WPA Slave Narratives – When Slaves Learned They Were Free, Part 2: Bottom Rail on Top

This is Part 2 of the blog posts (click for Part 1) exploring interesting accounts of ex-slaves relating the story of how they learned they were free found in the WPA Slave Narratives.

The following excerpt is from Mary Ella Grandberry, a former slave living in Sheffield, Alabama. She and her family had been slaves of a bachelor slaveholder in nearby Barton, Alabama, who owned over a hundred slaves. Her account is notable for her claim that Union troops that occupied the plantation for a time, which was near the Tennessee River, forced the whites that remained during the occupation to make meals for the slaves and also to serve them. The soldiers seem to have taken this step to humble local whites. Truly, an example of the bottom rail on top.

‘De war come when I was a big gal. I ‘member dat uncle an’cousin jined in wid de Yankees to hope fight for de freedom De Yankees come to our place an’ runned Massa Jim away an’ tuk de house for a horsepittil. Dey tuk all of Massa Jim’s clothes an’ gived dem to some of dere frien’s. Dey burned up all de cotton, hay, peas an’ ever’thing dat was in de barns. Dey made de white folks cook for de colored an’ den serve ‘em while dey et. De Yankees made ’em do for us lak we done for dem. Dey showed de white folks what it was to work for somebody else. Dey stayed on our place for de longes’. When dey did leave, dere warn’t a mouthful to eat in de house. When de war was over, Massa Jim told usdat we had to find som’ers else to live. Co’se some of my folks had already gone when he come home. Us lef’ Massa Jim’s an’ moved to anudder farm. We got pay for de wuk what we did on dis yuther place. Raght atter de war de Ku Klux got atter de colored folks.

WPA Slave Narratives, Vol. 1, Alabama Narratives, pp. 162-63.

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WPA Slave Narratives – When Slaves Learned They Were Free, Part 1: “Root, Pig, or Die.”

The WPA Slave Narratives, the folk history accounts produced from interviews with surviving ex-slaves in the late 1930s, contain numerous accounts of former slaves telling about the moment they learned they were free.

The following account from this source is an extract from Siney Bonner, an ex-slave living in Birmingham, Alabama, produced around May 1937. Bonner had been a young woman living on a plantation near Pickensville, Alabama, on the Tombigbee River, which at its confluence with the Alabama River combined to become the Mobile River.

Bonner turned fifteen years old around the time the Civil War ended making her approximately eighty-seven years old at the time of the interview. Sometime around “the surrender,” Bonner says her owner, John Bonner, called his slaves together to give them the news of their freedom. She relates:

“Massa John call all de niggers on de plantation ’round him at de big house and he say to ‘em ‘Now, you all Jest free as I is. I ain’t your marster no mo’. I’se tried to be good to you and take keer of all of you. You is all welcome to stay and we’ll wuk togedder and make a livin somehow. Ef you don’ want to stay, dem dat go will have to root, pig, or die’. Some stayed some lef. My daddy stayed wid Marse John till he was called home to glory. Now dey all gone but Siney, and I’se jes’ here, waitin’ for ‘em to call me.”

WPA Slave Narratives, Vol. 1, Alabama Narratives, pp. 40-41

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My thoughts on the first anniversary of the Capitol Riot

January 6, 2021, for me, is now one of those where were you and what were you doing when it was happening events.

As an online-based professor, I was working at home as usual. I had the TV on, muted, in my home office as I sometimes do (it makes me feel less isolated). I was probably watching MSNBC or CNN and I ended up seeing the entire Capitol riot live.

I also was exchanging email messages almost in real-time with a former colleague and good friend. The guy was buried in his campus office getting ready for another in-person pandemic semester. He initially refused to believe my description of what I was watching, and I kept writing back “Get to a TV or find an Internet news feed.”

Like 9/11, it was that unbelievable. And like 9/11, I had the television on, mostly with sound (I still had to get my work done) and knowing I was seeing something as unprecedented as it was horrible.
If American democracy dies, that will be the day we all learned it had a terminal disease. A group of deluded zealots whipped up by a political adventurer and hustler tried through force to derail the results of a fair election and block the peaceful transfer of power.

Ultimately, they failed–this time. But the patient is still gravely ill and their survival is still uncertain. And if we survive will be incumbent on whether all those persons responsible for the Capitol riot are held accountable

That is where we stand at the moment. I now know something of how people in the North must have felt during the Civil War, wondering if the Union would yet endure. Hopefully, this nation doesn’t experience another civil war. But at the very least we have been for some time (since the 1990s at least) engaged in a cold war with each other, that flashes hot from time to time. And we wonder uneasily (to put it mildly) where history is taking us.

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Sesquicentennial of Juneteenth

Galveston, Texas, June 19, 1865

General Orders
No. 3

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a Proclamation from the
Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality
of rights, and rights of property between former master and slaves and the connec-
tion heretofore existing between them becomes that of employer and free laborer.
The freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They
are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at Military Posts, and that they
will not be supported in idleness, there or elsewhere.

by Order of G. Granger, Major General Commanding
F.W. Emory, Major and A.A. Gen’l

Today is the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the name that has become associated with the liberation of slaves in Texas at the end of the Civil War. Texas, as the western-most state of the Confederacy, was largely spared the presence of federal troops until the end of the war. Indeed, it became a common practice of slaveholders from outside Texas to “refugee” their slaves there in an ultimately vain effort to prevent their liberation.

Remembering this event would be of little importance outside of Texas except that in recent decades June 19 has become something an unofficial date to remember and celebrate nationwide the end of slavery in the United States. Why exactly, I am frankly not sure. But in essence, it is appropriate because Juneteenth represents an ad hoc commemoration of what was a largely ad hoc event. That is, while there are numerous milestones during the Civil War in slavery’s demise, for most slaves their liberation, that is the moment when they could finally effectively be free in practice, occurred incrementally throughout the war and its aftermath. Indeed, stories abound (likely apocryphal) of slaveholders on isolated plantations trying to keep the news of the end of slavery from their chattel.

But it is important to remember that even the liberation of slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865 that slavery was not completely dead yet in the United States, legally or practically. Legally, slavery had still not ended yet in Kentucky or Delaware which, thanks to their status as loyal slave states, were exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation (which interestingly was the authority cited by Union occupation authorities in Texas in June 1865 to order freedom for the state’s slaves). Kentucky slaveholders in particular, many Unionists, stubbornly held on to their human property in the belief that their loyalty during the war should somehow exempt them from any sort of emancipation. Indeed, slavery in those two states would not come to an end until final ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.

So while Juneteenth is a convenient day to celebrate the end of slavery in the United States, it is important to recognize that nearly any day of the year would be equally appropriate. An important reason for this fact is that African Americans played an active role in their own liberation. While the so-called “self-emancipation” thesis can be rejected as overly simplistic, and even many of the scholars identified with it are not so simple-minded as to believe the slaves brought down slavery all by themselves, it is equally naive to believe slavery ended by the fiat of some governmental authority, whether it be Abraham Lincoln or Gen. Gordon Granger, who issued the now famous General Order No. 3, enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation in Texas. Emancipation was a process, in which many slaves were prime movers in their own liberation, whether it be by fleeing to Union lines, joining the federal army, giving information to Union troops, working more slowly in the fields, or in myriad other ways. In that process, the Union Army, northern politicians, humanitarians, etc. also played notable roles.

So celebrate emancipation on Juneteenth. But feel free to celebrate it any other day, and in any fashion you feel appropriate. And honor the spirit of emancipation in your daily lives, for that is the most meaningful way of all to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

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General Order No. 3

Happy 150th Juneteenth!

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Powerful Images of Ex-Slaves


Ex-slave Bob Lemmons, Carrizo Springs, Texas, c. 1936. Photographed by Dorothea Lange. Source: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998021797/PP/

Probably the most famous source on slavery from the slaves’ viewpoint is the WPA Slave Narratives, compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration from 1936 to 1938 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to provide relief during the Great Depression. Folklorists working for the WPA interviewed surviving ex-slaves across the southern United States, assembling a collection of over 2,000 narratives (now available online). Although the narratives are problematic because they occurred in Jim Crow South, which made some former slaves less than candid with their often white interviewers, and the advanced old age of the persons’ interviewed (most were in their 80s or 90s), which left their memories sometimes hazy, and the fact the narratives were rarely a verbatim account of ex-slaves’ comments (but usually instead a filtered summary produced by the folklorist), the WPA Slave Narratives still are a powerful window into slaves’ experiences with and their perception of the peculiar institution.

This past Thursday, the Washington Post published a photo essay of portraits of ex-slaves interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s. It is a moving collection of images of former bonds people in the twilight of their lives. Some of the government photographers that took these images became famous for their work. For example, the portrait above of Bob Lemmons was shot by Dorothea Lange, best known for another picture entitled “Migrant Mother.” This image and those featured in the Post article are now in the collections of the Library of Congress, and many of them can be viewed via their website.

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April 3, 1865: The Liberation of Richmond

Brooks Simpson at Crossroads reminds us that Richmond’s fall was also a significant moment in emancipation of slaves in the Civil War, especially as the main Union troops to enter the city first were African Americans of the U.S. Colored Troops.


On April 3, 1865, United States soldiers, most of them African Americans. entered what had been the capital of the Confederacy, freeing what had been Richmond’s enslaved population. Although there were other days in the war when more people were declared free by proclamation, legislation, or constitutional amendment, this day 150 years ago freed a great many human beings, although the entrance of US forces into Charleston, South Carolina, again spearheaded by black soldiers, secured the freedom of another large number of human beings.

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Too Little, Too Late: The Confederacy Approves Black Recruitment


An artist in Harper’s Weekly (November 25, 1864) humorously imagining what would have happened had the Confederates actually sent black soldiers into the field.


Recently, the legend of black Confederate soldiers was revived by an article in The Root by John Stauffer. Stauffer’s piece had a few defenders, but many more detractors. Yet like a Hollywood super villain, Stauffer did prove that the notion that substantial numbers of African Americans served under arms for the Confederacy refuses to die in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. And there is plenty of evidence in that regard.

One of the most potent facts that rules against the existence of large numbers of black Confederate soldiers was an event that occurred 150 years ago today. On March 13, 1865, the Confederate Congress in Richmond passed a law authorizing the recruitment of African Americans into the Confederate Army. The law’s text began.

That, in order to provide additional forces to repel invasion, maintain the rightful possession of the Confederate States, secure their independence, and preserve their institutions, the President be, and he is hereby, authorized to ask for and accept from the owners of slaves, the services of such number of able-bodied negro men as he may deem expedient, for and during the war, to perform military service in whatever capacity he may direct.

If there were already substantial numbers of black Confederate soldiers under arms, why was the Confederate Congress passing a bill to authorize their recruitment? The timing of the law also is interesting. It came only a few weeks before the fall of Richmond and the final collapse of the Confederacy. Clearly, given that the preservation of slavery had been at the heart of southern secession in 1860-61, it took the Confederacy being in extremis for its national legislature to pass a law so contrary to its reason for being.

For the service of black men in the Confederate Army would call into question the very basis of the Confederacy in the most fundamental way. As rebel leaders debated the idea of black recruitment in early 1865, Howell Cobb, a founding father of the Confederacy, and at the time a major general in its army, put the matter eloquently in a letter the Confederate Secretary of War, James A. Seddon. He wrote:

The proposition to make soldiers of our slaves is the most pernicious idea that has been suggested since the war began. It is to me a source of deep mortification and regret to see the name of that good and great man and soldier, General R. E. Lee, given as authority for such a policy. My first hour of despondency will be the one in which that policy shall be adopted. You cannot make soldiers of slaves, nor slaves of soldiers. The moment you resort to negro [sic.] soldiers your white soldiers will be lost to you; and one secret of the favor With which the proposition is received in portions of the Army is the hope that when negroes go into the Army they will be permitted to retire. It is simply a proposition to fight the balance of the war with negro troops. You can’t keep white and black troops together, and you can’t trust negroes by themselves. It is difficult to get negroes enough for the purpose indicated in the President’s message, much less enough for an Army. Use all the negroes you can get, for all the purposes for which you need them, but don’t arm them. The day you make soldiers of them is the beginning of the end of the revolution. If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.

The last sentence was the most telling: “If slaves make good soldiers our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Of course, black Union soldiers had been proving exactly that point by their service since 1862. But Cobb was correct in the sense that for the Confederacy to recruit black men into its ranks was to call into question the entire Confederate project. That Howell Cobb by early 1865, was among the dwindling opponents of this idea speaks to the rapidly rising desperation of Confederate leaders in the last months of the war, and their readiness to resort to desperate measures to stave off final defeat.

Still, it is telling that even as they authorized black recruitment into the Confederate Army, the Congress in Richmond sought to make sure it would not threaten slavery. First, it limited recruitment to no more than 25 percent of the male slave population of military age in each state. Second, it did not promise freedom to black men that might enlist, leaving that decision to states and individual owners.

Given that the law made no provisions of freedom for slaves that enlisted, of course, it called into question why any slave would be motivated to serve unless forced to? And gave them every incentive to desert to Union forces at the first opportunity (see the image above). Hence, the March 13 law was an exercise in fantasy. The army administration was not able to draw up an order to implement the legislation until March 25, and on April 1, Lee’s lines in front of Petersburg finally collapsed and Confederate forces had to evacuate nearby Richmond the following day. On April 3, Union forces entered and took control of the city. The final surrender of Lee’s army quickly followed, and the Confederacy soon thereafter unraveled.

While a handful of black soldiers might have been recruited in the week or so before Richmond’s final fall, no evidence exists that any of them ever made it to the front to shore up Robert E. Lee’s crumbling defenses. The decision of the Confederate Congress to authorize their enlistment on March 13, 1865 was a classic case of “too little, too late.” But it does constitute potent evidence that no substantial numbers of African Americans ever served the Confederacy under arms during the Civil War.

Sources: 1) http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/csenlist.htm; 2) http://books.google.com/books?id=N48LAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA97&lpg=PA97&dq=%22howell+cobb%22+%22soldiers+of+slaves%22&source=bl&ots=kxO5xZwwr3&sig=HV6CCacydzUmjOpdEhjJ3uKR8rU&hl=en&ei=d8fETLXiB4G0lQfN9IEG&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=4&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=%22howell%20cobb%22%20%22soldiers%20of%20slaves%22&f=false

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Slavery Ends in Tennesee

Tennessee is an interesting case in the Civil War. While it seceded and joined the Confederacy in the second wave of secession that followed Lincoln’s call for volunteers after the assault on Fort Sumter, its mountainous eastern region, with relatively few slaves, remained staunchly Unionist, and Andrew Johnson, who came from that area, refused to resign his U.S. Senate seat and would go on to serve as the state’s Unionist military governor, be elected Vice President of the United States in November 1864, and become President after Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865.

Andrew Johnson served as the anchor of Lincoln’s efforts to reconstruct the state during the war itself. That such a reconstruction could occur was all the more amazing since Tennessee was a battleground throughout the Civil War. With a number of highly strategic rivers (Cumberland, Mississippi, and Tennessee) touching its shores, natural invasion routes to the Deep South, the State of Tennessee became a natural location for Union and Confederate forces to clash over the course of the war. U.S. Grant would make his reputation in the state as a winning general taking Forts Henry and Donelson, before nearly losing it with a sanguinary victory at Shiloh in April 1862. Union forces would go on to capture Nashville and Memphis before year’s end, ironically leaving Unionist East Tennessee the only region of the state in the hands of the Confederacy. Union forces would challenge that control, only to be repulsed at Chickamauga in September 1863, retreating and being more-or-less besieged in Chattanooga, until U.S. Grant, fresh from his triumph at Vicksburg in Mississippi would return and drive the rebels from the state. The Confederates would belatedly return in Fall 1864, when John Bell Hood, in command of the rebel Army of Tennessee, after having been driven from Atlanta by William Tecumseh Sherman, tried to lure Sherman out of Georgia by invading Tennessee. Not to be sidetracked in his plans to march from Atlanta to the Atlantic Ocean, Sherman detailed part of his enormous force under George Thomas, to stop Hood, which Thomas did in two battles at Franklin and Nashville, where in the later engagement the Army of Tennessee was all but destroyed. With his victory at Nashville, Thomas secured Tennessee for the Union for all time.

Tennessee also had been the site of April 1864’s Fort Pillow Massacre, in which Confederate cavalry raiding the state under Nathan Bedford Forrest had overwhelmed a small garrison of African Americans and white Unionists manning an obscure fortification on the Mississippi River, and then slaughtered most of the black defenders, many after they tried to surrender.

Slavery in Tennessee, with its stronghold in the Mississippi Valley was undermined by the Union occupation of that region and Middle Tennessee, even though Abraham Lincoln, in an effort to bolster the state’s Unionists, exempted Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation. Seeing the hand-writing on the wall for slavery and with political ambitions beyond Tennessee, Andrew Johnson would call for “immediate” emancipation in Tennessee in late August 1863, although foreseeing a two-year legislative process to bring the peculiar institution to a final end in the state. Under pressure from Lincoln, who saw Tennessee as a test case for his administration’s ability to restore loyal state governments in South, and who by then believed slavery had to be eliminated as it was the root cause of secession, encouraged Johnson to speed up the process. So in January 1864, Johnson called a state constitutional convention to enact a reconstruction program for the state and require would-be voters to swear their support for an end to slavery in order to obtain suffrage. The convention was not held until a year later, after Johnson had been elected as Lincoln’s Vice President, and Tennessee voters approved the new state constitution in a vote on February 22, 1865, which included abolishing slavery. Tennessee became the third slave state and the first of the seceded states to end slavery on its own before the final ratification of the 13th Amendment. (Tennessee would ratify the 13th Amendment on April 5, 1865, the day the new state government took office.)

Source: Allen Carden, Freedom’s Delay: America’s Struggle for Emancipation, 1776-1865 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014), 280-81.

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The Myth of Black Confederates. Enough Already.

Freaking Out

I try in this blog to stick to its topic—the coming of freedom for the slaves in the American Civil War. Admittedly, I occasionally write on other subjects because I feel the compulsion to share my thoughts on them. I’ve written on the Civil War in Arizona (where I live). I’ve defended online higher education (where I work). And I’ve reviewed the new 9/11 Museum in New York City (which I visited last summer). But I’ve made a point of mainly discussing events in the history of emancipation in American Civil War, especially as their turn has come around in the sesquicentennial.

I have particularly avoided the recurrent hot button topics that dominate the Civil War blogosphere these days, especially the activities and misadventures of contemporary Neo-Confederates (the so-called “Southern Heritage Community”), and whether and to what degree African Americans served under arms in the Confederate Army. I happily leave that subject matter to fine bloggers like Brooks Simpson at Crossroads, Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory, Andy Hall at Dead Confederates, and (more recently) Megan Kate Nelson at Historista, (who has single handedly turned “freaking out” into a Civil War blogger meme), as well as an assortment of other blogs and bloggers that I keep an eye on.

Admittedly, I have dabbled in the black Confederate issue a few times in this blog (see herehere, here, and here) when it had some relevance to emancipation in the Civil War, especially nearer the start of the sesquicentennial in remembering possible informal black participation the early battles of the conflict. That is, before either army had a chance to formalize fully its rules and organizational arrangements, it appears there might have been some leeway for the unofficial participation of a few African Americans under arms for the Confederacy (and the Union). Still, one needs to be skeptical of such accounts as they were often second-hand or worse before they entered print, and anyone with any experience in mid-19th century newspapers and public records understands that such sources were less reliably factually than they are regarded today (especially the newspapers, which during the Civil War were still largely the creatures of political organizations and operated more for advocacy than the objective reporting of facts).

Certainly, there are enough snippets of blacks under arms for Confederacy early in the Civil War (and later on) that it is hard to dismiss them outright. As in any human social system, Civil War armies included, weird exceptions might appear, although given the nature of nineteenth-century sources it is always hard to take them at face value. Did some African Americans ever serve under arms for the Confederacy? It cannot be ruled out completely, but if so they were the exceptions that proved the rule that white Southern ideology was dead set against arming black men for service in the Confederate Army. It went against the white supremacy that was the raison d’etre of the Confederacy. Certainly, there were individual advocates for the idea of armed black Confederate solders early in the conflict, as I have discussed, and Patrick Cleburne’s famous January 1864 proposal. But if there were significant numbers of African Americans under Confederate arms by early 1864, why is Cleburne making a proposal to open the army to them and why doesn’t he cite these existing black Confederate soldiers in making his case for African-American troops in the Army of Tennessee? And why was there a heated debate about black enlistment in the Confederate Congress in the dying weeks of the Confederacy, when some white Southerners evidently overcame their prejudices just enough to approve the idea as a last desperate measure to stave off final defeat?

In any case, the question scholars should be asking is why this issue cannot be put to rest? To use Megan Kate Nelson’s meme, why are scholarly bloggers on the American Civil War repeatedly condemned to “freak out” from time to time over black Confederates? Why can provocateurs like John Stauffer use the issue (repeatedly) to draw attention to themselves? Why has this myth that substantial numbers of African Americans fought for the Confederacy gained such cultural power in the early 21st-century United States? Why are responsible scholars unable to say, “Enough already” and move on to more productive issues? And if we cannot say “enough already” why can’t we shift the debate to analyzing the cultural power of the myth? Much the same way professional historians refused to enter the morass of who shot John F. Kennedy, but instead analyzed the cultural power of the various conspiracy theories. That is the modest proposal this scholar and blogger would like to make regarding “black Confederates” since it is obvious that the power to suppress this myth is beyond academia’s power. So maybe we need to be asking why it has that power? And not freak out. Enough already.

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