On Thursday evening, professor of history at Duke University Thavolia Glymph discussed her work in documenting black female refugees of the Civil War.
The lecture was the third annual Fleming-Morrow Distinguished Lecture in African-American History. The lecture series is co-sponsored by the Haines-Morrow Endowment, the Department of History and the Center for the Study of War and Society.
Glymph began her talk with an anecdote from the journal of Union surgeon Francis Bacon, contrasting his surprising reverence for a black Union nurse to the popular notion that black women could never be more than “mammies.” The prevailing narrative at the time was that African Americans were animalistic and lacked agency, and this narrative was preserved in photographs depicting black people of the time period.
“Visual images of ‘contraband’ slaves or former slaves are prominent,” Glymph said. “But few scholars question the stillness in these photographs that suggests that freedom was a gift rather than something black people actively pursued, rather than something they fought for. Also left unanswered is the question of what meaning they attach to freedom.”
Glymph noted these photographs were not mere representations of the objectification of black people but instead were permanent visual renderings which served to perpetuate the commodification and trafficking of black bodies. Black dehumanization was also carried out discursively, she explained.
“The way in which (they) were described seemed more to mock black people’s efforts than to celebrate their resourcefulness,” Glymph said. “Some of the most popular images of black refugees do stigmatize. Many repel. But rarely do they encourage us to see black people, black refugees, women and children (as) thinking.”
Refugees were largely seen as a problem to be eradicated, Glymph added. Even the most devout abolitionists were more interested in the preservation of the Union government than in the liberation of slaves.
Black women, in particular, were not considered to be citizens. And often, they weren’t even considered women. They didn’t belong in public spaces, yet they were expelled from their homes and forced into the streets as punishment when they attempted to assert their freedom.
“The very act of performing freedom and Unionism put (black women) literally into the streets and encouraged a discourse that simultaneously chastised them for being there while denying their right to there,” Glymph said. “The words and images that circulated around black women refugees portrayed them as infectious, threatening.”
During the war, many black women found themselves in refugee camps where they would attempt – often successfully – to perform freedom. Drawing from what resources they could, black women, who far outnumbered black men in such camps, turned to industry and networking to create for themselves new and better lives. They opened and ran businesses, sought friendships and partnerships that would benefit them and took care of vulnerable members of their communities.
Moreover, the fruits of their work were taxed and used to fund agencies such as the Freedmen’s Bureau and the establishments of some of the first black universities. Glymph suggested that historians turn from constructing for these women a narrative of helplessness to constructing one of empowerment.
“I submit that black people sought rights, not mercy; freedom, not pity. That alone would permit them to no longer be subject to dying in the streets and dragging out a miserable life of filth and festering disease in wretched dog kennels where the eye of humanity never penetrates,” Glymph said. “In many ways that we have not even begun to consider, black women’s freedom enabled the freedom of the coming generations.”
Much of the Q&A session that followed Glymph’s lecture was focused on the political power of black women and on the performance of black freedom. The event was also followed by a brief reception and book signing.
Shelby Cooper, senior in psychology, said that while she was unfamiliar with the lecture’s subject matter, she was surprised by how relevant it is today.
“I didn’t know that black women were in refugee camps (in the Civil War),” Cooper said. “I think it’s important to know what they went through. I think the refugee aspect is important to know, too, because of what’s going on now. (We have to) understand why it’s important to take them in.”