Book Review: David W. Blight, A Slave No More : Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation

Book Classification : Nonfiction - History - Abolition of African American Slavery


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A Slave No More :
Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation

by David W. Blight
Hardcover - 320 pages
First Edition, November 2007
Published by Harcourt

ISBN-10: 0151012326
ISBN-13: 978-0-15-101232-9

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Book Review

Wallace Turnage (1846-1916) and John M. Washington (1838-1918) never met each other.

During the Civil War, the two young men escaped from slavery, Turnage departed from Alabama and Washington from Virginia. They made their way to Northern military units and freedom. Then they educated themselves and wrote their true stories.

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David W. Blight ,
A Slave No More : Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom,
Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation

Yale history professor David W. Blight, possibly the leading expert on the slavery resistance and abolitionist movement, brings us these two recently discovered documents, to which his commentary is appended.

About the Author

David W. Blight is Class of 1954 Professor of American History at Yale University, joining that faculty in January 2003. He previously taught at Amherst College for thirteen years. As of June 2004, he is Director, succeeding David Brion Davis, of the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale. During the 2006-07 academic year he was a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars, New York Public Library.

- From the Publisher


Slave narratives are relatively rare, with less than a hundred accounts having been recorded by the four million emancipated slaves. The writings of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington are two that are well-known. The rarity of this type of historical record makes these two additions all the more appreciated.

This new volume by Harcourt Books presents typed transcriptions of "Memorys [sic] of the Past" by John Washington [pages 165-212] and "Journal of Wallace Turnage" [pages 213-260]. Dr. Blight's illuminating analysis accompany them. Additionally, there is an insert reproducing 23 B&W photographs, maps, and their captions [between pages 148-149]. The frontispiece is a facsimile of Washington's first two handwritten pages.

The narratives of the two heroes are autobiographical, and therefore begin with their childhood and their captivity. They go on to describe their clandestine travels northward, attempting to find anything to eat and anywhere to sleep, ducking whenever a sound was heard, and being attacked by dogs. Both men reiterate their faith in God. Three times Turnage was recaptured and whipped until he had no skin on his back, until his fourth escape was successful. [234-237] Upon reaching the Northern troops, the two men were now free to volunteers their labor for the Union military. Later in life, they were wage workers, subjected to racial discrimination, but at least they were working for wages and not in chains.

"I might now go and come when I please So I wood remain with the army until I got Enough money to travel further North This was the First Night of my Freedom. It was good Friday indeed the Best Friday I ever had ever seen Thank God -- xxxx -- ...."

-- John M. Washington
[Page 195]

The irregular spelling and grammar in the original manuscripts have not been edited.

Conscious that their writings were destined to become part of the evidence to indict the institution of slavery, Washington and Turnage chose to include facts that make the horrors of slavery unmistakable. Turnage describes how he got a chance to make his escape while his master was preoccupied with the task of giving a woman two hundred lashes of the whip because her daily quantity of cotton didn't weigh enough. [217]

"For it is positively forbidden by law to teach a Negro to Write. So I had to fall back on my own resources."

-- John M. Washington
[Page 173]

Dr. Blight's commentary offers information about the slave narrative as a genre of literature. The general form, he says, involves describing the horrors of slavery, and the escape from and the abolition of it, in terms of "contests between good and evil." [12]

The author also includes the results of his genealogical research about the two heroes. Events that took place several years after emancipation are reported more in the author's commentary than in the two first-person narratives.

In addition to being an American history professor, David W. Blight is also the director of the Gilder-Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition. In 2001 he published his acclaimed book, entitled Race and Reunion : The Civil War in American Memory (Paperback edition, 2002)


Book review Nov. 29. 2007 by Mike Lepore for crimsonbird.com

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A Slave No More : Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation
by David W. Blight

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Book Description from the Publisher's Press Release

Slave narratives are extremely rare. Of the one hundred or so of these testimonies that survive, a mere handful are first-person accounts by slaves who ran away and freed themselves. Now two newly uncovered narratives, and the biographies of the men who wrote them, join that exclusive group with the publication of A Slave No More, a major new addition to the canon of American history.

Wallace Turnage was a teenage field hand on an Alabama plantation, John Washington an urban slave in Virginia. They never met. But both men saw opportunity in the chaos of the Civil War, both escaped North, and both left us remarkable accounts of their flights to freedom. Handed down through family and friends -- Turnage's daughter carefully preserved her father's handwritten manuscript during a lifetime of passing for white -- these narratives tell gripping stories of escape.

But this book marks more than just the discovery of two new emancipation stories. It is also the discovery of two lives. Working from an unusual abundance of genealogical material, historian David W. Blight has reconstructed Turnage's and Washington's childhoods as sons of white slaveholders, their service as cooks and camp hands during the Civil War, and their climb to black working-class stability in the North, where they reunited their families.

In the lives and narratives of Turnage and Washington, we find a revelatory new answer to the question of how four million people moved from slavery to freedom. In A Slave No More , the untold stories of two ordinary men take their place at the heart of the American experience.

Book Reviews

"A Slave No More is a remarkable and rare volume. We are fortunate that David W. Blight, a foremost authority on the slave narrative, has applied his considerable skills as historian and detective to these extraordinary stories of 'ordinary' men. The narratives of Turnage and Washington will surely take their place among the most moving and instructive examples of the genre."

-- Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"A Slave No More presents two of the most significant finds in the entire genre of slave narratives and of the primary material from the Civil War."

-- David Levering Lewis

"Together, Blight's meticulous research and the previously unknown autobiographical writings of these two men bring to life with unprecedented power the human dimensions of slavery and emancipation."

-- Eric Foner

"David W. Blight combines the authority of a great historian with the humanistic zeal of a novelist.... A Slave No More is a compelling account of two men of remarkable courage who, by writing down their stories, sought to make themselves visible. Neither man could have wished for a more sympathetic or knowledgeable interpreter than David Blight."

-- Caryl Phillips

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