Historians' project enables freed slaves to speak for themselves

February 10, 1991|By Patricia Meisol

Writing to his wife in Baltimore from the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry camp in City Point, Va., on May 20, 1865, Solomon Grayson professed good spirits, reported that he was still awaiting his pay to send money home and promised to come home himself by summer.

"P.S.," the 23-year-old black Civil War soldier wrote, "Please send me some postage stamps. Send me the likenesses of the children. Have Vina send me hers. I heard she had a baby baptized and I am glad to hear that."

It was near the end of the Civil War, but five months later, Oct. 12, 1865, Francis Grayson had had no more news from her husband.

"dear sir:" she wrote the AdjutantGeneral's Office in Washington, D.C., "this inclosed is the Last I got from my Husband. I herd he was Dead. Please Let me Know if So or not"

To a historian, such letters are treasures, helping to illuminate the lives of ordinary people engaged in the struggle for emancipation. They reveal how former slaves who joined the military strove to support families left behind, and often, the price they paid.

Thousands of the documents ended up in the hands of the U.S. government. The century-old letters between husbands and wives in the midst of civil war are part of a unique collection of documents unearthed from the U.S. Archives by a team of researchers at the University of Maryland College Park.

With the publication last month of a third 900-page volume based onthe documents, and a fourth volume due this spring, historians estimate they are halfway through telling the story of Emancipation from the letters and correspondence of the people who lived it -- Southern planters, Northern carpetbaggers, Union Army commanders and freed slaves.

"This is 'let the people speak for themselves,' " says Ira Berlin, professor of history and main editor for the past 15 years of the Freedmen and Southern Society Project.

So far, the 15-year examination of the years between 1861 and 1867 from the perspective of ordinary people is forcing a re-examination of the nature of slavery and the meaning of freedom in American society that evolved after it ended.

In the first volume, historians documented how slaves actively participated in securing their own freedom. In "The Black Military Experience," the researchers showed how black soldiers learned to understand the rules of citizenship from the rules and regulations of the military.

Now, letters and reports in "The Wartime Genesis of Free Labor: The Lower South," the just-published volume of "Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation," show how the country began to resolve issues such as land ownership, wages and other labor rights when 4 million black people gained their freedom.

The editors believe that the struggle for freedom was fought not only in Washington by Lincoln, or at Vicksburg, Miss., by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, but by slaves, former masters, freedmen, Northern officers and volunteers on Southern plantations.

"Some argue history is made from the top down," Dr. Berlin said. "Most people who write history have argued it is not possible to write from a slave's perspective. In the last decade, we said we could."

And when the researchers went out to find the documents beginning in 1976, he said, "we happened not upon a box or a carload or even a roomful" of documents, but with hundreds of thousands.

Dr. Berlin and researchers Leslie S. Rowland and Steven F. Miller have been the principal editors of the series that began in part with Ms. Rowland's graduate thesis under the late University of Rochester historian Herbert G. Gutman.

It took three years to select the 40,000 to 50,000 documents the researchers copied at the Archives and brought back to cramped offices on the College Park campus.

By the time they finish what may be a nine-volume work, they estimate that only 2 percent of the documents will have been published. At least 10 visiting scholars have worked on the project, one of the largest collaborative history projects ever undertaken.

The questions they asked were not new, but the documents and resources at their command were. With documents and testimony from blacks and whites alike, the historians detail how small struggles on one plantation spread throughout the South. How Southern planters devised new ways of controlling former slaves -- from setting up general stores to keep them in debt to giving parents land in exchange for the labor of their sons -- and how former slaves organized to defeat them.

These "micro" struggles, the authors argue, changed and expanded the American notion of freedom.

At the time of the American Revolution, Dr. Berlin said, most people probably believed that freedom meant having access to productive property -- lands that gave them status and power in their communities. After the war, freedom evolved to mean the ability to sell one's labor, to use one's hands to feed himself or his family.

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