Slave letters shed light on the era of emancipation AH BLACK HISTORY MONTH 1994

February 25, 1994|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,Sun Staff Writer

History professor Joseph P. Reidy has gained insight into the Civil War from a personal viewpoint. He's looked at letters written by slaves.

Many chronicled the hardship of their lives in poignant correspondence sent to family members and others, he says.

The letters "illuminate the process of emancipation" of slaves, says Dr. Reidy who teaches at Howard University. The professor will talk about Civil War correspondence that traces that emancipation at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Smithsonian Institution's National Postal Museum located in the Old Post Office building on Capitol Hill next to Union Station.

The National Postal Museum has been open for six months, says Wendy Aibelweiss, head of the education department for the museum. "One of the [points of] emphasis is the celebration of letters from a diversity of voices," she says.

Dr. Reidy has uncovered correspondence which includes personal letters or complaints written by slaves, official government statements and other documents. Most of his research was done at the National Archives, he explains.

"If slaves couldn't read or write before they went into the Army, they would learn in the Army," the professor says. "Then they would write everyone from Abraham Lincoln to their families. Some of the letters are very touching."

Letters and statements from the government, he says, revealed various official positions on slaves. One point of contention Dr. Reidy noted in the correspondence among Northern government officials was if Union soldiers should defend runaway slaves.

"Some slaves would have slave masters hot on their heels -- with whip in hand. When faced with that spectacle, it would turn the stomachs of some Union soldiers. They would say 'this is wrong. And they would act accordingly,' " Dr. Reidy says.

Other Union soldiers' letters and documents showed they were adamant in refusing to help blacks under any circumstance. "Others would say, 'No way are we going to protect slaves,' " says Dr. Reidy.

Higher up, government officials were either "extremely sympathetic" to the condition of slaves or "downright cold-hearted," he says.

"Dr. Reidy was instrumental in uncovering many of these letters," Ms. Aibelweiss says. "There's one letter an African-American mother wrote to Abraham Lincoln regarding her concern that her son -- who was fighting in the Union -- would become enslaved if captured. There are many more."

An exhibit of some of the Civil War letters is on display at the Postal Museum through July 30. "The Madden Family Letters," traces the history of an African-American family from Culpepper, Va., from 1740 to 1992.

LETTERS FROM THE PAST

What: Joseph P. Reidy discusses Civil War correspondence that traces the emancipation of slaves.

When: From 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: The National Postal Museum, Old Post Office building, 2 Massachusetts Ave., N.E., Washington (across from Union Station)

Admission: Free

Call: (202) 357-2991

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