The Trauma of Separation

Help Me Find My People:

The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery

Heather Andrea Williams

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. 264 pp., $30.00, hardcover

To Free a Family:

The Journey of Mary Walker

Sydney Nathans

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012, 330 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Jean Humez

 . . . We did not know that she was sold until she was gone; and the saddest thought to me was to know which way she had gone, and I used to go outside and look up to see if there was anything that would direct me, and I saw a clear place in the sky, and it seemed to me the way she had gone, and I watched it three and a half years, not knowing what that meant, and it was there the whole time that mother was gone.

–Kate Drumgoold, A Slave Girl’s Story (quoted in Williams)

In this childhood memory, a former slave tells of finding a mysterious source of comfort for her mother’s equally mysterious disappearance.  The passage from Drumgoold’s narrative suggests both the profound emotional trauma of African Americans forcibly separated from family during slavery and perhaps also the possibilities of resilience within their own power.

Two fine new books by North Carolina historians explore this kind of trauma and its long aftermath:  Help Me Find My People by Heather Andrea Williams, and To Free a Family, by Sydney Nathans. Using rich varieties of sources and taking necessary and appropriate speculative risks to fill the gaps in the record, these books seek to probe the emotional worlds of people caught up within the institution of slavery in the first half of the nineteenth century, an era when family separations were increasingly frequent, as the internal slave trade in the American South expanded dramatically in response to the opening of new territories for plantations as the nation grew.  Both studies focus on how enslaved Americans coped with the enforced loss of family members.  Both also illuminate the complexity of the relationships in the nineteenth century between enslaved and formerly enslaved people, and the white southerners and northerners with whom their lives were inevitably entwined. 

Help Me Find My People is a broadly ranging study that uses selected documents to excavate (or reconstruct) the reactions of enslaved people, former slaves, and slave owners to involuntary family separations. It invites the reader to think and feel from multiple perspectives about these events.  Separate chapters are devoted in the first half of the book to the point of view of the child, to that of the adult spouse, and to those of the whites who witnessed or were even responsible for the separations.  The latter half of the book is devoted to stories of searches by family members for those they had lost—searches that sometimes began during slavery—and to the often challenging experiences of reunification after the lapse of many years.

To Free a Family, in contrast, offers the deeply researched story of a single escaped former slave named Mary Walker, along with the complexly related stories of the southern and northern whites on whom she was economically dependent for most of her life.  Walker escaped in Philadelphia at age thirty in 1848 from the North Carolina owner family who had brought her along on an expedition to seek medical treatment for their ailing daughter.  Aided in hiding from slave catchers by northern antislavery organizers, Walker found refuge in 1850 in Massachusetts in the home of Susan and Peter Lesley, a young white couple who volunteered to shelter her in defiance of the newly enacted Fugitive Slave Law. The Lesleys and their extended family and friends provided the light-skinned and relatively cultivated Walker with employment as a seamstress and housekeeper, and throughout the next decade they made various efforts to help her buy or steal the children she had left behind with the owner family.  Finally, however, it was only the defeat of the Confederacy that enabled the two of Walker’s three grown children who still remained in slavery to come North and rejoin their mother as free people, in the summer of 1865.

The story of Walker’s life, as told in this book, can be read as an unusually detailed and complex account of how the drive for family reunification dominated the emotional and economic life of a fugitive slave mother for almost fifteen years.  It can also be understood, in Nathans’s formulation, as the history of a “deepening inter-racial friendship” between Walker and her white friends that proved greatly beneficial for both sides. Walker’s leap of faith in deciding to trust Susan Lyman Lesley with her personal history and some of her emotional reality apparently enabled this white family to evolve a strongly antislavery mission.  In addition, Walker’s hard and stressful work for the white family, including many years as a caretaker for the demented mother of Susan Lesley, cemented the relationship (despite occasional tensions and domestic problems hinted at in the Lesley correspondence and journals).  In the end, the friendship and unusual level of trust that had been built up between Mary Walker and the extended family of the Lesleys (along with other friends and acquaintances in Cambridge) were resources Walker could use to help ensure a relatively “soft landing” for her adult children in finding employment and housing in the postwar North.   

Both historians provide fascinating and useful accounts of their own motivations and research back stories.  Williams, an associate professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells us in her foreword that her book was a labor to which she felt called by the discovery of a particularly poignant historical source:  Information Wanted ads by people seeking lost family members, published in African American newspapers immediately following the Civil War. Touched by the family situations described in these brief notices, Williams was “compelled to stop and pay attention; I could not simply move on.”  As she confides,

When I first came to the ads, I was struck by the pain and the longing that these few lines of a family’s history contained. Then I also began to see and feel the resilience and hope encoded in the messages. . . .The power of simultaneous pain and hope held me entranced. . . .I wanted to know what people did with the grief and the fear and the anger that I thought must be part of these experiences of loss.

Williams was also called to the project in part by influential essays by the historians of African American experience Darlene Clark Hines and Nell Irvin Painter, who have urged their students and colleagues to construct fuller accounts of the “inner lives” of African Americans, and in particular women.[i]  This has required historians to think creatively about how to understand silences in documentary texts such as former-slave narratives.  

Williams applies concepts from current psychological theory on grieving, in order to probe the possible mixtures of feeling that may be concealed beneath a text’s inexpressive surface—with her valuable and canny speculations always clearly marked as such. One exceptionally interesting line of argument is that expressions of maternal (but not paternal) grief were a somewhat socially sanctioned form of expression within slavery, whereas expressions of sorrow (let alone anger) over the forced separation of spouses could be seen in modern terminology as “disenfranchised grief”—unsanctioned and therefore dangerous emotion.

Williams does not entirely neglect the question of anger, but I was somewhat surprised by the lack of explicit discussion of the problem of discerning its covert or encoded expression. In her chapter on the perspective of the child, for example, she devotes only two paragraphs to exemplifying her assertion that “initial shock, disbelief, listlessness, and grief of separation could also harden into anger and bitterness.” However, she provides excellent reminders of the difficult position of the enslaved or formerly enslaved person writing a letter to a white owner who still controlled the fate of family members; and in discussing the postwar Information Wanted ads, she points out that in the comparative safety of the black press, the writers of these ads could indulge in a few “rhetorical” expressions of anger at the injustices of slavery.

In her exploration of internalized grief, she notes the puzzling appearance in so much of the documentation of “stunned silence” with which many enslaved people were recorded as having greeted the loss of family members or even their own sale on the auction block. She offers a variety of explanations, including this, the bleakest: “[S]ome people remained silent because the pain was unutterable, because they could not find words to give expression to their emotional devastation.”  She ends her discussion with another interpretation that stresses the claim to emotional privacy: “Finally, it is possible that some people remained silent because it was the only way they knew to honor the intimacy and significance of their relationships.”

Sydney Nathans, a professor emeritus of History at Duke University, in an unusually autobiographical prologue, describes how in the 1970s he turned from national political history, his original field of research, to southern social history, with a special emphasis on African Americans caught up in plantation slavery. His accidental discovery of a letter from Peter Lesley to a slaveholding family in North Carolina, appealing to them to sell Mary Walker’s children back to their mother, had a lasting impact on his work:

I wasn’t looking for the letter about Mary Walker when I first came across it in a book entitled The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, by the historian Herbert Gutman. What captivated me about Herbert Gutman’s path-breaking book and equally about Alex Haley’s Roots, both published in 1976, was the ingenuity of both authors in challenging the claim that slavery had destroyed African-American families.  . . . I kept coming back to the 1859 letter, the most poignant document I’d ever read about a refugee from slavery.

On and off, for more than a quarter of a century, he worked with both the papers of the slave owning family and an extraordinarily rich collection of letters and journals from the Lesley family, as well as with records unearthed in Cambridge that document Mary Walker’s life in the North and the lives of her children after her death.  

Like Williams, Nathans is interested in probing the inner lives of the people he writes about, but because only three letters from Walker herself have (as yet) come to light, Nathans has to rely heavily on texts generated about her by those who knew her.  Again like Williams, he makes his process of interpretation admirably transparent.  He is careful to alert the reader to multiple alternative interpretations of the documented actions and expressed feelings of his historical characters.  Though on occasion it may interfere with his ability to pull readers into the story, he points out frustrating gaps in the records that leave key parts of Walker’s early life story (as yet) unknowable.  For example, though much circumstantial evidence points to Walker’s children being fathered by a white man, no documentation as yet confirms this. Susan Lesley reported that Walker confided a “tragic story” to her, but the Lesley correspondence does not provide the details.  Similarly, Nathans is not able to confirm the reason for Walker’s decision to risk the escape attempt and to leave her children behind in slavery.  One source alleges it to be the threat of being sent to a farm in another state, while another points to her possible fear of sexual predation by a young master.  But there is not enough good evidence to settle this important question for certain.

Walker’s own perspective on her emotions is even harder to document than is her employer’s.  Nathans must and does speculate often, raising questions when he thinks more than one reading is possible. Occasionally, he allows his desire to tell a compelling story to override his historian’s skepticism.  For example, he might have questioned the level of Walker’s trust in Susan Lesley, given the long history of strained relations between formerly enslaved African American women—even those relatively privileged house servants who were considered “members of the family”—and their white mistresses.  He tends to treat anything Lesley says she learned directly from Walker as “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”—though I can imagine that Walker would have had reasons for censoring at least some of her experiences and feelings, even if she did regard Susan Lesley as a relatively trustworthy white friend.

Still, there are many times when he builds a convincing case for an interpretation rather than leaving it an open question. One excellent example is his account of the ways in which Walker’s political consciousness probably grew during the 1850s, through her contact with new friends and acquaintances in the northern free black community. Eventually she came to believe that ending to slavery was so necessary that she would be able to accept even the deaths of her children in the war that would end slavery. 

Nathans also argues that on occasion, “Mary Walker’s actions had to speak her sentiments.”  One good example is in his chapter about her summer of housekeeping in 1864 for a group of white northern volunteers in the federally occupied South Carolina Sea Islands, where experimental agricultural and educational projects were underway among the newly free population of refugees from slavery.  Using fascinating documentation, he shows that the laboring free people and the abolitionist northerners had become seriously disillusioned with each other, and he speculates that Walker may have been shocked by witnessing a confrontation between the exploited workers and the cynical managers.  Pointing out that Walker was working among friends of the Lesleys and therefore could “say little in her letters home,” he notes that after returning to Boston in the fall, Walker refused a subsequent offer to revisit the Sea Island experiment, even though the job came with a steady salary.  Later she was quoted by Susan Lesley as having expressed a negative opinion of its benefits for the free people.

Although it is a secondary concern for her, Williams turns a bright light on the moral and psychological question of how whites, both owners of slaves and others, who saw themselves as Christians were able to reconcile themselves to the continuation of the institution of slavery, even when they knew something of the human costs of family separations.  In Chapter Three, “They May See Their Children Again: White Attitudes Toward Separation,” Williams uses the journals of the South Carolina plantation owner Thomas Chaplin to enable the reader to experience first hand the sorry story of how economic self-interest and Chaplin’s carefully constructed version of himself as a benevolent patriarch apparently triumphed rather quickly over his initial recorded feelings of remorse and guilt.

Williams occasionally seems to struggle to present a more positive framing of the resilience of separated families than the overall weight of the evidence supports.  For example, she writes in the introduction of a “striking” finding of her research: “how many African Americans were able to create new families—marry again, have children—while at the same time keeping an emotional space for those whom they had lost.” Yet especially in the latter half of the book, a much more melancholy tone predominates, and it is difficult to point to good examples of the kind of resilience Williams had apparently hoped to find. In part this is due to the limited nature of the evidence.  For example, at the end of her chapter on family searches, she acknowledges that “the desires of former slaves to find family members were rarely fulfilled.”  

The story Nathans documents of Mary Walker’s reunion with the children she had left behind seventeen years before is, in the context of the Williams study, a valuable addition to our understanding of the complexities of reintegrating families who were separated in slavery.  While in Walker’s case there was no second marriage to complicate the re-establishment of mother-child relationships, there were her children’s spouses to meet. Walker’s son Bryant had married in slavery while in North Carolina, but his wife decided not to come North with him, and he remarried after a year, choosing an immigrant from Ireland, Annie Walker. The story of their family provides a fascinating though necessarily sketchy example of a postwar, postslavery marriage that crossed both racial and religious lines (the children were raised as Catholics).  The son may have disappointed his mother in some ways, since he struggled with numerous problems as he worked two jobs that were probably obtained through her Cambridge connections.  However, through her friendships with the extended Lesley family, she was able to acquire a large house on Brattle Street, Cambridge, in 1870, and also to set up a trust for the benefit of her daughter and grandchildren (bypassing her son and son-in-law).  Though she died of pneumonia at age 54 in 1872, the house remained in her family until 1912, and provided economic security for her children and grandchildren.

Both authors end their books in epilogues that provide notes of hopefulness, choosing the metaphor of reunion to gesture in the direction of connection, truth-telling, and even reconciliation.  Nathans concludes with the 2008 reunion between a descendant of Mary Walker and a descendant of the Lesley family, which he arranged seemingly in anticipation of the forthcoming publication of Walker’s story.  For Williams, it is a 1986 homecoming reunion of descendants of families once enslaved on a North Carolina plantation.  In my view it is a laudable impulse for these historians of the traumas wrought by slavery to look for sites in our own historical moment in which the massive harm unearthed in the research can be admitted and hard truths can be told.  As the legacy of harm clearly continues (though there is no clear consensus among Americans in different communities on how and to what degree), so does the need for remembering.  Help Me To Find My People in particular provides opportunities for remembering that the continued existence of slavery for centuries depended on whites learning to rationalize guilty feelings by pretending (or even believing) that African Americans did not feel family separations deeply.  To Free A Family shows that under extraordinarily fortunate conditions, a white family could learn personally from a former slave just how injurious was this national lie.  

Jean M. Humez is professor emerita of Women’s Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.  She is the author of Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories (2003) and the editor of Gifts of Power: The Writings of Rebecca Jackson, Black Visionary, Shaker Eldress (1981).  Among other publications are several articles on African American women’s spiritual autobiographies and on mediated autobiographical texts.

[i] See, for example, Hine’s article, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West:  Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance” (1989) and Painter’s “Soul Murder: Toward a Fully Loaded Cost Accounting” (1991) and Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (1996).

Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.
Our website uses cookies to enhance your experience. By continuing to use our site, or clicking "Continue", you are agreeing to our privacy policy.
Continue Privacy Policy