Black historical past involves life in books on slavery, civil rights

“Nine Days” is a comprehensive, well-researched investigation into this overlooked part of civil rights history that deserves further investigation.

On February 9, Unsung: Unknown Tales of American Slavery and Abolition (Penguin Random House, $ 22), a collection of excerpts from more than 50 first-person accounts of life in the south of the antebellum African American narrated were those who were enslaved and those who were born free.

It is the first in a series of books planned from the archives of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library System. The foreword was written by former Emory University professor and poet Kevin Young, director of the center. The collection, edited by Michelle Commander, is divided into sections that contain accounts of slave revolts and rioting, black abolitionist activities, slave flight, literary arts, and the beginning of freedom.

A good place to start is with the heartbreaking excerpt from “Run a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. “It was written by William Craft in 1860 and tells the incredible story of the couple’s daring trick of fleeing a Macon plantation in 1848.

With William’s help, Ellen, who was fair-skinned, cut off her hair and wore men’s clothing. She posed as a white man traveling with a slave who was actually her husband. With Ellen’s face in an envelope to discourage the conversation and her right hand in a sling to keep her from having to sign anything (she couldn’t write), they took a detour on multiple trains and steamers to freedom Massachusetts. The trick was a success, and the artisans were inducted into Boston’s Black Society, where they became active abolitionists.

The excerpt shows the stakes and contains terrifying reports of punishments routinely distributed to runaway slaves who have been caught. “Nothing seems to give slave owners so much pleasure as catching and torturing refugees,” writes Craft.

Also of note is an excerpt from “A Hairdresser’s Experience in High Life,” an 1859 report by Eliza Potter, a freeborn woman of mixed race who worked as a hairdresser for wealthy white women. The position gave her rare access to social and domestic events in prominent white society. Her intimate tone is reminiscent of a visit to her own chatty hairdresser, but Potter’s stories include disgusting accounts of elderly enslaved women who have worked to the bone and plantation owners too poor to feed or clothe their slaves, however during which one great prosperity showed winter opera in New Orleans.

Her stories include one of a bank clerk who marries a black woman after he persuades a doctor to “transfer some of her blood into his veins and then go to court and swear it stained blood in himself “. In another, she tells how an elderly enslaved woman who is routinely abused by her lover happens to meet her long-lost daughter. Their daughter is a free woman, and when the news of their reunification breaks, the entire community gathers to raise enough money for the woman to buy her mother’s freedom.

Just like the stories you hear in the hair salon, you have no way of knowing which of Porter’s stories are true and which have been embellished over time. But that’s not really the point. The stories we tell each other, regardless of their accuracy, often reveal a greater truth about the reality of our experience than simple facts.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. [email protected]

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