New Slave Diary

Roundup: Talking About History

From the New York Times (June 20 2004):

In the summer of 2002, an elderly woman named Gladys Watt walked into the Historical Society in Greenwich, Conn., with a weathered leather-bound notebook. The notebook had belonged to her neighbor, Lydia Turnage Connolly, who died in 1984 at the age of 99. When Mrs. Connolly moved into a nursing home in the early 1980's, she asked her friend to keep her things.

Mrs. Watt had known her neighbor for years, but had not known that Mrs. Connolly was black, the daughter of a former Alabama slave, Wallace Turnage, who at some point in the late 19th century wrote an account of his years in slavery and his escape. (Mrs. Connolly never told her neighbors that she was black, instead describing herself as"Portugee.")

Her father's notebook, along with another recently surfaced narrative by a former Virginia slave, John Washington, is being studied by a Yale historian, David W. Blight, who plans to publish both in the next few years. Professor Blight says that there are only a half-dozen or so narratives by former slaves recounting their self-emancipation in such detail, and that these two provide an unusually vivid and emotionally powerful account of life under slavery and the road to freedom. Excerpts follow. •

Mr. Turnage begins his account in the third person, in an almost classical tone that suggests it was intended to be read by future historians.

Wallace Turnage's apology for his book. My book is a sketch of my life or adventures and persecutions which I went through from 1860 to 1865. I do not mean to speak disparagingly of those who sold me, nor of those who bought me. Though I seen a hard time, it had an attendency to make a man of me.

It is not all of the details of my hard ships, but merely a sketch of that which I think would be most interesting to those who shall approve my book. I could say more of the South and of its fertile soil, but I don't think it is necessary.

I will also beg my reader to excuse my ungrammatical and desultory biography because my kind reader can see that I have been deprived of an education, and what knowledge I have to present this biography to you, I learnt during that time and since I escapted the clutches of those who held me in slavery.

Mr. Turnage describes the first of several times he was sold, probably at the age of 14. The buyer, Hector Davis, is listed as a slave trader in an 1852 directory in Richmond, Va. From the narrative and genealogical research, it appears that Mr. Turnage's father was Sylvester Brown Turnage, whose family had owned his mother. Morehead City is on the North Carolina coast.

In the year of 1860, I was carried to Richmond, V.A. and sold to a man by the name of Hector Davis. Now I could not rightly be sold until all of the people's children I belonged to were of age, so the oldest one got married, so she was allowed to draw her part, though after she had drawned me she was not to sell me out of the family, for her Brother was my father. For all of that she and her Husband made a plot with one Mr. Reuben Wallace to take me to Richmond and sell me. So they told me that they was going to take me to More head City to nurse and I could come to see my Mother when I wanted to. so I thought that was very nice and I consented to go, thinking all of the while, that I was going to More Head City to nurse. but I was greatly mistaken. So instead of going to Morehead city, I was carried to Richmond and was sold to Mr. Hector Davis. He gave nine hundred and fifty dollars for me. I was kept then as his auction and office boy. so I lived in Richmond some time, taking people from the jail to the dressing room and from the dressing room to the auction room.

John Washington tells of learning to read and of seeing slaves being sold to plantations in states south of Virginia, where he spent all of his years in slavery.

At about 4 years of age Mother learned me the alphabet from the"New York Primer" I was kept at my lessons an hour or Two each night by my mother: My first Great Sorrow was caused by seeing one morning, a number of"Plantation Hands," formed into lone line, with little Bundles straped to their backs, Men Women, and children. and all marched off to be Sold South away from all that was near and dear to them. Parents, wives husbands and children; all separated one from another perhaps never to meet again on earth. I shall never forget the weeping that morning amoung those that were left behind each one Expecting to go next....

comments powered by Disqus