Thursday, January 26, 2012

Remembering the Teachers - Who Brought Thousands Out of Darkness

Mary Peake taught many former slave children underneath Emancipation Oak, 
on what is now the campus of Hampton University. 
Source of Image: Past is Present

In the civil war years as well as the years immediately after the war, so much needed to be done to stimulate the minds of children, especially those whose status as slaves had denied them a formal education.  

From the works of women like Mary Peake, of Virginia to the teachers of the Port Royal Experiment, to the countless hundreds of others who labored for years, these women deserve their place on a Roll of Honor of people who worked towards the effort of freedom through education.

Port Royal Teacher Laura Towne

Mary Peake is one of the most well known--yet she is still unknown by many.  She was the daughter of a free black woman and an Englishman.  She was educated in Alexandria in the 1830s at a school for blacks in the District of Columbia. At that time, Alexandria was still part of the District of Washington. She began teaching in the 1840s from her home and later, after her marriage to Thomas Peake, a former slave, she moved with her husband  to Hampton Virginia. 

When the Civil War burned much of  Hampton, she found herself in a city among many newly freed slaves--known as contrabands. Many  had taken refuge at nearby Ft. Monroe. Others had lived in the Grand Contraband Camp in Hampton, established by Gen. Butler and Union forces, when Ft. Monroe had no more room. There she found herself in a city with hundreds of children wanting to learn. 

Projects emerged around the country and many organizations assisted in the process. The American Tract Society of Boston created a school primer for former slave children.

The Freedmen Spelling Book created by the American Tract Society of Boston

Even during the years of the war itself, thousands of men who had enlisted in the Union Army also set about the task of learning to read and write. So great was this desire to learn!

In Hampton, a project began with six students and then grew to dozens within a few days and Mary Peake immediately threw herself into her work. This was in the fall of 1861. She was often seen teaching children underneath a massive oak tree (now known as Emancipation Oak)

A small school structure was erected and she immersed herself into teaching over the next several months. As does happen with people often thrown into close contact, illness and disease occurs, and by winter, Mary Peake had caught tuberculosis after continuous weeks of work and constant exposure. Her illness progressed, during the winter but her constant desire was always for the children and to see that they would be taught. When she was first bedridden she was often known to still have children brought into her room and she would teach them from her bed. But eventually she could no longer teach. In February of 1862, she was finally overtaken by tuberculosis and died.

Mary Peake loved teaching and wanted to bring enlightenment into the lives and minds of the newly free slave children. Several months after her death, the black residents of the Hampton area were to hear the words of the Emancipation Proclamation read to them underneath the very oak tree where she taught new freed children of slaves. This was also the first public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

 Emancipation Oak, as it is known today still stands strongly on the campus at Hampton University. A few feet away from the trunk of Emancipation Oak  stands a small red schoolhouse said to be the Butler School building where Mary Peake and later other teachers taught.

Butler School Stands on Grounds Next to Emancipation Oak
Taken by Bernard Fisher, July 2010

The devotion of Mary Peake to teaching contraband children, and her devotion to her school became a model for other Freedman Schools throughout the South. 

From the teachers in Hampton to the Port Royal Experiment of the Low Country to the Freedmen Schools in Arkansas, teachers such as Mary Peake unlocked doors. The education of former slaves brought about the true ending of slavery to hundreds of thousands. Through education the shackles of bondage remained broken.

Emancipation Oak

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

General Burnside and Young Tom, a Contraband

Masthead for Frederick Douglass' Monthly, August 1862
Source: Accessible Archives, African American Collection

150 years ago in the month of February, a young man paddled his way to freedom in a canoe. It was said that "in that contraband's  hand, a victory was brought to the United States of America, led by Burnside."

I found this story of this young man, while looking at an issue of the Douglass' Monthly through Accessible Archives. What I discovered was the story of a  young many who rowed to freedom, who was befriended by General Burnside and who shared everything he knew about the countryside, allowing the General and his staff to map the area around Newbern , and to plan a military strategy that would lead to a major victory.

There were two things that stood out for me----first, the actions of the enslaved population are indirectly revealed--the enslaved people were fleeing to the Union lines and seizing their freedom. Secondly, this one young boy had a sharp memory--enough to allow General Burnside to map the area accurately and plan a military attack.
General Ambrose Burside
Source: Major General Ambrose Burnside, and the Ninth Army Corps
Providence: Sidney S. Rider and Brother, 1867
Online Edition of book available through Google Books

How wonderful that I was able to see such an interesting article in the Douglass Monthly. Although his name was not mentioned, I truly wanted to find out more about this courageous lad, and if his story was recorded any other place.

So after a careful Google Search, I came across an interesting work, called, Major General Amborse Burnside and the Ninth Army Corp, published in 1867. In that book, I found a full description of the same incident reported in Frederick Douglass' publication about the young boy, Tom. 

General Burnside was stationed near Hatteras, and calculating how to capture Roanoke Island. It is noted that a solution to his question rowed literally into his presence.

Source: Major General Ambrose Burnside, and the Ninth Army Corps
Providence: Sidney S. Rider and Brother, 1867, p 33
Online Edition of book available through Google Books

Tom proved to be a valuable aid to the officers assisting Burnside. He was able to describe the land, the location of troops on both sides and was able to assist the team of officers on the best place to land ashore.
 He was therefore treated well for his assistance, and was allowed to remain among the soldiers at Hatteras.

Source: Major General Ambrose Burnside, and the Ninth Army Corps
Providence: Sidney S. Rider and Brother, 1867, p. 33
Online Edition of book available through Google Books

Sure enough when the regiment sailed into the harbor to begin to take Roanoke, Tom led them to the spot where they disembarked and the plans unfolded.

Source: Major General Ambrose Burnside, and the Ninth Army Corps
Providence: Sidney S. Rider and Brother, 1867 p. 39
Online Edition of book available through Google Books

Another book mentioned young Tom and his impact on Burnside's operation. That book is called The Outer Banks of No. Carolina  1584-1958, by author David Stick. He refers to young Tom and the topographical engineer as the two heroes that helped to capture Roanoke Island.

What happened to Tom after the war? 

Did he survive the war, and live to see freedom?

Did he eventually move into the Freedman's Colony at Roanoke? No complete roster of the colony exists. But considering his relationship with the General and his staff, my hope is that he did survive the war, and begin life again and live to breathe free air in a time of peace. 

Young Thomas Robinson, like hundreds of other contrabands is one of may unsung heroes of the Civil War. His desire for freedom was fulfilled and he shared his skill and knowledge of the land with General Ambrose Burnside and his actions had direct impact on a major campaign in America's Civil War. The small article published by Frederick Douglass in 1862, provided a small glimpse into how even the most ordinary actions of one person can bring about change.

The sesquicentennial anniversary of young Tom's arrival at Hatteras will take place in February and I for one shall remember him as those days approach.

Union Army Overtaking Roanoke Island

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Continuing the Story--Soldiers, Contrabands and Their Freedom

20th US Colored Infantry Presentation of Colors

The celebrations continue.

Last year marked the beginning of a five year campaign to commemorate the story of America's Civil War. For many Americans the Civil War stirs up emotions of another time. For some that was a time that has been romanticized. For others it is a time that was long awaited and the beginning of a transition from enslavement toa new journey of freedom.

I launched this blog a year ago today, and my goal was to simply tell a few of those stories long ignored, long forgotten, and simply buried. I was not sure if I could, but I managed to sustain it, and I dared to venture into an arena long considered a subject area for males only. In addition, the Civil War is a subject  that few of people of color have as a topic of interest. But this incredible conflict which divided a nation, involved people of color--men, and women alike. This national conflict also included persons who were enslaved, and those who were anxious to be free.

Thankfully their stories are emerging more even though the circle of people who tell those stories is a small circle. In fact, although there are many websites and blogs pertaining to the Civil war but how many persons of color are telling those stories?  I know of less than 20, I know of less than 10, in fact I cannot name 5.

I understand how and why there are so few Civil War blogs written by people of color. Many of us simply feel that we simply do not know enough about the Civil War to actually create and sustain a blog about it.

After all----how many us can recall the moments in high school sitting through US History dreading the time period of the Civil war and simply praying that we would get through that time period quickly?

I remember it quite well. Oh the true sense of dread!  The sense of detachment, and the very real sense of shame.  The shame came because there were no stories in our textbooks of heroes from the enslaved population. Our textbooks offered no stories of resistance, no stories of courage, and no stories of any efforts to win freedom. There was no one for me to embrace from the story of that conflict. The Civil War story as it was taught did not reflect me.

But little did I know that there WERE such stories! What I missed such amazing stories. A favorite for me is the story Robert Smalls who took over a confederate gunboat, and steered his way into freedom!

Robert Smalls

The Planter - Gunboat Steered by Robert Smalls

And the soldiers--there were thousands of them! And these men were fighting for their freedom!!!

What a surprise to learn that the 11th US Colored Troops were organized in my own hometown!

Image from Service Record of Soldier in the 11th US Colored Infantry

And in the local national cemetery nearby, over 100 Civil War soldiers of color are buried.

Entrance to Ft. Smith National Cemetery

All were Union Army, from multiple regiments, yet  I was never taught this. (I wonder if they are taught this today--somehow I have my doubts.)

The greatest surprise, is that some of the most amazing Civil War stories come from my own family history! It would be 3 decades after that US history high school class, before I would learn their names and learn about the amazing events in their lives. And what stories they were! Some of my readers on my family history blog, followed my story about how I found Uncle Sephus Bass who served in the 111th US Colored Infantry.

But Uncle Sephus was only one ancestor. There was Braxton Bass, (another uncle) and Henry and Emanuel Bass--both brothers who were sons of Uncle Sephus, and Thomas Bass, from the same community. On another family line there was Berry Young, there was John Talkington, and there were the Ordway brotheres, who enlisted as William Oddaway and James Oddaway.

William and James Oddaway were also names of ancestors in the US Colored Troops

There were the contrabands as well---women and children were not to be left behind when the Union soldiers came through. They followed their men. Once separated--they continued their trek to freedom! What joy--freedom!

So as this second year of this blog begins, I plan to highlight people the unknown men, and women who won their freedom.

No one should ever feel shame for those untold stories again!

I hope that others from the larger family will begin to tell their family stories of freedom. I hope that other African Americans will join the small family of writers and bloggers who dare to write about the Civil war.

What a travesty that there are less than 5 blogs honoring US Colored Soldiers and Sailors. There are many of us who descend from these thousands of men and women---and I hope that others will join me