John Washington and the Emergence of a Voice for Fredericksburg’s Slaves, Part 1

From John Hennessy (for Part 2 of this click here):

Slaves in their cabin--attributed to Spotsylvania County

Silence was an essential  part of a slave’s life.  In the presence of a master or a white man or woman, silence was often a slave’s required condition.   Laws that denied slaves learning did so to render them silent.  The requirement that a white man be present at all gatherings of slaves or free blacks was intended to ensure a functional quietude–that whatever slaves said or decided would not threaten the society built upon and around them.

The silence imposed upon slaves extends onto the pages that have become history. The slave-owning world refused to recognize or record slaves’ births, marriages, deaths…or even their names.  With diligence, the genealogists of white families can penetrate their ancestry for hundreds of years.  For descendants of slaves, the search for roots most often encounters a wall of historical silence, beyond which little or nothing can be found except by good fortune.

While some view the void in the historical record as insurmountable, I would argue that the historical silence is an important point of departure for any public discussion about slaves and slavery in the Fredericksburg region, for it, by itself, hints at much that is important to understand: that imposed silence–part of a concerted effort to dehumanize–was an integral part of a society constructed to control and capitalize on slaves and their labor.

Still, there is no arguing that the rarity of lyrical narratives and essential records makes interpreting slaves and slavery to the public more difficult.  But a far greater barrier has been our collective unwillingness to make the attempt.  For more than a century after emancipation, the story of slavery was most often interpreted from the perspective of the owners (who, of course, left a rich documentary record) rather than the owned; or it was avoided altogether.

This is changing; a willingness to bring the story of slavery before the public has emerged.  Of course, we as a community still have a long way to go–there is a rich history out there still unspoken.  But the journey has begun:  an effort to characterize slavery accurately, to view slavery from the perspective of those enslaved, and to see slaves and slavery as a relentless struggle for freedom–for absolute freedom, certainly, but also for freedom within the bonds of slavery.

The emerging willingness to tackle the issue of slavery in a public way has, in Fredericksburg, coincided with what I think and hope is a decisive event for public historians working in the field:  the emergence of the memoir of John Washington, a Fredericksburg slave.

Of the perhaps nine million (or more) slaves who toiled in America during its history, David Blight estimates that only about 200 left behind a memoir or narrative that has been published.  Given the odds, Fredericksburg is truly fortunate to have one of the very best.  In “Memorys of the Past,” Washington recounts his 24 years as a slave–all but a few of them in a five-block area in downtown Fredericksburg.  And, most vividly, he recounts his constant struggle for both more freedom and, ultimately, absolute freedom.

Washington’s memoir was found at the Library of Congress in 1984 (23 years before it was published) and transcribed by local historians Barbara Willis, Ruth Coder Fitzgerald, and the late Dave Lilley of the NPS.  It’s likely that NPS historian Noel Harrison put it to use first, in his books on Fredericksburg area sites.  In the 1990s, we started incorporating parts of it into our programs, and in the last five years we have built more than a few programs around it almost entirely.  Those programs have been among the most powerful we have ever done.

But more than that, the emergence of Washington’s memoir has spurred a deeper look into the documentary record, and indeed much has emerged to complement Washington’s words: slave narratives recorded by the WPA, court cases involving slaves, important records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, and even simple work in the census that can tell us much.  Over the next week or so, we’ll take a look at Washington’s memoir and how the voice of slavery is starting to emerge in the Fredericksburg community–albeit perhaps not loudly enough (we’ll talk about that too)–and take a look at how visitors have responded and what the future likely holds.


3 thoughts on “John Washington and the Emergence of a Voice for Fredericksburg’s Slaves, Part 1

  1. John – Washington’s narrative has recently been published, under two titles:

    David W. Blight. _A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation_ (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2007)

    Crandall Shifflett, ed. _John Washington’s Civil War: A Slave Narrative_ (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008)

    You can pick up either and get the full story.


  2. Pingback: The Interpretive Value of Different Perspectives | Fredericksburg Remembered

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