During my research for this story, it occurred to me that it was against the law for slaves to read and write. You will understand why this is germane later. In my research I actually found evidence of letters written by slaves, and one in particular almost brought me to tears. There are only approximately twelve letters written by slaves in existence today.
This letter is from Vilet Lester (slave) to Patsey Patterson (former owner) on August 29, 1857. Vilet Lester writes to her former mistress, Patsey Patterson, briefly describing her chain of owners since she left the Patterson’s. She inquires about others she has left behind, in particular her daughter, whom Lester’s new owner has agreed to buy in order to reunite them.
Vilet Lester’s letter reads as follows:
Georgia Bullock Co August 29th 1857
My Loving Miss Patsy
I hav long bin wishing to imbrace this presant and pleasant opertunity of unfolding my Seans and fealings Since I was constrained to leav my Long Loved home and friends which I cannot never gave my Self the Least promis of returning to. I am well and this is Injoying good hlth and has ever Since I Left Randolph. whend I left Randolf I went to Rockingham and Stad there five weaks and then I left there and went to Richmon virgina to be Sold and I Stade there three days and was bought by a man by the name of Groover and braught to Georgia and he kept me about Nine months and he being a trader Sold me to a man by the name of Rimes and he Sold me to a man by the name of Lester and he has owned me four years and Says that he will keep me til death Siperates us without Some of my old north Caroliner friends wants to buy me again. my Dear Mistress I cannot tell my fealings nor how bad I wish to See youand old Boss and Mss Rahol and Mother. I do not [k]now which I want to See the worst Miss Rahol or mother I have thaugh[t] that I wanted to See mother but never befour did I [k]no[w] what it was to want to See a parent and could not. I wish you to gave my love to old Boss Miss Rahol and bailum and gave my manafold love to mother brothers and sister and pleas to tell them to Right to me So I may here from them if I cannot See them and also I wish you to right to me and Right me all the nuse. I do want to now whether old Boss is Still Living or now and all the rest of them and I want to [k]now whether balium is maried or no. I wish to [k]now what has Ever become of my Presus little girl. I left her in goldsborough with Mr. Walker and I have not herd from her Since and Walker Said that he was going to Carry her to Rockingham and gave her to his Sister and I want to [k]no[w] whether he did or no as I do wish to See her very mutch and Boss Says he wishes to [k]now whether he will Sell her or now and the least that can buy her and that he wishes a answer as Soon as he can get one as I wis himto buy her an my Boss being a man of Reason and fealing wishes to grant my trubled breast that mutch gratification and wishes to [k]now whether he will Sell her now. So I must come to a close by Escribing my Self you long loved and well wishing play mate as a Servant until death
to Miss Patsey Padison
of North Caroliner
My Bosses Name is James B Lester and if you Should think a nuff of me to right me which I do beg the faver of you as a Sevant direct your letter to Millray Bullock County Georgia. Pleas to right me So fare you well in love.
The picture of the letters are here:
Striking. Isn’t it? That this woman would refer to her previous owner as “Loving Miss Patsy” and end her letter with “So fare you well in love”. Vilet details how she was sold over and over again, but still wanted to know how her family and friends were doing. The evidence of this letter demonstrates that there was a functional post office, and that a slave could (I presume with permission from their owner) mail a letter. I can only presume that Vilet’s worth was great because she could read and write, or perhaps she was sold as often as she was because her literacy was viewed as a threat. Slave owners couldn’t have a slave who might teach other slaves to become literate.
Still it is amazing that a slave during a time when there were no public schools, slaves weren’t educated, and it was illegal for slaves to read or write, that she was so literate. The existence of her letter is a repudiation of every prevarication leveled against the cognitive abilities of African Americans. Which brings us to Juneteenth.
Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. It is important to remember that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive Order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.
Think about that for a moment. The slaves in Texas were free for almost two and a half years before they actually found out. That’s why I started this article with Vilet Lester’s letter. In 1865 there was neither radio nor television. There were newspapers, but slaves couldn’t read. Those few who could read weren’t going to be given a newspaper that announced Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Further still very few slaves could read or write. What slave was going to write a letter to a relative in Texas to let them know that they were free?
Later attempts to explain this two and a half year delay in the receipt of this important news have yielded several versions that have been handed down through the years. Often told is the story of a messenger who was murdered on his way to Texas with the news of freedom. Another is that the news was deliberately withheld by the enslavers to maintain the labor force on the plantations. And still another is that federal troops actually waited for the slave owners to reap the benefits of one last cotton harvest before going to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. All of which, or none of these versions could be true. Certainly, for some, President Lincoln’s authority over the rebellious states was in question. Whatever the reasons, conditions in Texas remained status quo well beyond what was statutory.
Imagine that you just found out that you were free two and a half years earlier, but the slave owners didn’t tell you? Rather than stay and fight, most slaves went North. Hence the great migration of black freed slaves to cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and other northern cities.
Juneteenth is a day of celebration, but it is also another reminder of a time where the majority took advantage of a system that subjugated black people whose freedom was stolen a second time at its worst, or delayed at its best. So yes June 19th is a day of celebration, but at best it is bittersweet.