Birds of a feather (and other clues to racial identity)

“Some States have allowed facts other than physical characteristics to be presumptive of race. Thus, it has been held in North Carolina that, if one was a slave in 1865 , it is to be presumed that he was a Negro.

“The fact that one usually associates with Negroes has been held in the same State proper evidence to go to the jury tending to show that he is a Negro….”

— From “Race Distinctions in American Law” by Gilbert Thomas Stephenson (1910) 


Why Aunt Maggie squelched talk of slavery

“Because Aunt Maggie hailed from Asheville, North Carolina, and was born near the turn of the century, my brother reasoned that she could likely recall members of the family who were born into slavery….

“Aunt Maggie, who had been sharing her memories willingly… suddenly snapped: ‘We don’t talk about that in this family.’ She added that there were stories he didn’t need to know, that she did not intend to share and that would accompany her to the grave. She then turned away, stared off into some unseen place and with her body language and stony silence marked the end of the conversation…..

“My grand-aunt was participating in a longstanding practice of editing her memory, an artful forgetting for the sake of affirming her family’s social position. Hers was a logic that middle- and upper-class blacks consistently relied on in the early years of the civil rights movement…. By narrating a history that was only about good breeding, [they] could preserve their respectability in black America during a era of profound social, economic and political change. They could also retain their positions as the interpreters of blackness for the white community.”

— From “Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America since 1940”  by Jonathan Scott Holloway (2013) 


‘Purpose’ notwithstanding, Union policy freed slaves

“In early 1862, George McClellan, then general in chief of the army and a vocal opponent of a war against slavery, gave extremely conservative instructions regarding military emancipation to General Ambrose Burnside as he was about to embark on another joint army-navy operation aimed at capturing Roanoke Island:

” ‘[Say] as little as possible about politics or the negro. Merely state that the true issue for which we are fighting is the preservation of the Union and upholding the laws of the General Government….’

“Upon capturing Roanoke Island in early February, Burnside [denied intending] ‘to liberate your slaves.’ McClellan’s instructions, like Burnside’s proclamations, were technically correct: The ‘purpose’ of the Union invasion was the restoration of the Union, not the liberation of slaves. The policy of the federal government, however, was to emancipate all slaves coming within Union lines…. Occupation forces would not actively interfere with the peaceful operation of slavery among loyal farmers and planters, [or] entice slaves away from their owners, but slaves escaping to Union lines were emancipated and employed as wage laborers.

“Slavery deteriorated rapidly in the occupied parts of North Carolina thanks to the policy instructing Union forces to employ fugitives entering their lines, coupled with the prohibition against military enforcement of the fugitive slave clause.”

— From “Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865” by  James Oakes (2012)


For Duplin County slaves, no mercy from the court

On this day in 1787: Darby and Peter, Duplin County slaves, are convicted of murdering their master with an ax. Darby is sentenced to be “tied to a stake on the courthouse lot and there burned to death and his ashes strewd upon the ground.” Peter, less severely punished because of his youth, is sentenced to have “one half of each of his ears cut off and be branded on each cheek with the letter M” and to receive 11 lashes.