Thomas R. Murphy
As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaches, we also anticipate the 75th anniversary of a remarkable transformation in the historiography of the abolition of American slavery. In the late 1930s, the Works Progress Administration decided to conduct interviews with the last surviving former slaves. With the added impetus of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, historians of the later 20th century examined the roles of slaves themselves in effecting their own emancipation. A large number of narratives written by slaves have been published, most recently some works of fiction by black women published in the last five years.

I can remember seeing, as a child in Boston, a late Victorian-era sculpture in Park Square that depicted Abraham Lincoln unshackling an African-American. Today’s historians realize that the contributions of white abolitionists were only part of the story, perhaps not even the decisive part. However, the story of just how effective slave resistance was in the outcome of the Civil War is still largely unknown to the majority of white Americans.

A Slave No More, a new book by David Blight, a professor of history at Yale University, where he is director of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition, may change that. He synthesizes for a popular audience the accomplishments of all the scholarship. There were always three fundamental types of narratives—biographies, fiction and autobiographies—but the tone of these writings changed after the Civil War. In a prologue, Blight provides a useful summary of the characteristic differences between antebellum and post-bellum narratives.

The earlier narratives were designed to win converts to abolitionism and took great care to verify the lives and sufferings of spiritually heroic slaves. The later narratives retained a spiritual outlook but also stressed the more pragmatic theme that former slaves had achieved great material success in American life despite their origins. Exemplified most prominently by Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, the post-bellum narratives portrayed slavery as a school of preparation for a prosperous life in a manner just as effective as the experiences of voluntary immigrants. Readers not familiar with the slave narrative genre will find Blight’s prologue a compelling introduction.

The book also exemplifies the investigative work that goes into studying historical manuscripts. It centers around two slave narratives that came to Blight’s attention in 2003. The first is that of John Washington (1838-1918), whose papers, the property of a retired Boston judge, had been deposited at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The second is that of Wallace Turnage (1846-1916), whose papers had been donated to the Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich, Connecticut. In each case, decades of private ownership ended as people awoke to their importance and brought them to professional historians for evaluation. Since each narrative concludes with the author’s escape from slavery, Blight relied upon Christine McKay, an archivist with the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, to research the authors’ lives after emancipation. Blight is thus able to build the long central section of the book around an analysis of the two narratives and a full description of the later lives.

The narratives are reproduced in full at the end of the book, for Blight builds his claim of their importance around a belief that they were never edited or augmented by anyone else. These are authentic slave voices. A possible issue here is whether Blight obscures his claim by filling the book with proportionately much more biographical data, both in analyzing the manuscripts and recounting the men’s later lives. On balance, however, his penetrating analysis helps the reader understand little-known aspects of African-American life after slavery. Many former slaves lived well into the 20th century yet vanish from history texts after emancipation. We need to consider more carefully how their experiences as slaves affected their later lives.

Readers interested in the military side of the Civil War will appreciate the fact that Washington and Turnage escaped slavery in different theaters of war, Virginia and Alabama respectively. Washington offers a vivid description of the town of Fredericksburg, and Turnage furnishes background to the naval Battle of Mobile Bay. Studying both narratives together provides an opportunity to compare not only the differences between slave conditions in the Upper South and the Deep South, but also the different ways the war was fought in the two regions. In each place, however, massive defections of slaves behind Union lines resulted in a collapse of the slave-supported economy, ultimately dooming the Confederacy’s war effort.

Both men lived out their lives in the North, Washington settling in Cohasset, Mass., and Turnage in the New York City area. That is important, for historians have tended to focus on the experiences of former slaves in the South and generally turn their attention to experiences in the North only with the Great Migration of the World War I era. The work Blight and McKay have done on Washington and Turnage in the North is a needed study of those who moved prior to that war.

A Slave No More provides the general reader an excellent means to become acquainted with a way of analyzing African-American history that has long been familiar only to academic historians. It shows in striking detail that slaves were not just passive recipients of freedom, but demanded and won it.

Thoms Murphy, S.J., is associate professor of history and department chair at Seattle University, Wash.