"Slave narratives, some of the most powerful records of our past, are extremely rare," David Blight tells us on the first page of A Slave No More. Only 55 post-Civil War narratives exist and of these, Blight notes, "a mere handful" are first-person accounts by slaves who ran away and freed themselves.
So it is remarkable indeed that two such accounts should now surface – and almost at the same moment. Both had been handed down over the years by family and friends and both finally landed in the lap of Blight, who is director of Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.
Even for Blight, with his expertise in the field, these manuscripts were a revelation. Reading them, he says, "I have come to understand emancipation as never before."
"A Slave No More" contains both the unedited manuscripts and analysis by Blight, which gives the manuscripts context and offers additional information about the lives of the narrators, John Washington and Wallace Turnage.
As far as is known, Washington and Turnage never met. They have much in common – yet there is also much that divides them. Washington was an urban slave, living in Fredericksburg, Va. He was 24 on the day in April 1862, when he slipped across Union Army lines and won his freedom. Turnage was a field hand on an Alabama cotton plantation. Four times he attempted escape and finally, on his fifth try in 1864, he succeeded in reaching the Union Army in Mobile Bay. Both men had white fathers, although Turnage knew his while Washington did not.
Both men went on to live for many years as free men. Washington settled in Washington, D.C., and became a house painter, enjoying a reasonably comfortable life. Turnage had a more hardscrabble existence in New York City, where he worked as a watchman, waiter, and other occupations.
Their narratives are powerful and poignant and help to fill in the cracks of history in voices too rarely heard.
Washington describes the day the Union Army marched toward the Rappahannock River. Every white person in Fredericksburg, he says, was in the streets, attempting to flee, while all the black people were "out on the house top looking over the River at the Yankees for their glistening bayonets could Easily be seen."
Inside, Washington writes, "I could not begin to Express my new born hopes, for I felt already like I was certain of My freedom Now." When he crossed the river and met the Union soldiers, one asked him where his master was. In the Rebel Navy, he replied.
"Well you don't belong to anybody then," the soldiers told him, explaining that two days earlier the District of Columbia had freed its slaves. "I did not know what to say for I was dumb with joy and could only thank God and laugh."
Both men's narratives depict the ugliness of slavery, but Turnage's experience was far harsher than Washington's. Washington recalls, as a small boy, waiting all day for the commands of an elderly white woman, even as he could see other children playing outdoors.
But Turnage was whipped and beaten in the fields. He was also, for a time, forced to work in an auction house, where he saw his fellow slaves flogged, chained, cataloged, and sold. Yet he begins his account: "I do not mean to speak disparagingly of those who sold me, nor of those who bought me. Though I seen a hard time, it had an attendency to make a man of me."
While nothing can match the power of the men's own words, Blight's commentary does much to round out the portrait of the slave and former-slave experience. He tells of the "contraband colonies" that for many former slaves were the first stop after escape. He notes the eagerness of even the best-treated slaves to find their freedom, quoting a Georgia slave owner who confessed, "Those we loved best, and who loved us best – as we thought, were the first to leave us."
He also describes the netherworld of urban blight through which many former slaves – Turnage included – struggled to make their way after emancipation.
Washington offers a heartbreaking account of being separated from his mother as a boy. The night before, she came to his bed. "Her tears mingled with mine amid kisses and heart felt sorrow ... I would rather die" than leave her.
Both Turnage and Washington did eventually reunite with their mothers. Of Turnage's mother, Blight writes, "her story, like her son's so ordinary and yet so extraordinary, makes us wish we could know her even better."
Readers will agree – and yet will also be powerfully grateful for the fascinating bits and pieces that they are given here.