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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Freed Slave Memoirs Spur Chat 135 Years Later

Freed Slave Memoirs 
Spur Chat 135 Years Later:
Fairfield Museum Spotlights 
“A Slave No More”
(Posted to 2/24)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Wallace Turnage and John Washington could not have imagined that their recollections of personal hardship, written in the 1870s, would be the topic of spirited conversation at a book chat in Fairfield some 135 years later.

On Wednesday evening, Fairfield Museum and History Center hosted Dr. Samuel L. Schaffer, who moderated a roundtable discussion of the book “A Slave No More” by David Blight. The subjects of the book are Turnage, a teenage field hand from an Alabama plantation, and Washington, an urban slave in Virginia. In the chaos of the Civil War, both escaped north. Blight retells their flights to freedom as well as provides an account of their lives as he reconstructed them.

The book chat, the first of four in a History Book Club series the Museum has scheduled to run through May 25, was attended by a small group of people that brought unique perspectives to the table and spurred lively discussion.

Moderator Schaffer, a post-doctoral fellow at Yale University and former student of the author, explained how Blight’s agent came to him five or six years ago with the narratives. One document was found in an attic by a Greenwich woman. The other was discovered in Massachusetts. Blight, who is currently working on a biography of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, reviewed the narratives and realized how important they were.

Using a wealth of genealogical information, Blight reconstructed the former slaves’ childhoods as sons of white slaveholders, their service as camp hands during the Civil War, and their climb to black working-class stability in the north, where they reunited with their families. Blight’s account includes a preface about runaway slaves and emancipation.

Schaffer said the slave narrative is its own genre and can be divided into two categories: Pre-Emancipation and Post-Civil War. With regard to the former, there are 65 known narratives and they were written by young men in their teens and 20s about their flight from slavery to freedom. Many were published by abolitionists to point to the evils of slavery. The post-war narratives, of which there are 45, are less about slavery and more about the journey from slavery to affluence, with arguments against Jim Crow laws.

Schaffer said the narratives of “A Slave No More” are unique in that they tell of escape to freedom but as a backward-looking reflection years later after slavery was abolished. Washington, for instance, escaped to the north in 1862 but wrote his account in 1873. Turnage escaped in 1864.

Attendee Sherry Thorne of Fairfield suggested, “War was a catalyst that created chaos and allowed many slaves to escape.”

Schaffer added, “The Emancipation Proclamation was the driving force and protected the slaves’ flight. They were fleeing to Union Army lines, which was a constantly moving border between slavery and freedom.”

Schaffer said the Union Army didn’t know what to do with the slaves, referred to them as “captured contraband” and put them to work. He said the slaves didn’t mind that though as it was “free labor” and not plantation labor. Still, he said, there was always suspicion that they would be sold back into slavery.

Attendee J. Alfred Dunn suggested, as Washington and Turnage’s narratives were not mediated nor previously published, that the men “put these recollections down for those that came after them in their families.”

Fairfielder Sherry Thorne agreed with Dunn. “They would have had no expectation of the documents being published.”

However, Schaffer said, “The memoirs are mediated by time and memory, with reflective inferences about the significance of the events of the war.”

Memorie Mitchell, visiting from Birmingham, Alabama, was intrigued by the topic. “I grew up during the Civil Rights movement,” she said. “We were all segregated. My class was the last totally white graduating class in my high school. There were white water fountains. No black person came into our restrooms at all.”

Thorne was equally impressed by Blight’s book. “What I liked about it was that it captured the difficulty of being so totally disenfranchised and then being free, and always the sadness of broken families. In the end, the epilogue explains how Blight was able to connect with the family of one of the slaves. It brings to mind how difficult it is for people of African-American descent to trace their family history. There’s just so much missing,” she said.

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