Many years ago, linguist Geneva Smitherman asked what would happen when the hunted learned to hunt, or when those written about increased their acts of writing.
This blog takes the position that literacy is a human right, that it is an injustice for people(s) to be perpetually “covered” by others due to asymmetrical access to institutional/educational paths to public writing, that increased access to sensitive documents eventually will be a game changer but not without correcting institutional imbalances, and that social media will continue as a space for heretofore subaltern voices demanding redress and inclusion.
That said, I am optimistic about the multiplication of voices inherent to the process of digitizing records that include actual lives of people who have been waiting more than a century to be heard.
…We find the Negro thinking more collectively…and apt…to become the most enthusiastic antiquarian of them all.
“The Negro Digs Up His Past”
Take for instance Louisa Shivers, widow of African-American soldier Peter Shivers. In her application for her former husband’s pension, she told of her transition to freedom which included living in a contraband camp on Memphis’s President’s Island, where she became acquainted with Peter. The two were married there. Louisa names Peter’s former owner, the state in which Peter was raised, and names for him a sister and surrogate mother. These are not trifling details for former slaves. Information such as this locates African Americans back in time, helps reconstitute families, and are a road map for descendants.
Peter Shivers was acquainted with a soldier in his unit, Mack Edmonson, who was a few years younger than Peter when the men enlisted in Company B of the 63rd USCT (United States Colored Troops) at President’s Island. Edmonson, who himself has a sizable pension file, was deposed in Louisa’s case. He states that he “was just a commissary boy” when he met Peter, who he saw marry his first wife Lou Mitchell. Mack also witnessed the onset of illness in Peter, the condition that would end his life but a few months after their mustering out.
Louisa’s widow’s pension would be approved, partly because she presented herself as credible, which itself was a matter of being able to recall her own past in detail and because of soldiers like Mack who lined up in support of her application.
As for Mack, his story is equally rich and it is told both by Mack himself and by his own wife, Parilee Harte Edmonson, and his son John W. Edmonson, both of whom interacted with the Bureau of Pensions. Mack and Paralee were married in 1869, on President’s Island, a few years following the end of the war, and they had, according to Mack’s application for pension, ten children together.
Mack too received his pension, but he would die in 1906 of pneumonia, two days after his thirty-seventh wedding anniversary. Like so many soldiers’ wives, Parilee applied for her dead husband’s pension and marks Mack’s death at the 16th year of their youngest daughter, Maggie, of whose birthdate Parilee is certain because Mack went to the trouble to record it in the family’s Bible.
Mack apparently valued his literacy skills and what may have been a faith in the promise of education was transferred to the children. Maggie herself, deposed in her mother’s application, states, “I will add that I am attending the LeMoyne School in this city and I am in the seventh grade.”*
I will end with Maggie’s words though brother John would follow in the same vein. This is a family that knew the value of telling one’s own truths–of wRIGHTing history.
*The LeMoyne School is believed by some to have been formed, during the war, at one of the contraband camp schools run by teacher and missionary Lucinda Humphrey. Born on President’s Island, former site of one of the camps, and traveling as well about Memphis, an education at LeMoyne would have been logical for this family.
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