Many of you may know that the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is set to break ground in 2012 and is expected to be completed and opened in 2015. For more about the building’s design please click here.
On April 14th, a friend and I checked out the NMAH’s various exhibitions. This one with the Kinsey Collection was very interesting. Two documentary items were particularly fascinating to me. One was an 1854 letter and the other was an 1862 letter. The 1862 letter was written by a United States soldier explaining the particulars of how some enslaved people were murdered in the South. Sadly, I did not really get a chance to investigate the document up close because someone else was reading it. However the 1854 letter has struck me to the point that I have dreamt about the letter every night since Thursday and it is on my mind throughout the day.
The letter was written by “A M F Crawford” in the spring of 1854. The original has been scanned and is available here. However, I have transcribed the letter below for ease of your eyes for those not familiar with handwriting of the mid-nineteenth century:
Charlottesvill [sic] April the 3d 1854
Messers Dickenson & Hill
This will be handed you by my servant Frances. I am told that it is useless to give the capabilities of a servant, that it depends altogather [sic] on there [sic] personal appearance; be that as it may, I say positively that she is the finest chamber-maid I have ever seen in my life, she is a good washer, but at house cleaning she has perfect slight of hand [sic]. She is 17 teens years old the eleventh of this month.
She does not know that she is to be sold. I could not tell her; I own all her family, and the leave taking would be so distressing that I could not.Plese say to her that that was my reason, and that I was compelled to sell her to pay for the horses that I have baught [sic] and to build my stable. I believe I have said all that is necessary, but I am so nervous that i hardly know what I have writen [sic] Respectfully yours
A M F Crawford
Research I conducted through the 1850 U.S. Census free and enslaved schedules as well as a Public Family Tree points to the author of this letter being Amanda Melvina F. (nee Craven) Crawford, the wife of Malcolm F. Crawford.
Malcolm was born in Maine in 1794 but moved to Albemarle County, Virginia and became connected with the well-known ex-President Thomas Jefferson and worked on dormitories at the University of Virginia as well as assisting in the construction of Edgehill, home of Thomas Jefferson Randolph, one of Jefferson’s grandsons. His wife and the letter’s author, Amanda was born in Albemarle in 1808 and died in 1863. Malcolm according to information through the family tree found on Ancestry.com moved to Georgia after his wife’s death to live with a daughter of theirs and he died there in 1876. The 1850 slave schedule finds Malcolm Crawford as the owner of 22 enslaved people ranging in age from one year old to seventy years old. A fourteen year old black female appears as a part of his human property, undoubtedly Frances who within a few years would walk off the Crawford property headed to Richmond on an errand for her mistress probably not knowing she’d find herself in a dingy slave jail in Richmond and soon under a red flag and on a raised platform for buyers with brown, blue, green, hazel, and gray eyes to size her up.
However, this letter illustrates several points to me:
1. Amanda Crawford relied heavily upon Frances to make her and her husband’s bed and likely that of their children (they were the parents of 12 living children in 1850, eight of whom were still at home). Opening and closing windows and preparing water for bathing among Frances’ work habits. Frances would light fires in the bedroom and keep them stoked in the evenings likely meaning that she slept near Malcolm and Amanda if not in their very room. She also relied upon Frances to clean and polish furnishings, wash windows, sweep and dust, and clean ashes from the hearths in the Crawford’s home. Frances was particularly good at household cleaning as Mrs. Crawford said she was “slight of hand” (which should be sleight of hand). However, Frances was ALSO “good” at sorting, boiling, scrubbing, rinsing, and ironing the family’s clothes in her duties as laundress.
2. Often I have heard “Well, we cannot judge people in the past for holding people in bondage. It’s just how it was.” While being how it was may be true for the enslaved and the enslavers, Mrs. Crawford’s letter illustrates that she KNEW in 1854 that she was being deceptive for Frances and that she knew in her heart that she was wrong however for the sake of having her new “horses” and “stable” she sent Frances on an approximately 70 mile long journey to Richmond from Charlottesville. She clearly has known Frances from birth and knows her family just as well as Frances.
3. The probable illiteracy of Frances meant that she was carrying on this journey the note that would seal her fate to an extremely powerful slave trading firm. Dickinson & Hill were major slave traders in Richmond in the decade before the opening of the Civil War and in fact kept buying and selling people during the war. Records for the company’s business survive but sadly do not encompass the 1854 period in which Frances arrived unknowingly (probably) to her fate on the auction block.
This letter is just so powerful that I encourage everyone to go see if and the other items in this exhibit for yourself. I encourage those of us in the public history field to recognize that the moral compass of the slaveholders lived in an interesting house of close association developed (in many cases) over multiple generations of the black AND white families alongside physical and mental abuse, in conjunction with intellectual depravity through legal means to attempt to deny enslaved people educational opportunities (though more than a few people who were slaves knew how to read and write) all wrapped up by a cloud of lies and deceit and fear which enslaved people and enslavers constantly pulled like strings on puppets to try to overpower the other.
In this case…Frances and her family lose so Mrs. Crawford could spend the last nine years of her life with new horses and a stable.
According to the cellphone tour stop in the museum, the Kinseys were able to find Frances in the 1870 census, freed-yes; but in Georgia…hundreds of miles away from whoever may have still been alive in Virginia that she was related to.