Professor David Blight of Yale University is an expert on the subject of slavery and the slave narrative. This genre regained attention during the civil rights era and continues to draw interest as more material comes to light. In 2002, Blight brought out a new edition of the most famous one of all: “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” Then in 2003 the professor had the unique opportunity of examining two unpublished slave narratives for authenticity.
Thrill of discovery
One was written by John Washington, born in Fredericksburg, Va., the other, by Wallace Turnage, born near Snow Hill, N.C. Though the two stories are very different, they have one important commonality: Both slaves escaped with the aid of Union forces during the Civil War.
Upon reading the two manuscripts, Blight had the “thrill of discovery.” He was almost sure they were authentic; furthermore, he thought they were unedited. After more research Blight worked out an agreement with the parties involved to write a book which would include the documents as written. The result is the impressive work “A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom” (Harcourt, 2007).
Though both men endured hardship, Wallace Turnage had by far the harder lot. Both were separated from their mothers as young boys. Washington stayed in Fredericksburg, his home town, when his mother and her other children were “hired out,” but Turnage was sent far away from the only home he had known. Turnage, whose father was white, was sold to a slave broker in Richmond, then to the owner of a cotton plantation in Alabama. While Washington stayed in a familiar setting and saw his mother again after two years, Turnage, a teenager, was sent hundreds of miles away and did not see his family until eight years later.
Also, Blight points out that town slaves had advantages over those on plantations. In Fredericksburg, Washington had more freedom of movement than did a slave in the country, and he mingled with free blacks on the streets and in back alleys. In fact, John courted a free black girl, Annie, and later married her. Though his owner tried to keep a tight rein on him, Washington learned the art of deception. As the Union army bore down on Fredericksburg in 1862, Washington saw his chance to escape. Saying “Yes, ma’am” to his mistress’s order to accompany her out of town, he walked a mile up the Rappahannock River and crossed over to freedom.
Turnage: multiple escapes
Running away was Turnage’s main form of rebellion. He escaped from the cotton plantation four times. Desperate to get to Union troops in northern Mississippi, he almost succeeded. Once he traveled 75 miles from the plantation and was tortured by white men who didn’t believe his story. Turnage endured harsh whippings for his escapes — Blight refers to his “scarred body” — and there was more suffering to come.
Finally, his master sold him to a man in Mobile who wanted a carriage driver and house slave. After an incident in which he was treated unfairly, Turnage escaped, only to be found and severely punished in the “whipping house.” Told to walk home, Turnage instead hid out in the city and somehow got through Rebel lines to the snake-infested rivers and swamps south of Mobile. His perilous journey and rescue by Union sailors in Mobile Bay make a harrowing story. Turnage gained his freedom in April 1864.
Both freed slaves were taken on as cooks and servants by the Union forces and were paid for their work. Neither man enlisted, though Turnage had the opportunity to do so.
Lives as freedmen
Blight has reconstructed the outlines of Washington’s and Turnage’s lives after emancipation. Both men migrated north, Washington to the District of Columbia, and Turnage to New York City. Both struggled against poverty and racism. They were “common laborers,” taking whatever jobs they could find: waiter, cook, janitor, watchman. Washington later became a house and sign painter. Both men were married and had families, and each moved his mother and siblings to his new city. Both families looked to the church and fraternal organizations for support.
Just as Turnage’s early life was harder than Washington’s, so his later life was bleaker.
Whereas John and Annie raised five sons to adulthood, Wallace and his wife lost four of their seven progeny in childhood. Washington’s sons became part of the emerging black middle class. The youngest, Benjamin, became a science teacher and coach at a technical high school. Blight says, “Turnage’s children lived lives of economic and personal struggle.”
(Turnage’s daughter Lydia, who preserved her father’s narrative, lived to be 99 years old! Blight speculates that because she passed for white, she may not have wanted to expose her father’s slave history. The narrative was found by a neighbor after Lydia’s death.)
Turnage died in 1916 at age 70 and is buried in Brooklyn, N.Y. It is not surprising that Washington had the longer life. He died in 1918 at age 80 and is buried in Cohasset, Mass.
Reading this book helped me understand the realities of slavery and the deep desire for freedom in the slave’s heart and mind. As space does not allow full coverage of this fascinating work, I hope readers will peruse it for themselves.