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VOL. 123 | NO. 27 | Friday, February 08, 2008

Historian's Memphis Visit Presents Complexities of Slavery Emancipation

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Name: David W. Blight
Position: Professor of history
Company: Yale University
Basics: Blight visited the National Civil Rights Museum earlier this month to discuss his new book, "Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Narratives of Emancipation."
"There is no more vexing part of American history for us than our memory of slavery and slavery's destruction in an all-out Civil War that killed 600,000 people, wounded 1.2 million and transformed a nation. The Civil War, in that sense ... is not over."

- David W. Blight

Who freed the slaves? The answer is more complex and relevant than the question's simplicity and tense might suggest, author and Yale University history professor David W. Blight said recently.

The Civil War historian was in Memphis earlier this month to speak at the National Civil Rights Museum about his 2007 book, "A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation." The book is built around manuscripts written by two former slaves - Wallace Turnage and John Washington. Blight came across the rare manuscripts four years ago through different connections.

Blight not only annotated the rare first-person accounts. He also researched and filled in some of the missing parts of their lives after their escapes from slavery.

"I think the real story here is ... emancipation does come from (President Abraham) Lincoln's leadership. It does come from presidential authority and certainly from the Army," Blight said at a book signing that followed his presentation. "But it also comes from the personal volition, courage and bravery of the slaves themselves. You have to learn how to tell both of those stories together."


Harrowing escapes

Turnage tried to escape four other times before he succeeded the fifth time. The teenager was beaten mercilessly each time he was recaptured and after the fourth beating, instead of walking back to his master's farm, he kept walking through the Confederate lines in Mobile, Ala., bleeding and in torn clothes, until he was rescued from a small row boat in Mobile Bay by the crew of a Union Navy gunboat. He was 17 and it was 1864.

"It was death to go back and it was death to stay there. And freedom was before me. It could only be death to go forward if I was caught and freedom if I escaped," Turnage wrote years later.

Washington was among slaves left behind in Fredricksburg, Va., as white citizens and Confederate forces fled the town in advance of the Union Army in 1862. He wrote of assembling about a dozen other slaves at a hotel called The Shakespeare where they all worked. He recalled seeing the gleam of Union bayonets from the roof.

In the hotel kitchen, they all drank a toast "to the Yankees" and dispersed, staying close to Union forces. Washington crossed the Rappahannock River, two blocks from the hotel, and walked into the Union Army camp. He was among the first wave of freedmen to reach and settle in Washington in late 1862.

"Historical memory is a vexing thing on subjects that are about great sacrifice, great and transformative change, great violence. How we process that story - how we process that memory - has everything to do usually with who we say we are," Blight told a museum audience of 40. "There is no more vexing part of American history for us than our memory of slavery and slavery's destruction in an all-out Civil War that killed 600,000 people, wounded 1.2 million and transformed a nation. The Civil War, in that sense ... is not over."

The two accounts each end with escape and hope. Beyond lay Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings, a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, A. Philip Randolph, Emmett Till and the Montgomery bus boycott.


A time to remember

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation approaching in the next few years, Blight said how the country observes them is important.

The 100th anniversary of emancipation in 1963 found the country in the midst of the civil rights movement, a movement that Blight said came to represent a new emancipation. The 1963 march on Washington that featured Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech was planned to mark the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was a time when the Confederate battle flag was a symbol used by those who violently opposed the movement.

"We will be trying in every way possible to do it better than the country managed to do with the centennial," Blight said. "This time, I hope ... it is going to be as much about the commemoration of emancipation as it is a commemoration of the war. It'll be about blue and gray again. And it'll be about (Confederate General Robert E.) Lee and (U.S. General Ulysses S.) Grant again. ... But this time it's also going to be about the consequences and the results."

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