restricted access Chapter Four: Something Very Novel and Strange: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Remaking of African American Public Culture
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119 4 Something Very Novel and Strange Civil War, Emancipation, and the Remaking of African American Public Culture On St. Helena Island, Charlotte Forten’s sense of duty was forever transformed. Forten was among the first African American teachers to venture South and work with black refugees behind Union army lines. When she arrived at St. Helena Island, South Carolina, in 1862, she was twenty-five years old. Forten was reared in the midst of Philadelphia’s reform community . Her grandfather, James Forten, was an adviser and financial supporter of Garrison’s Liberator, a manager of the American Anti-Slavery Society (aass), and an o≈cer of the American Moral Reform Society (amrs). Her grandmother Charlotte, her mother, Mary Virginia Woods, and three of her aunts—Margaretta, Sarah, and Harriet—were founding members of the interracial Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. In 1853, Charlotte was sent to Salem, Massachusetts, to complete her studies, living with family friends Charles and Amy Remond. There she fell under the influence of Charles’s sister, Sarah Parker Remond, a lecturer for the aass. Forten acknowledged her admiration for Sarah Remond’s activism in the pages of her diary: ‘‘Last night Miss R. entertained me with an account of her tour, and of the delightful day she spent with Mr. [Wendell] Phillips. . . . I listened with most unwearied attention until the ‘small hours of the morn’ stole upon us.’’∞ Forten’s private writings reflect a naive passion. In the summer of 1862, with teaching experience in Salem and Philadelphia, Forten set out to teach among contraband slaves, of whose ‘‘sad . . . su√erings’’ she had heard moving accounts. This undertaking, she related, would o√er the ‘‘delights of travel’’ while enabling her to find her ‘‘highest happiness’’ in doing her ‘‘duty.’’≤ Through the auspices of the Port Royal Relief Association, the young teacher secured a position on St. Helena Island, where she remained until poor health and her father’s death drew her back to Philadelphia in late 1864.≥ 120 Something Very Novel and Strange Womanhood’s past and future were colliding within Forten. In the pages of her diary, Forten recorded how she survived a treacherous sea voyage, learned to defend herself with a gun, traveled alone or with other women, and ministered to the wounded of the much-celebrated Fifty-fourth Massachusetts regiment.∂ Forten understood that on the Sea Islands her presence , along with that of many other northerners, provoked the woman question . In a December 1862 letter to William Lloyd Garrison, she related the public events surrounding the issuance of General Rufus Saxton’s Thanksgiving Day proclamation. It was a day of ‘‘thanksgiving and praise,’’ and following the general, ‘‘Mrs. Frances D. Gage . . . spoke for a few moments very beautifully and earnestly.’’∑ Forten imagined the freed people’s reaction to Gage: ‘‘It was something very novel and strange to them, I suppose, to hear a woman speak in public, but they listened very attentively, and seemed much moved by what she said.’’∏ ‘‘Novel and strange’’ encounters were commonplace. The Civil War brought together northerner and southerner, black and white, male and female, formerly enslaved and formerly free people. Forten herself represented a cross-generational history of northern free black public culture and, coming of age in the 1850s, was raised navigating the turbulent waters of women’s rights, responsibility, and respectability.π Frances Dana Gage brought to her Sea Island work many years of women’s rights activism, through which she became a seasoned reformer, public speaker, and journalist . General Rufus Saxton, one of the earliest Union army o≈cers to command African American troops, took part in the transformation of black manhood through military service. Perhaps Forten exaggerated the novelty of seeing women speaking in public to the ‘‘people of Port Royal’’ who gathered that day. But her insight reminds us that, as freed people entered the civic institutions that constituted public culture, they joined lively debates about the standing of women in public life. Standing on St. Helena Island, Forten could not foresee the transformations that lay just over the horizon. From her vantage point at the earliest moment of Reconstruction, the end of slavery and the remaking of the nation as an interracial democracy (at least for a time) were faint glimmers. But the possibilities were breathtaking. For all black Americans, be they from the northern formerly free states or from the South’s slave society, this was a moment long hoped for, an opportunity to remake life in the...


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