Refugee Slaves in Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews with Former Slaves

In class this week we discussed the significance of recurring language in the compilation of interviews, Slave Narratives. I found the interviewees in this selection said the word “refugee” a total of three times. The word’s connotations, however, vary from person to person. This variation in meaning perhaps illuminates how the forced migration of slaves during the American Civil War affected their sense of self-identity.

Elvira Boles

According to Elvira Boles’ recollection, the government granted slaves their freedom on January 1, 1865, but she and her fellow slaves did not become aware of this fact until June of that same year (108). When the Union soldiers did arrive in Mississippi, Boles’ master took her and the rest of his slaves to Texas to flee from the Union soldiers. When Boles explains this occurrence she declares, “We’se refugees” (108). If she and the other slaves were refugees, from what or whom were they fleeing? Since they were not aware of the free status yet, they probably were not refugees in the sense that they were fleeing to Texas to live in freedom. Master Boles, it seems, branded his own definition of “refugee” onto his slaves by making them flee the oncoming Union soldiers. When Elvira Boles did finally arrive to Texas and learned of her free status, her master released her. However, she solemnly admits that the newly freed slaves felt lost and rootless when she states, “Dat’s de way all de cullud people was after freedom, never had nothin’ but what he had on de back” (108).

Fred Brown

Fred Brown, a slave from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, shares a similar experience to that of Elvira Boles in his interview. During the Civil War, Fred Brown’s master and overseer enlisted in the Confederate Army. Before the government granted freedom to the slaves, Fred Brown’s overseer escorted Brown and the other slaves to Kaufman County, TX. Once in Texas, Brown says, they were “refugees” (159). Once Brown and other slaves realized their freedom in Texas, he said their sudden freedom “lef’ us in charge of no one and we’uns, jus’ like cattle, wen’ wanderin’” (159). I cannot with any certainty venture to say how Fred Brown felt at the moment he became aware of his freedom. But, his language, whether he was conscious of it or not, reveals he and his fellow freed slaves seemed to ramble on from place to place and job and to job “like cattle” without a herder (159).

Mary Armstrong

In her interview, Mary Armstrong relates her journey from living as a slave on William Cleveland’s “farm” near St. Louis, Missouri to finally living as a free woman in Houston, Texas(125-127). When she recalls her seemingly positive encounter with the “good” Mr. Charley Crosby in Texas, she states “He tells me there’s a slave refugee camp in Wharton County” (30). I did a bit of research on Wharton County Texas and found slaves comprised about 90% of this county’s population by 1860. Perhaps Wharton County became a “refugee camp” or center where newly freed slaves flocked to after the Civil War because it already had a high slave population (30). It is fascinating that a geographic area known for its high concentration of laboring slaves became a sort of beacon for slave “refugees.”

Below is a map I found representing the 1860 census that counted the southern states’ slave population. Wharton County is included.

1860 Census Map of Slavery Populations, The New York Times

1860 Census Map of Slavery Populations, The New York Times

Susan Schulten from The New York Times wrote an article called “Visualizing Slavery based on this map in 2010. You can view the interactive map here.

In a paradoxical sense, Elvira Boles, Fred Brown and Mary Armstrong did become “refugees” by the end of the Civil War. They did not, however, flee, in the typical “refugee” manner, from one horrendous environment to another socially improved one. As the slavery map above demonstrates, Texas had a high number of slaves even before the Civil War. So, what kind of “refugees” were these three human beings who were recently granted their freedom from chattel slavery? Each person wandered from situation to situation, surviving through the Reconstruction Era, before finally “settling” down. They were, indeed, odd refugees or pilgrims who had escaped the physical bondage slavery but continued living as “free” individuals in an era wrought with the social ramifications –Jim Crow laws, lynching practices, and institutionalized racism– of the Civil War and Reconstruction era.

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