Confederates in My Attic

Black History Firsthand

My "furthest back" Davis ancestor was an African woman who was raped by a British sea captain. The son born of that incident was married to a biracial woman likely conceived in the same way, and she too had at least one child by her master, who was raised with their other children.

Looking for word of African American family members by reconstructing one's ties to a white family can be excruciating, but it's worth it because searching for documentation of blacks in 19th-century America is so difficult. Finding signs of any former slaves in the process is exciting, disturbing, and maddening, for one wishes to turn the paperwork over to other African Americans looking for those very people with no last names. Last week, the first item I found at the History Museum was a list from about 1860 of 37 people to be sold by Louisa Campbell's son John in Mississippi, with I.D. numbers beside their names. The letter asks his brother Leonidas (I refer to him as L.A.) to return the list "with their respective value attached, or the aggregate amount you are willing to take for all the Negroes."

The second item I put my hands on there was a letter written by Rush Owen about my great-grandmother Chloe Curry. It is one of the most scathing, hate-filled letters I have ever read, written after Will Campbell's death in 1901. Rush describes the moral "debt" owed by Chloe for having the relationship with my great-grandfather, in which she saw the black woman as the vengeful debaucher of her brother. I was horrified not so much by the moralistic tone, which I would expect, but by the overwrought language that was rage itself. She blamed Chloe for Will's "blighted, tortured life, cut off from his kind," and predicted that when "her flesh shall fall away and her bones are knotted and twisted with pain, she will cry for that second birth that men call death, only to find herself [on] a . . . spirit path of double suffering."

The Campbell family home in Springfield, Missouri, on the day of Will Campbell's birth in 1852
photo: Courtesy of the History Museum for Springfield-Greene County
The Campbell family home in Springfield, Missouri, on the day of Will Campbell's birth in 1852

image
Louisa "Lulu" McKenny, late 1800s
(image: Courtesy of the History Museum for Springfield-Greene County)

None of us know what happened when Chloe went to work as Will's cook, brought there by his aging housekeeper, but I know that as a married woman with children who lived as a tenant farmer, she had a lot more to lose in any intimacy with the boss than he did as a single, white planter in the Mississippi Delta. Maybe the very fact that the relationship persisted rankled Rush 20 years later.

Disturbing as it was, I was grateful she had left this draft of the letter in her papers, because it revealed that Chloe felt she had been wronged in some way by her first employer, Will's brother L.A., and that Rush decided to let Chloe pay all of Will's debts, which Chloe must have done by getting cotton crops out. I don't know how long that took but she continued to farm cotton until she died, probably 10 years later.

The letter was also fascinating because by 1901, Rush had some things in common with Chloe, as a woman who had raised children and had run the family company, and in being alone. At Will's death, Rush had lost her parents, all her siblings, and two children. She was the lone survivor of her family of 12.

And then, Chloe defied all the patronizing, if loving, descriptions in the family literature of loyal, witty, and wise African Americans who sat by the family's hearths. In Rush's fiction the servants are life-saving nurses and charming dreamers. From my grandmother's lips to me, Chloe had come to Mississippi to make a new life after slavery; she was independent-minded, tough, and industrious. She had all the skills necessary for most women in the 19th century—farming, cooking, canning, sewing, and quilting. Thanks to a freedman's school in Marion, Alabama, she was literate and could manage her books. There are no such black characters in the writings of the Campbell women.

The representations of African Americans in the writings of both Rush Owen and Lulu McKenny are generally sentimental, at times awestruck, and at others, quite even-handed. Still, they reflect the mythmaking at the heart of so many depictions of the race even today. There are also a number of those ethnic and national characterizations common in various eras, such as the antebellum notion of a "racial gift" for song. The observations also extend to immigrants—Poles, Italians, and Hungarians—and during World War I, Germans in general. If anything, black folks and the Irish get the better part of Rush and Lulu's affections (well, the Campbells were part Irish).

Take, for example, the admiration for blind loyalty that even overlooks enslavement in a description of Link, a black adult of indeterminate age (referred to as a "boy" in A Confederate Girlhood), who saved one Campbell son under fire in the war, and served as Louisa's bodyguard on trips to get medical supplies to the Confederate front. At the end of the war, Lulu writes: "So, we took the road again. Mother, Sam, Will, June Blackman and I, with our faithful Link, who paid not the slightest attention to his freedom, and would not hear of being left behind." As Link is not mentioned again later, methinks he did notice he was free.

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