AfriGeneas Slave Research Forum
Finding and assembling the pieces
Two American academic professors of English literature have recently made similar, very pointed criticisms of how some historian colleagues ignore, or mistreat, the biographical potential of primary source documents about individual slaves.
In a recent issue of the online journal Common-Place, John Ernest ("Life Beyond Biography: Black Lives and Biographical Research") chastises historians who bemoan that "little is known" about individual slaves -- when those same historians have not looked for the information, don't know how to look for it, and are thereby willfully complicit in perpetuating the very ignorance of which they complain:
Earlier, a Boston Globe article cited findings by Christopher Hager (author of Word by Word: Emancipation and the Art of Writing, an analysis of letters written by slaves and former slaves) that "historians who studied the written records of slavery were often far more interested in the raw data than in the writings or authors themselves."
Hager describes how some archives have actually fragmented autographical collections of writings, so that "multiple letters written by the same slave [are] filed in different places." "They weren't paying attention to authorship," Hager says, "They were saying, 'This is a letter about religion, this is a letter about marriage.'"
I air these criticisms here because we local historians and genealogists sometimes internalize professional historians' statements that "little is known" of individual slaves, and therefore assume their histories have been erased forever. When Herbert G. Gutman named his massive, milestone publication of 2,000 WPA interviews a Composite Autobiography too many readers were ready to over look the fact that those WPA interviews were actually 2,000 individual biographies.
No single source can provide everything we wish to know about any life, but we can learn much by aggregating different sources. Every scrap of information can become immensely richer when combined with other shards of evidence about the same person.
A case in point:
In one story, Horsley recalled slave-owner Nathan Respess, a "jovial man; fond of hunting and fishing with his nephew and neighbors . . . many rough jokes were practiced on him and themselves, all of which were given and taken in fine humor. I relate the mildest of the jokes. His negro, Philip, fed the hogs, did the milling and other chores about home. In calling the hogs at night to be fed, his voice could be heard for miles. Philip drove a pair of white oxen [yoked] to the cart in going to mill, hauling wood. Philip was to go to mill early tomorrow.
"Before day he went to the stall to yoke his oxen, but didn't know them. They were striped all over with broad, red stripes, like zebras. He reported to 'Mas Nathan.' 'Our oxen are gone and somebodys left their oxen.'"
Nathan Respess went to investigate and "decided that the man who did it, seemed to have left a good sized pair of beauties in place of his, and said: 'But Philip, the size of the oxen is all right, and the horns are all right, but I don't understand the color. Bring a torch.'" Torchlight solved the mystery.
Was this story the figment of elderly memory embellishing events at least 60 years before? Would many people encountering this newspaper article even care if Philip was fiction or real? As most of you know I have compiled everything I can find about all slaves of Upson County, so I turned to my list of Nathan Respess' slaves.
The very first name on the list, and the oldest person on the plantation, was Philip, born about 1780, inherited by Nathan from his father Richard Respess in 1839. Philip was father to either Edmund (b. ca. 1829) or to Silvey, Edmund's wife, both also enslaved to Nathan Respess, who by 1856 had nurtured five children -- Philip's grandchildren -- (Emaline, b. ca. 1846; Anderson, b. ca. 1848; Harriett, b. ca. 1852; Amanda, b. ca. 1853; and Rody, b. ca. 1855). In 1856 Edmund, Silvey and her children were given as wedding gifts to Nathan Respess' daughter Elizabeth F. Dorough.
In 1859, Upson Superior Court tried the case of State v Joshua S. Crawford, in which school teacher Crawford was accused of stealing money from the wallets of guests who had stayed overnight at Nathan Respess' house. The official record of testimony shows that Crawford first tried to divert blame to the negroes, so the overseer determined to search all the slaves' pocketbooks, take their keys, open their cabins and search their lock-boxes. Crawford then changed his tune and told the overseer, "You will not find that money among the negroes . . . I am the one that has got the stigma to bear." But the overseer was determined not to stop the search (I suspect he was determined to preclude this defense in case Crawford tried to resurrect it at trial). Nathan Respess testified that "an old negro man called Philip [had] two one-dollar bills." A total of eight dollars, a five and three ones, in paper money was found in possession of Nathan Respess' slaves, and none of it matched the stolen money. School-teacher Crawford was convicted and (if I remember aright) was sent to the state penitentiary.
The 1880 census of Upson County lists Philip Respess, age 100, as "father" in the household of Ed and Silva Dorough.
I need not belabor the point that none of these different documents by itself tells us much about Philip, and even taken together they only offer brief glimpses into a few moments of his century of life. Perhaps some historians could still insist "little is known," but surely if we take time to look, find, and recognize all relevant scraps of evidence about everyone, we can learn much more about each person than we now know.
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