Some of the most moving historical accounts from the 19th century are slave narratives, life stories written by escaped or freed slaves. Some of them, most notably the autobiography of Frederick Douglass, are rightfully considered classics of American literature.
Despite the fame of some slave narratives, genuine examples of the genre are actually quite rare. Historians estimate that about 65 slave autobiographies were published as books or pamphlets before the Civil War, often with the assistance of members of the abolitionist movement.
In the years following emancipation it’s estimated that about 55 former slaves published their autobiographies. And during the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration endeavored to interview former slaves. More than 2,000 elderly Americans who had been born into slavery provided accounts which are generally quite brief, usually one or two pages of distant recollections.
Newly Discovered Manuscripts Emerge
In 2003, David W. Blight, a Yale professor and acknowledged expert on slavery and the life of Frederick Douglass, was contacted by a literary agent representing an unpublished slave narrative which had been passed down in a family. The author of the handwritten manuscript, John Washington, had been an urban slave in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He escaped to freedom in 1862 by crossing the Rappahannock River and being welcomed into a camp of Union troops who were converging on the city.
A few months after hearing about the Washington manuscript, Blight was contacted by members of a Connecticut historical society who had come across another unpublished slave narrative. This manuscript was the first-person escape account of Wallace Turnage, a young slave from North Carolina who had been sold and transported to a plantation in the Deep South. Turnage escaped and was recaptured several times before finally achieving freedom in 1864 by wading through snake infested swamps to reach the Union lines near Mobile, Alabama.
Handwritten Stories Were Meant for Families
Washington and Turnage both lived long lives, and in their later years they wrote down their life stories for the benefit of their families. When the manuscripts were examined by Professor Blight, they appeared to be unedited, raw documents, complete with telltale quirks of spelling and grammar.
The two men probably never expected their stories to be published, but Blight has turned them into a fascinating book, A Slave No More, published in November 2007.
While the manuscripts seemed genuine, Blight and some researchers used documents to find out what they could about Washington and Turnage. The accounts in their two stories correspond to census records, maps, and other documentation. It was even determined that a small cottage in Fredericksburg, Virginia where young John Washington lived as a slave is still standing.
Blight’s book begins by providing an enlightening introduction to the genre of slave narratives, and then tells each man’s story, placing events in the context of the time. Some passages are remarkable, such as the account of John Washington entering a Union Army camp in the spring of 1862. On his first morning of freedom, Washington and several other escaped slaves attended the funeral of seven Union soldiers who had been killed in recent fighting.
“No young man in Washington’s circumstance could ever forget the direct relationship between those Union dead and his new freedom,” Blight wrote. “Witnessing the terrible somberness of his first military burial, Washington stored sensory memories that would compel him one day to write. And in the sound heard by a newly freed slave of the dirt falling on those Northern soldiers’ coffins we today can hear echoes of exactly what that war was about.”
Natural Prose Preserved
Roughly half the book contains the actual narratives by Washington and Turnage. Blight made very few editorial corrections, and essentially the manuscripts are presented to modern readers just as the former slaves wrote them. Their accounts have a rough and honest beauty, and it’s both exciting and uplifting to read them.
The nearly miraculous emergence of these historical documents are a reminder of the importance of slave narratives. Few of us will ever have the astonishing experience of Professor Blight, and have two handwritten slave narratives fall into our hands. But we can discover and appreciate some powerful writing by former slaves on the Web.