Review

A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom

by David W. Blight

The
story of American slavery has to include the ills of the system,
the changes wrought in the aftermath of emancipation and the
precipitous slide down into the sins of segregation. In this book
we have the complete story, wrapped around two authentic slave
narratives. Because both writers, John Washington and Wallace
Turnage, escaped from bondage and lived through the end of the
Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and an America reunited
and struggling with racial animosities and tensions, the
book’s author, David W. Blight, has used their accounts to
paint the broad landscape.

Blight is the director of Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for
the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. He wrote, among
other books, RACE AND REUNION, winner of the Frederick Douglass
Prize, the Lincoln Prize and the Bancroft Prize. He is dedicated to
the principle that slavery has no benign aspect and that the
sufferings and trials of men like Washington and Turnage to attain
freedom are testament to the absolute brutality of the Southern
system. With frequent quotes not just from the two narratives
(which are included in their totality in the book, Washington and
Turnage being uniquely credited as co-authors of A SLAVE NO MORE)
but from the writings of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs
among others, Blight illustrates what privations the Southern slave
was willing to endure in the pursuit of the prize of freedom, a
prize that brought no property, no wealth and few rights, but
secured the right to pursue wealth and eventually own
property. 

Wright extols the sacrifices of the Union Army and the efforts of
good souls who helped to manage “contraband camps”
where ex-slaves gathered in their thousands to pray, practice their
new vocations and get a start at life as free human beings. He has
found scant evidence of the largely mythological kindly slave
owners and records that after the word of the Emancipation
Proclamation spread, mostly by hearsay amongst the illiterate
“property” of the embattled South, “good
slaves” in their droves left “good masters.” As
one slave owner admitted, “Those we loved best, and who loved
us best --- as we thought, were the first to leave us.”

John Washington was an urban black living in northern Virginia
whose treatment was not as animalistic as that of Turnage, a North
Carolina fieldhand sold first to an owner in Virginia and then to
Alabama. Washington was taught to read at an early age, and by the
time the war broke out, he had a free black woman for a wife and
various well-paid jobs for the Confederates. He slipped into Union
territory at great risk and assisted the Union Army, identifying
Confederate traitors in his hometown. His story very poignantly
highlights the sorrow of a young person who longs for the simple
joys of freedom. Eventually he and his descendants became
professional people.

Turnage did not fare so well in the aftermath of the war, his
continuing “persecutions” as he put it, probably owing
to his lower social status, as were his savage beatings at the
hands of sadistic overseers and masters as a cocky teen. It was the
refusal to accept being whipped that caused Turnage to try five
times to escape. He hid from patrols, sentinels, police and even
other slaves who fearfully would report escapees in order to avoid
bloody reprisals. Through the two ex-slaves’ eyes and
Blight’s extensive research, we see the repugnant details of
slave marketing and exploitation. Both men were almost certainly
the offspring of their white masters, and both revered their
enslaved mothers and helped bring them into freedom’s
light.

Neither man ever knew the other. The diaries were presented to
Blight almost simultaneously but separately. Both accounts are
short, obviously composed so that generations to come would
understand the impulse and the effort to attain freedom, and are
truncated at the point when freedom was gained. Blight has filled
in as much as possible the biographies of Washington and Turnage in
the post-war years, a super-charged time when African Americans
were both elated and dubious about their new status, and whites
both North and South were trying to solidify personal and public
attitudes about race.

Wallace Turnage, upon finding himself at last among friendly
Yankees, wrote, “I now dreaded the gun, the handcuffs and
pistols no more. Nor the blewing (sic) of horns and the
running of hounds; nor the threats of death from the rebel’s
authority. I could now speak my opinion to men of all grades and
colors, and no one to question my right to speak.” John
Washington underlined these words twice: “It was the First
Night of my freedom” and declared, “It was Good Friday
and the Best Friday I had ever seen.”

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 23, 2011

A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom
by David W. Blight

  • Publication Date: January 15, 2009
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0156034514
  • ISBN-13: 9780156034517