Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Joys of Freedom!

Sanctuary!  An illustration of slaves seeking freedom at the Union Lines

I always loved the 4th of July from my my childhood days. I recall the barbecues, fireworks and good times with the family, on a day that everyone seemed to relish.  Fire crackers, sparklers and roman candles were the norm and it was a day of just pure enjoyment.  As I got older, I learned the history lessons of independence from the British and embraced the concept of freedom and how we celebrated the nation's history from 1776.

As I got a bit older I had to then learn the painful truths that though we celebrated Freedom---many of my own ancestors, were not yet able to have this celebration, and would have to wait 90 years for their own celebrations of freedom.  And another set of ancestors had to wait an additional year when in 1866 they would be freed by Treaty.

But---there is one story that got buried in the family memory--and I found it accidentally.  I found Amanda's sister.

My ancestor Amanda Young---was the matriarch of  my mother's family.  Her husband, father and son, would leave to join the Union forces.  None ever returned. She did eventually remarry a kind and very lonely man from South Carolina, Pleasant Barr---who had lost his own family, when he was separated from them.  They then provided the structure needed for Amanda's children to grow.

But, while researching Amanda's story---I found another story.  That of her sister Mary Paralee Young. 

Paralee, as she was known by the family was Amanda's sister. Same father, same mother, and both were slaves of William Tandy Young, in Ripley Mississippi. When Gen. Rosencranz sent a raid into northern Mississippi, they reached Ripley, and the opportunity came for the men to leave and to join the Union Army. They seized that opportunity and left. 

I learned that Amanda's husband father and brother left---and she would see none of them again.  A few days after the men had left--word reached back that if those left behind could just reach the Union line---they too could be freed.  Amanda had several young children who would not have survived the journey, so she remained. But Amanda's sister---who also had a  young child, she knew her husband had left with the men and she too wanted to taste freedom, and she like many others also fled when the word came.

Amanda's sister would never return.  So other than her children---all of Amanda's family was gone.  

Freedom would eventually come--and Amanda faced her new freedom with no husband, no son, no father, no sister.

But she would survive, remarry and raise her children.

FIFTY years later-----Amanda was once again widowed---her second husband Pleas was now deceased, and her adult daughters had married and moved on with their lives. 

It was the early 1900s and Amanda was applying for a widow's pension from her first husband Berry.  She had moved to Memphis to live with her now grown daughter Frances.  There were some men in the Memphis ex soldiers area who knew of people from Ripley Mississippi. Those folks with luck, might, remember Amanda and testify for her. 

One of them did and she eagerly came forth to testify on Amanda's behalf.  She was Amanda's sister---and they had not seen each other for fifty years!  Mary Paralee Young.

The year was 1914. Amanda was an old woman, and still wondered in those years---what had happened to the people she had loved.  Well, Paralee told some of that story.

They learned that if they followed the men----they too would be free!  So she decided along with other young women to go and to try to follow the men. They had but one goal----to get to the Union Line!! There they would find, sanctuary!

(Historically this was true. Gen. Benjamin Butler, in 1861 had declared that all property seized (including human property) would be considered "contraband".  This led to the establishment of the many contraband camps throughout the south.)   

There was a contraband camp in Corinth, but they were re-directed to Saulsbury Tennessee. Corinth was now full and Tennessee was now their destination.

After several days of travel---which one can only imagine such a journey on foot, to Saulsbury Tennessee. There had to be fear, even though they were following Federal soldiers for they were now runaway slaves, and Saulsbury Tennesse was a great distance away.  They were then put on a train and sent outside of Memphis to President's Island.

 She did not describe what she saw, but civil war illustrators and photographers have depicted the camps---tent cities and refugees---hundreds of refugee slaves suddenly free---with need for shelter, food, and care.  

Images of Contraband Camps during the Civil War

I also learned that in northern Mississippi, Corinth Contraband  Camp, is known for being one of the more organized contraband camps---even during a time of crisis when a measles epidemic had hit the camp.

Corinth is now an historic landmark in Northern Mississippi

But Paralee, was not to be there----it had been decided, as more and more refugees poured into Corinth---that they could not accomodate them adequately. They went to Saulsbury and then as she stated "when I got to Memphis they sent me with the whole others to the Contraband Camp at President's Island. She remained there nearly a year and a half.  Afterwards, she eventually found her husband in the area around Memphis and she and her husband remained there after the war---never returning to Ripley, where they had lived as slaves.  

Fifty years later a woman came to her home and asked her if she had ever known a woman called Amanda Young. The woman was her niece--Amanda's daughter.  Of course she had---her sister was Amanda Young!

Amanda, now living in Memphis had told her story and a man who knew many women who were Civil War widows, recalled that Paralee had said she was once a slave in Ripley Mississippi.  Would Paralee be willing to testify for Amanda so that she could get a pension for her husband?  Of course she would----after 50 years---she would finally see her sister again! Her daughter went to find her in Whitehave, now a neighborhood in Memphis.  

I was so amazed to read this story from the  pages of Amanda's Civil War pension file.

I had so many questions----one of which was: President's Island---where was this place?  

I learned that it was an island in the middle of the Mississippi River---just off the river banks---near Memphis. President's Island was a large contraband camp and a rare one to be so close to a major city!  Paralee had lived there until 1866.  

What was life like in that camp?
Who ran the camp?
How did they survive?

So many questions and many of those answers I still seek.

But----I have come to appreciate the courage it took to flee to the unknown, seeking freedom.  I appreciate the fact that steps were taken to provide shelter for these newly freed slaves, and to give them refuge.  I admire the fact that they survived and did manage to move ahead---scarred, but not defeated by the legacy of having once been enslaved. 

I also appreciate Amanda---who continued to ask the questions----what happened to my family?  

After 50 years, she still sought answers---and 140 years later I can find the paper trail that she left---where some of those answers lie.

They wanted what all people want---to be free, to have the independence of choice and to make their own decisions. 

I often refer to summertime as a Season of Freedom. In June, many of us celebrate Emancipation as it came to Galveston and beyond.  

In July--we celebrate the Freedom of our country---OUR country---it belongs to us as well. 

And in August in Oklahoma---we celebrate Freedom and emancipation from the slave holding tribes----Freedom--how sweet the song!

For me----I have a special feeling in my heart---for those who sought sanctuary---and who found it!  
From the contraband camps, to the military enlistment units to the places within their heart----all longed to tasted the sweetness of Freedom!!

Happy Birthday America!  

It is wonderful to be free!!


Kristin said...

Great story. Great to have those statements in their own words!!

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Hi Kristin,

Thanks for reading the post, Kristin.

Yes, the pension file is full of so much data! I am so blessed to have this file. And---since Amanda's sister Paralee was also a Civil War widow---I have HER pension file as well. Such wonderful data information--that otherwise would have been lost forever.

Michael Hait said...

It is truly amazing how valuable these pension files are!

Wonderful story!

Happy 4th!

Mavis said...

What a wonderful tribute and story. How hard that must have been. And after all those years to find each other again.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Thanks for reading the story Mavis. Yes, and can you imagine the surprise for both Amanda and Paralee. Amanda had probably felt that all of her folks had died and to know that she had a sister living close by. And Paralee had to think that all had probably died that she left behind and here comes a niece who finds her. They must have had a tearful and bittersweet reunion. All those years without contact. And they probably ended up re-visiting those days and the many things that had happened. What a reunion that must have been.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Hello Michael,

You are so right---the pension files tell so many stories. And the more you read, the more you learn. Imagine the surprise of discovering not only that an ancestor had fled and was probably a refugee, but that she mentioned the exact contraband camp where she had lived. It lead to more research that has to be undertaken. These files are so rich with data. Thanks for visiting the blog.

Vicky Daviss Mitchell said...

As usual Angela you have such wonderful stories.. I am always amazed and blessed when I read them.

Angela Y. Walton-Raji said...

Thank you so very much! I am so blessed to have these stories, and glad that I can share them with others.

Terrence Garnett said...

Simply amazing!