“the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their” – The Spotswood Rice Letters

150 years ago this week, on September 3, 1864, a Missouri slave in the Union Army, wrote two of the most interesting surviving letters related to emancipation in the Civil War. The author of the letters was Spotswood Rice, a literate tobacco roller from Glasgow, Missouri, who had joined the Union Army in his forties. He had plenty of time to write letters in early September 1864, as he was hospitalized at Benton Barracks in St. Louis fighting a serious leg infection.

Although in St. Louis, Rice’s mind at that moment was without a doubt back home in Glasgow, a Missouri River town roughly half-way between St. Louis and Kansas City. In the Upper South, plantation units were smaller than in the Cotton South, and many slaves, like Rice himself, more often had family members scattered across different owners. Just as other slave parents in such circumstances, his parental role with his children was subject to interference from their owners, and his first letter to his daughters was clearly an attempt to assert fatherly care and authority despite the owner’s power over them. Rice wrote:

My Children   I take my pen in hand to rite you A few lines to let you know that I have not forgot you and that I want to see you as bad as ever   now my Dear Children I want you to be contented with whatever may be your lots   be assured that I will have you if it cost me my life   on the 28th of the mounth. 8 hundred White and 8 hundred blacke solders expects to start up the rivore to Glasgow and above there thats to be jeneraled by a jeneral that will give me both of you   when they Come I expect to be with, them and expect to get you both in return. Dont be uneasy my children   I expect to have you. If Diggs dont give you up this Government will and I feel confident that I will get you   Your Miss Kaitty said that I tried to steal you   But I’ll let her know that god never intended for man to steal his own flesh and blood. If I had no cofidence in God I could have confidence in her   But as it is If I ever had any Confidence in her I have none now and never expect to have   And I want her to remember if she meets me with ten thousand soldiers she [will?] meet her enemy   I once [thought] that I had some respect for them but now my respects is worn out and have no sympathy for Slaveholders. And as for her cristianantty I expect the Devil has Such in hell   You tell her from me that She is the frist Christian that I ever hard say that aman could Steal his own child especially out of human bondage

You can tell her that She can hold to you as long as she can   I never would expect to ask her again to let you come to me because I know that the devil has got her hot set againsts that that is write   now my Dear children I am a going to close my letter to you   Give my love to all enquiring friends   tell them all that we are well and want to see them very much and Corra and Mary receive the greater part of it you sefves and dont think hard of us not sending you any thing   I you father have a plenty for you when I see you   Spott & Noah sends their love to both of you   Oh! My Dear children how I do want to see you

Clearly from the letter, Spotswood Rice had been made previous efforts to reunite his daughters with the rest of the family, which had been thwarted by their owner, Kitty Diggs, who refused to sell them. His letter was meant to reassure of his fatherly love and his efforts to reunite them with their family were continuing.

The reason we have Rice’s tart words speaking down to us across 150 years was that the letter above and the one that follows were intercepted by Diggs, an unmarried woman, who passed them on to her male protector, her brother, who obviously outraged by what he saw as Rice’s insolence, complained to the Union Army since Rice was a soldier, where the letters got caught up and preserved by the military bureaucracy until they were rediscovered by researchers of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland.

While the first letter was from the Diggs’ perspective bad enough, the second letter, written from Rice to Kitty Diggs personally, was even more incendiary. He wrote:

I received a leteter from Cariline telling me that you say I tried to steal to plunder my child away from you   now I want you to understand that mary is my Child and she is a God given rite of my own and you may hold on to hear as long as you can but I want you to remembor this one thing that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their   for we are now makeing up a bout one thoughsand blacke troops to Come up tharough and wont to come through Glasgow and when we come wo be to Copperhood rabbels and to the Slaveholding rebbels for we dont expect to leave them there root neor branch   but we thinke how ever that we that have Children in the hands of you devels we will trie your [vertues?] the day that we enter Glasgow   I want you to understand kittey diggs that where ever you and I meets we are enmays to each orthere   I offered once to pay you forty dollers for my own Child but I am glad now that you did not accept it   Just hold on now as long as you can and the worse it will be for you   you never in you life befor I came down hear did you give Children any thing not eny thing whatever not even a dollers worth of expencs   now you call my children your pro[per]ty   not so with me   my Children is my own and I expect to get them and when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child   you will then know how to talke to me   I will assure that and you will know how to talk rite too   I want you now to just hold on to hear if you want to   iff your conchosence tells thats the road go that road and what it will brig you to kittey diggs   I have no fears about geting mary out of your hands   this whole Government gives chear to me and you cannot help your self

While Spotswood Rice was misguided in his belief that the Union Army would launch a military expedition to free his daughters from slavery, as Missouri was a loyal slave state (slavery would end in the state on January 11, 1865, by executive proclamation), it says something about the progress of emancipation by Fall 1864 that Rice would write such a letter. Clearly, he would not have written it before the Civil War or early in the conflict when the Lincoln administration sought to reassure loyal slaveholders that their human property was secure even as the President sought to encourage gradual compensated emancipation in states like Missouri. Yet it also says something about Rice’s personality. He was clearly a leader as his postwar career as an AME minister in the West testifies (he died in Colorado in 1907). And Rice was courageous, for even in 1864, it must have taken a great deal of moxie to for a black man to write his daughter’s owner, “that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their.” Among other emotional comments. As a parent myself I understand his feelings much better than I once did. There are people I encounter in my study of history that I would dearly like to meet. Spotswood Rice is one of them.

Source: http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/rice.htm

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“It is my desire to be free”


Source: http://blogs.archives.gov/prologue/wp-content/uploads/Annie-Davis-letter.jpg

Recently, Brooks Simpson over at Crossroads has made a series of highly worthwhile posts on the historical controversy about whether Abraham Lincoln, in August 1864, with the war going poorly and facing the distinct possibility of not being re-elected in November, considered abandoning emancipation as a means of stemming his growing unpopularity. The idea has a certain plausibility because things were looking quite bad for the Union in August 1864. Sherman’s army was stuck outside of Atlanta and Grant was similarly stuck outside Petersburg, Virginia. The war appeared in stalemate, which politically hurt Lincoln. However, Simpson on Crossroads discredits the notion that Lincoln seriously considered backing down on his commitment to freedom for the slaves. The posts can be found here, here, and here. In any case, the military and political crisis facing Lincoln lifted in the early days of September, when Atlanta finally fell to Sherman. Abraham Lincoln’s popularity and electoral prospects subsequently rose, and any incentive he had to abandon emancipation vanished.

Yet it seems to be the case that until the fall of Atlanta, there was definite uncertainty about whether the war would end slavery once and for all. Despite all the slaves that had escaped to Union lines or effectively freed by the federal occupation of where they lived, most slaves in the South in August 1864 were still in a state of bondage. If Lincoln had lost the election in November 1864, even if the Democratic candidate, George McClellan, managed to restore the South to the Union, he no doubt would have rescinded the Emancipation Proclamation or let it be eviscerated in the courts. Likely, many escaped slaves would have kept their freedom, as had occurred in similar circumstances in the Revolutionary War, and the ultimate survival of the peculiar institution still called into question, but in a surviving and independent Confederacy with slavery’s existence as its reason for being, no doubt slavery would have continued for many decades more if not forever.

Another interesting “what if” question in this regard was the future of slavery in the remaining loyal slaves: Maryland, Missouri, Kentucky, and Delaware. They were exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation, but especially for Maryland, the presence of federal troops and enlistment of African Americans into the Union Army had dealt slavery there a grievous blow. Yet even in Maryland in August 1864, uncertainty still existed over slavery’s survival, especially among the slaves, who had the biggest stake in the matter.

This uncertainty can be seen in the letter of a Maryland slave to President Lincoln. Annie Davis, from Bel Air, Maryland, northeast of Baltimore, on August 25, 1864, wrote simply:

Mr president    It is my Desire to be free. to go to see my people on the eastern shore.  my mistress wont let me    you will please let me know if we are free. and what i can do.  I write to you for advice.  please send me word this week. or as soon as possible and oblidge.

No doubt, Davis had heard of the Emancipation Proclamation and seen slaves gaining their freedom around her in the tumult of wartime Maryland. But her owner stubbornly hung on to her. While in retrospect, it is clear that legally in August 1864 that Annie Davis was still a slave. She was exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation and Maryland would not free its slaves until it enacted a new state constitution three months later in November. Hopefully, soon after Davis was united with her family across Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore. But given the uncertainty about the war’s outcome at the time she wrote Lincoln and the uncertainty about slavery’s viability in Maryland in August 1864, her confusion is understandable.

Source: http://www.freedmen.umd.edu/adavis.htm

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9/11 Memorial and Museum


Your humble blogger at the 9/11 Memorial (North Tower pool) on Tuesday, July 22, 2014. The 9/11 Museum is in the far background behind the trees.

Every now and then I devote this blog to an off-topic post. This post will be one of them.

This past Sunday, I caught a plane to John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. I was invited to speak on black Union soldiers at the New York Historical Society’s NEH Teachers’ Institute, “Race and Politics in the Civil War,” which will be soon wrapping up. This institute has brought together about thirty K-12 teachers from across the United States. Monday morning, I lectured them on the history of black soldiers. In the afternoon, we watched the movie, Glory, and then Yohuru Williams of Fairfield University and I led a discussion of the film. My thanks to New York Historical Society, especially Mia Nagawiecki, for the invitation to participate. It was a great day.

Before I flew home late Tuesday afternoon, I squeezed in a morning visit to Lower Manhattan to see the 9/11 Memorial and new 9/11 Museum. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, long have been a matter of personal interest to me. What the Kennedy assassination was to my parent’s generation, 9/11 is to mine. I will leave it to future historians to judge better the historical significance of this event, but I will remember for the rest of my life that day, where I was, what I was doing, and the events that followed. Since then, I’ve become something of student of the event, reading many of the better books, watching most of the television documentaries, and even studying the raw video of the event gathered by NIST and posted on the web. I am definitely not a 9/11 “Truther.” I believe the attacks were perpetrated by Al Qaeda and caught the U.S. flat-footed. If one is looking for U.S. government conspiracies it is more profitable to examine how certain government officials exploited the attacks to pursue agendas formulated well before the attacks than to make fantastical claims about the attacks themselves.

I also have followed the fate of the World Trade Center site, its redevelopment, and the political battles over that issue and the memorialization of the attacks with personal and professional interest. So I made an effort to get down to Lower Manhattan and make a personal visit before I left town.

The memorial itself is nicely done, although perhaps lacking the simple raw impact of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., which has proved the dominant influence in memorialization for a generation or more. Like the Vietnam memorial the names of the dead are featured. They are etched into panels around the perimeter of where the North and South towers of the World Trade Center once stood. Behind them, in the footprint of each tower is water cascading downward along the perimeter into a pool at the bottom.


Names are grouped with attention given to where people were during the attack and any significant affiliations, such fire, police, etc. For example, the names immediately behind me in the photograph below are victims of American 11, the plane that struck the North tower at 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001. I noticed later that the name immediately to my right was Berry Berenson Perkins, the widow of Tony Perkins (best known as Norman Bates in the Psycho films). She was one of the few victims of the attack I had heard of before 9/11 because she and Tony Perkins’ children understandably were mentioned when he died, and she had had a career in Hollywood films, although not quite as prominent as her husband. It was kind of neat I ended up by her name even though I made no effort whatsoever and did not notice it had happened until later.


The waterfalls along the perimeter of the towers’ footprints are a nice way of emphasizing their absence in a touching but non-maudlin fashion. Personally, I wouldn’t have minded some element of the temporary  so-called “Tribute in Light” memorials that were mounted in the months and years following the attacks, in the permanent memorial, but since that memorialization technique only works at night and with the completion of One World Trade center there is now again an ultra tall building to anchor Lower Manhattan, so not including search lights pointing up in the sky in the permanent memorial was probably a good decision. The waterfall and the trees surrounding the footprint also give the memorial a nice peaceful, almost garden-like quality. I had a friend on Facebook describe the 9/11 Memorial as “tasteful” and I’m inclined to agree. It won’t become quite the seminal memorial like the Vietnam Memorial, but given the bitter political battles over the memorialization of what is sometimes still called “Ground Zero” the outcome is nicely satisfactory, if not stunningly successful.


I also had an opportunity to visit the new 9/11 Museum. My curiosity to see what was inside overcame my revulsion at the $24 general admission fee. To be fair, the museum offers free admission on Tuesday evenings, but I still wonder if the admission fee needed to be quite that expensive? I realize building the museum and memorial, and operating them are expensive, but there are world-class museums like the Smithsonian facilities in Washington, D.C., that charge no admission whatsoever.

It is obvious that the visitors’ experience a the 9/11 Museum has been, for the most part, crafted with great care. Although it is possible to wander the museum at random, if you are so inclined, the exhibits lead patrons steadily downward from the entrance at ground level to the bottom of the concrete “bathtub” that was built for the Twin Towers in the 1960s to keep out water from the Hudson River. The exhibition is split into two basic parts. Most of the descent and an open area at the bottom of the museum generally contain large objects, such damaged fire trucks, and surviving elements of the Twin Towers, like twisted steel beams, that can be photographed. But at the bottom level there is in essence a closed in and regulated area, which contains much more compact and concentrated exhibits where photography is prohibited. The justification for this prohibition isn’t explained, but the controlled area uses lighting and sound much more intensively than the open area, which is generally fully lit, and my guess is that photographs in the controlled area would require flash, which would be a distraction and block the flow of people. Indeed, in this controlled area, the visitor is much more saturated with light and sound aimed at shaping the visitors’ perception of the exhibits. Indeed, the entire museum has been obviously carefully organized at every turn to influence the perception of visitors’ in an effort to communicate something of the atmosphere of September 11, 2001, in not only New York City, but also other important places in the attacks, such as the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the crash site of United 93 in rural Pennsylvania. As a student of 9/11, I am familiar with most of the images, sound, and media used, but to people with little or no previous knowledge, especially in the controlled area, the experience must be intense. Indeed, despite my previous knowledge of the event, the images and artifacts, and my attempt at a detached and professional perception of the museum, I still came away from the 9/11 Museum emotionally effected, leaving the building with a profound sense of sadness.

So, in general, the 9/11 Museum is well done. A notable exception is the film being shown to visitors in the upstairs auditorium. The film basically is 15 minutes of George Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Rudolph Giuliani, and George Pataki sharing an abbreviated version of their by now well-known and self-serving 9/11 memories. I’m sure some people are learning for the first time what these politicians associated with the event have to say for themselves, but the film misses a golden opportunity to provide needed historical context to the event and to share the experiences of ordinary people on that day. No doubt it was politically sensitive what would be shown in the auditorium, but this film is a missed opportunity and the biggest disappointment of an otherwise well-executed museum experience.

So the 9/11 Memorial and 9/11 Museum are both worth the visit, if perhaps not worth the $24 admission to enter the museum. I will be curious to see how the memorial and the museum evolve over time, especially as 9/11 becomes an ever more distant memory and perceptions of its significance are influenced by future events. But for now, it will join the pantheon of must see historical museums in the United States.

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Frederick Douglass: What to the Slave is the Fourth of July? (Repost)

My all-time favorite Frederick Douglass speech is “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass delivered this address in Rochester, N.Y., on July 5, 1852. In it, Douglass attacked the hypocrisy of a holiday celebrating freedom when millions of Americans were slaves. The speech captures well Frederick Douglass’ oratorical genius. Over this holiday weekend, please take the time to listen to an excerpt of the speech read by the great James Earl Jones.

To read the full text of Douglass’ speech, please <click here>. Have a happy and joyous 4th of July weekend! Don Shaffer

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End of the Fugitive Slave Law

June 28

Source: Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/images/s33a.1.jpg

Tomorrow, June 28, 2014, besides being the centennial of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, which precipitated World War I, is the sesquicentennial of an altogether happier event, the end of the Fugitive Slave Act, perhaps the vilest, most horrific law ever to be placed on the books in the United States.

The Fugitive Slave Act had been the linchpin of the Compromise of 1850, promising to make it easier for southern slaveholders to reclaim slaves that escaped into the free northern states. It was a revision of the earlier fugitive slave law pass by Congress in 1793, which white Southerners had found ineffective for that purpose. In the decades that followed this law many state legislatures in the North had passed “personal liberty laws”: statutes that sought to make it difficult for slave catchers to operate on northern soil. While the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Prigg vs. Pennsylvania (1844), ruled unconstitutional Pennsylvania’s personal liberty law, they also indicated that state authorities had no obligation to assist persons in northern states trying to reclaim slave property.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 aimed to address this deficiency, in part, not only by requiring state authorities to assist slave catchers, but also obligating private citizens upon a demand by federal authorities to do the same. A fine of $1,000 could be levied upon anyone who refused such assistance, and the same fine plus six months in jail was made the punishment for any person that assisted a fugitive slave in evading capture. Furthermore, any black person could be held as a fugitive slave simply upon the sworn testimony of a claimant, and their status would adjudicated in front of a federal magistrate that would paid twice as much money for hearing the case if they found in favor of the alleged slaveholder instead of the alleged slave (a purposely created conflict of interest to make magistrates favor slaveholders or slaves).

The law caused outrage among African Americans in the North, who justly feared the last mentioned provision made any black person there subject to enslavement on the basis of perjured testimony, even if they were not an escaped slaves. It also caused anger among white Northerners, not only abolitionists, but also other whites that resented being forced into slave catching posses and who feared the law’s passage as evidence of the growing influence of “Slave Power” in the national government. This outrage resulted in a new wave of personal liberty laws being passed in the North, seeking, with considerable success, to frustrate the implementation of this much hated 1850 law.

Despite the difficult in enforcing it, which left many white Southerners feeling cheated out their main supposed gain under the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 did result in the return of some escaped slaves, probably in the hundreds, from the North to renewed bondage in the South. It forced slaves that had made it out of the South to continue north to Canada, where they could finally be safe from capture and re-enslavement. The law remained on the books and continued to be utilized well into the Civil War, although its operation was curtailed because only loyal slaveholders could now make claims against the law, and law enforcement authorities and the the Union Army, often proved increasingly unable or unwilling to assist in returning slaves to bondage as the war wore on.

Nonetheless, when Congress repealed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in late June 1864, while the action by this point in the war was mostly symbolic, it was not empty symbolism. Slavery ultimately depended for its survival on government to provide the force to guarantee the power of slaveholders to enforce discipline on their property. In repealing the fugitive slave law, Congress was in essence telling slaveholders they would no longer enjoy the police power of the federal government in this endeavor. In doing so, they essentially removed an important pillar of the legitimacy of the peculiar institution paving the way for the final passage and ratification of the 13th amendment the following year, forever ending slavery in the United States.

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Juneteenth, History and Tradition

Happy Juneteenth! We are one year away from the sesquicentennial of the events that gave rise to this informal but significant day of commemoration. In the meantime enjoy Andy Hall’s take on Juneteenth, from over at his blog, Dead Confederates. And look forward to an original edition of my blog soon!

Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

[This post originally appeared here on June 19, 2010.]

“Emancipation” by Thomas Nast. Ohio State University.

Juneteenth has come again, and (quite rightly) the Galveston County Daily News, the paper that first published General Granger’s order that forms the basis for the holiday, has again called for the day to be recognized as a national holiday:

Those who are lobbying for a national holiday are not asking for a paid day off. They are asking for a commemorative day, like Flag Day on June 14 or Patriot Day on Sept. 11. All that would take is a presidential proclamation. Both the U.S. House and Senate have endorsed the idea.
Why is a national celebration for an event that occurred in Galveston and originally affected only those in a single state such a good idea?
Because Juneteenth has become a symbol of the end of…

View original post 1,399 more words

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Bottom Rail on Top or Whipping the Slaveholder

Civil War blogdom is busy these days chronicling the start of Ulysses S. Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign which would eventually bog down in the trenches in front of Petersburg. A side show related to Grant’s larger campaign was Benjamin Butler’s effort along the James River. Grant sought to overwhelm the Confederates in Spring 1864 by launching as many major thrusts as possible to take advantage of the massive and growing Union advantage in manpower by stretching rebel ranks so thin they would break. Butler’s Army of the James attempted to advance toward Richmond via the peninsula between the York and James River. It was the same area that had been the focus of George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign two years earlier. Grant did not expect Butler, a political general, to succeed where McClellan had failed and take Richmond. But he hoped the Army of the James could capture the Richmond and Petersburg Railway, a critical line of supply to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, or at the very least force Lee to divert troops from his main force facing Grant to save the rail link. It was a futile hope since Butler’s Army quickly got bottled up in the peninsula by 18,000 second-tier Confederate troops

Despite its miserable performance, which eventually cost Butler his command, the Army of James was notable for its extensive use of black Union troops. Indeed, an entire corps of the army, the 25th, was composed exclusively of African-American regiments. One of those regiments was the 1st U.S. Colored Infantry recruited in Washington, D.C., and nearby parts of Virginia. One of the men of this regiment was George W. Hatton, a sergeant and former slave. Hatton became a correspondent of The Christian Record, the voice of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In the May 28, 1864 issue, a revealing letter from Hatton appeared in the Recorder in which there was a significant reversal. He stated:

Mr. Editor: — You are aware that Wilson’s Landing is on the James river, a few miles above Jamestown, the very spot where the first sons of Africa were landed, in the year 1620, if my memory serves me right, and from that day up to the breaking out of the rebellion, was looked upon as an inferior race by all civilized nations. But behold what has been revealed in the past three or four years; why the colored men have ascended upon a platform of equality, and the slave can now apply the lash to the tender flesh of his master, for this day I am now an eye witness of the fact. The country being principally inhabited by wealthy farmers, there are a great many men in the regiment who are refugees from this place. While out on a foraging expedition we captured Mr. Clayton, a noted reb in this part of the country, and from his appearance, one of the F.P.V’s; on the day before we captured several colored women that belonged to Mr. C., who had given them a most unmerciful whipping previous to their departure. On the arrival of Mr. C. in camp, the commanding officer determined to let the women have their revenge, and ordered Mr. C. to be tied to a tree in front of headquarters, and William Harris, a soldier in our regiment, and a member of Co. E, who was acquainted with the gentleman, and who used to belong to him, was called upon to undress him, and introduce him to the ladies I mentioned before. Mr. Harris played his part conspicuously, bringing the blood from his loins at every stroke, and not forgetting to remind the gentleman of days gone by. After giving him some fifteen or twenty well-directed strokes, the ladies, one after another, came up and gave him a like number, to remind him that they were no longer his, but safely housed in Abraham’s bosom, and under the protection of the Star Spangled Banner, and guarded by their own patriotic, though once down-trodden race. Oh, that I had the tongue to express my feelings while standing upon the banks of the James river, on the soil of Virginia, the mother state of slavery, as a witness of such a sudden reverse! 

The day is clear, the fields of grain are beautiful and the birds are singing sweet melodious songs, while poor Mr. C. is crying to his servants for mercy. Let all who sympathize for the South take this narrative for a mirror. 

While no one should rejoice in the physical abuse of a human being, no matter how well justified, still it possible to derive some grim satisfaction from slaves seeing an abusive slaveholder getting his comeuppance. It bespeaks of the bitterness of the war by 1864 that white Union officers would deliver a slaveholder to the mercy of former slaves and that ex-slaves would be prepared to mete out their vengeance. Truly, for a moment in May 1864, near where Africans first stepped foot in Virginia in 1620, the bottom rail was truly a top.

Source: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h3082t.html

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