Tuesday, July 28, 2009

America's Oldest Surviving Slave

Lately, I've been thinking lately about how the process of collective memory works. The older generation creates history. The next generation remembers that history. Then, as the older generation dies off, the history they created slowly fades away until nobody has any living memory of it.

I bring this up, because I find it amazing how close we are historically to the pre-Civil War era of slavery. In fact, the old age and death of most of the survivors of the antebellum slavery era may have been a necessary condition before the civil rights movement finally achieved its major victories in the 1960s.

One way to demonstrate how close we are historically to the institution of slavery is to examine the question of who was the last living African-American who was born a slave. The question may never have a truly definitive answer, because most slaves never had proper birth records. In practice, this meant that there were multiple candidates who claimed to be the last living American slave, but some candidates were more credible than others.

When Charlie Smith of Bartow, Florida died in 1979, he still claimed he was born in Liberia in 1862, then lured into slavery by an illegal slave ship. According to a thesis I found on the Internet, African American Longevity Advantage: Myth or Reality?, however, Mr. Smith's real age at death was closer to 100 or 105, according to marriage and census records. Since Mr. Smith's age would have placed his date of birth approximately sometime between 1874 and 1879, his claim to being a slave fell apart under the scrutiny.

The more plausible claimants to being the oldest slave in the United States were more likely to approach 110 years of age than to claim they were over 130 years old, as Charlie Smith did. In a 1951 issue of a North Carolina newspaper, I found a reference to Alfred Blackburn, who died at the age of 109, as the oldest surviving slave in the state of North Carolina, although not the United States as a whole. In addition, I found a second story from 1966 about a women named Mary Walker from Chattanooga, Tennessee who was certified as "America's oldest student" when she learned to read at the age of approximately 116 years old. According to the article, she outlived a son who died in his nineties, so her claim is definitely the most credible I've seen. Even if she was "merely" 110 years old at the time, it's possible that she would still be the most credible claimant to being the world's oldest slave. In fact, according to this article from a Chattanooga paper that I found on an African-American genealogical bulletin board, Mary Walker even had a family Bible where she recorded the births of her children, which could verify her story.

The last claimant I could find came from an ad I found on Amazon.com for a very rare commemorative booklet that was given out at the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Unfortunately, the booklet is no longer for sale, but the old listing states that there was a collage dedicated to Josephus, a man whom the march organizers designated as the "last living slave" in the United States (although Mary Walker was still alive in 1963 as well).

In the final analysis, it may not matter that we don't have a definitive answer about the last surviving slave in the United States. What matters is that there are centenarians who have not only endured centuries of discrimination, but thrived. Perhaps what matters is not who was the oldest surviving slave, but that the oldest slave long outlive the oldest slavemaster.

5 comments:

  1. Yeah this is pretty awesome. I liked this post :)

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  2. Very interesting. I have been tracking "Last Facts" for over a decade and even compiled a moajor reference work on them. America's oldest surviving slave is one that I have an open file on. This is an excellent piece pulling together several claimants. Well done. Thanks. - William B. Brahms, author, Notable Last Facts: A Compendium of Endings, Conclusions, Terminations and Final Events Throughout History.

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  3. Brazil did not outlaw slavery until 1888, so there was still an Atlantic market for slaves in the 1870s (even if the slave _trade_ had been made illegal before, the continuation of slavery would make for a market). So if his story is true, he would be a very old former slave, but not someone who had been held in the U.S. as a slave.

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  4. Louisiana's digital database contains a number of oral history slave narratives that were taken in 1940. That would be a good source to cross check the death records for the former slaves who gave oral histories to this project.

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