“Lay My Burden Down” was the second of three planned statewide symposiums to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which was fought from 1861 to 1865. The first conference was held in 2011 in Raleigh, and the last will be in 2015 in Wilmington. This was the only symposium completely dedicated to exploring the emancipation from the African American perspective. Presenters included scholars from across the state and nation.
“Slavery was the original curse of the nation, the original inconsistency between our belief in human liberty and the fact of slavery, and our society has been trying to overcome that ever since,” said WFU history professor and organizer Paul Escott. “Emancipation was our first step towards dealing with it as a nation dedicated to liberty.”
The keynote address given by Hari Jones, curator of the African American Civil War Museum in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 17 at WSSU focused on Southern blacks who aided the Union cause by serving as spies.
“The best kept secret in American history,” is how Jones describes the networks of black spies who helped discover and deliver information to the North.
Jones said African Americans made good spies because Confederate officers didn’t consider them a threat and would talk openly about sensitive information in front of slaves. He said though it’s hard to quantify how many black spies there were, they played an important role. Escaped slave Charlie Wright, for instance, warned the North of Confederate forces moving on Maryland, which ultimately led to a decisive Union victory at the Battle of Gettysburg.
“One thing we can say, anywhere the Confederate Army was, there were spies,” he said. “Anytime the Union needed information after 1863, (black spies) were available.”
The symposium moved to WFU on Oct. 18, where Dr. Maya Angelou, a longtime Wake Forest professor, read “A Brave and Startling Truth,” the poem she wrote and recited at a 50th anniversary celebration at the United Nations.
Thavolia Glymph, associate professor of history and African and African American studies at Duke University, gave the keynote address at WFU. She focused on former slaves who lived in Southern refugee camps in Union-controlled areas. Often filled with black women and children, the contraband camps, as they were called (“contraband” was a term for escaped slaves), would often move from place-to-place depending on troop movements.
Glymph called the camps a “sustained humanitarian disaster” where many died of disease or fell prey to capture or slaughter at the hands of Confederates.
“The toll was manyfold,” Glymph said.
Last Friday’s lectures brought out a couple hundred attendees, including students, history buffs and scholars. John Blythe, special projects and outreach coordinator for the North Carolina Collection at the UNC Chapel Hill Libraries, took in symposium sessions, including one led by UNC Chapel Hill history professor Heather Williams. Families separated by slavery and emancipated slaves’ search for loved ones were the main topics Williams addressed.
Former slaves would scour newspaper articles looking for clues to find long-lost family members. There were many instances where spouses remarried only to be reunited with pre-war husbands and wives and often children were reunited with parents they no longer remembered.
“Her presentation brought home the great wrecking force that slavery was to families,” Blythe said of Williams’ presentation.