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This is the archive for February 2008

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Having not one, but two previously undiscovered historical manuscripts drop into your lap is the kind of stuff most historians can only dream of. That according to David Blight of Yale University.
Blight was in Richmond on February 9th to talk about his latest book, an event that was co-sponsored by the American Civil War Center and Richmond National Battlefield Park. How those two manuscripts, both undated but estimated to have been written in the 1870’s and 1890’s, came to Blight’s attention is an interesting story unto itself and the subsequent journey could probably serve as a textbook for conducting historical and genealogical research.

Blight, by his own admission, is not a genealogist, but he couldn’t have written the book without learning the basic skills essential to that profession, or without the assistance of genealogists. His skills as a historian, honed through years of academic study, however, are not necessarily transferable to the genealogist, although the latter has to have a grasp of the subject to put their research findings into perspective. When you fuse the two sciences you have a powerful and compelling story in the offering.

A Slave No More is the combined story of two ordinary men, John Washington and Wallace Turnage, who each set out to document their lives for their children. A simple telling of simple lives. But when viewed by eyes more than a century later that which was ordinary and simple becomes extraordinary, for theirs is a saga of men born into slavery, men who succeeded in breaking those chains by escaping to freedom.

You can’t tell the story of the book without providing some background. Blight’s own background is revealed. Son of an autoworker, who suckered his father into devoting one of his two weeks of annual vacation to visiting Civil War battlefields. You become a teenager and you don’t let the fascination get drowned out by the thumping rhythm of Rock n’ Roll. You pursue the passion on a college campus and then wind your way through a series of whistle stop teaching assignments, including a high school, before making Yale your home. The passion lives in the lecture hall, the fox and hound chase of research, and in the writing of books. Somewhere along the line W.E.B. Dubois’ message resonates in your brain and you hold up this new found truth like a cube, turning it over and over, examining it at every angle, and the story of the American Civil War, emancipation, and reconstruction opens itself to you in a whole new light.

“How do we remember? How do we want to remember?” Those are the questions raised by emancipation and reconstruction that Blight observes the collective American memory has struggled with or blithely ignored since 1865.

Most Americans are familiar with Martin Luther King, Junior’s I Have A Dream speech, or least the last few sentences, when King seemingly rises above the Lincoln Memorial and stretching forth his arms says “when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Less familiar are the opening paragraphs when King argues African-Americans have been handed a check marked “insufficent funds,” in response to their struggle to fully engage and participate in American society, a figurartive promisary note that was to have been cashed when the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were ratified.

Blight points to a passage from George H.W. Bush’s first inaugural speech as an example of how America does remember. “We must remember we are the nation that sent 600,000 of its sons to end slavery.” A sigh escapes Blight’s lips and he remarks “We like the post-emancipation story. The real story is much more complicated…It was a great and transformative event…that has been argued by historians over and over.”

From the 1740’s to 1865 there were 65 autobiographies written by escaped slaves published in the U.S. and England, the most famous being those by Frederick Douglass, William Grimes, and Harriett Jacobs. Douglass’ "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," published in 1845, was out of print for more than a century and could only be found inside the segregated schools attended by blacks. When a reprint was issued in 1960 ninety-nine per cent of the American public didn’t know who Douglass was. Typically viewed as “abolitionist tracts,” all shared a common theme by declaring the “destructive horrors of slavery.”

From 1865 to 1920, when 55 tomes appeared, there was a shift in how the story of slavery, emancipation, and reconstruction was narrated and who the narrator was. Overwhelming the story was told by former slaves turned clergy, or veterans who later wore the cloth. Theirs was a message of uplift and hope, of success and prosperity, bearing titles such as "From Slavery to Affluence" or Booker T. Washington’s 1901 bestseller "Up From Slavery."

The Works Progress Administration tried to capture the stories of former slaves during the 1930’s, but that effort is usually criticized today because those conducting the interviews were white and those being interviewed were by that time in their 80’s and 90’s, a time when memories become naturally suspect. Sharp edges become rounded and rawhide whips are instead fashioned from skeins of yarn.

What sets the autobiographies of Wallace Turnage and John Washington apart in Blight’s view is the fact that neither was ever published or marked up by an editor’s pencil. It’s a story of “two men telling the story largely of how they escaped” from slavery, a story that was handed down from one generation to the next. In Washington’s case the biography eventually landed in the hands of the son of the best friend of his granddaughter. That son of the best friend of the granddaughter of John Washington, a retired Judge and author from Boston gave the book to his literary agent, who, in turn, asked Blight to take a look. That manuscript got packed away when Blight relocated and was neglected until Wallace Turnage’s narrative was mentioned in the course of a dinner conversation between Blight and the Director of the Greenwich, Connecticut Historical Society. The dream becomes reality for one historian.

Both Washington and Turnage shared a common history. Born of free white fathers and enslaved black mothers, Washington would escape in 1862 when Fredericksburg, Virginia came under threat of Yankee attack, while Turnage walked out of an Alabama slave jail, through Confederate encampments, climbed into a boat and rowed out into Mobile Bay where he was rescued from his leaky craft by a U.S. Navy vessel.

It would have been simple enough to have written an introduction, added some endnotes, and published the autobiographies as is. Instead the research involved crisscrossing the country, from New Haven to Chicago, down to Mobile, up to Brooklyn, over to Jersey City, into libraries and historical societies, which finally culminated in a face-to-face meeting with Washington descendants in Florida, descendants who never knew John Washington’s autobiography existed until a phone call from Blight.

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Historian David Blight