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Notes from a Colored Girl

The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis

Karsonya Wise Whitehead

Publication Year: 2014

In Notes from a Colored Girl, Karsonya Wise Whitehead examines the life and experiences of Emilie Frances Davis, a freeborn twenty-one-year-old mulatto woman, through a close reading of three pocket diaries she kept from 1863 to 1865. Whitehead explores Davis's worldviews and politics, her perceptions of both public and private events, her personal relationships, and her place in Philadelphia's free black community in the nineteenth century. Although Davis's daily entries are sparse, brief snapshots of her life, Whitehead interprets them in ways that situate Davis in historical and literary contexts that illuminate nineteenth-century black American women's experiences. Whitehead's contribution of edited text and original narrative fills a void in scholarly documentation of women who dwelled in spaces between white elites, black entrepreneurs, and urban dwellers of every race and class. Notes from a Colored Girl is a unique offering to the fields of history and documentary editing as the book includes both a six-chapter historical reconstruction of Davis's life and a full, heavily annotated edition of her Civil War–era pocket diaries. Drawing on scholarly traditions from history, literature, feminist studies, and sociolinguistics, Whitehead investigates Davis's diary both as a complete literary artifact and in terms of her specific daily entries. From a historical perspective, Whitehead re-creates the narrative of Davis's life for those three years and analyzes the black community where she lived and worked. From a literary perspective, Whitehead examines Davis's diary as a socially, racially, and gendered nonfiction text. From a feminist studies perspective, she examines Davis's agency and identity, grounded in theories elaborated by black feminist scholars. And, from linguistic and rhetorical perspectives, she studies Davis's discourse about her interpersonal relationships, her work, and external events in her life in an effort to understand how she used language to construct her social, racial, and gendered identities. Since there are few primary sources written by black women during this time in history, Davis's diary—though ordinary in its content—is rendered extraordinary simply because it has survived to be included in this very small class of resources. Whitehead's extensive analysis illuminates the lives of many through the simple words of one.

Published by: University of South Carolina Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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p. vii


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p. viii


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pp. ix-xii

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Editorial Methods

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pp. xiii-xviii

My research into the life of Emilie Davis actually began about six years ago when I received photocopies of her pocket diaries and began the painstaking process of transcribing and annotating her entries. Since Emilie’s diary pages and a different transcription can now be found online, my goal was to present a heavily annotated...

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pp. 1-17

The history of how the free and enslaved black communities were able to both survive and prosper within a slave society is both engaging and fraught with confusion, half-truths, and in some cases, unsubstantiated claims. Sifting through the history is particularly difficult for anyone who is attempting to understand how...

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1. Emilie Davis, 1863

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pp. 18-61

In the 1850 U.S. Census, when she was twelve years old, Emilie lived with her parents, her sister, and three of her four brothers in Roxbury, Philadelphia. (Her oldest brother, Alfred, either lived on his own or was not home when the census taker came to the house.) In the 1860 U.S. Census, Emilie and two of her...

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2. A World Imagined

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pp. 62-85

During the nineteenth century, the church, the schools, and the clubs were places of refuge and stability for the free black community. The pastors and the teachers were often actively involved in the political arena and were considered to be part of the leadership, providing guidance and direction. These places were...

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3. A World Created

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pp. 86-104

Within the black community, freedom—as a concept, an idea, and a dream— had probably been talked about since slavery was first legalized. Within the enslaved communities, the further the generations were removed from Africa, the harder it probably was to imagine a life without being owned. Within the free...

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4. Emilie Davis, 1864

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pp. 105-145

In 1863 Emilie had many changes in her life: her father, Charles, after battling a short illness, moved (back?) to Harrisburg; her sister-in-law, Mary (Alfred’s wife), passed away from consumption of the lungs (tuberculosis); and her brother, Alfred, was reluctantly drafted into the United States Colored Troops (USCT)...

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5. A World of Women

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pp. 146-158

At the end of every year, Emilie would summarize some of the major events that happened in her life and in the world in the back section of her pocket diaries. At the end of her 1863 pocket diary, in what seems to be an uncharacteristic practice for her, she wrote a poem. It is the only time within the three-year period...

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6. A World Expanded

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pp. 159-172

Outside of her diaries and a few primary sources, Emilie Frances Davis is an invisible woman. Unfortunately she came of age during a time when the lives of women and black people were not seen as important enough to be recorded or remembered. If it were not for her diaries—her unconscious act of defiance against...

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7. Emilie Davis, 1865

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pp. 173-213

By the end of 1864, the country looked and felt different. African Americans were actively serving in the Union Army, proving more than once that they were indeed worthy sons of the nation; hundreds of thousands of enslaved men, women, and children had been freed by the soldiers or had taken it upon themselves...

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pp. 214-218

On October 18, 1914, at the weekly meeting for the trustees and elders of First African Presbyterian Church, an issue was raised about how the standard and quality of the Sunday School classes had gone down. After some discussion, the committee decided that changes needed to be made and that during this time...

Who’s Who

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pp. 219-228


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pp. 229-240


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pp. 241-260


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pp. 261-277

E-ISBN-13: 9781611173536
E-ISBN-10: 1611173531
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611173529

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 881243831
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Notes from a Colored Girl

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Davis, Emilie Frances, 1838-1899 -- Diaries.
  • African Americans -- Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia -- Biography.
  • African Americans -- Pennsylvania -- Philadelphia -- History -- 19th century.
  • Philadelphia (Pa.) -- Race relations -- History -- 19th century.
  • Philadelphia (Pa.) -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
  • Philadelphia (Pa.) -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865.
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