Juneteenth: First-Hand Literacy and Freedom

 “…i wanted to be a new person and my rebirth was stifled not by the master but the slave.” – Nikki Giovanni.

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Celebrating Juneteenth – and a letter from my great great grandfather

The United States freed its last slaves on this day June 18, 1865, 149 years ago. Officially commemorated as Juneteenth, this holiday goes unmarked and unnoticed by the majority Americans, including many African-Americans. Which begs the question: why? When TED Fellow Kyra Gaunt received a copy of a letter from her great great grandfather, a former slave who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, his handwritten words opened her eyes to how limited, fragmented and ephemeral narratives of slavery still are. A shorter version of this story appears on the ideas page of TED.com.

NOTE: I hope readers will consider that online literacy leads to emancipation for black girls and others, too.

In March 2014, I was struck with tears after opening an email from my mother that began: “Read this history about your great, great, great grandfather. Wow, what a rich heritage!”

Attached was a copy of a letter, titled “LETTER FROM SHERIDAN FORD, IN DISTRESS.” I was a letter my great, great, great grandfather had written in 1855, 159 years ago on February 15th. He’d recently escaped slavery in Portsmouth, Virginia, on the Underground Railroad. I was reading the words of one of my kin — in his own hand.

The letter had been sent to my family by a reporter from Portsmouth, who explained that Ford had written this letter to a friend once he’d reached Philadelphia, entreating him to help his (first) wife and children, who were in jail at the time. They would be left behind; a causality of emancipation. The letter had been published in 1872, in a book by William Still — a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Here is the text in full: 

LETTER FROM SHERIDAN FORD, IN DISTRESS.

BOSTON, MASS., Feb. 15th, 1855.

No. 2, Change Avenue.

 MY DEAR FRIEND:—Allow me to take the liberty of addressing you and at the same time appearing troublesomes you all friend, but subject is so very important that i can not but ask not in my name but in the name of the Lord and humanity to do something for my Poor Wife and children who lays in Norfolk Jail and have Been there for three month i Would open myself in that frank and hones manner. Which should convince you of my cencerity of Purpoest don’t shut your ears to the cry’s of the Widow and the orphant & i can but ask in the name of humanity and God for he knows the heart of all men. Please ask the friends humanity to do something for her and her two lettle ones i cant do any thing Place as i am for i have to lay low Please lay this before the churches of Philadelphaise beg them in name of the Lord to do something for him i love my freedom and if it would do her and her two children any good i mean to change with her but cant be done for she is Jail and you most no she suffer for the jail in the South are not like yours for any thing is good enough for negros the Slave hunters Says & may God interpose in behalf of the demonstrative Race of Africa Whom i claim desendent i am sorry to say that friendship is only a name here but i truss it is not so in Philada i would not have taken this liberty had i not considered you a friend for you treaty as such Please do all you can and Please ask the Anti Slavery friends to do all they can and God will Reward them for it i am shure for the earth is the Lords and the fullness there of as this note leaves me not very well but hope when it comes to hand it may find you and family enjoying all the Pleasure life Please answer this and Pardon me if the necessary sum can be required i will find out from my brotherinlaw i am with respectful consideration.

SHERIDAN W. FORD.

 

The Debt of Forced Migration: Local Memory

I was overcome with heavy tears at what this letter meant to me. His writing spoke of options I never knew or realized slaves had even as a professor. He was literate and well versed in writing by 1855, and he clearly articulates the value his freedom in ways no Hollywood script by Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino could ever aptly capture. This was not mediated by images but across generations of forgotten memories of my kin.

Here was a letter written phonetically in respectably lucid language, five years after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act from the Compromise of 1850 — which ended Reconstruction and led to the discriminatory, second-class ranking Jim Crow laws. My great great grandfather could have been snatched back to the South if ever found in the North by his lawful captors.

This is more than any memory passed down orally, and better than any autobiography published in a book. It was evidence, a liberated truth. It was a local knowledge penned in a formerly enslaved man’s full grasp of a belief in God, his humanity and the justice in being newly free.

It seemed like a miracle to read the words of someone who I am related to, who I could trace to my bloodline instead of some generalized story about slavery.

Why? White Americans aren’t the only ones who don’t like to remember slavery and its history.

 

 1863: 5 Million Freed, 1 Million Lost

According to the 2013 US Census, there are 41 million people who identify as African-American and I could lay money on that fewer than 1% will publicly celebrate the 150th anniversary of June 19th, or what we call “Juneteenth” — also known as Freedom Day and Emancipation Day — when it rolls around next year, even though the holiday is recognized in 43 of our so-called united states.

On that day in 1865, the state of Texas freed the last enslaved Africans in America. They were not slaves, they were Africans. General Order No. 3 was announced in Galveston: 

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States [originally signed two years earlier by Abraham Lincoln], all slaves are free. … The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

African Americans don’t have many stories about our enslaved ancestors or their escape.

When I grew up no one talked about slaves inside black family life. Slaves were objects in public debates, always referred to in some generalized manner and the talk was always “we come from slaves” (not enslaved Africans). We were property – not our humanity or ethnicity. And we had our nationality stripped with every stroke of a slavemaster’s whip.

Most people today know they set “us” free in 1863. But no one ever knew told me that Lincoln freed 5 million enslaved African people and that 1 million of the newly liberated women, men and children died within the first year. With Emancipation came starvation and other effects of being freed among Southerners who still wished to chase former slaves with bloodhounds in the name of their own right to life, liberty and property.

Kunte Kinte
The birth of Kunte Kinte in the ABC Miniseries Roots by Alex Haley, 1977. Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson appear with infant. The book was released in 1976 during the bicentennial celebration of the founding of the USA.

African American remembering is more lore than lived memory. Most often we cherry-pick popular slave narratives or mediated memories like those in Alex Haley’s ABC mini-series Roots: “Behold! The only thing greater than yourself!” Comedy is sadly much more common. Our memories are like second-hand clothes, mediated scripts of third-world stories. They carry no local knowledge or memory at all of the broken backs who once carried them. Mostly, we nurse broken memories of forced migrations thrown overboard.

When we do get to the real memories, we try to tell “the right” story, the “grotesque” how-could-they-do-this-to-us story, or the capitalism-was-built-on-the-back-of-the-debt-paid-with-our-free-labor-and-forced-sex story. There’s Toni Morrison’s story of a mother’s love expressed in the salvation of killing her children rather than allowing them live as chattel slaves. But mother’s love is supposed to deny such a thing as infanticide. 

Most African-Americans will never even have read the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. I haven’t, though I have quoted a part about singing. I didn’t even know it was from his tongue. I own a recording of his words loudly declaimed by esteemed actor Ossie Davis on a set of recordings about African American music:

Slaves were expected to sing as well as to work. A silent slave was not liked.

And thus, we continue our silence in a post-racial America.

 

Today, many African Americans do not know Douglass’s literate freedom nor Harriet Jacobs. We remain in the bondage of our own lack of curiosity surrounded by institutional miseducation about who we were and who we can be. So reading the handwritten words of my grandfather’s grandfather first-hand — it changed something in me.

It turns out that we were more than anything I had ever learned — more literate, more compassionate, more enlightened — and we must be re-membered to more of these kinds of memories. The inscribed evidence: “i love my freedom.” An ownership of not just one’s liberty but of one’s own literacy. I can now claim my descendance from the Race of Africa from the words of my own kin, from within my immediate family, and not from some televised fiction. No more silence, writing next time.

Find William Still’s book, The Underground Railroad, in which Sheridan Ford’s letter was originally published, on Gutenberg.org.

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