Monthly Archives: June 2020

Taking Advantage of the Fact

Civil War recruiting broadside depicting the path forward: Freedom, military victory, education, literacy, and the destruction of the flag of the “Slave Power” (Kentucky Library)

The Juneteenth celebration has its origins in the announcement delivered on June 19, 1865 by Union troops at Galveston, Texas, that “all slaves are free.”  The Confederacy’s surrender the previous April had finally put the U.S. Army in a position to enforce President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had taken effect on January 1, 1863.

In Texas and elsewhere, according to historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Emancipation “wasn’t exactly instant magic.”  News traveled slowly, and sometimes those “who acted on the news did so at their peril.”  After 1863, nearly 200,000 African Americans enlisted in the Union Army, and others took risky steps to establish (in the words of Juneteenth.com) “a heretofore non-existent status.”

Whites could be rather flummoxed by their former slaves’ embrace of emancipation.  Shortly before the war ended, Sallie Knott observed that “Negro troops” had come to Lebanon, Kentucky to recruit.  “They have already induced many to go,” she wrote in her diary, given that “their families are free as soon as they enter the army.”  A Southern sympathizer, Sallie was nevertheless amused at the travails of a white neighbor whose slaves had all decamped.  “The Madam is cooking herself!” she snickered. “There is a little good mingled with all this evil!”  A month earlier, she had heard from her stepfather in Warren County that an enslaved member of his household had the temerity to ask “for wages!  Papa told him he’d not give his own servant [sic] wages,” but would graciously give him Saturdays off.  “I should not be surprised,” wrote Sally, to hear of the “servant’s” early departure.  Similarly, in Sherman, Texas, Patience Smith wrote to acknowledge the first letter received from her sister Emily in Tennessee “since the war broke up.”  She seemed even more disoriented by the absence of enslaved labor.  Her brother Burrell, she complained, “has not a negro on his land,” and his wife and daughter were stuck with all the work! 

Sophia, 1888

We have blogged before about the post-Emancipation odyssey of a young woman named Sophia, who for more than two decades was the mistress, housekeeper, and companion of Richard Vance, an Army officer from Warren County, Kentucky.  Vance first met Sophia in 1867 at his military station in Little Rock, Arkansas and learned her story.  When Emancipation came, she was still a young girl, and the rest of her enslaved family had already been sent away by their master to keep them from falling into the hands of the “hated yankees.”  Sophia remained in a condition of “absolute slavery” until early 1866, when local African Americans learned of their freedom “through the instrumentalities of the Freedmen’s Bureau” and “were enabled through the same agency to take advantage of that fact.”  Carrying only a bundle of ragged clothes, Sophia finally left.  Twenty years later, she enjoyed a reunion with her long-lost brother and sisters in Texas.  She found them prosperous, the owners of “farms, horses, cows, hogs, orchards, bees and all the paraphernalia of thrifty cotton growers.  This is remarkable,” wrote Vance, who had helped her locate them, “seeing that only a couple of decades since they were slaves, uneducated, pennyless, and surrounded by a hostile population.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  (The Hamilton Family Collection, which contains Patience Smith’s letter, is currently being processed).  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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History from Home

David Ellen Tichenor’s D-Day letter

Everyone knew something big was coming – just not when or where – but on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the mystery was solved.  As soon as she heard the news that morning in Calhoun, Kentucky, David Ellen Tichenor penned a letter to her son Thomas, then serving as a convoy communications officer with the U.S. Navy.  In short letters (her V-Mail stationery limited her to one page) she relayed something of the predicament of ordinary people: the “majority in the middle,” in the words of philosopher Eric Hoffer, over whose heads “the best and the worst” so often clash to make history.

On the morning of D-Day, “about 4 or a little later,” she wrote, “we were awakened by the Methodist bell ringing.  [S]oon all the other church bells began ringing.  I got up and turned on the radio as did every one else.  Soon a line of people were seen going to the churches to pray – the invasion had started!” – but she had stayed home, “being too full of emotion and sadness of knowing some of our boys were in it, but I did my part of praying.” 

With the outcome still uncertain, there were only ordinary things to talk about.  David Ellen reported that she and Thomas’s father had recently spent a day visiting family in Bowling Green (she was a niece of WKU’s first president Henry Hardin Cherry).  Upon their return to Calhoun, they found that a generous rain had revived their beloved garden.  “In fact it there had been quite a storm.”  Everything, however, was “fresh and pretty.”

Six days later, wrote David Ellen, everyone was still glued to their radios, but “the invasion seems to be going along O.K.”  Nevertheless, some of the Calhoun boys were “thought to be in it and their mothers are frantic.  What  a mess the world is in.”  Mr. Tichenor was gathering “big luschious” cherries from their tree, an old one that would probably expire after “making its ‘war effort.’”  Two days later: “The first ripe tomato to-day!”

Almost three weeks into the invasion, local mothers were still feeling the aftershocks.  One of them came by David Ellen’s home crying because her son hadn’t received any of her letters (“Of course she writes all the time”) and was worried that something was wrong at home.  For another, it was worse.  “Alma” was “almost crazy,” she wrote, having received word that her son had been missing in action over France since D-Day.  With so many boys being killed, the July 4th holiday was “the quietest day I have ever known around here.”

But still, ordinary life and hopes populated David Ellen’s thoughts: a lack of rain for the garden, a new veterans bill promising servicemen a college education, local marriages and babies, and especially her postwar plans for her son.  Although the world was “a mess,” she didn’t think for a moment that it would stay that way.  “I like your idea,” she told him, “of going to school a year when the war is over and getting your masters degree and a place in a college. Bowling Green would be a nice place.”

These are some of many World War II letters in the Tichenor Collection, held in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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