“This is to certify that the bearer by the name of James has done essential services to me while I had the honor to command in this state. His intelligence from the enemy’s camp were industriously collected and most faithfully delivered. He perfectly acquitted himself with some important commissions I gave him and appears to me entitled to every reward his situation can admit of.” — Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, 1784
In the spring of 1781, General George Washington sent the French general, the Marquis de Lafayette, to Virginia to thwart the advancing British army. An enslaved man by the name of James Armistead responded to the marquis’s call for spies. Serving at the table of British General Charles Cornwallis, Armistead overheard valuable information that helped the Americans win the Revolutionary War. Armistead was eventually granted his freedom for his service. Once a free man, he added “Lafayette” to his name.
This episode is dedicated to Belmont Station Elementary’s fourth grade classes, who studied Virginia history this year. You are STARS!
“It was my great desire to read easily this book. I thought it was written by the Almighty himself. I loved this book, and prayed over it and labored until I could read it. I used to go to the church to hear the white preacher. When I heard him read his text, I would read mine when I got home. This is the way, my readers, I learned to read the Word of God when I was a slave. Thus did I labor eleven years under the impression that I was called to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ever-blessed God.” — Rev. Peter Randolph, 1855
For enslaved Americans, literacy was a path to freedom.
Those who could write forged the “tickets” that both enslaved and free blacks needed to move about. Some of these tickets took enslaved people all the way to free states, and even to Canada.
Literacy provided spiritual freedom. It enabled people in bondage to read the whole Bible, and not just the sections that enslavers quoted. The Bible represented liberation, both on earth and in eternity. Enslaved Christians identified with the Israelites, whom Moses led out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.
And in sharing their stories, people who had escaped slavery hoped to awaken sympathy in their fellow Americans and achieve freedom for all enslaved people.
This is the final episode in a three-part series on enslaved Americans’ pursuit of literacy. I have relied on several sources, but used the following most heavily–
Very early in life I took up the idea that I wanted to learn to read and write. I was convinced that there would be something for me to do in the future, that I could not accomplish by remaining in ignorance. I had heard so much about freedom, and of the colored people running off and going to Canada, that my mind was busy with this subject even in my young days. I sought the aid of the white boys, who did all they could in teaching me. They did not know that it was dangerous for a slave to read and write.” — Rev. Elijiah P. Marrs, 1885
Throughout the South, it was illegal for white people to teach black people–enslaved and sometimes free–how to read. Some whites taught blacks anyway: at times motivated by kindness, other times by self-interest. But even without the assistance of white people, enslaved Americans learned to read and to write. Facing the threat of whippings and worse, they learned under cover of night, and in “pit schools” in the woods. They hid books in their dresses and under their hats so they would be ready for a lesson at any moment.
Today I am continuing a series on enslaved Americans’ pursuit of literacy. I have relied on several sources, but used the following most heavily–
“The next thing I recall as being of any particular importance to me was the death of my mother, and, soon after, that of Master Fletcher. I must have been about nine years old at that time.
Master’s children consisted of five daughters and two sons. As usual in such cases, an inventory was taken of his property (all of which nearly was in slaves), and, being apportioned in shares, lots were drawn, and, as might chance, we fell to our several masters and mistresses.”
In 1740, the colony of South Carolina passed a law making it illegal to “teach or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write,” punishable by a fine of “one hundred pounds, current money.” Within 100 years, at least twelve states would pass statutes proscribing the literacy or education of enslaved or free blacks.
Nevertheless, untold numbers of enslaved Americans did learn to read and write. At times, they had the support and sanction of the white people closest to them. That was case with poet Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a volume of poetry.
Sometimes, they learned from other enslaved or free people of color.
And others had to scheme and strategize their way to literacy. Perhaps the most famous person to do this was the internationally acclaimed orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, whose memoir became a bestseller.
Bethany Veney’s memoir is much less famous, but still an important contribution to our understanding of slavery. She is featured in today’s episode, the first in a series on enslaved Americans’ pursuit of literacy.
As you probably already know, there have been many arrests in Greenwood, which is only 30 miles from where I am working. Tomorrow I expect to be there to picket the jail house. This means almost certain arrest.
Yours in freedom,
During the summer of 1964, thousands of young people from across the United States enlisted in the battle for democracy in Mississippi. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other organizations had already been fighting for the civil rights of African Americans in the Magnolia State. However, most of the rest of the country was unaware that black people were literally losing their lives for trying to vote. The organizers of the Freedom Project hoped that the involvement of young–and predominantly white volunteers–would draw national attention and lead to Federal intervention. In the very first days of the program, three volunteers–two of them white–disappeared. It made national headlines.
America’s lesson in Mississippi politics continued until the Democratic National Convention in August. Before national news cameras, Fannie Lou Hamer testified of losing her home and being beaten for trying to exercise her civil rights. Sympathetic calls flooded the White House. And President Lyndon Johnson feared for his re-election chances.
The Freedom Carrier Greenwood, MS July 16, 1964 It is felt that the state of Mississippi has the worst educational system in the entire United States. As degraded as the white education is, the Negro has the worst half of the worst. A need to try to fill the gap was felt. Therefore COFO initiated the idea of Freedom Schools as an attempt to supplement the present system of education. The first Freedom School to be established was open on July 6. The school will operate on a six weeks basis with a break after the first three weeks. Emphasis is being placed on Negro history and citizenship. English, Sciences, foreign languages, and creative writing are also being offered, as special subjects. Students are able to take two special subjects. In the afternoon, typing, art, drama, and journalism are offered to those interested. The Freedom Carrier is put out by the students in the journalism class. The students are responsible for the makeup of the entire paper. Students are also being taught how to lay out leaflets and how to run office machinery. Students also participate in folk singing workshops and work with voter registration in the distribution of leaflets throughout the community. For more information on the Freedom Schools you may call the office.
The organizers of the Mississippi Summer Project aimed to bring national attention to the violent suppression of African Americans’ civil rights in the Magnolia State. Later called Freedom Summer, the project had four major components: (1) Freedom Schools, where volunteers taught black Mississippians reading, writing, science, and math, as well as history, including black history, and their rights as American citizens (2) Community centers, known as Freedom Houses, where residents could study subjects such as art and dance (3) Helping black Mississippians to register to vote (4) Collecting signatures in an effort to seat a delegation at the Democratic National Convention, which would be held in August.
The summer of ’64 did not mark the beginning of civil rights work in Mississippi. But it was a turning point for the state, and for the nation.
“Every order for an infantry advance, a barrage preparatory to the taking of a new objective and, in fact, for every troop movement, came of these ‘fighting lines,’ as we called them. These wires connected to the front, up with the generals and made it possible for the latter to know exactly what was going on at any moment and to direct operations accordingly.”
–Berthe Hunt, Women’s Telephone Unit of the Army Signal Corps
Just a few decades after the invention of the telephone, this technology proved vital to the execution of World War I. Troop movements, and orders to fire, cease-fire, advance, or retreat were communicated by telephone, with the help of switchboard operators. But when the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) arrived in France, they were faced with phone lines that had been battered by three years of war. There was also the language barrier to overcome. Bell Telephone helped solve the first problem; the “Hello Girls” solved the second.
November 4, 1918 The chauffeurs have been most tremendously busy these last two weeks on account of moving. My life seems to hinge around choked carbureters, broken springs, long hours on the road, food snatched when you can get it, and sleep. Nothing else has mattered to me and I feel like a regular camion driver, dirty, but so accustomed to the job that it is no longer tiring. … The country over which I have been motoring is tremendously interesting, but most gloomy; unless there are soldiers about there is not a living thing, nothing but waste and destruction. If you saw a whole house you would stop and look at it as a phenomenon. One evening I tried to take a shortcut home with a doctor and we got most hopelessly involved in bad roads which finally led us to an impassable bridge. We had to retrace our steps completely and start all over again … Never again will I be so foolish as to try short cuts home through ” No Man’s Land,” even if it is French property now.
–Letter from Nora Saltonstall
The fighting stopped on 11/11 at 11 a.m. But the needs continued. In the aftermath of World War I, among the rubble and ruin, American women continued to serve. Significant relief was provided by the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW) and the Comité Américain pour les Régions Dévastées de France (CARD). Women like Anne Tracy Morgan used their wealth and social status to help the French rebuild their homes and villages long after the Treaty of Versailles was signed.
“August 10, 1917 I get my appointment and go loco w joy. It seems to me my reason for existence is explained. All my training and experience seem to have fitted me for just this. Bradford Knapp talks and I get two ideas. Unless one gives all one is not giving enough, and if one can go one should. The other thing was that to our generation has come this great chance for sacrifice. There is a joy in my heart that this has come. Everyone is awfully good about my going away. I did not know how much my work meant to me.”
–Diary of Mary Paxton Keeley
On April 6, 1917, Congress voted for a declaration of war on Germany. War had already been raging for three years. And for the whole of those three years, American women had been involved in the care and comfort of European soldiers and civilians. Now that American men would be fighting, American women took on service as a patriotic duty. But not all women were given an equal opportunity to serve, nor did all American soldiers receive equal access to the welfare services.
“Their house had been destroyed and they had lost all their farm possessions but one cow. They were living in one side of a dirt-floored barn that belonged to some friend, and someone else had given them a bed. But why this family was living at all, I do not know. They had rushed away ahead of the Germans with one hundred and eighty Belgian soldiers at the time of the retreat toward Antwerp, and of the one hundred and eighty soldiers only twenty got out alive. Yet this family had come out intact, and survived typhoid fever after that. There were tears in the eyes of that mother — almost the only weeping we saw in Belgium.”
–Dr. Caroline Hedger, Chicago Women’s Club
Thousands of American women crossed the Atlantic Ocean to be of service to the soldiers and civilians suffering through World War I. Countless more served from their kitchens and communities in the United States. In this first episode of a three-part series on women’s relief work, we will learn about some of the great contributions made by Americans–especially women–before the US declared war on Germany.
… I am glad to know that my people are doing their bit to win the war, they sure make good soldiers and seem to take delight in sticking Fritz with a bayonet or clubbing him with the butt end of a rifle, but their main weapon is the hand grenade…
I am writing to the new commander today asking for special duty as patrol officer and I hope I can get it as it affords a fellow a better chance for promotion and excitement all his own and then I have a score to pay Fritz for leaving a scar on my face, and I want to get him where I can fix him to my own taste. My best regards to Mrs Brimley … and all my friends, and write when you have the time to.
Yours very respectfully,
James W Alston
While the majority of black soldiers serving in World War I were assigned to non-combat jobs such as loading and unloading cargo ships, and burying the dead, soldiers in the 93rdDivision did see combat. This division included Alston’s, as well as the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts of that regiment were the first Americans of any race to receive France’s Croix de Guerre. The Stuff You Missed in History podcast has a very informative episode about the Harlem Hellfighters.
Ten thousand Women who have enough rights without voting and also plenty to do, to attend to their own affairs without meddling with men’s business, ask you to Veto this Suffrage bill. We don’t want to vote, and go to the polls with n****rs — and all kinds of woman.
Mrs G Monroe and thousands of others
We’ve all heard of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, but there were millions of women and men who spoke for, and against, women’s suffrage. Today’s mini-episode shares a few of those voices.
I want to know, Sir, if you please, whether I can have my son released from the army. He is all the support I have now. His father is dead and his brother; that was all the help that I had …
Today’s episode is a miniature one! The Civil War is a familiar topic to most of us, and there are several podcasts on the topic. Less familiar is the effect of the war on black women, who faced unique challenges while their loved ones were fighting. Families in the North worried that their sons and husbands would be enslaved if captured by the Confederate Army. Some whites who were angry about black fighting for the Union took it out on the family members that the soldiers left behind. Today we hear a small piece of those families’ stories.
“South State Street was in its glory then, a teeming Negro street with crowded theatres, restaurants and cabarets. And excitement from noon to noon. Midnight was like day. The street was full of workers and gamblers, prostitutes and pimps, church folks and sinners.” — Langston Hughes
In many ways, the North delivered on its promise. The migrants enjoyed higher wages, better education for their children, and the opportunity to participate in the political process. Perhaps most refreshingly, they no longer had to behave in a subservient manner to white people. Letters from migrants to their Southern friends and families, drew more and more blacks out of the South.
I take this method of thanking you for your early responding and the glorious effect of the treatment. Oh. I do feel so fine. Dr., the treatment reach[ed] me almost ready to move. I am now housekeeping again. I like it so much better than rooming. Well, Dr., with the aid of God I am making very good. I make $75 per month. I am carrying enough insurance to pay me $20 per week if I am not able to be on duty. I don’t have to work hard, don’t have to mister every little white boy comes along. I haven’t heard a white man call a colored a n*****r you know now–since I been in the state of PA. I can ride in the electric street and steam cars anywhere I get a seat. I don’t care to mix with white. What I mean–I am not crazy about being with white folks, but if I have to pay the same fare, I have learn[ed] to want the same accommodation. And if you are first in a place here shopping, you don’t have to wait until the white folks get through trading. Yet amid all this, I shall ever love the good old South and I am praying that God may give every well wisher a chance to be a man regardless of his color, and if my going to the front would bring about such conditions, I am ready any day. Well, Dr., I don’t want to worry you but read between lines; and maybe you can see a little sense in my weak statement. The kids are in school every day. I have only two, and I guess that [is] all. Dr., when you find time, I would be delighted to have a word from the good old home state. Wife join[s] me in sending love you and yours.
I am your friend and patient.
However, while wages were higher than the migrants had earned before, the pay was often low relative to the higher cost of living. Many migrants were forced to live in overcrowded and dilapidated neighborhoods. In Chicago, the newcomers clashed culturally with the Old Settlers–blacks who had lived in the city much longer. And, they clashed violently with whites, in Chicago and throughout the North.
I referred to several sources, but used the following most heavily–
“We must have the Negro in the South … It is the only labor we have; it is the best we have—if we lost it, we [would] go bankrupt.” –Macon (Georgia) Telegraph, 1916
Prior to World War I, African Americans had plenty of reasons to want to leave the South. But they had little reason to believe that life would be better in the North. But the “War to End All Wars” created unprecedented labor opportunities for southern blacks. Labor agents enticed many migrants with free transportation, but it was The Chicago Defender newspaper that probably did the most to encourage African Americans to move. Its portrayal of a comfortable Black Chicago, and advertisements of a “Great Northern Drive,” led many southerners to write letters like this one:
Dear Sir: Please Sir, will you kindly tell me what is meant by the Great Northern Drive to take place May the 15th on Tuesday? It is a rumor all over town to be ready for the 15th of May to go in the drive. The Defender first spoke of the drive the 10th of February. My husband is in the North already preparing for our family, but hearing that the excursion will be $6.00 from here north on the 15th, and having a large family, I could profit by it if it is really true. Do please write me at once and say is there an excursion to leave the South. Nearly the whole of the South is getting ready for the drive or excursion as it is termed. Please write at once. We are sick to get out of the solid South.
Southern whites expressed alarm and anger that their valuable Negro labor was fleeing. Black leaders also questioned whether migration was the best course. But there was little they could do to stop it.
Recommended Reading— The Warmth of Other Suns: Isabel Wilkerson took 15 years to write this book, and it shows. The book is THOROUGH. Think of it as Everything That You Didn’t Know That You Didn’t Know About the Great Migration.
“…the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” — W.E.B. duBois
Initiated before the end of the Civil War, Reconstruction held the promise of freedom, full citizenship, and (for men) the franchise for African Americans. But even before the Federal troops that were enforcing Reconstruction withdrew from the former Confederate States, Southern communities and legislatures set about to return the freed men and women to their former condition. Despite the guarantees of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, blacks were denied their new rights through legal and extra-legal means.
In the decades after the war, many blacks did make legislative, educational, and financial gains. However, many more faced limited economic opportunity and the constant threat of violence.
Seeking information about opportunities in the North, men and women, the young and the older, regardless of education level, wrote letters to the Chicago Defender newspaper, the Chicago Urban League, and other organizations. The following letter was written by a 17-year-old girl from Selma, Alabama:
I am a reader of the Chicago Defender I think it is one of the Most Wonderful Papers of our race printed. Sirs I am writeing to see if You all will please get me a job. And Sir I can wash dishes, wash, iron, nursing, work in groceries and dry good stores. Just any of these I can do. Sir, whosoever you get the job from, please tell them to send me a ticket and I will pay them when I get their, as I have not got enough money to pay my way. I am a girl of 17 years old and in the 8 grade at Knox Academy School. But on account of not having money enough I had to stop school. Sir I will thank you all with all my heart. May God Bless you all. Please answer in return mail.
In this first episode of a three-part series on the Great Migration, we will see what changed–and what didn’t change–for African Americans in the South after the Civil War.
Recommended Reading— The Warmth of Other Suns: Isabel Wilkerson took 15 years to write this book, and it shows. The book is THOROUGH. Think of it as Everything That You Didn’t Know That You Didn’t Know About the Great Migration.
Where does “history” come from? How do we know, for example, what words didn’t make it into the Declaration of Independence? Or what the delegates to the Constitutional Convention argued about before the final document was signed on September 17, 1787?
To a great degree, our history textbooks started with the diaries that the Founding Fathers kept, and the letters they wrote to one another.
But there is more to history than Founding Fathers and famous generals. There are millions of names that we’ll never know, of soldiers who fought in American wars, and families who waited for their return. People who hoped and waited for change, but may not have lived to enjoy the rights that the law would eventually grant them. People who weren’t trying to make history, but were just living their lives.
On American Epistles, we will hear from these “ordinary” people, through their journals, diaries, and personal letters. Each episode will focus on a different time period or event, and feature the words of some Americans who lived through it.
Please come back on Saturday, January 5, for the first episode, about the Great Migration. We will hear letters from a few of the millions of African Americans who left the Jim Crow South in search of a better life. Letters like this one:
East Chicago, Indiana
June 10, 1917
Dear Old Friend: These moments I thought I would write you a few true facts of the present condition of the north. Certainly I am trying to take a close observation–now it is tru the (col) men are making good. Never pay less than $3.00 per day or (10) hours–this is not promise. I do not see how they pay such wages the way they work labors. They do not hurry or drive you. Remember this is the very lowest wages. Piece work men can make from $6 to $8 per day. They receive their pay every two weeks. This city I am living in, the population [is] 30,000 (20) miles from Big Chicago, Ill. Doctor I am some what impress. My family also. They are doing nicely. I have no right to complain what ever … People are coming here every day and are finding employment. Nothing here but money and it is not hard to get. Remember me to your dear Family. Oh, I have children in school every day with the white children. I will write you more next time. How is the lodge?
New episodes will post the first and third Saturday of every month … hopefully. 🙂 Thank you all for your support and see you next year!
The letter by the migrant to Indiana was originally printed in the Chicago Defender Newspaper, and reprinted in the Journal of Negro History, which is in the public domain and available at Gutenberg.org.