The Ancestors of 12 Years a Slave

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With so few actual first-hand accounts of slave life available, many historians have relied on secondary sources written by whites to describe this important and tragic part of American history. Readers must make a special effort to examine the books and other material written by former slaves themselves to get closer to the truth of our nation’s most shameful legacy. As I mentioned in a previous post, even slave biographies and autobiographies themselves can be problematic. Scholars have long-questioned the veracity of some of the accounts and the motivations behind their publication. Let’s examine several different types I consider best-in-class and consider their value as historical sources.

The first known slave narrative is a good place to start. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of O. Equiano, or G. Vassa, the African, was published in London in 1789. Like most slave biographies to follow, Olaudah Equiano’s account was motivated by the author and his sponsor’s strong abolitionist sentiments. Some historians have questioned Equiano’s claim to have been born in Africa (he may have been born in South Carolina) and other details of his life story. There is no doubt, however, about both the popularity and impact of this work. The book went through nine printings and enabled Equiano to achieve modest wealth and worldwide fame. The book was instrumental in bringing public attention to the horrors of the African slave trade, and marked the beginning of the end of this practice (at least legally), with the eventual passage of the British Slave trade Act of 1807. Equiano had an amazing life as a merchant explorer who even travelled to the arctic regions.  The book is a worthy introduction to the genre.

Perhaps the most widely-heralded of all former slave authors was Frederick Douglass. In fact, Douglass’s fame in his own time and in ours has cast such an enormous shadow that many students of history read one of his three autobiographies and stop there. That is unfortunate, as there are a number of contemporary black authors who, when combined with Douglass, offer a more varied perspective on slave life from the fields to the “big house” and in between. I prefer his initial effort, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, published in 1845. No black man in the history of our country until Martin Luther King, has had a greater impact on black identity and race politics. Some contemporaries expressed doubt that a black could have written the narrative, until they heard him speak or read his many letters and pamphlets. The man was a genius and a seminal figure in the early movements for civil rights.

The 1840 to 1865 period was a high water mark for slave biographies. Most were funded by white abolitionists. Many are worth reading. In 1861, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, was published. The author was former slave Harriet Jacobs. This was the first and one of the very best narratives focused on the life of a slave woman. It is a heartbreaking tale that is part autobiography and part novel. Jacobs merged the two popular forms to create style that was used most effectively in groundbreaking works like The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Another important memoir by a former slave was William Wells Brown’s 1847 classic, Narrative of William W. Brown, written by himself. Brown was a contemporary and often a rival of Frederick Douglass. Brown wrote what is generally believed to be the first African-American novel, Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, which was loosely-based on the mixed-race children of Thomas Jefferson. Ezra Greenspan did a marvelous retelling of Brown’s complete life story in 2014.

The efforts of Greenspan and Annette Gordon-Reed (The Hemingses of Monticello) are examples of how modern scholars are using the accounts of former slaves, as well as the vast archival resources now available, to flesh out these stories and interpret them within the broader context of their time. Historians with the advantage of hindsight can look back on these accounts and consider the inherent biases of the publishers, as well as do fact-checking that 19th century readers and even editors may not have been equipped or even motivated to do. Modern edited versions of slave biography often lead to a much more rewarding reading experience.

That is certainly true of the gifted historian, David Blight. Perhaps it was some sort of fortunate destiny that led Blight to uncover two slave narratives in 2003 that were never intended for publication. These accounts represent post-bellum accounts, but are different than most, as they were never edited or mediated. In the hands of a brilliant researcher and writer like Blight, they become more than merely fresh primary source documents. Blight uses genealogical sources to reconstruct the lives of Wallace Turnage and John Washington, supplementing their own stories with enhanced context and meaning. The discovery of these two accounts was a historian’s dream and Blight made the most of his opportunity.

The adept use of family history resources can help fill in the story gaps when dealing with a diary or a memoir, as in the case of Blight’s work, but the process can also work effectively in reverse. Edward Ball’s first book, Slaves in the Family, created a buzz when first published in 1998. Ball’s desire to learn more about his ancestors and their slave-owning past led him on a nationwide odyssey , knocking on the doors that held such secrets. In the process, the author met and interviewed dozens of descendants of the Ball family slaves. The book goes well beyond the bounds of conventional history to promote understanding between descendants of both master and slave – a rift that, even 150 years after the civil war, still yawns deep and painful in the psyche of many Americans, especially in the Deep South.

The first stirring of slave biography in the mass media came when I was in high school. My family, whose ancestors had also been southern slaveholders like the Balls, was riveted to Alex Haley’s Roots: the Saga of an American Family.  Although the television series was based on a novel, parts of which were plagiarized from an earlier work of fiction, the miniseries created a sensation and was viewed by 130 million Americans. Despite the dubious historical value of the book and television show, they both had an indelible impact on the acceptance of alternatives to the Lost Cause mythology of the Civil War, and helped initiate a revival of interest black history that continues to this day.

The legitimate child of the Roots television series from a historical perspective has to be the 2013 blockbuster film, 12 Years a Slave, adapted from the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northrup. The film will go down in history not simply because it was awarded the Best Picture nod at the Academy Awards, but because it was the first mass market film to accurately depict slavery. The fact that it brings a slave narrative to life and is almost completely derived from extant historical sources bodes well for the history business going forward. In these days of strident gibberish and uncivil animosity from all sides of the political spectrum, it is gratifying to see a popular film with such a truth-telling focus. The public is hungry for such compelling stories told with brutal honesty and human sensitivity.

Finding the Wealthiest Slave in Savannah

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How do historians find compelling characters for biography? Trade publishers tend to play it safe, focusing on authors writing about A- list subjects viewed from a different perspective. Many of these works end up providing readers with fresh insight into a seemingly inexhaustible thirst for stories about dead white presidents, royalty, and military leaders. I certainly enjoy a book like Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography by William Lee Miller much more than another pop culture rehash like the recent Killing Lincoln and that ilk. Unless some newly-discovered diary or other primary source comes to light on Old Abe, it is hard to imagine much new scholarship coming down the pike that is more than either reduction or revision.

So where can historians turn to find untold stories that are worth telling about new subjects? Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) proved that entertaining and innovative biography can emerge from the most unexpected sources. She found her amazing subject in a test tube and held her readers in suspense as she wove together genetic therapy and human interest into something entirely original and important. Such subjects and stories are much harder to uncover than the bones of Richard III, but even the much maligned hunchback king himself could not have been rescued from his ignoble resting place below an asphalt parking lot without the careful archival work of a dedicated local historian. The parade and reburial will be long-forgotten by the time some enterprising researcher uses DNA and forensic examination to craft a new interpretation of this much-studied figure.

With slave biography, as I discussed in my last post, the challenges are immense. There are probably few potential subjects left with enough verifiable life data to produce a book-length treatment; however, there are many ghosts of former slaves whispering in the dreams of interested scholars, ready to reveal their secrets and inspire quality articles. As most historians are not trained in the art of the séance, serious seekers need to return to the gravesites of all great sources: the archival record. Perhaps my own journey of discovery to produce a recent modest study in Georgia Backroads magazine illustrates this point.

One of my favorite archival graveyards is a set of records that was just becoming popular about fifteen years ago when I was studying for my M.A. in history at UMass Boston. My interest in Civil War Union supporters in Floyd County Georgia led me to examine the voluminous records of the Southern Claims Commission and the U.S. Court of Claims. Many families in the South stayed loyal to the Union during the war, and most were rewarded by having their farms and homes plundered by foraging U.S. troops. If they could prove that they were true to the old Star Spangled Banner for the duration of the conflict, the government offered to pay for some of the damages they incurred from the hungry armies living off the land in their ravaged region. The beauty of these accounts, mostly sworn depositions, were that they included not only white male property owners, but women, children, free blacks and even ex-slaves. Few contemporary sources contain the voices of these forgotten people, and they have become a much mined source of new information on many aspects of the Civil War home front experience.

After developing six or seven decent articles out of my thesis research, my idea file had become a little sparse. My paying job did not afford me much time to dive into various archives on the off chance I would find a worthy subject. Fortunately, the family history website has placed some scanned files from the Southern Claims Commission on their site. They are a wonderful resource, even if one’s purpose is pure genealogy. Having found so many interesting stories in its tattered folders in the past, and having read most of the Floyd County files cover to cover, I shifted my focus to Savannah, thinking that perhaps Chatham and surrounding counties might yield an interesting figure or two. I wanted a slave subject to challenge myself and see how much I could learn. Rachel Brownfield stepped into my web browser and filled the bill.

The first thing I noticed about Mrs. Brownfield was the size of her claim and the subsequent award. Rachel claimed over $1659 in damages from the Union army occupation of her boarding house after Sherman entered the city in December 1864. This seemed like a very large amount for a slave woman. The skeptical commissioners, most unfamiliar with the widespread practice of slaves hiring out their own time, awarded her only $253.70. Her loyalty, however, was hardly in question. Her testimony that she visited Union prisoners and secreted escaped soldiers in her home and place of business was supported by numerous credible witnesses: black and white, slave and free. This story was getting juicier by the minute, so I decided to do an in-depth web search on my potential protagonist. Using various spelling variations and a lot of patience, I managed to find several leads. One was quite promising.

The papers of former attorney William Wiseham Paine are housed in the Georgia Historical Society archives in Savannah. Having published in their quarterly journal some years previous, I had a few contacts willing to help me view this collection while sitting at my computer in California. What I found was wonderful and helped me fill in many of the details of this enterprising slave woman’s life. The documents even allowed me to name her white plantation owner father without the DNA evidence that Skip Gates might use on his prime time family history show. Rachel Brownfield hired three different lawyers to recover money stolen from her from a particularly unscrupulous master. It was all for naught. She estimated her tidy fortune, much of which she spent trying to purchase her freedom and that of her children, at $16,000. Whether this amount was exaggerated, we will probably never know. What is certain is that few persons of color in the state achieved anything close to her level of affluence, even after she was cheated out of most of it late in the war.

When I learned that Rachel and her slave husband had been married by Savannah’s Catholic Vicar General Father John Francis Kirby, I contacted the Archdiocese of Savannah. Of course, no record of this illegal marriage exists, but the baptism of one of Rachel’s sons in 1867 was confirmation of this slave family’s religion and corroborates her deposition statement.
With my appetite for knowledge about this unusual slave and her family growing more intense with each new document, I decided that a trip to the Georgia Archives was warranted. There I found a wealth of information of Rachel’s property transactions, both during and after the war, as well as her detailed will and estate records. Census records and other typical online resources filled in the picture of Rachel’s family life during Reconstruction and gave me enough data to build a reasonably full account of her life and her many challenges.

Sadly, my many efforts to find descendants brought little payout, and certainly not the most anticipated undiscovered treasure – a photograph of the woman herself. All I had was a modern image of her lavish cenotaph, still standing unblemished in the black section of the most prestigious 19th century white cemetery in the city. Few would guess that the woman buried there was an ex-slave. I like to think that the elaborate monument was a way for her to permanently turn up her nose in perpetuity at the white society who had taken so much from her and her family.
Such stories may never reach a broad audience, nor profile this slave woman and her family with the degree of depth or certainty that studies of more well-known white property owners produce. Yet these brief vignettes serve an important purpose. By aggregating numerous such stories, carefully researched and verified, scholars and readers can look forward to an enhanced understanding of various aspects of the slave experience: white rape of slave women, religious collaboration with white churches, the activities of slave entrepreneurs, and many other interesting topics.

Subscribers to my monthly newsletter may download the complete pdf article, “The Wealthiest Slave in Savannah: Rachel Brownfield and the True Cost of Freedom.” This and all my published articles are available free.

NEXT POST: My Favorite Slave Biographies

Slave Biography

The Challenges of Slave Biography

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Students of American slavery are faced with a daunting task: Try to form an accurate picture of the slave experience when the vast majority of primary sources are memories from white slave owners and outside observers. White diaries and recollections often tend toward caricatures, employing stereotyping of slave speech and folkways. These stories were intended to entertain, rather than elucidate. Even more perverse are the many white recollections of the slave experience downplaying the horrors of the evil institution in support of the Lost Cause myth. Most published accounts are motivated not by a desire for historical accuracy, but rather by a crude attempt to manipulate memory.

Open most any local history from a Southern town written in the first half of the 20th century and you will find examples such as this from George Magruder Battey, Jr.’s 1922 classic, A History of Rome and Floyd County:

LOVE FOR OLD SLAVES. – The tender bond of sentiment existing between master and slave in the ante-bellum days is an old story, and it has plenty of verification in fact. While it is quite true that there were occasional instances of cruelty and oppression, as a rule master and mistress treated the slaves with great consideration. Few people would want slavery re-established, yet it is interesting to take note of instances in which slaves were treated almost like members of the family by the “white folks.”

Sadly, Battey’s volume remains the best-selling work on local history in northwest Georgia, reinforcing distorted mental images like the “faithful slave” over successive generations.

The University of North Carolina documents only 132 memoirs written by former slaves themselves. Slave reminiscences tell us as much about the social and political context at the time of their writing as they do about the subject’s past experience of slavery. Some scholars question the veracity of certain antebellum autobiographies as being part of an abolitionist propaganda effort. Others appear designed to gloss over the harsher realities of slavery in an effort to heal the nation’s sectional divide following the Civil War.

Not surprisingly, slave biography in the United States became a popular genre about the time of the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. By the end of the decade, 16 such works had been published in a span of 13 years. Slave reminiscences declined to just three in the 1840s, as those advocating immediate abolition came to be viewed as a radical minority in the North. Another surge of slave biographies mirrored the increased political tensions following the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, and the publishing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Twenty such works hit booksellers in the decade leading up to the Civil War, as antislavery activists sponsored escaped slaves eager to tell their tales.

The popularity of slave biography ebbed in years following the Civil War. Even as lynching became common throughout the South in the early 20th century, local newspaper editors and Confederate veteran organizations worked hard to create literature extolling the “bright side of slavery,” as on Tennessee veteran called it. Nostalgia for the good old days dominated most slave narratives and serious scholarship took a back seat to the invention of a sanitized antebellum South.

Interest in slave biography accelerated over the last half of the 20th century, beginning with the WPA Slave Narrative Collection, a valuable archive of elderly slave remembrances assembled in from 1936-1938. An explosion of interest in black family history in the decades after the civil rights movements of the 1960s gave fresh impetus to the trend. Historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. gave this movement additional momentum with his television series called Finding Your Roots. Black family history has found its way into the pop culture mainstream, in prime time no less. This upsurge in interest, although encouraging, should also give most serious historians pause.

Extant slave biographies and other published recollections should be corroborated by other evidence to bolster the credibility of these first-hand accounts. Since slaves were chattel property, contemporary records do exist, but they are hit or miss. Few offer a comprehensive documentary record of this population in anything but the bare outlines provided in resources such as slave censes and plantation records.

Modern revisionist historians eager to scoop the latest unknown and shocking story or motivated to warp history for present-day political purposes are doing serious damage to black history scholarship. Amateurs and even professionals like John Stauffer (propagator of the controversial black Confederate mythology) take conflicting, scant, or even absent evidence and draw broad conclusions about the slave experience. A more conservative approach is needed to sustain popular interest in slave biography while maintaining scholarly credibility.

Even the most accomplished historians are tempted by the lack of primary sources to cross the line from the interpretation of evidence to the divining of motives and feelings in otherwise silent historical slave characters. In her groundbreaking book, The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed examines the family of Thomas Jefferson’s slave mistress, Sally Hemings. While DNA evidence suggests that Jefferson was the father of Hemings’s children, no writings or other direct quotations from her exist. Professor Gordon-Reed makes a brilliant argument in much of the book, and offers her readers new insights into not only Jefferson’s slave family, but also into the man himself. In her zeal to explain why Sally returned to America, when she presumably could have sought asylum and freedom in France, the author relies on the claims of Sally Hemings’s son Madison. He wrote that his mother negotiated a deal with her master and lover to return as a slave to Virginia in exchange for “extraordinary privileges,” and a promise to free her children after his death.

Professor Gordon-Reed takes Madison Hemings’s word as truth, despite the fact that there is no way to corroborate his story. She goes on to fashion an elaborate argument, built on speculation, that Sally Hemings held some sort of special power (love?) over Jefferson. “Like other enslaved people when the all too rare chance presented itself,” the author argues, “Hemings seized her moment and used the knowledge of her rights to make a decision based upon what she thought was best for her as a woman.” If Gordon-Reed is right, this is an incredible discovery, but the historical power dynamics between male master and female slave make such a circumstance as the author posits difficult to imagine, impossible to verify and singular in the annals of American slavery.

Without an interest in the history of this famous family on both the white and black sides, Gordon-Reed’s brilliant book may never have been written. Today’s researchers should cast their nets more broadly and network with family history enthusiasts to uncover potentially promising story leads buried in the archival background of black genealogy. When will scholars embrace the potential for more collaboration between the academy and the millions of diligent, serious family historians, who have been disregarded or looked down on by professionals in the history genre? Trailblazers like Edward Ball (Slaves in the Family) prove that family history can provide a rich contextual starting point for more serious scholarship. Producing more articles and books on slave biography will lead to a richer, more nuanced understanding of the slave experience at a time when the reading and viewing public seems ready for more truth and less myth.

NEXT POST: How I discovered “The Wealthiest Slave in Savannah.”