A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escape to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation
In A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escape to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation, David Blight reveals the narratives of Wallace Turnage and John Washington, men who escaped slavery during the Civil War and recorded their emancipation experiences later in life. Part of a growing body of rediscovered nineteenth-century African American writings, they straddle a line between antebellum narratives published under the auspices of white abolitionist organizations, and postbellum memoirs like Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, which celebrate the journey "from slave cabin to the pulpit," and other sagas of post-emancipation uplift (14). Blight's annotations illustrate that the narratives are remarkably verifiable Civil War–era source material, and he provides a detailed four-chapter introduction offering [End Page 101] them as evidence of two important points: enslaved people's own actions were critical to emancipation, and freedom was not easy, rather, that it could be joyous but also fraught with sorrow and perseverance against incalculable odds (132, 148). While these contentions are not groundbreaking, Blight presents them with unusual strength, thanks to meticulous research and the power of Turnage's and Washington's own words.
Notably, there is no one story of emancipation here. Hired out as an urban slave in Richmond and Fredericksburg, Virginia, Washington developed youthful independence, rebelling against his mistress's religious instruction, falling in love with his future wife, Annie Gordon, and in 1861 hiring himself out in Fredericksburg to be closer to Annie and the advancing Union army he knew could offer refuge. He entered the lines of the 30th New York Volunteers, and within weeks was serving as cook for Gen. Rufus King's headquarters staff. Although his narrative does not discuss the postwar period, Blight reveals that John and Annie Washington and their children became respected members of Washington, D.C.'s black community.
Turnage's story belies some of the bootstraps optimism Washington's inspires. Sold from North Carolina to Richmond and thence to Alabama while just a teenager, much of his tale fits the "road narrative" genre, serial escapes culminating in eventual freedom (65). It was not until his fifth escape attempt and a death-defying sea crossing that Turnage reached a Union garrison at Fort Powell. Like Washington, he served as a cook for the Union army and raised a family after the war, even locating his long-lost mother and removing her from the Jim Crow South. He lived variously in Baltimore, Manhattan, and Jersey City, where he struggled to shake the linked handicaps of race and working poverty that would contribute to four of his children's deaths and compel his surviving son and daughter to pass for white.
These narratives lend evidentiary strength to innumerable historiographical debates, but a few stand out. Both men were cast into the domestic slave trade and system of hiring-out, as described so vividly in Walter Johnson's Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (1999), Jonathan D. Martin's Divided Mastery: Slave Hiring in the American South (2004), and Steven Deyle's Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (2005). In the mist of this tumultuous ordeal, each would orchestrate his escape by taking advantage of the anonymity and comparative independence of urban enslavement detailed in Midori Takaki's Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction: Slavery in Richmond, Virginia, 1782–1865 (2002), and local slave communities' intricate social networks recently receiving recognition in such works as Anthony Kaye's [End Page 102] Joining Places: Slave Neighborhoods in the Old South (2007). A Slave No More will be of interest to all scholars of African American history and the evolving bounds of United States citizenship in the Civil War era.