'Pocket diaries' explore a free black woman's life in the Civil War

Baltimore author Karsonya Wise Whitehead transcribes three diaries from 1863-65 kept by a young seamstress

June 21, 2014|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

"To day has bin a memorable day," Emilie Frances Davis wrote in a miniature diary on Jan. 1, 1863, the date the Emancipation Proclamation became law.

"I thank God I have bin here to see it. The day was religiously observed, all the churches were open. We had quite a Jubilee in the evening. I went to Joness to a party, had a very blessest time."

Davis, a 21-year-old seamstress and freeborn black woman living in Philadelphia, was jotting down her feelings about the event that came to be known as Jubilee Day in one of three pocket diaries she kept from 1863 to 1865 during the height of the Civil War.

The diaries, which somehow avoided destruction, are being published now for the first time. The tiny notebooks, less than 5 inches high and 8 inches wide, provide a rare perspective into the issues consuming the nation's free blacks in the 19th century.

"This is the first voice of an everyday black woman that we have from that period," says Karsonya Wise Whitehead, the Baltimore author who transcribed the journals. "Her pocket diaries are helping us to answer the question, 'If you were a woman and you weren't enslaved or part of the elite, what was your life like?' "

Whitehead, 45, is an award-winning former schoolteacher and regional Emmy-nominated filmmaker. She was so taken by Davis' diaries that she returned to graduate school to learn how to tell the seamstress' story.

"Emilie's life was more similar to ours than different," says Whitehead, now an assistant professor of communications at Loyola University Maryland. "She worked at jobs. She dated. She visited her friends, she went to lectures to hear Frederick Douglass speak, and she went to church and to school. She complained about her hair and about lacking money."

Whitehead is especially touched that Davis writes of raising money to help enslaved people in South Carolina — who might have been her own relatives. the author says.

The author will discuss the pocket diaries at least twice in the next few months — on Tuesday at Red Emma's Coffeehouse, and on Sept. 17 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. An edited version of a recent conversation with The Baltimore Sun appears below.

How did you discover Emilie's pocket diaries?

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania has the diaries, and in 2005 a friend made copies and sent them to me. She didn't know that Emilie was a black woman. She just knew that these were diaries from the 1860s and she thought I might be interested in them.

Emilie's handwriting is difficult to read. After a few months, I came across an entry from August of 1863 in which she calls herself "colored." That was a life-changing moment for me. There are so few primary sources written by black women from that period, maybe four or six, and they tend to be by elite women. I realized that I had the opportunity to reclaim her voice. I wanted to tell her story, but I didn't know how.

I quit teaching and went back to school to get my Ph.D. I started working on the diaries in 2006, and I didn't finish transcribing them until 2012.

What were some of the obstacles you faced?

The diaries were really small, so Emilie's handwriting was small. She spelled words based on how she was feeling. She spelled her own name three different ways.

She didn't use last names for some people. She wrote from one day to the next without actually stopping or saying, "Today I did …" or "Yesterday, I went…" so I had to make a decision about where to separate the days. Sometimes she wrote in pencil, sometimes she wrote on top of her own lines, and sometimes she threw in French and German words which she didn't always spell correctly.

I've had to take liberties with her life, and that concerns me. I made a lot of educated guesses. I might be wrong, but I try to explain how I made those decisions.

But Emilie's story is ongoing. She may have written diaries before 1863 or after 1865 that we haven't found yet. That's what makes this project so exciting.

How did Philadelphia's free black community become so prominent in the 19th century?

It goes back to the 1700s when a number of African-American men were freed because they participated in the Revolutionary War and the Quakers in Philadelphia began founding black schools.

By the 19th century, Philadelphia was the most important hub of black life in the United States. It connected the enslaved black communities of the South to the free black communities of the north.

Philadelphia had a very rich, educated black community that was speaking French and German on the street corners. They were actively involved in politics, they were working to educate their children and they were one of the first free black communities who rushed to get involved in the Civil War.

What were pocket diaries, and how were they intended to be used?

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