the story of his five attempts during the civil war to escape the first four of which were over into Mississippi and northward where he was trying to make it to the Union Army which controlled northern Mississippi by 1862 and then finally his frustrated master who kept coming after him and retrieving him got fed up and he took him down to Mobile Alabama in the summer of 1863 and sold him at the mobile slave jail auction house for $2,000 he was 17 years old and he lived the next roughly 15 months as the slave of a merchant and mobile again he named that merchant Collier minge which was good help to me in figuring out his life in mobile and one day he was he was driving his master’s carriage would have been late July of 64 and he crashed the carriage harness broke the carriage broke the horse got away he went home and his master and his mistress were so angry at him that they really punished him they took him down to the slave jail and ordered 30 lashes for him with these the worst contraption they used to beat slaves they stripped him naked and strung him up on a bar on the wall and at the end of these 30 lashes he was standing there bleeding and his master said walk home but instead of walking home Wallis simply walked out of mobile he walked right through the roughly 10,000 Confederate troops who were encamped all around mobile and then the rest of his narrative is the extraordinary story of his three-week about 27 mile trek down the western shore of Mobile Bay through a colossal swamp it’s called the follower of our estuary today he traversed three rivers a huge swamp and finally he reached the mouth of out at the mouth of Mobile Bay and he describes himself barely alive he’d been half starved for days on him but he said one day he prayed especially hard and the tide brought in an old rowboat he tipped over the rowboat grabbed a plank of wood he said and he began to row out into Mobile Bay and then comes his most dramatic moment of his narrow you can almost feel him on the page trying to capture that moment he describes how a wave is about to capsize his boat and then he said.he her doors and the oars he heard were a Union gunboat and then that gunboat were about eight sailors they told him to jump in and he did and as Wallace sat down in their boat according to his testimony he said the Yankee sailors looked at me and they were struck silent and I don’t

doubt they were they then rode him to a Sand Island fort that clothed it fed him put him in a town overnight the first acts of kindness he’d ever experienced from white people in his seventeen years and then the next day they they wrote him over to Dauphin Island which is the huge big sandbar island at the mouth of Mobile Bay and there in Fort Gaines in late August of 1864 and that old fort is still there he was interrogated by the Union commanding general of the entire region a man named Gordon Granger probably because he was an escaped slave from mobile and they wanted intelligence and in that interrogation Granger gave him simply two choices he could join a black regiment that they were organizing or he could become a servant to a white officer and Wallace chose to be the servant you never told us why but I have a good speculation on that he probably felt that he had simply suffered enough and he was choosing a kind of security he then served out the rest of the war as the mess cook for a captain in a Maryland regiment whose name was Junius Turner he is with that regiment when it captured mobile in April of 65 he was with that regiment guarding Confederate prisoners in New Orleans after the war and he was with that regiment as they traveled across the United States and were mustered out in Baltimore in August of 1865 Turnage then lived about three years in Baltimore and then I began to find evidence of him and the first marvelous evidence I found was the 1870 census and I found him living with his mother and his four half siblings in the 300 block of Thompson Street in what we today called Greenwich Village which was then known as little Africa it was a community of about 2,000 former slaves who had moved to New York City and it was in New York City or across the river for part of it in Jersey City where Wallace lived out the rest of his life as a drayman bartender at one point he called himself a glassblower and he worked as a night watchman he worked in all kinds of common labor jobs but as I said he also went to a studio and had his photograph taken four times he also joined the Abyssinian Baptist Church the most famous black church in New York and he joined a black fraternal order called the Hamilton Lodge of Oddfellows and he is buried in the collective burial plot of that fraternity in Cypress Hill Cemetery in Brooklyn so this is the saga of these two men and briefs one escaping as you can see in a town early in the war even before the Emancipation Proclamation the others escaping to the Union Navy later in the war under very different circumstances and what it allowed me to do through these two windows on emancipation is to tell the story both in microcosm and macrocosm of how emancipation actually came about for hundreds of thousands of American slaves before the war ended one in one in this case to the Union Navy and one to the Union Army so how long did it take you to pull together all of this information how long was the writing of the book how long did it take you I suppose it took me about three years from start to finish accumulating the information it was frustrating at times trying to find them the big holes in their lives that couldn’t complete as in the case of John Washington’s father but we just kept looking and kept looking and then I decided ultimately that I wanted this to be a sort of dual biography I was particularly interested in telling their post-war lives the best I could I wanted to be able to say something through their stories of what actually happened to some of of American slaves who became free in the war lived in cities in some cases migrated north became part of the first generation of an urban black working-class developed families joined churches weren’t fraternal orders and John Washington’s case was president of the black sunday-school Union in Washington for ten years and I found enough information a remarkable amount of information that I was able to do that I also found out a lot about their children and what happened to them the kinds of lives they lived and quite

remarkably by continuing to dig and dig and dig in obituaries we also finally found a living descendant we knew there was no likelihood of living descendants in a case of Wallace Turnage because all three of his children died childless but we knew it was a good chance with John Washington and by details I will spare you approximately a year ago we found the living granddaughter John Washington she was then 89 she’s not 90 years old her name is Ruth Washington now we found her through on the bitumen and she lives today in a retirement trailer park village in tampa florida and about a year ago right now I had the out-of-body experience of calling a nearly 90 year old woman one night to tell her I was about to publish the autobiography of her grandfather the remarkable thing was that she knew absolutely nothing about her grandfather which was not unusual for african-american families at the turn of the 20th century and into the early 20th century her father was John Washington jr. but her grandfather the author of the document died the year she was born and she’s told me now many times that her father never talked about the past she had no knowledge whatsoever that her grandparents had ever been slaves and she had never even met them her grandmother lived about nine years after she was born and never met her but we’ve had this remarkable experience now of being able to show her her a big part of her family’s history and I’ve even had her at now two public events with me where she speaks along with men even signs of the books with me and I suppose a lesson in that is that one should never say never and also that the past especially this past in America our past was slavery the Civil War emancipation and it’s aftermath is not that far back there we have living grandchildren some of those living grandchildren are this week next week facing a chance to vote for an african-american for president and in some ways I can’t wait to call up Ruth and ask her what it felt like Wow remarkable stories thank you so much for being here with us today and sharing your research with us well thank you Marilyn I enjoyed it for more information about Professor blight and of course his new book a slave no more please visit our website at yale.edu backslash Macmillan report be sure to join us again next week for another episode of the Macmillan report made possible through funding from the Whitney and Betty Macmillan Center for International and area studies at Yale