"Slavery," quadelirus. Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Reading Ex-Slave Profiles in the 1894 Atlanta Constitution

During my research, I stumbled across an 1894 article from the Atlanta Constitution that crystallizes many of the tensions in US Civil War memories at the end of the nineteenth century – and how these memories participated in the construction of race. While it turns out I will not be incorporating this archival bit into the chapter I’m drafting, it did seem a shame to relegate it to an untapped digital dissertation-research cloud somewhere.

To begin, one must understand the power of plantation nostalgia, running rampant through the increasingly industrialized landscape of the late nineteenth-century US.  Northern cultural products produced by and for predominantly white audiences bemoaned and romanticized the supposed loss of the Southern planter elite of the antebellum system and slavery alike towards the century’s close. Literary pieces, popular songs, minstrel shows (done by both whites in blackface and black performers), plantation spectacles, melodramas – there were many products featuring the plantation South available for consumption. In keeping with this trend, one writer for the Atlanta Constitution somberly declared that “one sees fewer of the old time darkies every day.” 1 The author admires the simplistic loyalty of the ex-slaves, saying that they deserve “endless praise” since there “was a war going on involving their freedom and yet they stood like a firm phalanx around the homes of the southern soldiers while they were out at war…and braved death at the hands of northern hosts.” The reason for this fidelity was “simply because the old fellows knew their masters were really their best friends and that they ought to stand by them…they loved their life on the great plantations of the south, protected and upheld by their white friends and owners.” The feature’s author goes on to profile three aging “darkies of the sixties,” including “Harry” and “Alex,” ex-slaves that remained loyal to their owner, the Confederacy’s vice president Alexander Stephens.

imagesWhen Stephens became governor of Georgia, Alex supported “the little invalid statesman” as he swore his inaugural oath. The article’s author suggests an overall complicity of African Americans with slavery: this claim is explicit in the declaration that blacks fought during the war to preserve the life they “loved…on the great plantation of the south.” The reminder of Alex – a man still not dignified with a last name, another remnant of slavery’s dehumanizing aspects – is a more subtle marker of the white supremacist brand of memories at work here. Alex not only offers literal, physical support for his ex-master during the gubernatorial inauguration,  but – the  Constitution writer would have readers believe – also tacitly endorses the juridical processes that allowed a major CSA figurehead and once-staunch slavery advocate  to return to political power (you can see Stephens being “supported” by an African American servant in the undated photo. 2 These juridical processes encompass not only the lax pardon policies of Johnson towards ex-Confederates, but the ultimate failure of legislation to establish racial equality during the Reconstruction period – the ruling  in Plessy v. Ferguson will be handed down two years after article’s publication date, recall.

It is worth remembering as well what paper printed this article; Atlanta was hit hard during the final battles of the war, and Sherman laid waste to much of the city’s infrastructure on his march out – as memorialized  in Gone with the Wind. (Coincidentally, this destruction also inspired a paternal character in Augustus Thomas’s popular 1890 melodrama Alabama when naming his daughter: “she was born on the day that the city of Atlanta suffered the disaster of an entrance by your General Sherman…I called her ‘Atlanta’ in commemoration of that sad event.”) 3 The Lost Cause versions of the war labored to highlight Southern white suffering during the fighting and its aftermath, denied slavery as one of the causes of the war, and celebrated (and embellished upon) the “loyal slave” types profiled in this  Constitution article.

The inexorable march of time meant that, eventually, those once-enslaved would no longer be visible to the white public, and the plantation system and its scenes took on new hierarchical dimensions as they were revisited and remembered in popular culture towards the turn of the century. Though this is only one feature article in one late nineteenth-century Southern newspaper, it succinctly conveys the explicit and implicit work being done via the romanticizing of the slave in popular culture.

Notes:

  1. “They’re Dying Out,” Atlanta Constitution, September 9, 1894, 2.
  2. “Alexander Stephens, with an unidentified man,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, Digital Library of Georgia. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Multimedia.jsp?id=m-4037#. This post-war picture is undated, and it is also unclear where (and by whom) this was taken.
  3. Augustus Thomas, Alabama, 1898. Literature Online (Cambridge: ProQuest Information and Learning, 2003), 52.

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