An entire Manhattan village owned by black people was destroyed to build Central Park 

When Reverend Christopher Rush laid the cornerstone of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1853, he placed in it a time capsule, a box that contained a bible, a hymn book, and copies of two New York papers, The Tribune and The Sun. These were mementos for future New Yorkers.

Rush, who escaped slavery and became the second ordained bishop of the AME, also delivered the church’s first sermon. He read in part from the First Epistle of Peter, an address to the oppressed and persecuted, assuring the congregation that “although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials,” salvation would reward those who kept the faith.

But even as he counseled hope, the church was doomed. What Rush didn’t know was that the land where the Church would stand, part of a thriving African American community, had been condemned two weeks before as part of the plan to create New York’s Central Park.

The community, called Seneca Village, began in 1825 and eventually spanned from 82nd Street to 89th Street along what is now the western edge of Central Park. By the time it was finally razed in 1857, it had become a refuge for African Americans. Though most were nominally free (the last slave wasn’t emancipated until 1827) life was far from pleasant. The population of African Americans living in New York City tripled between abolition and complete emancipation and the migrants were derided in the press. Mordecai Noah, founder of The New York Enquirer, was especially well-known for his attacks on African Americans, fuming at one point that “the free negroes of this city are a nuisance incomparably greater than a million slaves.”

Most landowners at the time refused to sell to African Americans. A white couple who lived in what was then a distant northern outpost of Manhattan was an exception, subdividing and selling off their land first to Epiphany Davis and Andrew Williams, two prominent members of the The New York African Society for Mutual Relief, and then to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. More members of the African Society, whose purpose was in part to build black communities, followed suit and purchased land too. Slowly, houses were built. Some of them were rather grand, two-story affairs, with barns and stables, and some were modest shacks. The area was eventually anchored by three churches and a school.

By 1871, Seneca Village had largely been forgotten. That year, The New York Herald reported that laborers creating a new entrance to the park at 85th Street and 8th Avenue had discovered a coffin, “enclosing the body of a Negro, decomposed beyond recognition.” The discovery was a mystery, the paper reported, because “these lands were dug up five years ago, when the trees were planted there, and no such coffins were there at the time.” That’s unlikely, as the site was the graveyard of the AME church.

Researchers from Columbia, CUNY, and the New York Historical Society have been working on excavating the site of Seneca Village since the early 2000s. The work has been slow, with excavation starting in 2011.

The only official artifact that remains intact on the site is a commemorative plaque, dedicated in 2001 to the lost village.

Written by Heather Gilligam: 

Senior Editor @Timeline_Now

An entire Manhattan village owned by black people was destroyed to build Central Park – Three churches, a school, and dozens of homes were demolished

When Reverend Christopher Rush laid the cornerstone of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1853, he placed in it a time capsule, a box that contained a bible, a hymn book, and copies of two New York papers, The Tribune and The Sun. These were mementos for future New Yorkers.

Rush, who escaped slavery and became the second ordained bishop of the AME, also delivered the church’s first sermon. He read in part from the First Epistle of Peter, an address to the oppressed and persecuted, assuring the congregation that “although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials,” salvation would reward those who kept the faith.

But even as he counseled hope, the church was doomed. What Rush didn’t know was that the land where the Church would stand, part of a thriving African American community, had been condemned two weeks before as part of the plan to create New York’s Central Park.

The community, called Seneca Village, began in 1825 and eventually spanned from 82nd Street to 89th Street along what is now the western edge of Central Park. By the time it was finally razed in 1857, it had become a refuge for African Americans. Though most were nominally free (the last slave wasn’t emancipated until 1827) life was far from pleasant. The population of African Americans living in New York City tripled between abolition and complete emancipation and the migrants were derided in the press. Mordecai Noah, founder of The New York Enquirer, was especially well-known for his attacks on African Americans, fuming at one point that “the free negroes of this city are a nuisance incomparably greater than a million slaves.”

Most landowners at the time refused to sell to African Americans. A white couple who lived in what was then a distant northern outpost of Manhattan was an exception, subdividing and selling off their land first to Epiphany Davis and Andrew Williams, two prominent members of the The New York African Society for Mutual Relief, and then to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. More members of the African Society, whose purpose was in part to build black communities, followed suit and purchased land too. Slowly, houses were built. Some of them were rather grand, two-story affairs, with barns and stables, and some were modest shacks. The area was eventually anchored by three churches and a school.

By 1871, Seneca Village had largely been forgotten. That year, The New York Herald reported that laborers creating a new entrance to the park at 85th Street and 8th Avenue had discovered a coffin, “enclosing the body of a Negro, decomposed beyond recognition.” The discovery was a mystery, the paper reported, because “these lands were dug up five years ago, when the trees were planted there, and no such coffins were there at the time.” That’s unlikely, as the site was the graveyard of the AME church.

Researchers from Columbia, CUNY, and the New York Historical Society have been working on excavating the site of Seneca Village since the early 2000s. The work has been slow, with excavation starting in 2011.

The only official artifact that remains intact on the site is a commemorative plaque, dedicated in 2001 to the lost village.

Written by Heather Gilligam: 

Senior Editor @Timeline_Now

An entire Manhattan village owned by black people was destroyed to build Central Park Three churches, a school, and dozens of homes were demolished

When Reverend Christopher Rush laid the cornerstone of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1853, he placed in it a time capsule, a box that contained a bible, a hymn book, and copies of two New York papers, The Tribune and The Sun. These were mementos for future New Yorkers.

Rush, who escaped slavery and became the second ordained bishop of the AME, also delivered the church’s first sermon. He read in part from the First Epistle of Peter, an address to the oppressed and persecuted, assuring the congregation that “although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials,” salvation would reward those who kept the faith.

But even as he counseled hope, the church was doomed. What Rush didn’t know was that the land where the Church would stand, part of a thriving African American community, had been condemned two weeks before as part of the plan to create New York’s Central Park.

The community, called Seneca Village, began in 1825 and eventually spanned from 82nd Street to 89th Street along what is now the western edge of Central Park. By the time it was finally razed in 1857, it had become a refuge for African Americans. Though most were nominally free (the last slave wasn’t emancipated until 1827) life was far from pleasant. The population of African Americans living in New York City tripled between abolition and complete emancipation and the migrants were derided in the press. Mordecai Noah, founder of The New York Enquirer, was especially well-known for his attacks on African Americans, fuming at one point that “the free negroes of this city are a nuisance incomparably greater than a million slaves.”

 Most landowners at the time refused to sell to African Americans. A white couple who lived in what was then a distant northern outpost of Manhattan was an exception, subdividing and selling off their land first to Epiphany Davis and Andrew Williams, two prominent members of the The New York African Society for Mutual Relief, and then to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. More members of the African Society, whose purpose was in part to build black communities, followed suit and purchased land too. Slowly, houses were built. Some of them were rather grand, two-story affairs, with barns and stables, and some were modest shacks. The area was eventually anchored by three churches and a school.

By 1871, Seneca Village had largely been forgotten. That year, The New York Herald reported that laborers creating a new entrance to the park at 85th Street and 8th Avenue had discovered a coffin, “enclosing the body of a Negro, decomposed beyond recognition.” The discovery was a mystery, the paper reported, because “these lands were dug up five years ago, when the trees were planted there, and no such coffins were there at the time.” That’s unlikely, as the site was the graveyard of the AME church.

Researchers from Columbia, CUNY, and the New York Historical Society have been working on excavating the site of Seneca Village since the early 2000s. The work has been slow, with excavation starting in 2011.

The only official artifact that remains intact on the site is a commemorative plaque, dedicated in 2001 to the lost village.

Written by Heather Gilligam: 

Senior Editor @Timeline_Now

Why Black Americans love Fidel Castro

By Ronald Howell
When it came to matching words with deeds on the topic of racial equality, the most stalwart leader of the Western hemisphere, over the course of the 20th century, was Fidel Castro.

I say this as a black American who came to bond closely with Latin America as an adult, living in Mexico for almost two years, traveling and staying with families in the Dominican Republic, and making more than half a dozen visits to Cuba, where I strolled through its enchanting cities and drove into the far reaches of the countryside, forging relationships with its people, especially those of darker hue.

Now we are again feeling the heat of the burning topic, the man, who bonded black Americans to his Caribbean island. Yes, it was Fidel Castro who—even though out of power now for years—is angering so many Americans, especially police officers, over his signature action three decades ago.

It was Fidel who gave amnesty to Joanne Chesimard, known now as Assata Shakur, still wanted in the 1973 killing of a New Jersey state trooper, Werner Foerster, in a highway shootout. Shakur was convicted but was busted out of prison in 1979 by comrades. As a leading figure in the Black Liberation Army, which took bolder actions than even the Black Panther Party did, not only getting into gun fights with cops but holding up banks, Shakur became a legend in her time, a Robin Hood of the black masses.

On Dec. 17, in an historical moment, President Barack Obama announced he would seek to normalize relations with Cuba. On the same day, federal and New Jersey police officials repeated their offer of $2 million for information leading to the capture of Shakur. Last year the feds made Shakur the only woman on the FBI Most Wanted Persons list.

You can be sure on black websites and newspapers there will be attention given to the increasing calls for Shakur’s capture or negotiated return. That attention will come with a history.

Castro did not just provide a haven for fugitive revolutionaries, who made the argument, accepted by perhaps a majority of Cubans under Fidel Castro, that blacks were an oppressed people fighting for fair treatment and an end to police abuses in their communities.

No, he was a kind of Martin Luther King with power. For example, before the Cuban revolutionaries led by Castro took over Cuba in 1959, there was fairly rigid racial segregation through the country, including, for example, Santa Clara in the interior of Cuba.

When I was in Santa Clara in early 2001, a woman there told me how black and white Cubans in the 1950s and earlier had walked along different paths around the beautiful downtown Vidal Park. (All it took in Cuba to be white was to have straight hair, be fair complexioned and not want to be called “negro.”)

This racial division largely ended under the government of Fidel Castro. Moreover, Castro made an effort to reach out to blacks in the US.

When he came to New York in 1960 for a United Nations meeting, Castro got upset at the management of the hotel where he was staying, the Shelburne, and he packed his bags and took his entourage up to the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, where he famously leaned out of the window and waved to the black residents of the community. Thousands of Harlemites called out his name in a bonding-with-power they were totally unaccustomed to.

And it didn’t stop there.

In the 1980s, before the end of the Cold War, Fidel sent some 25,000 troops to fight in Angola, on the side of those opposing the then-apartheid government of South Africa. This aspect of Castro’s time in power was little reported in the US media. Fidel militantly opposed racist South Africa at a time when the US was diplomatically supporting it.

It was I who in 1987 first reported that Shakur had actually escaped to Cuba and was residing there, protected by Castro. I spent several days with Shakur at her apartment and walking along the Malecón; my Newsday colleague, photographer Ozier Muhammad, photographed her as she posed provocatively outside the US Interests Section, hands up in victory.

As you know, things have changed since then.

The Soviets stopped supporting Cuba; and then the Soviet Union collapsed to the ground. For two decades there has been speculation that one day a liberal American president might move to end the now-half-century embargo against trade with Cuba and allow Americans to travel there freely.

Republicans and many Democrats were outraged at what they called a concession by Obama to the communism they said Cuba—through the retired Fidel’s brother Raul—still represents.

Muffled in the discussion on cable channels are the feelings of kinship and appreciation that black Americans hold for Fidel Castro.

Many of those who harbor such tenderness toward the bearded one do not shout it into microphones because they don’t wish to be accused of being anti-American. But sympathy with Fidel can be seen in decades of blacks voting in Congress. Harlem’s Congressman Charles Rangel, for instance, has been among the most progressive of all representatives when it has come to policies toward Cuba, over the year having proposed an easing of the embargo. And few on the national scene have been more militant in opposing the embargo than black California Congresswoman Maxine Waters.

In the coming days, Assata Shakur will be mentioned more frequently in news stories about Cuba, especially in the northeast. There are growing demands that the United States find a way to bring her back and to put her in jail. And in their stories, New Jersey newspapers are noting how Assata Shakur is being treated as a heroine by many in the black communities of America.

Federal officials and others are aware of how Shakur has become a kind of folk hero among black Americans and even blacks in the Caribbean, with a number of parents over the past 25 years naming their daughters Assata.

Adding to the appeal for blacks is Assata Shakur’s connection to the late rapper Tupac Shakur, who is related to Assata through his male ancestors (though not by blood) and is considered a nephew.

When I wrote about Tupac Shakur for a now defunct black weekly newspaper (the City Sun) I spoke with a top New York federal official, Ken Walton, who said Assata Shakur damn well better be careful of her every move—then, in 1996, and for the rest of her beating-heart life.

I wrote then of Walton “He told me in measured, angry words that he ‘or somebody like me’ will one day capture Assata and bring her back to the States.”

This I know to be true: Every time a fist was raised for Assata Shakur, sympathy was expressed also for the now old Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

By the way, Assata is not the only revolutionary received by Fidel with open arms. He also gave asylum to Nehanda Obiodun (formerly Cheri Laverne Dalton), the only person still wanted in the early 1981 $1.5 million Brinks armored vehicle holdup in Nanuet, New York, in which two police officers were killed.

These days it is not easy to find out where Assata Shakur and Nehanda Obiodun are or even what they are thinking. I hung out with Obiodun and wrote about her in Cuba in the 1990s, but I was blocked at every turn when I tried to get her and Shakur to meet with me and a group of Stony Brook University students I took to Cuba in January of 2012.

Obiodun has been almost completely off the radar in recent years, out of mind. But Assata Shakur has not been. “New Jersey hopes Cuba-US relations thaw will help extradite former Black Panther,” screamed a headline of Atlantic City News on Dec. 18.

And so, given all this as background, black Americans are not only reflecting nostalgically on Fidel Castro, they are concerned about the plight of Assata Shakur.

Some, perhaps many, black police officials publicly declare their desire that Shakur be captured and returned to jail in the US. But other blacks have respect for the courage she showed as she lived in exile for some 30 years, bearing in her torso the remnants of a bullet she took during that shootout in 1973.

Most of all, you can bet, there is a broad agreement with Barack Obama—that the time for hostility with the Cuban government—no longer headed by Fidel Castro but largely by his brother Raul—should be over.

Georgetown University Plans Steps to Atone for Slave Past 

By RACHEL L. SWARNS

SEPT. 1, 2016

Nearly two centuries after Georgetown Universityprofited from the sale of 272 slaves, it will embark on a series of steps to atone for the past, including awarding preferential status in the admissions process to descendants of the enslaved, officials said on Wednesday.

Georgetown’s president, John J. DeGioia, who will discuss the measures in a speech on Thursday afternoon, also plans to offer a formal apology, create an institute for the study of slavery and erect a public memorial to the slaves whose labor benefited the institution, including those who were sold in 1838 to help keep the university afloat.

In addition, two campus buildings will be renamed — one for an enslaved African-American man and the other for an African-American educator who belonged to a Catholic religious order.

So far, Mr. DeGioia’s plan does not include a provision for offering scholarships to descendants, a possibility that was raised by a university committee whoserecommendations were released on Thursday morning. The committee, however, stopped short of calling on the university to provide such financial assistance, as well as admissions preference.

Mr. DeGioa’s decision to offer an advantage in admissions to descendants, similar to that offered to the children and grandchildren of alumni, is unprecedented, historians say. The preference will be offered to the descendants of all the slaves whose labor benefited Georgetown, not just the men, women and children sold in 1838.

More than a dozen universities — including Brown,Harvard and the University of Virginia — have publicly recognized their ties to slavery and the slave trade. But Craig Steven Wilder and Alfred L. Brophy, two historians who have studied universities and slavery, said they knew of none that had offered preferential status in admissions to the descendants of slaves.

Professor Wilder, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Mr. DeGioia’s plans to address Georgetown’s history go beyond any initiatives enacted by a university in the past 10 years.

“It goes farther than just about any institution,” he said. “I think it’s to Georgetown’s credit. It’s taking steps that a lot of universities have been reluctant to take.”

But whether the initiatives result in meaningful change remains to be seen, he said. Professor Wilder cautioned that the significance of the preferential status in admissions would rest heavily on the degree to which Georgetown invested in outreach to descendants, including identifying them, making sure they are aware of the benefit’s existence and actively recruiting them to the university.

“The question of how effective or meaningful this is going to be will only be answered over time,” Professor Wilder said.

Mr. DeGioia’s plan, which builds on the recommendations of the committee that he convened last year, represents the university’s first systematic effort to address its roots in slavery. Georgetown, which was founded and run by Jesuit priests in 1789, relied on the Jesuit plantations in Maryland — and the sale of produce and slaves — to finance its operations.

The 1838 sale, worth about $3.3 million in today’s dollars, was organized by two of Georgetown’s early presidents, both Jesuits. A portion of the profit, about $500,000, was used to help pay off Georgetown’s debts at a time when the college was struggling financially. The slaves were uprooted from the Maryland plantations and shipped to estates in Louisiana.

Mr. DeGioia said he planned to apologize for the wrongs of the past “within the framework of the Catholic tradition,” by offering what he described as a Mass of reconciliation in partnership with the Jesuit leadership in the United States and the Archdiocese of Washington.

“We know we’ve got work to do, and we’re going to take those steps to do so,” Mr. DeGioia said in an interview on Wednesday.

The two buildings being renamed originally paid tribute to the Rev. Thomas F. Mulledy and the Rev. William McSherry, the college presidents involved in the 1838 sale. Now one will be called Isaac Hall to commemorate the life of Isaac, one of the slaves shipped to Louisiana in 1838, and the other Anne Marie Becraft Hall, in honor of a 19th-century educator who founded a school for black girls in Washington.

“It needs to be a part of our living history,” Mr. DeGioia said.

Mr. DeGioia assembled his working group of scholars, administrators, students and alumni last September, asking them to consider how the university should address its history. Their work took on greater urgency in November in the wake of student demonstrations. In April, The New York Times published an articletracing the life of one of the slaves, Cornelius Hawkins, and his modern-day descendants.

In its 102-page report, the committee said that the university’s dependence on slavery was deeper and broader than originally believed.

Slave labor and slave sales were envisioned as part of the financing model of the college even before the doors opened in 1789. And slaves were not only forced to work on the Jesuit plantations. Some also toiled on campus, hired from students and other wealthy people.

The committee said that it was likely that all of the earliest buildings on campus — including the ones named for the university leaders who orchestrated the 1838 sale — were built with slave labor.

More historical research needs to be done, the committee said, and that will be coordinated by the new research center, the Institute for the Study of Slavery and its Legacies. The university has already selected the program director for the institute, which will also support Mr. DeGioia’s plans to deepen engagement with descendants of the enslaved.

Mr. DeGioia, who met with dozens of descendants this summer, plans to establish a working group for the creation of the public memorial that will include descendants. He also plans, among other efforts, to provide descendants with access to genealogical information housed in the university’s archives.

“All of these will have a substantial financial impact,” said Mr. DeGioia, who believes that Georgetown’s philanthropic community will support his initiatives. “I’m very confident that will not be a constraint.”

Karran Harper Royal, a descendant of slaves sold in 1838, said that she appreciated the decision to rename the buildings and to create a memorial. But she said the initiatives fell far short of what descendants had hoped for.

She said that Georgetown should have offered scholarships to descendants and included them on the committee that developed the recommendations, adding that she and others “felt the sting” of not being formally invited to Mr. DeGioia’s speech this afternoon.

“It has to go much farther,” said Ms. Harper Royal, who is an organizer of a group of descendants. “They’re calling us family. Well, I’m from New Orleans and when we have a gathering, family’s invited.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/02/us/slaves-georgetown-university.html?emc=edit_na_20160901&nlid=72087804&ref=headline&_r=0

 

Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom


By Richard Grant; 

Photographs by Allison Shelley

Smithsonian Magazine

The worse it gets, as I wade and stumble through the Great Dismal Swamp, the better I understand its history as a place of refuge. Each ripping thorn and sucking mudhole makes it clearer. It was the dense, tangled hostility of the swamp and its enormous size that enabled hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of escaped slaves to live here in freedom.

We don’t know much about them, but thanks to the archaeologist hacking through the mire ahead of me, we know they were out here, subsisting in hidden communities, and using almost nothing from the outside world until the 19th century. The Dismal Swamp covered great tracts of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina, and its vegetation was far too thick for horses or canoes. In the early 1600s, Native Americans fleeing the colonial frontier took refuge here, and they were soon joined by fugitive slaves, and probably some whites escaping indentured servitude or hiding from the law. From about 1680 to the Civil War, it appears that the swamp communities were dominated by Africans and African-Americans.

Thigh deep in muddy water, wearing Levis and hiking boots rather than waterproof waders like me, Dan Sayers stops to light a cigarette. He’s a historical archaeologist and chair of the anthropology department at American University in Washington, D.C., but he looks more like an outlaw country singer. Long-haired and bearded, 43 years old, he habitually wears a battered straw cowboy hat and a pair of Waylon Jennings-style sunglasses. Sayers is a Marxist and a vegan who smokes nearly two packs a day and keeps himself revved up on Monster Energy drinks until it’s time to crack a beer.

“I was such a dumb-ass,” he says. “I was looking for hills, hummocks, high ground because that’s what I’d read in the documents: ‘Runaway slaves living on hills….’ I had never set foot in a swamp before. I wasted so much time. Finally, someone asked me if I’d been to the islands in North Carolina. Islands! That was the word I’d been missing.”

The Great Dismal Swamp, now reduced by draining and development, is managed as a federal wildlife refuge. The once-notorious panthers are gone, but bears, birds, deer and amphibians are still abundant. So are venomous snakes and biting insects. In the awful heat and humidity of summer, Sayers assures me, the swamp teems with water moccasins and rattlesnakes. The mosquitoes get so thick that they can blur the outlines of a person standing 12 feet away.

In early 2004, one of the refuge biologists strapped on his waders and brought Sayers to the place we’re going, a 20-acre island occasionally visited by hunters, but completely unknown to historians and archaeologists. Before Sayers, no archaeology had been done in the swamp’s interior, mainly because conditions were so challenging. One research party got lost so many times that it gave up.

When you’ve been toiling through the sucking ooze, with submerged roots and branches grabbing at your ankles, dry solid ground feels almost miraculous. We step onto the shore of a large, flat, sun-dappled island carpeted with fallen leaves. Walking toward its center, the underbrush disappears, and we enter a parklike clearing shaded by a few hardwoods and pines.

“I’ll never forget seeing this place for the first time,” recalls Sayers. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life. I never dreamed of finding a 20-acre island, and I knew instantly it was livable. Sure enough, you can’t put a shovel in the ground anywhere on this island without finding something.”

He has named his excavation areas—the Grotto, the Crest, North Plateau and so on—but he won’t name the island itself. In his academic papers and his 2014 book, A Desolate Place for a Defiant People, Sayers refers to it as the “nameless site.” “I don’t want to put a false name on it,” he explains. “I’m hoping to find out what the people who lived here called this place.” As he sifts the earth they trod, finding the soil footprints of their cabins and tiny fragments of their tools, weapons and white clay pipes, he feels a profound admiration for them, and this stems in part from his Marxism.

“These people performed a critique of a brutal capitalistic enslavement system, and they rejected it completely. They risked everything to live in a more just and equitable way, and they were successful for ten generations. One of them, a man named Charlie, was interviewed later in Canada. He said that all labor was communal here. That’s how it would have been in an African village.”

Dan Sayers
During more than ten years of field excavations, archaeologist Dan Sayers has recovered 3,604 artifacts at an island located deep inside the swamp. (Allison Shelley)

**********

Wherever Africans were enslaved in the world, there were runaways who escaped permanently and lived in free independent settlements. These people and their descendants are known as “maroons.” The term probably comes from the Spanish cimarrón, meaning feral livestock, fugitive slave or something wild and defiant.

Marronage, the process of extricating oneself from slavery, took place all over Latin America and the Caribbean, in the slave islands of the Indian Ocean, in Angola and other parts of Africa. But until recently, the idea that maroons also existed in North America has been rejected by most historians.

“In 2004, when I started talking about large, permanent maroon settlements in the Great Dismal Swamp, most scholars thought I was nuts,” says Sayers. “They thought in terms of runaways, who might hide in the woods or swamps for a while until they got caught, or who might make it to freedom on the Underground Railroad, with the help of Quakers and abolitionists.”

By downplaying American marronage, and valorizing white involvement in the Underground Railroad, historians have shown a racial bias, in Sayers’ opinion, a reluctance to acknowledge the strength of black resistance and initiative. They’ve also revealed the shortcomings of their methods: “Historians are limited to source documents. When it comes to maroons, there isn’t that much on paper. But that doesn’t mean their story should be ignored or overlooked. As archaeologists, we can read it in the ground.”

Voices Of Slavery: ‘They Were Saving Me For A Breeding Woman’

During 1929 and 1930, an Africa-American scholar named Ophelia Settle Egypt, conducted nearly 100 interviews with former slaves. Working then at Fisk University, she was the first person to ever conduct such a large scale endeavor. Accompanied by Charles Johnson, a black sociologist, she was able to get the former slaves to open up about the waning days of the institution. In 1945, she finally published her Unwritten History of Slavery, which collected thirty-eight transcripts of the interviews. Each account, published anonymously, painted a fuller picture of black slavery in Tennessee and Kentucky, where most of the interviewees had resided.

This first account, entitled “One of Dr. Gale’s ‘Free Niggers’,” is surprisingly candid about the rape of slave women by their owners, as well as other aspects of such relationships. 

Just the other day we were talking about white people when they had slaves. You know when a man would marry, his father would give him a woman for a cook and she would have children right in the house by him, and his wife would have children, too. Sometimes the cook’s children favored him so much that the wife would be mean to them and make him sell them. If they had nice long hair she would cut it off and wouldn’t let them wear it long like the white children.

They would buy a fine girl and then a fine man and just put them together like cattle; they would not stop to marry them. If she was a good breeder, they was proud of her. I was stout and they were saving me for a breeding woman but by the time I was big enough I was free. I had an aunt in Mississippi and she had about twenty children by her marster. On Sunday they would get us ready to go to church. They would dress us up after we ask them if we could go and they would have me walk off from them and they would look at me, and I’d hear them saying, “She’s got a fine shape; she’ll make a good breeder,” but I didn’t know what they were talking about.

Then there was old Sam Watkins, – he would ship their husbands (slaves) out of bed and get in with their wives. One man (a slave) said he stood it as long as he could and one morning he just stood out side, and when he (the master) got with his wife (the slave), he just choked him to death. He knew it was death, but it was death anyhow; so he just killed him. They hanged him. There has always been a law in Tennessee that if a Negro kill a white man it means death.

Now, mind you, all of the colored women didn’t have to have white men, some did it because they wanted to and some were forced. They had a horror of going to Mississippi and they would do anything to keep from it. A white woman would have a maid sometimes who was nice looking, and she would keep her and her son would have children by her. Of course the mixed blood, you couldn’t expect much from them.

My mother was born in Mississippi and brought here. My father was born in Maryland. He was an old man when he come here, but they just bought them and put them together. My mother was young – just fifteen or sixteen years old. She had fourteen children and you know that meant a lot of wealth.

When I was quite a girl I went to a colored person’s wedding. She was a black as that thing there (card table top) but she was her young marster’s woman and he let her marry because he could get her anyhow if he wanted her.

No, they didn’t tell you a thing. I was a great big girl twelve or thirteen years old, I reckon, and a girl two or three years older than that and we’d be going ’round to the parsley bed looking for babies; and looking in hollow logs. It’s a wonder a snake hadn’t bitten us. The woman that would wait on my mother [midwife] would come back and tell us here’s her baby; and that was all we knew. We thought she brought it because it was hers. I was twenty years old when my first baby came, and I didn’t know nothing then. I didn’t know how long I had to carry my baby. We never saw nothing when we were children.

There was an old man who belonged to Dr. Shelby, and he said if he ever got free he wasn’t ever going to get up any more, and after he got free he really stayed there ’til he starved to death and died. He was an old man, too. He was just so happy to know that he could lay in bed and nobody could make him get up, he just wouldn’t even get up to eat. You sure couldn’t do that (lie in bed) on old man Shelby’s place. He’d whip niggers to death and then sell them before they died. The white folks go down on him for it and he was always in a lawsuit with somebody about selling a slave he had beat so bad that he died soon after the other man got him.

Oh, they tried to scare us; said they had horns (Yankees) but when we saw them with their blue clothes, brass spurs on their feet and their guns just shining, they just looked pretty to us.

Ophelia Settle Egypt would go on to be instrumental in exposing the abuses of the Tuskegee study of syphilis, which exposed black sharecroppers to the disease without their consent, refusing to properly treat them, even though the cure was known and available. The rest of her life was devoted to the study and research of medicine and sociology. She became a research assistant, children’s author, and was the director of Washington D.C.’s first Planned Parenthood clinic until she died in 1981.