The Freed Slaves of the South

19 June 2015

Ethnic Studies | Gender and Sexuality | History

In June 1862 the American government passed ‘An act to secure freedom to all persons within the Territories’ that would eventually become the emancipation proclamation. We have this (GLC07864), along with hundreds of other lofty government documents (and heartbreaking soldiers’ letters, military documents, carte de visites, tons of stuff, it really is very impressive, but I digress) in our American History, 1493-1945 collection.  

While indexing the documents in this collection I found a curious printed book from 1915, entitled Aunt Phebe, Uncle Tom and others by Mrs Essie Collins Matthews. This is a collection of character studies and photographs of freed slaves living in the South fifty years after abolition came into effect. Matthews, a successful photographer, interviewed each person on her travels around the South and the resulting book takes a look at the interviewees’ lives after the emancipation proclamation, subsequent thirteenth amendment, and social change of Reconstruction.

American "Abolitionist Flag" from ca. 1859. It contains only twenty stars because the slave states are not represented in the star field. Image © the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

As a white woman writing in the early twentieth century, we definitely need to take everything Mrs Matthews says with an industrial-sized pinch of salt. Although Matthews was apparently ‘no defender of slavery’, her book portrays a heavily romanticised view of it and the South. Despite that, upon reading the tales and looking at the poignant photographs, I was sucked in by their life stories.

"Uncle Tom" from Matthews' Aunt Phebe, Uncle Tom and others. Image © the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The majority of the freed slaves Matthews interviewed remained on their plantations. As a modern reader, of course I’m cynical about Mrs Matthews point in including such stories. For example, she explains that “Uncle Tom” Brown (pictured above) did not leave his plantation after being freed, because he loved it there and because he contributed to the building of it. It was wilderness when he started there, but at the time of Matthews’ publication, there were miles of fields planted due to his labour.

"Aunt Jonas" from Matthews' Aunt Phebe, Uncle Tom and others. Image © the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Again, we need that giant pinch of salt to deal with the dangerously nostalgic, rose-tinted view of slavery that Matthews presents in the majority of her accounts. However, there are some stories that Matthews includes, in which slaves – shockingly – did not get along with their masters. Such as “Aunt Jonas” (pictured above) who, during the Civil War, tried to burn down her master’s house.  

"Aunt Phebe" from Matthews' Aunt Phebe, Uncle Tom and others. Image © the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

There are also some stories that express loving relationships between freed slaves and their old masters. Like the eponymous “Aunt Phebe” (pictured above) who after her master’s death was taken by his daughters to Ohio so that she would be free. She remained with them, outlived her mistresses, and inherited their wealth.

Matthews presentation of some stories does leave a lot to be desired, but her book did get these, otherwise unheard, stories from the South out to the rest of the world. She used her success as a photographer – the photograph of Phebe was displayed across America and Europe – to punctuate this interesting, if troubling, book.

The complete American History 1493-1945 from the Gilder Lehrman Institute is available now. Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a licence.

About the Author

Erin Pearson

Erin Pearson

Since joining Adam Matthew in 2014 I've had the opportunity to work on some fantastic resources including, Eighteenth Century DramaAge of Exploration and Ethnomusicology: Global Field Recordings to name a few!