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Rare Slave Manuscripts Tell Stories of Escape

In A Slave No More, historian David W. Blight showcases the emancipation narratives of two men, one from Alabama and one from Virginia. Manuscripts written by Wallace Turnage and John Washington, and genealogical information compiled by Blight, combine to tell the stories of their lives as slaves and their harrowing flights to freedom.


Other segments from the episode on December 4, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 4, 2007: Interview with David W. Blight; Interview with Ruth Washington, Barbara Anne Hinksman, and Maureen Ramos.


DATE December 4, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Historian David W. Blight talks about his new book
"A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped To Freedom"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Two remarkable slave narratives recently surfaced and are selected in a new
book. What makes them especially valuable is they tell the stories of the
writers' escape from slavery during the Civil War. The book is called "A
Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped To Freedom." It includes the narratives,
written by John Washington and Wallace Turnage. My guest, David Blight, is
the director of Yale University's Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance
and Abolition. He edited the narratives and wrote an essay putting them in
historical context. Less than two months ago Blight and his researcher were
able to track down some descendants of John Washington. We'll hear from three
of them later in the show. They knew nothing of the narrative. They didn't
even know John Washington had been a slave.

David Blight, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why are the two slave narratives that
you've edited and included in your book "A Slave No More," why are they so
important? What's their significance?

Mr. DAVID BLIGHT: Well, they're important, first, because they are rare.
They're extraordinarily rare. Before the Civil War, from the 1740s until
about 1865, we have only about 65 such autobiographies by former slaves
published in English. From the end of the Civil War up until the 1920s when
the last of slaves who wrote about themselves began to die off, we only have
about 55 such documents published in English. But what makes these so unusual
is that they were never published, they were never edited, they were never
touched. They arrived in my lap as raw, unmediated documents. And, in
essence, these are two former slaves telling the story of how they escaped in
the midst of the Civil War. And we have precious few of those as well, where
a former slave tells largely the story of his emancipation.

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to read an excerpt of John Washington's
narrative. But before we do that, tell us a little bit about what his life as
a slave was like.

Mr. BLIGHT: In John Washington's case he was born in 1838 in Fredericksburg,
Virginia. His father was white, although, if he ever knew who he was he never
told us. And in this case I've never been able to determine exactly who
Washington's father was, in part because there are so many Washingtons in the
state of Virginia. But he grows up an urban slave, and that makes all the
difference in the world. He was literate, skilled, intelligent, highly
valued. He tells us that his own mother first taught him his letters and his
alphabet, although he also had some other tutoring along the way. And
furthermore he was hired out several times--four times to be exact--in the
late 1850s and up through 1861, hired out to a local tobacco factory, to a
local family. He was hired out to a hotel. And in this hiring out process he
was also able to put up a little money of his own. A slave that was hired out
brought home wages that the master kept, but if you worked extra hours, for
example, at the tobacco factory, he was able to keep some of it.

He was an urbane, young man of 22 when he escaped from slavery. He also fell
crazy in love with his basically childhood sweetheart, a young, free black
woman named Annie Gordon, who he met at the African Baptist church in
Fredericksburg in the mid 1850s. One love letter, indeed, that he wrote to
her survived, which is a rare such document written by a former slave, and
even some fragments of a diary that he kept in the late 1850s have survived.
And most of that diary is, indeed, the tale of his courtship of young Annie.
So this is an unusual, a fairly special, highly valued young slave, but a
slave nonetheless.

GROSS: Before you read the passage about getting his freedom, tell us what
the earlier part of that day was like for him, the part of that day when he
was still a slave.

Mr. BLIGHT: It is the most dramatic moment in Washington's narrative. He
has an encounter with his mistress, his owner, Mrs. Tolliver, who is packing
everything up like all of the white population of Fredericksburg; they're
evacuating town. And they have an exchange where she tells him, you know,
`Now, John, you'll be with us tomorrow. You'll be with us when we leave.' And
he says, `Yes, mistress; yes, mistress, I'll be there.'

But his next scene, in effect, is he's at the hotel where he's hired out.
It's called The Shakespeare. And he's kind of an assistant manager there.
The owner of the hotel values him so much that he gives him a wad of cash, of
bills, to pay off all of the help, most of whom are slaves. And he describes
how all the white guests and white management are fleeing the hotel and
running down the streets. Meanwhile, he takes all of the black helpers, about
a dozen of them...

GROSS: I should stop you and say they're fleeing because the Union soldiers
are coming.

Mr. BLIGHT: Oh, exactly, exactly. The Union troops have just arrived across
the Rappahannock River, and John takes the black workers up onto the roof of
the hotel where they can see across the river to what he describes as the
gleam of the Yankees' bayonets, and they can begin to hear the sound of the
Union army bands. Then he brings them down into the kitchen, he pours a round
of drinks and he holds a toast, and the toast is to the Yankees. And then he
instructs his fellow workers to, in essence, get out of there. But as he
says, don't get too far from the Yankees. Then John simply walks down to the
river, two blocks, he witnessed the surrender of the city of Fredericksburg.

Then he walked about a mile with a cousin, north and west upriver and then he
turned down to the river, he said, at...(unintelligible)...mill. And the
ruins of that old mill are still there. So I know exactly where he crossed
the river. And there he encountered Union troops on the other side of the
river who yelled to him and sent over a rowboat and John got in, crossed the
river. And that night he slept in his first night of freedom amongst a
regiment from New York state.

GROSS: Why don't we hear some of the story in his words as he writes it. Why
don't you pick it up with the part of the story where he's crossing the river
to the other side.

Mr. BLIGHT: Sure.

(Reading) "Very soon one of the party of soldiers in the boat call out to the
crowd standing around me. `Do any of you want to come over?' Everybody said
`no.' I hollered out, `Yes, I want to come over.' `Alright, bully for you,'
was the response. And they was soon over to our side. I greeted them gladly
and stepped into their boat. As soon as James saw my determination to go he
joined me, and the other young man who had come along with us.

"After we had landed on the other side a large crowd of soldiers off duty
gathered around us and asked all kinds of questions in reference to the
whereabouts of the rebels. I had stuffed my pockets full of rebel newspapers
and I distributed them as far as they would go, greatly to the delight of the
men, and by this act won their good opinions right away. I told them I was
most happy to see them all and I had been looking for them for a long time.

Just here, one of them asked me, `I guess you ain't a secess?' `Then me,' said
I, `know why colored people ain't secess.' `Why, you ain't a colored man are
you?' said he. `Yes, sir, I am,' I replied, `and a slave all my life.' All of
them seemed utterly astonished. `Do you want to be free?' inquired one. `By
all means,' I answered. `Where's your master?' said another. `In the rebel
navy,' I said. `Well, you don't belong to anybody then,' said several at
once. `The District of Columbia is free now, emancipated two days ago.' I did
not know what to say for I was dumb with joy and could thank God and laugh.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Blight. He's the author
of "A Slave No More," which includes two recently discovered slave narratives
about their trip to freedom, and David Blight is also the director of Yale's
Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition.

Once John Washington crossed over to the other side of the Rappahannock River
and met with the Union troops, did the Union troops expect him to fight with

Mr. BLIGHT: Well, no, not in this case. This was too early in the war.
This is April 1862, it's well before the Emancipation Proclamation and the
official recruiting of black troops, it's even before the second Confiscation
Act passed Congress, which wasn't until July of that year, which did authorize
at least the beginnings of the liberation of slaves. In this particular case
he was taken in by Union troops as a camp servant, and he spent the rest of
that summer, all the way through August of 1862, with the Union army, and
eventually his principal job--although at times he worked even as a scout on
horseback--but his principal job was that he was, by his account, the chief
mess cook for a division commander in the Union army named Rufus King. And he
will serve in that capacity through the disastrous campaign of second
Manassas, which happened on the last two days of August in northern Virginia,
another retreat and defeat of the Union forces who went back into Washington,

And it is on September 1 that John Washington dates his final entry into
Washington, DC, as a free man. Later that fall he would get his wife, Annie,
their newborn child, his mother and his 68-year-old grandmother, whose name
was Molly, out of Virginia with him. And they would all be living in
Washington, DC, by 1863. In some ways John Washington's greatest achievement,
other than his self liberation, was to gather this family in some semblance of
safety in Washington by 1863.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned that shortly before he was liberated from slavery,
he married a woman who was a free woman who he met at church. And I guess I
found that kind of amazing. I don't know of other relationships between a

Mr. BLIGHT: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...and a freed person, you know, a freed African American during that

Mr. BLIGHT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Was that a fairly typical relationship, and were there like legal
restrictions on such relationships?

Mr. BLIGHT: There were legal restrictions including in the state of
Virginia, but they were not always enforced. And in urban slavery--this is
why it made a good deal of difference that John grew up in a city--in urban
slave, these lines were blurred. He met Annie, as I said, at church. She was
about five years younger. And he does have a line in the narrative where he
says her parents did not want her to marry him. He doesn't precisely say why,
but it may be because he was a slave. But it is not that uncommon for slaves
and free blacks to mingle socially, to live in the same circles, to worship
together in church. And indeed Frederick Douglass himself ended up marrying a
free black woman named Anna Murray whom he had known in Baltimore before he
escaped from slavery. It's actually a very similar story.

GROSS: What kind of life was John Washington able to make for himself after
his emancipation?

Mr. BLIGHT: His life in Washington was very, very difficult at first. He
describes at first living in the streets of Washington. His first known
address in 1864 was on 17th Street, and that address is what is today
Constitution Hall in Washington. It's only about two blocks south and west of
the White House. He helped found the original Shiloh Baptist Church in
Washington, along with about 400 other freedmen from Fredericksburg. And then
after about 1865 he is listed in every city directory and census document I
could find as a painter, a commercial painter, a house painter. Eventually,
in his obituary, he's listed as a retired sign painter.

But he and Annie had five sons, they lived out most of the rest of their life
in what today we call Foggy Bottom, which is an old neighborhood west of the
White House grounds, what is today the area of George Washington University.
He was a member of two different Baptist churches. At one point he was
president of the District of Columbia's Sunday school union. And he clearly
lived a very active church and civic life. I was able to find at least enough
notices and information about that. But perhaps most importantly, they did
have five sons, and a couple of whom achieved a remarkable education and lived
on well into the middle of the 20th century.

GROSS: Let's turn to to the story of Wallace Turnage, the second of the two
freed slaves who write about getting their freedom in these narratives that
you've edited in your book "A Slave No More." And for a while Wallace Turnage
not only was a slave, he was a slave who worked in an auction house that sold

Mr. BLIGHT: (Unintelligible).

GROSS: And then he was sold in that very same auction house. Tell us a
little bit about his life as a slave before he was liberated.

Mr. BLIGHT: Yes. Well, Wallace Turnage's story is, if anything, more
dramatic and certainly more brutal that John Washington's. Turnage was born
on a small tobacco farm near Snow Hill, North Carolina--Greene County, North
Carolina. He was born in 1846, so it's--makes him about eight years older
than Washington. He was sold at age 14 by his indebted owner to Richmond,
Virginia. And he was purchased there by a slave trader, a professional trader
named Hector Davis. And we know quite a bit about Hector Davis because he
kept extraordinary records of his sales. He owned a two-story slave auction
house in Richmond on Franklin Street. And Wallace's job, if you will, for the
six months or so that he lived in Richmond in 1860 was organizing slave

And then one day he's told `you're in the auction.' And he was sold to an
Alabama cotton planter whose name was Chalmers. And about three days later he
found himself on a large cotton operation near Pickensville, Alabama, which is
in central-west Alabama right near the Mississippi border.

I should add, too, that Turnage's father was also white and he knew exactly
who his father was. His father's name was Sylvester Brown Turnage. And he
put his father's name on every document he signed the rest of his life. His
father was actually the stepson of his owner. And it's not clear that Wallace
ever knew this father. I did discover that his father left the county and
moved away when Wallace was only three or four years old.

Now, most of Turnage's narrative is largely the story of his five attempts to
escape from slavery, most of them in the midst of the Civil War. The first
four over into Mississippi, and along the Ohio and Mobile railway up into
northern Mississippi where, in 1862 and '63, he was trying to get to the Union
army who controlled the whole northern tier of Mississippi. And his owner
kept retrieving him, he kept coming after him. He would be captured over and
over and over, although on his fourth attempt to escape he was at large some
four and a half months hiding in other slave cabins and in the countryside and
in gullies and so forth.

GROSS: So he had four failed attempts to run away.

Mr. BLIGHT: Right.

GROSS: How did he succeed the fifth time?

Mr. BLIGHT: His master, finally fed up with him running away, took him to
Mobile, Alabama, and sold him again. He was purchased by a merchant in
Mobile. And one day after he crashed his master's carriage he ran again down
into the city, as he put it, and hid for about a week in the Creole, in black
community of Mobile. Captured again, he was taken to the slave jail of Mobile
and whipped viciously with 30 lashes.

And it was after that beating and being told to simply walk home again that,
instead of going home, he simply walked out of Mobile. He walked right
through the Confederate encampments and fortifications and was no doubt simply
mistaken for yet another black camp hand. And the rest of Wallace Turnage's
narrative is the story of his three-week journey down about 25 miles of the
western shore of Mobile Bay through the snake- and alligator-infested swamps
of the Fowl River estuary to where he finally gets into an old rowboat that
the tide brought in out at the mouth of Mobile Bay.

And in late August 1864, with a plank of wood he rowed himself out into the
ocean and the narrative becomes very dramatic at that point. As he is about
to be swamped by a wave he says he hears the oars of another boat, and that
boat was a Union gun boat with some Yankee sailors in it. He jumped into
their boat. And as he jumped into their boat, he says the Yankee sailors were
struck silent as they looked at him. And he was brought before a general who
gave him two choices: one was to join a black regiment as soldier, the other
was to serve as a servant to a white officer. And Turnage choice the latter.

And he then served out the war as the mess cook for an officer from a Maryland
regiment named Junius Turner. And Turnage's narrative frustratingly ends when
he's with this officer in a Maryland regiment as they take Mobile at the end
of the war and then they're guarding Confederate troops on the way to New
Orleans. And then he ends with a somewhat spiritual ending of the narrative
and simply puts the words "the end." And you want to take him by the collar
and shake him and say, `No, don't stop. What happened to you? Where are
you?' But that's where his narrative ends.

GROSS: David Blight edited the slave narratives in the new book "A Slave No
More," and he wrote the introductory essay. Blight is the director of Yale's
Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. He'll be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this if FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with David Blight. He edited
two recently discovered slave narratives by John Washington and Wallace
Turnage that describe their escapes from bondage during the Civil War. Blight
also wrote the introductory essay. He's the director of Yale's Center for the
Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. When we left off, we were talking
about Turnage's narrative. Turnage had tried to escape slavery several times.
He succeeded the fifth time during the Civil War when he was picked up by a
Union gun boat. I asked Blight to read the passage from Turnage's narrative
in which he described how it felt after he got on the boat and was free.

Mr. BLIGHT: (Reading) "After pulling about half an hour, we arrived at the
fort. After we arrived at the fort, the captain asked me no more questions at
all. His men took me to their tents and gave me attention and all that I
wanted. And I stayed on Fort Powell all night.

"The next morning, I was up early and took a look at the rebels' country with
a thankful heart. To think that I had made my escape with safety after such a
long struggle and had obtained that freedom which I desired so long. I now
dreaded the gun and handcuffs and pistols no more, nor the blowing of horns
and the running of hounds, nor the threats of death from the rebels'
authority. I could now speak my opinion to men of all grades and colors and
no one to question my right to speak."

GROSS: That's David Blight reading from the slave narrative of Wallace
Turnage, one of two slave narratives included in David Blight's new book "A
Slave No More." They're both narratives about escapes to freedom.

So even though the narrative ends kind of prematurely, before we really know
what happened to him after the war, what have you learned about what happened
to him after the war?

Mr. BLIGHT: Well, by research in an array of documents from city directories
to the census to Freedman's Bank records to church records and so forth, I've
been able to locate him. He lived three years in Baltimore until 1868. He,
at some point in that three years, went back to North Carolina and retrieved
his mother and some of his siblings, and they all appear in New York City in a
census in 1870. He lived out the rest of his life until 1916, either in
Manhattan or across the river in Jersey City. And Wallace Turnage worked at
every conceivable kind of common laborer's job. He was a night watchman, a
drayman, a barkeeper. At one point he was listed as a general jobber, which
is a guy who buys items on the street and tries to sell them to other people.
He also developed a family. He married three times--his first two wives died
on him--and he had seven children, four of whom died in infancy. He also was
about a 35-year member of the original Abyssinian Baptist Church. He was
married there three times and he would be buried from there. He also joined a
black fraternal order called the Hamilton Lodge. And indeed, he is buried in
the collective burial plot along with his wives and some of his children of
that particular fraternal order in Cyprus Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, New

GROSS: Wallace Turnage and John Washington, whose slave narratives you
include in your book "A Slave No More," they were among the slaves who knew
how to read and write. Having published their narratives, what strikes you
most about their writing?

Mr. BLIGHT: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you say in the introduction that you've tried to basically leave
the writing as is is that we could see how they wrote it. So, like
stylistically and in terms of like their spelling and use of language, all
those things, what did you find most interesting?

Mr. BLIGHT: Well, for me the most moving thing about working on this project
was watching these two men struggle to write on the page. They will both
write two or three perfect sentences in a row, and then the fourth one will
fall apart grammatically. Their spelling is creative. Wallace Turnage never
met a paragraph. His narrative is 120 pages of one paragraph. I did
paragraph his in the editing process, but I left the language alone. And in
both cases, you can actually--it's almost palpable watching them struggle to
tell this one story that they seem to believe anyone would ever care to read.
As to exactly why they wrote them, I can only speculate. I know John
Washington wrote his in 1873, which is the year his fifth and last son was
born, and he had sons from age one to 11. He may have wanted those sons to
know who he was and where he was from and where they were from.

In Turnage's case, he doesn't date it, but I think he wrote it a bit later,
probably in the 1880s, and he does tell us he wrote it in more than one
sitting because writing was so difficult to him. And I don't know exactly why
Turnage wrote. And again, it may have been for his children, but there is no
evidence that either one of them ever tried to publish these manuscripts. But
I think the beauty of the writing here is that it was never touched by anyone.
If these had been submitted to publishers and to an editorial process and so
forth, we'd be reading probably quite different documents today. They would
have been asked to conform to certain kinds of conventions and certain kinds
of formulas of the post-war slave narratives.

GROSS: How did these slave narratives survive?

Mr. BLIGHT: Oh, in the case of John Washington, it survived through his
granddaugher, who's name was Evelyn Easterly. She was the daughter of
Washington's youngest son, and she lived into the 1970s, and she gave it to a
best friend, a woman named Alice Jackson Stewart, who worked on the document,
indeed collected an number of other documents for which I'm grateful. But she
then became elderly and left it to her son who was a man named Julian Houston,
who lives in Boston today. Julian is a retired African-American judge in
Boston. He then gave it to a literary agent who brought it to me and asked me
to work with it.

In the case of Turnage, it's even better. It survived through his daughter,
who lived to be 99. Her name was Lydia Turnage Connolly. She married an
Irish immigrant hotel worker in the 1940s and moved to Greenwich, Connecticut.
And she died there in 1984 in a nursing home and left one box of material to a
neighbor, a lady who is still alive. Her name is Gladys Watts, and Mrs.
Watts sat on that box, so to speak, for 18 years, until she watched a
television documentary called "Unchained Memories," which is about the WPA
oral history narratives of the 1930s. And shortly after watching that film in
early 2003, she called up the Greenwich Historical Society and said, `I may
have something that will interest you.' And they sent someone over and said,
`Yes, ma'am, you do.'

I was then invited to give a lecture in Greenwich only about five months after
the John Washington narrative had been given to me, and while I was there to
give the lecture, the director of that historical society said, `My staff
thinks we have an authentic slave narrative. Would you have a look at it?'
And suddenly I had two of these documents lopped into my lap, independently,
in essentially the same six month period.

GROSS: What did you learn from these two narratives of emancipation that you
didn't know before?

Mr. BLIGHT: I think the most important thing I learned from working with
these two narratives is perhaps something that was confirmed for me. To the
extent historians have had a major debate about the nature and meaning of
emancipation over the past 20 years, that debate has been about essentially
who freed the slaves. Did Lincoln and the armies free the slaves or did the
slaves free themselves? And in both of these cases they provide us wonderful
windows into the fact that the answer to that question is both. Without the
Union army and the Union navy, neither men would have become free. But also
without their own ingenuity and bravery and cunning, they would also have not
become free either. What both of these narratives allow is a journey into
that on-the-ground experience of emancipation in the chaos and the violence of
the Civil War, and in both cases we can follow them as real people instead of
that abstraction through which we often see emancipation, which is somehow
droves of slaves journeying to their day of jubilee.

GROSS: My guest is historian David Blight. He edited the two slave
narratives in the new book "A Slave No More" and wrote the introductory essay.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is historian David Blight. He edited the two slave
narratives in the new book "A Slave No More" and wrote the introductory essay.
The narratives, by John Washington and Wallace Turnage, describe how they
escaped slavery during the Civil War.

If you could ask Washington or Turnage a question about their slavery or their
emancipation, do you know what you would want to ask them?

Mr. BLIGHT: Yes. I would ask them more about their post-war lives. I would
want to know--I would want to hear them try to discuss what it was really like
to live in Washington, DC, in the late 19th century or to live in New York
City in that section of lower Manhattan known as Little Africa by the 1890s, a
section of about 2,000 African-Americans, most of them former slaves, living
in dire poverty, living under all kinds of brutal discriminations. I would
want to hear them try to discuss what it was like to be part of that first
generation of former slaves who made up the original black working class in
northern industrial cities. That's the part of their experience that I was
able to uncover pieces of but not enough of. It's that part of their lives
that I would just love to hear them tell me more about.

I'd also like to hear them tell me more about their mothers because both of
them had extraordinary relationships with these two women who, in each case,
had taught them to read and write, and in both narratives they describe a
parting scene where they last saw their mothers, especially John Washington.
But yet each of them later managed to reconvene with their mothers after the
war, and they went to great extents to get their mothers out of the South with
them. Wallace Turnage's mother Courtney Hart died on the West Side of
Manhattan in 1890, living in the 200 block of West 60th Street, right behind
what is today Lincoln Center. And John Washington's mother, Sarah, lived out
her life in Washington, into the early 1880s and is buried in a cemetery in
Georgetown. Both of them died on free soil, and I would love to hear John and
Wallace try to discuss what that meant to them.

GROSS: Well, we're about to speak to descendants of John Washington, one of
the two ex-slaves who tells their emancipation story in your new book "A Slave
No More," in which you've printed these two emancipation narratives. Tell us
something about them and the significance of having descendents to talk with
us about their lives.

Mr. BLIGHT: Well, it has been a very special experience to discover Ruth
Washington and Barbara Hinksman and Barbara's daughter Maureen. I only met
them about five weeks ago in October of this fall. It took a long time to
find them. We actually found them through an obituary in a New Jersey
newspaper, and we located Ruth, this is John Washington's granddaughter, age
89, living in Tampa, Florida, and her niece Barbara.

And I think the most extraordinary thing about this has been that Ruth, as
John Washington's granddaugher, knew almost nothing about her grandfather. He
died the year she was born and her father, John Jr., died when she was only 18
and a freshman at Hampton University. But she never even knew she had roots
in Virginia. She had been cut off from that part of her family, and indeed,
therefore, cut off from her slave ancestry. But she did possess one
photograph that she showed me. It's a photograph of John and Annie
Washington's gravestone up in Massachusetts where they're born, but you
couldn't read the names on them, and she said she'd always been told that was
her grandparents' gravestone, but she never knew who they were or where it
was. So I look forward to the day of hopefully taking Ruth Washington up to
Cohasset, Massachusetts, and showing her her grandparents' gravestone.

GROSS: Well, I think we'll let Barbara and Ruth take the story from there.

David Blight, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BLIGHT: Thank you for having me on, Terry.

GROSS: David Blight edited the slave narratives of John Washington and
Wallace Turnage, which are included in the new book "A Slave No More." Blight
also wrote the introductory essay.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Descendants of ex-slave John Washington, whose slave
narrative was recently published, Ruth Washington, Barbara Anne
Hinksman and Maureen Ramos on reading the narrative

As you heard in researching the post-emancipation life of John Washington and
his family, Blight and archivist Christine McKay tracked down several of
Washington's descendants. Three of them are my guests. Washington's
granddaughter Ruth Washington is 89, his great-granddaughter Barbara Hinksman
is 71 and his great-great-granddaugher Maureen Ramos is 45.

Did any of you know that John Washington had been a slave and had escaped from
slavery during the Civil War?

Ms. RUTH WASHINGTON: This is Ruth speaking.

GROSS: And you're the granddaugher?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Yes. I'm the granddaughter. There was no mention in our
home. As children there were three of us girls, I being the youngest. There
was no mention at all of my grandfather having been a slave. I can recall a
picture hanging on the wall of our grandfather and grandmother. But there was
very little discussion about them, and certainly none pertaining to his being
a slave. So we were totally unaware of his livelihood as a slave and his
years of turmoil until Barbara received a phone call. And that's only been
about five or six weeks ago. So you see...

GROSS: Wow, so it's still really new to you.

Ms. BARBARA ANNE HINKSMAN: Totally, totally new.

GROSS: Do you think that it wasn't mentioned in your family that your
grandfather had been a slave who won his freedom during the Civil War by
escaping, do you think that wasn't mentioned because no one in the family knew
about it or because nobody was comfortable talking about slavery?

Ms. WASHINGTON: No, I don't think that's it at all. My father would have
known, definitely, that his father was a slave. My father's name was John
Mercer. He was a junior, named after his father, and I feel certain that he
was aware of his background. But during the times that we came along, a
stigma could be placed upon you regarding your background, the type of life
that you had lived. And he may have had that feeling in mind as to why he did
not reveal it to us.

GROSS: Do you think your reaction to it now, finding out about this at the
age of 89--are you?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Eighty-nine is correct.

GROSS: Yeah, do you think your reaction at the age of 89 is different than it
would have been had you found out when you were 10?

Ms. WASHINGTON: It probably was because when, as youngsters, we studied
history in school, and we were taught about slavery and it was such an ugly
picture, and the type of persons who were slaves were so illiterate, so
neglected, and finding out about our grandfather, who was one step ahead in
quality as a person, that we are proud of the fact that he was a slave and
held his own as a result.

GROSS: Ruth Washington, did you know your grandfather at all?

Ms. WASHINGTON: My grandfather died the year I was born, 1918. So, of
course, I did not know him.

GROSS: Maureen Ramos, you're the youngest member of the Washington family
here with us today. How did it change your sense of yourself and your sense
of your family to find out about this slave narrative that your
great-great-grandfather wrote?

Ms. MAUREEN RAMOS: Well, being the great-great-granddaughter, I have taken a
personal interest over the past years in trying to find out more information
about our family history. I've always been curious about it, and I've taken
an active role in doing that. I've documented our photographs and we've
cherished our family Bible, and I've interviewed my great-aunt, that's Ruth
Washington, the granddaughter of John M. Washington, about our history, and
we have audiotapes and written documents that we cherish. And we always seem
to hit a dead end after it came to her grandfather, John M. Washington, and
in our family Bible that we've preserved, there is one entry that dates back
to 1862 when he did escape from slavery, but it's listed in his birth records,
it has his date of birth, born in Fredricksburg, and then it's a written entry
that states, "removed to Washington City, DC, September 1st of 1862." So
that's the only record that we have that that date was significant in any way.
Little did we know that that was when he had actually escaped from slavery and
was rescued by the Union army and that was the beginning of that story of
personal triumph that we're here discussing today.

GROSS: Well, Maureen Ramos, as the youngest member who is with us today, and
as the person who has been most active in trying to tell the story of the
family tree, is there a part of your great-great-grandfather's story as told
in his emancipation narrative that means the most to you, that is the most
emotional part to you?

Ms. RAMOS: My aunt Ruthie, Ruth Washington, the granddaugher and myself, the
great-great-granddaughter, have just returned from a remarkable journey to
Fredricksburg the weekend of November 17th and 18th. We were there for a
spectacular event in Fredricksburg with David Blight, the author of the book.
And we went through and traced our footsteps with John M. Washington and
visited the places that were significant to him, and we just, in effect,
returned to our ancestral home. And it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience
for us. It was very moving for us. And I think there were many places there
that were very significant, and one of them that was very emotional for both
of us was the place where he lived at the bank in Fredricksburg, and that was
the site where he had been kept there, but his mother and all of his siblings
had been sent away.

And in the narrative, there was a quote where it talks about, he was being
left alone. And I must admit that the moment was overwhelming. My heart just
broke for this mother, who was his mother, named Sarah, and she had to leave
her son there, never to see him again for 12 years.

And he documents this in chapter three of the book, and he says this is where
he really began to see many of the trials of slavery, that his mother came
into his room the night before she was sent away, she laid down on his bed,
and she begged--it says, in his own words, "She begged me for her own sake,
try and be a good boy, say my prayers every night, remember all I've tried to
teach you, and always think of me. Her tears mingled with mine, amid kisses
and heartfelt sorrow. She tucked the bed cloths around me and bade me good
night. Bitter pangs filled my heart and I thought I would rather die. On the
morrow, mother and sisters and brother all would leave me alone in this wide
world to battle with temptation, trials and hardship. Who then could I
complain to when I was persecuted? Who then could come early the cold winters
and call me up and help me do my hard task? Whose hands patting me upon my
head would soothe my early trials?" And he goes on to share his feelings, and
I'll tell you, standing in that place, it was as if I was experiencing it
firsthand, and it was a very, very moving moment.

GROSS: Ruth Washington, you're the closest in genealogy to John Washington.
You're his granddaughter. What is the moment in the narrative that most
stands out in your mind?

Ms. WASHINGTON: The first impression that I received and was in wonderment
of was how he obtained ink, pen and paper to write all of his manuscripts.
That was the first thing that impressed me, that he did not omit any part of
his growing along with his slavery and his ambitions to one day be free. That
was the most touching part of the narrative, was his feelings and his regard
for what was happening to him and to many others. He may have had in mind
that this would go down in history and maybe he would be a small part in
relating what had happened to him, and he made a life that was worth living at
the end.

GROSS: Barbara Hinksman, you're John Washington's great-granddaughter. What
part of his slave and emancipation narrative stands out most in your mind?

Ms. HINKSMAN: I believe it very hard to separate all the different areas. I
loved reading it. I'm a mom, and I'm very touched with relationships between
the mother and the children, but basically I think the one that stands out
most for me is the death of little Johnny, and I've read it over and over and
over and over, and I find it a little unusual, I would say, so to speak, that
a man would feel so touched about his son, and this being a man so depicting
the pain and so depicting the moment of little Johnny really tore at my
heartstring. And this showed me that this gentleman, this man was very
sensitive to so many things. Life had meaning. The birds in the trees were
beautiful. He could count the stars in the sky. He loved climbing trees.
Yet in all of that, what a legacy he has left us.

GROSS: Well, thank you. Thanks to all three of you very much, I really
appreciate your speaking with us.

Ms. RAMOS: Thank you. We've enjoyed it.

GROSS: Ruth Washington, Barbara Hinksman and Maureen Ramos are the
descendants of John Washington, whose slave narrative is published in the new
book "A Slave No More."

You can download podcasts of our show by going to our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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