restricted access Chapter One: Slavery, the AME Church, and Emancipation: The Handy Family of Alabama, 1811–1873

From: W. C. Handy

The University of Alabama Press colophon
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CHAPTER ONE Slavery, the AME Church, and Emancipation THE HANDY FAMILY OF ALABAMA, 1811–1873 Resolved. An ordinance acknowledging the abolition of slavery in this State by the military power of the United States and prohibiting its future introduction in this State. —Resolution passed at the Alabama State Constitutional Convention for readmission to the Union, meeting five months after the end of the Civil War, on September 15, 1865 As a boy growing up in northern Alabama, Handy later wrote, he had learned melody by listening to the birds and other small creatures around his father’s farm on the deceptively peaceful hills overlooking the small town of Florence. “There was a French horn concealed in the breast of the blue jay,” he later recalled. “The tappings of the woodpecker were to me the reverberations of the snare drum. The bullfrog supplied an effective bass. In the raucous call of the distant crow I would hear the jazz motif.” Near this family farm were deep woods where, as a solitary boy, he would ramble for pleasure or practice the oratory he had learned in school to what he felt was a sympathetic audience of pine trees and chinkapin oaks. The Tennessee River marked the boundary of his known world, the river flowing to the south of his hometown of Florence and then turning northwestward into the state of Tennessee and toward the big city of Memphis. The river at this point appeared inviting to a small boy, several miles safely downstream from the lethal currents known as the Muscle Shoals. As an adult, he recalled this nineteenthcentury world of his rural Alabama childhood growing up as the son and grandson of respected ministers as at times bucolic, and seemingly paradisiacal. But this peaceful-appearing landscape, like the Tennessee River with its treacherous undertows and dangerous shoals, could easily be a place of risk and death. The northern Alabama hills and the small river town of Florence only a few years before his birth had been among the most contested landscapes of the Civil War. At its conclusion, the war had delivered his parents from their slavery and the young Handy himself into a perilous semifreedom. William Christopher Handy was born “eight years after the surrender ,” in the words his mother and father always used to date every important event in their lives. The “surrender” was, of course, that of Confederate military forces in 1865. Emancipation had come to all of the area’s former slaves—including Handy’s parents—with the arrival of federal occupation troops in what was no longer Alabama but U.S. Military District Number Three. Handy thus was the first generation of his family to be born out of bondage and with the possibilities of some civil liberties. But by 1873, federal occupation troops had been five years withdrawn from what was now the white-Reconstructed state of Alabama. This black child and his parents were left at the northernmost edge of a Deep South state where they were no longer human property to be bought or sold, but nonetheless they were by no means fully free citizens. The town of Florence since its founding always had been at a debatable and sometimes contested boundary. Named by a hopeful frontier surveyor after the Tuscany hill city of Italy, Florence was sited not in the flat coastal plains or delta areas of southern Alabama, with their great slave-worked plantations and white oligarchies , but upon an extension of the Appalachian foothills into the northern part of that state, along the narrow east-west valley of the Tennessee River. The white townspeople of antebellum Florence and the surrounding Lauderdale County were small-acreage farmers and independent merchants who had little economic need for Slavery, the AME Church, and Emancipation 21 black field hands and who were profoundly distrustful of the wealth and political interests of the white plantation owners farther south in their state. In the U.S. Census of 1860, five years “before the surrender ,” Lauderdale County reported 38.7 percent of its population enslaved, compared with rates as high as 78 percent and 76 percent of the population in the state’s lower counties. Although remote and not economically or demographically linked to the plantations farther south, this town in the years before Handy’s birth had also been at the divisive and changing currents of American national history. Andrew Jackson, slave owner and future president, speculated from his Tennessee home in land and slaves at...


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