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Good Reads

What I’m Reading: Troubled Refuge

When George Parker decided to risk everything and flee the bondage of a Murfreesboro (NC) plantation for the safety of the Union Army encampment in Suffolk, Virginia he didn’t know how his story would end. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was a military order, establishing George’s status as “not slave.” But the proclamation came no where close to defining a new status for Black Americans. Refugees leaving slavery were stateless, neither property nor US citizens.

Chandra Manning’s book, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War, asks the reader to consider that this moment of freedom-seeking was not just a story about who catalyzed emancipation, but about a process of emancipation, in which refugees had to navigate and shape military and civil statutes that defined their identity and relationship to the US federal government. And no discussion of emancipation can transpire without a deep dive into how the concept of citizenship–and who could claim it–transformed as a result of the war efforts of black Americans.

Early in the book, Manning reminds us that historically wartime emancipations did not result in permanent freedom nor had they led to a reduction in the practice of slavery. In spite of attempts during the American Revolution and in the War of 1812, the presumptive status of black Americans throughout antebellum America remained “slave,” not freed, not citizen. This ideological barrier enabled white America–north and south–to accept the fact that the federal government had a relationship with white men only. Thus, the United States was a slave nation on the international stage until Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ruptured that idea, and established a powerful relationship between the federal government and Black Americans.

It was but one step toward altering the place of non-whites in the American consciousness.

Black refugees hoped for more than permanent emancipation. In serving the Army as soldiers, grooms, teamsters, ditch diggers, spies, cooks, seamstresses, laundresses, and nurses, they sought to lay claim to citizenship, and receive the permanent protection of the federal government in securing their rights to mobility, family, jobs with wages, and access to courts. Becoming indispensable to the Union victory was another step in altering the American consciousness.


For emancipation to become permanent and a pathway to citizenship, military authority had to be transformed into civil authority.

It wasn’t until December of 1865, months after the war had ended and President Lincoln had been assassinated, that the federal government codified the abolition of slavery in the 13th Amendment of the United States Constitution, the ultimate civil authority. It would be another two and a half years before the 14th Amendment established equal protections under the law and citizenship rights.

I revisit the story of George Parker with renewed appreciation for the dangers he faced and the aspirations that buoyed his journey out of slavery.

If reading history isn’t your thing, I strongly recommend watching Dr. Manning’s interview with the National Museum of civil War Medicine.


Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War; Vintage Books: New York, 2016.

“Troubled Refuge: A Conversation with Dr. Chandra Manning of Georgetown University”; National Museum of Civil War Medicine Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvN7ZR9Ssg8), 11 Feb 2021.

Categories
Sayles Transcriptions

The Obituary of George Parker

George Parker

George Parker died of grip at his home near Alfred, May 28, 1902. He was born in bondage near Murfreesboro, N. C. Slavery kept few records and the date is not known, but at his death he was probably not far from the allotted age of man. He was sold once. In 1863, along with others, he escaped from the small plantation and came to the union camp. A little later he was brought north by Prof. Sayles. The first money of his own was two pennies given him by a little boy. He worked for a number of different people, including Chandler Green, Valencia C. Baker, Amos Burdick and others. He was accounten (sic) an excellent hand. He became widely known and respected. He attended school several terms and, although it was hard for him to learn, he was deeply interested in education. He had an ambition for which he carefully saved his money until nineteen years ago when it was realized, and he bought the farm which was his late home. On May 10, 1885, he was married to Ellen Van Dosen Simons, who survives him.

He was converted in younger years. He loved to go to church, and attended regularly until failing health made the trip too hard. He had many friends. They say of him that he was perfectly honest, his morals were above reproach, his heart tender and appreciative. He did not understand being born again, but it was his purpose to serve his God and live right. In at least one of the homes where he worked he was counted one of the family, and when speaking of the young ladies of the family he would call them ” our girls.” Only kind words are spoken of him, and the feeling of many would be expressed in the words of one man who said: “Well, George and I have been friends ever since he came to this country.”

There was one occasion when he was always present, if possible, and that was Memorial Day. Probably this was the first time he has missed for many years. It was peculiarly appropriate that his funeral was held in the same place the next day, and that the same patriotic decorations were in place. Surely it was as he would have had it be. Under the flag whose stars and stripes thrilled his heart when he saw it floating over the Union camp–under that flag the last tribute of love and respect was paid to his memory.

Funeral service were conducted in the First Alfred Church Sabbath afternoon, May 31. A brief sermon was preached by James Dawes, the black missionary who has been attending the University. A short life sketch and tribute was presented by Pastor Randolph. A large and sympathetic audience was present. Interment in Alfred Rural Cemetery.

L.C.R.

Published in The Alfred Sun (New York) on June 4, 1902.


Annotations

  1. died of grip: died of complications from influenza
  2. the allotted age of man: George appeared in the 1865 New York State census with stated age of 22. He could have been between 55-60 years of age when he died.
  3. came to the union camp: George was part of a group of refugees who arrived in Camp Suffolk’s contraband camp, Uniontown, in early 1863. [see post His Future Was Not Yet Written]
  4. he was brought north by Prof. Sayles: Professor Ira Sayles was a well known educator of Allegany County.
  5. he attended school: George attended the Preparatory Program at Alfred Academy, 1869-1870.
  6. he bought the farm: the farm lay on the outskirts of Alfred, New York
  7. he married: George married the widow Ellen Simons, and helped raise her son, William.
  8. he was converted: George became a member of the Alfred Seventh Day Baptist Church, adherents of which keep the sabbath on Saturday. Alfred Academy and Alfred University were affiliated with the Seventh Day Baptist denomination.

Post photo of Alfred, New York countryside by Kay Strickland, 2013.