12 Years a Slave scores a new audience and Oscars


The Staking Out and Flogging of Patsey

The Staking Out and Flogging of Patsey, p. 256 in Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northrup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1853).

Last night (in case you missed it) the Steve McQueen directed, Brad Pitt produced 12 Years a Slave scooped up some Oscars last night. The movie and its casts won:

Best Picture

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o

Best Adapted Screenplay by John Ridley.

Undoubtedly, this movie is bringing to the masses a more realistic portrayal of slavery’s cruel and exploitative nature. It has encouraged numerous people I know to read more slave narratives. I believe that Hattie McDaniel’s spirit smiled for Lupita’s Oscar win last night for bringing Patsey’s wretched story to life. I applaud Steve McQueen for including the fact that slavery continues in the present day.

Still, the best speech was Lupita’s and you’ll see why by watching this video. I think the real Patsey, Solomon Northrup, and scores of others who experienced the slavery period and its aftermath were pleased with her.


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Escaping Slavery


This week I was alerted to a story about “Underground Railroad quilts.”

This is a subject that arises passions amongst historians because there has yet to be a single document written circa 1810-1865 mentioning these quilts from whites or free blacks involved in the assistance of people who were seeking their freedom. The best accounting for the activity of the Underground Railroad was written by operating agent, William Still.  There are many mysteries surrounding the Underground Railroad.

Perhaps the most pervasive myth is that the Underground Railroad was literally a series of train tracks running under the ground from south to north. Let me say: This is not the case.

But an increasingly popular mythology of the operation of assisting enslaved people in their flight is this quilt story. I do not know why this has become so popular. Books have been written on the subject, children’s coloring and activity books are dedicated to this; but there simply is no evidence. Historians (and many buffs of historical events) gather information from the past through a variety of sources. Some of which include:

1. Letters/diaries/memorada/official government records created in a specific period of time

2. Memoirs by persons alive during a specific period of time but constructed in the aftermath of that time (an example is Still’s account)

3. Drawings

4. Photographs

5. Oral history

The earliest photographs I know of showing people fleeing slavery are taken during the American Civil War. Drawings in the form of engravings depict slaves fleeing an often included a stock character image of a man with a sack tied to a stick and facing to the right with his legs in a 2-D motion to illustrate the running.

So what is the problem with the myth of the Underground Railroad quilt? Simply put: It distorts the past while simultaneously denigrating the experiences of those people who were risk-takers and either attempted and failed or were successful in their escape from bondage.

Escape was complicated, dangerous, and many times failed. Examples of failures:

From August 15, 1861’s Richmond Daily Dispatch:
Hustings Court, Aug. 15.

–Aldermen Sanxay, Bray, Timberlake, Lipscombe and Anderson, presiding.

Mary Holmes, a negro woman, committed to jail as a runaway, four months since, was ordered to be sold, and the proceeds placed into the State Treasury, according to the provisions of the 19th section of the 105th chapter of the Code, nobody having laid claim to her. Geo. W. Stickney was qualified to celebrate marriage licenses in Virginia, according to the rites and ceremonies of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The Rev. gentleman, who is Chaplain of a Louisiana Regiment, exercised the functions of his office on a loving couple last night.

From September 15, 1843: The [Memphis] Appeal 

Jailor’s Notice.

WAS committed to the Jail of Shelby county, Tenn., on the 13th of November, 1843, a negro man, who calls himself GEORGE, and says that he belongs to William Johnson, near Richmond, Virginia. George is quite black, 5 feet 6 1/2 inches high, about 35 years old, will weigh 150 lbs., he has four small raised scars about one inch long each running across his breast. The owner of said boy will will come forward, prove property, pay charges and take him away, or he will be dealt with as the law directs.

JNO. C. DOTY, Jailor.

From July 5, 1828 The Memphis Advocate


TO the Jail of Fayette County, State of Tennessee, on the 2d inst. a negro man who says his name is


and says he belongs to James Jones, near Nashville, in this State.

BILL is about Five feet 10 inches high, tolerable dark complexion, has lost some of his under teeth, long bushy hair, supposed to be about Fifty years of age. The owner is requested to come forward, prove property, pay charges, and take him away.

By JOEL L. JONES, Dept. Shff.
July 5

From August 30, 1839 The Memphis Enquirer

Jailor’s Notice—Shelby County.

WAS committed to this jail on the 15th August, a negro woman and child. The woman about 21 years of age, black complexion, calls her name EMALINE, and says she belongs to Wm. Coopwood of Fayette county, Tennessee. The child about one year old, named Virginia Elizabeth.

W.P. REEVES, Jailor


I want to share a section of William Green’s narrative published in 1853 to illustrate the challenge to getting out. William Green noted in his narrative “that it requires all the nerve and energy that a poor slave can bring to his support to enable him to make up his mind to leave in this precarious manner.” He and another slave had decided to escape from Maryland to Canada in 1840.  When they got to a river, after being provided some assistance by other enslaved people, they were worried if they would be able to make it. They finally found a boat in some bushes and:

We put it in the creek and tried it, to see if it leaked, and found that it did not leak very bad, so we concluded to venture over in it. We had no paddle, only an oar to paddle across with, and a piece of a king crab’s shell for a cup to bail out the water. We put our small bundles in and bidding our friends a long farewell we started upon our perilous journey. The next day a man came into my cousin’s shop and said some one had stolen his boat the night before. My cousin was much surprised apparently, and wondered who could have taken it.

        Before we found the boat we made up our minds if there were no other way that we would climb the bridge. We were well aware of the danger of such a scheme, but it seemed to be our only resource, as we never intended to return. However, we were Providentially provided for in another way. We went straight across and our friends staid on the bank until we were over, and then they went back and we were left alone. After we got over the river we had to walk for almost half a mile on the causeway. A causeway is a road built above the marsh; it is built of poles, dirt and sand; when the water is high it covers this road. Well, we walked in this water for about half a mile, and when we got through this we came to a very sandy road, which, after walking in the water, I felt was the beginning of sorrow. We continued our journey until we came to a friend’s house by the name of — –. I first thought I would give the name of this friend, but taking a second thought it occurred to me that he might still be following his holy calling of getting away poor souls out of the prison-house of bondage. If so, I say God bless him and his, in all his undertakings. He had been quite successful in helping away fugitives. He was not at home when we arrived there, and we concluded that we would not wait for him. We started on and walked for a long time; at last, fearing we had lost our way, we went back to our friend’s house. We had been looking for my uncle, and when we turned back we were almost there but did not know it. He very kindly went with us to my uncle’s and then left us, and I have never seen him since. My uncle was like the other friends afraid to venture to take us in his wagon, but he said he would walk with us, and show us the way, and he did so, for which we were thankful. So we continued our journey, with my uncle to guide us, until we came to a quaker friend’s house, about five miles from my uncle’s. He was sick and could not help us, but he sent us to another friend, hoping he would do something for us, but he said it was more than his life was worth to venture. He was then under heavy bonds to keep the peace. When we came to his house he came out to meet us, calling us his sons with such a gracious air that we could hardly believe our own eyes. To be addressed in this manner by a white man was something unusual for us. He took us into the house and gave us a good supper, which was the first good meal we had eaten for forty-eight hours. We arrived at his house in the afternoon of the day after we left home; we were now about forty miles from home. We had been charged to lay by in the day time, but on account of our not making as much head way the night before, we concluded that we would not stop. On, on, we went, and we as yet had met with no opposition from any one. So far we had not taken any rest since we left home.

[break of quote]

They were assisted by a Quaker, traveled through a small  hamlet where they mortally wounded a dog who was barking at them at about 1:00 a.m., and with additional assistance from other blacks they moved forward. Some of the people who they encountered had a horse and the horse went missing temporarily but was recovered. Then the horse was:

harnessed…and [the man's wife whom they called Aunt Sarah]  made a bed of blades and put a quilt in the bottom of the wagon, and we laid down and they covered us over with blades and he started, and we were so comfortable in our quarters that we fell asleep and had quite a refreshing nap. About day we arrived at Aunt Sarah’s as we called her; her husband was the person who got people on to the boat up to Philadelphia. We soon started for the boat, but when we got to the landing she was gone, and then our spirits sank within us. We felt that we had all our labor for nought, but the old man said that probably we might head them off about five miles down the river, so we started, but our disappointment did not help us in getting along; however when I saw the masts of the vessel my spirits revived again. We succeeded in reaching her, and our friend would not give us any satisfaction in respect to getting on board of the boat, however he told us he would see to that for us, so when we went on board we were his nephews, come down from Philadelphia to make him a visit. He says to us, “Boys, when shall you be down again?” We told him we could not tell him then, but to give our love to Aunt Sarah and tell her she must be sure to come and see us.

On board of the boat we fared very well; the Captain seemed to understand all. He and the old gentleman that brought us down to the boat seemed to be very well acquainted with each other. The hands seemed to be a little inquisitive, but he told them to attend to their own business and ask no questions. We were about two days going up to Philadelphia. We arrived there in safety, and remained in the city over night; in the morning we took the boat for New York.

[break of quote]

Instead of making up stories about slaves escaping, why don’t we examine and discuss those people who were successful and those who were not and explore the reasons for the successes and failures as best we can determine from the circumstances facing people who wanted to be free.

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The Tension Within

Some readers of this blog may have seen the recent outrage and subsequent cancellation of Ani DiFranco’s “Righteous Retreat” where songwriters, poets, and performance artists were to relax and find creativity at Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana.

First, let me say that I have never been to Nottoway Plantation (or anywhere else in Louisiana); but reports from Eichstedt and Small’s Representations of Slavery and some friends of mine who went last year makes me wonder about how they are coming to terms with the issue of enslavement and the struggle for power and citizenship that went on at the plantation during and after slavery.

That being said, I commend my friend, Nicholas Redding, executive director at Long Branch Plantation who has extended an invitation to Ms. DiFranco. Why should there not be a retreat of poets, songwriters, and performance artists at a plantation site? The opponents cite “genocide of black people” that took place at the plantation as their major reason for opposing the event.

Plantation sites are among many sites that have complex, complicated histories that are not always uplifting. Nor are they always sad. Readers of this blog know that I am opposed to moonlight and magnolia depictions of plantation sites. Violence and resistance are powerful themes within these sites that too often has been ignored in favor of presenting kind and gracious property owners where the labor of virtually everything occurred as if my magic (or what friends  of mine know I call the “Beauty and the Beast” syndrome ). These sites, however, did not routinely feature genocide ( which is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group; see  T. Marcus Funk, Victims’ Rights and Advocacy at the International Criminal Court. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 1).

The process of  the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and 17th and 18th century slave adaptation to the Americas and Europe generated social and religious alterations of various ethnic and/or tribal traditions within the slave communities and millions of people perished. However, the goal was to maintain a labor system to benefit a minority of European land and people owners. By the 1800s, with the African slave trade legally stopped (though illegal trading continued) in the United States and with natural increase of American born and bred enslaved people much of the social and cultural trends had already cemented and few people had any real knowledge of Africa as a continent (not to mention the variables of people, climates, flora, and fauna of that vast continent). These American born slaves considered themselves American and thus entitled to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the laws of the Constitution. So the enslaved community at Nottoway (and the thousands of other slaveholding properties) experienced periods of pain (physical and emotional), suffering, and desires for freedom; but, the Randolphs (and their contemporary slaveholders) did not systematically destroy Africans and Americans of African descent through mass extermination.

I believe as I have said here before, those of us entrusted as stewards of the plantations and the stories associated with these sites, have to create methods for understanding the histories (I am purposefully use of the plural because not everyone had the exact same experiences) of these sites while working with visitors to create meaning making and complicate modern understanding of historical people. If we do our jobs and people are paying attention, we may consider ways to see inequality in the present and make our own world better.

What the outrage does illustrate is that everyone needs to realize that this nation was created and maintained with biases for gender and race. We do not live in a utopian American culture. Thus there is no “post-racial” because of a dual election of Barack Obama. There is no “post-gender” because of Hillary Clinton, Ruth Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, or Elena Kagan.

But back to the basics of this retreat and why I think poets, songwriters, and performance artists can go to plantations and honor the histories (as messy as they are) of these sites. The plantation owners battled for what they considered their rights. Extreme violence in the form of war developed to sustain slavery. Enslaved people, including women, battled for their rights in obviously different ways but still on the same turf.

Enslaved people sang songs to strengthen one another and to encourage resistance. They played drums and danced to celebrate. They told stories to make fun of slaveholders. They crafted mourning rituals to honor the dead. Some remained Islamic. Some Africans were already Christian when they arrived in the New World or Europe. Some hung on to elements of different African groups’ traditions and melded them with Christianity. 


So I close with a performance artist who survived slavery, who was a feminist, who was brave, and who challenged what people thought she ought to do. Her speech “Ain’t I a Woman” has different versions but this is the earliest transcription from June 21, 1851. The artist’s name was Sojourner Truth:

I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.

Sojourner Truth

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Museum of the Confederacy and American Civil War Center Merger

Rumors have circulated for the last several months that the Museum of the Confederacy was exploring a merger with the American Civil War Center at Tredegar. Today, the news broke that despite denying it initially, it is true.

In the initial rumors there was outrage from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and a group of Confederate Flaggers (which I refuse to discuss on this blog). In fact, some of my friends and acquaintances (who are not in either of those organizations) are dismayed. Still within this merger, it appears to me that the Confederate Memorial Literary Society is here to stay. It unclear at this moment, how the old museum space will be used (beyond the gift shop) and how many visitors may go to the Confederate Executive Mansion.

The Confederate Executive Mansion in the spring of 1865. Today, this building is surrounded by the Medical College of Virginia creating confusion for the Museum of the Confederacy’s visitors. Image in the Library of Congress’ collection.

It may come as a surprise to some of my readers that I have over the years been a member (and clearly remember not renewing for a while when there was a proposal to move the Brockenbrough-Crenshaw mansion from its original location) of the Museum of the Confederacy. I believe that the institution protects important documents and materials related to the wartime and post-war South through its gamble in creating a separate nation and the methods of remembering the Southern wartime experience. I know some talented folks over at the Museum. Yet, it is clear to me that they have been in a challenging situation with the Confederate Executive Mansion and its neighboring 1970s building now dwarfed by the expansion of the Medical College of Virginia.

The Museum of the Confederacy has had its fair share of interpretive challenges since 1896. Certainly for many decades the issue of slavery and its importance to the Confederate government and many of its white residents was ignored. The impact of slavery on and the notion of freedom among the millions of enslaved people living in the wartime south were also ignored. The 1990s saw the beginnings of changes to the familiar Lost Cause tropes and exploration of race and gender and the new satellite Museum of the Confederacy at Appomattox even explores the memory of the Confederacy and the flags.

Yet, for those who are so outraged, failing to support the Confederate Memorial Literary Society could contribute to the disintegration of the very artifacts and documents you profess to want people to have access to. There has to be a balance between the old line supporters of the Museum and new methods to engage the public. I hope that this will be successful; but, I am going to take a wait-and-see approach instead of throwing my hands up in protest or rolling out a red carpet too early. It remains to be seen if the larger public will throw in their support.


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“Was he bi-polar?!” OR Interpreting the Violence of Enslavement

This post’s title is inspired by comments that I have recently been asked while interpreting a slaveholder at work. I include the same overall historical facts in all of my tours of the plantation big house; though I vary the arrangement of the words. The owner of the property had a few enslaved laborers who were clearly his favorites. He complimented their “good conduct” and the work they performed. If unsatisfied with that work he “scolded” or “spoke to” those whom he liked. He gave monetary gifts at Christmas to most of the enslaved community (by 1860, 113 individuals) and for his favorites, he gave monetary gifts at other times of the year.

Yet, these were a few individuals and it is clear even as they were his favorites, he still believed white Southerners were superior to people of African descent. As members of the enslaved community resisted his authority, he, like the clear majority of slaveholders, turned to a variety of non-violent and violent methods to show that the slaveholder held considerable power. I’m interested in telling my visitors about the tug-of-war over who had more power (those who were enslaved or the enslavers) and the techniques both used in that power struggle.

So the question I hear “Was he bi-polar?” strikes me as strange because I have no belief that this plantation owner was bi-polar. I also have no ability to make that judgment 117 years after his death. What I think this stems from is a lack of our plantation sites or museums including the violence of enslavement.

Often visitors to historic plantation sites are invited to witness the “splendor” of furnished rooms or to understand the “hospitality” of the plantation owners. Yet the majority of the people who lived (and labored) on these plantations were people of African descent not welcomed into the grand parlors or elaborate dining rooms of the people who owned them.

The wonders of the Internet make is possible for us to see a variety of plantation rules, such as Joseph Acklen, who lived with his wife Adelicia at Belmont Mansion in Nashville and the sugar plantations she got after the death of her first husband (who was a well-known slave trader). As you can see here whipping was how he, his overseers, or agents dealt with the enslaved laborers he owned.

While it appears Thomas Jefferson preferred not to whip people, his overseers did perform the task (see Lucia Stanton’s “Those who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello). Enslaved laborers at Mount Vernon, home of the nation’s Revolutionary hero and first president were whipped by overseers and Washington supported the whippings as a means to control those who resisted. Wesley Norris, former slave at Arlington, the Custis family estate (now dominated by the Arlington National Cemetery), recalled he, his sister, and one of their cousins ran away in 1859. Their escape failed and upon return to Arlington, he recalled Robert E. Lee, administrator of George Washington Parke Custis’ estate, ordering the overseer to whip them. The overseer having balked at this task, Lee had a local constable called in who was told by Lee to “lay it on well” (see Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters).

Aunt Sally being whipped

Slavery and violence go hand-in-hand. Slaveholders thought nothing about their carrot and stick methodology to try to control the enslaved men, women, and children on their properties. The interviews conducted with former slaves illustrates the personal experiences of individuals who coped with a series of non-violent threats (such as the thought of sale), non-violent actions (selling people, cutting off access to food, or restricting a person’s ability to leave the slave owner’s property), violent episodes (such as rape, mutilation, or the extremely common whippings), compliments, and rewards. I cannot think of a single slaveholding site or museum that exclusively discusses the brutality of enslavement (it would be historically inaccurate to do so); but I can think of many that refuse to engage with the vicious nature of human bondage.

We need all of these places to use the historical record (i.e., eyewitness accounts) to present a full record of the events that occurred on slaveholding properties. As hospitable as someone could be to a sibling or neighbor is as wicked as he or she may be to an enslaved person on a given day and then be complimentary of that same enslaved person some weeks later. I am not convinced that slaveholders were on the whole “bi-polar;” but, I am convinced that historic sites and museums still have more research to undertake and (most importantly) have to broadcast their findings in a responsible way.


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Understanding People Across Centuries

As we near the 400th anniversary of the marriage of Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan to English colonists and tobacco planter, John Rolfe there are a series of events planned to commemorate her capture and marriage as well as the relationship between the English and Algonquin groups in Tidewater Virginia in the early 1600s.

I invite you to check out the plans as they are at this time here at the World of Pocahontas Schedule.

If you would, I’d invite you to fast forward a couple hundred years and move to the west of Tidewater Virginia to look at Montpelier, the plantation owned by James Madison, Constitution author and fourth president of the United States. Archaeological work continues on discovering more about the lives of the enslaved people who were living and working on the plantation during the early 1800s. This work is assisted in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and you can hear a bit more about this work through the YouTube video Slave Quarters Excavation at James Madison’s Montpelier.


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1619: The Making of America Conference

Dear Readers,

I mentioned a while back that I would be speaking at the 1619: The Making of America conference taking place Thursday and Friday, September 26-27, 2013. My 15 minute morning presentation will be “Reflections on Interpreting Hidden Voices” where I will mainly be focused on work that I have done or observed in the presentation of including the voices of people of African descent in 18th, 19th, and to some small degree early 20th century America. As is usual, my presentation time constraints will not allow me to present everything but I hope the question and answer period will allow for some good discussion with me and the other panelists.

You can STILL register for this conference by 11:59PM tomorrow OR pay an extra $5 at the door on the day of the conference.

The link for the conference is here: http://1619.us/ and for registration: http://1619.us/index.php?option=com_civicrm&task=civicrm/event/register&id=1&reset=1.  It’s $75 for both days, $40 for a single day, student registration is either $50 for both days or $25 for one day. The evening programs are FREE and open to the general public. On Friday evening I will be doing a first person portrayal of a runaway slave turned US Colored soldier, Peter Churchwell just ahead of the conference’s final speaker.

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