A Slave No More
David W. Blight
About the book:
Slave narratives are extremely rare; very few are first-person accounts by slaves who freed themselves. Now two newly uncovered narratives, and the biographies of the men who wrote them, join that exclusive group.
Wallace Turnage was a teenage field hand on an Alabama plantation, John Washington an urban slave in Virginia. They never met. But both saw opportunity in the chaos of the CivilWar, both escaped north, and both left remarkable accounts of their flights to freedom.
This book is more than their narratives: working from painstakingly acquired records and sources for the lives of heretofore unknown former slaves, the historian David W. Blight has discovered and reconstructed their lives—from slave childhood to black working-class stability in the North. These are the untold biographies of two ordinary men, but they are also new answers to how four million people moved from slavery to freedom. A Slave No More is a major addition to the canon of American history.
About the author:
WALLACE TURNAGE (1846–1916) was born in Snow Hill, North Carolina, and spent his adult life in New York City and Jersey City, New Jersey.
JOHN WASHINGTON (1838–1918), born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, worked as a house and sign painter in Washington, D.C., after his escape. He retired to Cohasset, Massachusetts.
DAVID W. BLIGHT is the director of Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and a professor of American history. Among his books is Race and Reunion, which won the Frederick Douglass Prize, the Lincoln Prize, and the Bancroft Prize. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Click here to download the reading guide for A Slave No More.
1. What is a slave narrative? Why did John Washington and Wallace Turnage write down the stories of their lives as slaves and their escapes to freedom? Who were the readers they had in mind? How do you think their intended audience might have affected what stories they chose to tell and how they chose to tell them?
2. How do Washington and Turnage change as they grow up? What in their early lives or their personalities or both might have contributed to their determination to escape? For example, how did the time Washington spent as a slave in the city make him more likely and able to escape?
3. How do Washington’s and Turnage’s life stories and the stories of their descendants illustrate the importance of migration in the African American experience? Compare Washington’s and Turnage’s migrations with their descendants’ movements. Compare and contrast African American migration with that of the European immigrants with whom Blight imagines Turnage must have come into contact in New York City.
4. What were the different factors President Lincoln had to consider in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation? What were the earlier, less radical steps he took before issuing the proclamation? How did the proclamation help the Union to win the war? How might it have hurt the Union’s efforts?
5. What is the significance of Washington’s story of being left behind at the circus (page 166)? How does it relate to Washington’s story as a whole? Why do you think he included it in his narrative?
6. How does the tone of Turnage’s narrative change in the section describing his final escape from Mobile to Fort Powell? Why do you think Turnage seems to talk more about his feelings and about God in this final passage? Do you feel more suspense in this part of the narrative?
7. Blight writes that "virtually all pre-emancipation slave narratives contained . . . numerous testimonials, prefaces, and letters of endorsement by white abolitionists and supporters" (page 12). Do you think there are similarities between those kinds of prefaces and Blight”s own? How does reading Blight’s biographies of Washington and Turnage beforehand affect the way you read and understand their narratives?
8. Why has Blight preserved the narratives almost exactly as they were written (see Author’s Note)? What changes did he make to them, and why? Why is it important to scholars that narratives like these be presented in their original form, including obvious errors?
9. Discuss Washington’s and Turnage’s writing style in the context of Blight’s description of the evolution of slave narratives (Prologue). In which passages did you notice Washington and Turnage using the conventions of fiction and biography? Which were the most novelistic parts of the narratives? Did they remind you of any specific works of literature?
10. Both Turnage and Washington seem to have had a very detailed knowledge of the names and tactical movements of the Union armies. Why do you think this is?
11. Blight believes that Washington and Turnage wrote these narratives in part to tell their children where they had come from. Are there stories or written documents like this in your own family? If so, compare and contrast those stories with these slave narratives.
12. Discuss the importance of Washington’s and Turnage’s literacy. How did it help them escape? In what ways might these narratives have been different if Washington and Turnage had been illiterate and told their stories as oral histories to an interviewer who transcribed them?
13. Discuss the importance of socioeconomic class in Washington’s and Turnage’s lives after slavery. Were their post-slavery experiences less similar than their lives as slaves? How might both of their lives have been different if they had not escaped to the North during the war?
14. Discuss Washington’s quote on page 194: “I never would be a slave no more. I felt for the first time in my life that I could now claim Every cent that I should work for as my own.” Is it significant that the first type of freedom Washington thinks of is the freedom to earn his own money?
15. Turnage’s note to the reader at the end of his narrative expresses the hope that, when he dies, he will “by God’s assistance reach that Blistful abode, and triumph over the enemies of my soul at last . . . I will then be free indeed.” What is the significance of this note? Who are the enemies of his soul? Discuss the role that Christianity played in Turnage’s and Washington’s lives and the way they expressed their religious beliefs in their narratives.
16. Blight writes that in 2006 the Massachusetts Historical Commission described Washington as the most notable person buried in the Cohassett, Massachusetts, cemetery. Why is he considered notable? Discuss Blight’s comment that this shows how “Americans are finally becoming aware that slavery left indelible marks, large and small, on the national psyche as well as on the American landscape” (page 112).
17. What did you learn from these narratives that you didn’t already know about slavery, abolition, and the Civil War? What did you learn that a narrative history written today cou