Underground Railroad Free Press
News & Views on the Underground Railroad • Vol. XVIII, no. 99, January 2023
Published bimonthly since 2006, we bring together organizations and people interested in the historical and the contemporary Underground Railroad. Free Press is the home of Lynx, the central registry of contemporary Underground Railroad organizations; Datebook, the community's event calendar; and the Free Press Prizes awarded annually for leadership, preservation and advancement of knowledge, the community's highest honors. Underground Railroad Free Press is emailed free of charge on the 15th of odd-numbered months. Please visit urrfreepress.com for more.
In This Issue
The Emancipation Proclamation at 150
An unsung Black author’s Civil War memoirs now available
Where was the westernmost safehouse?
Freedmen's Bureau Searches Now Available
As Vital as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution
Two weeks ago today, there wasn’t much of an observation that January 1 marked the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the transformational document that had as much effect on shaping the United States as did the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. How Abraham Lincoln came to the point of authoring the Proclamation is a story in itself.
In Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham’s recently released Lincoln biography, And There Was Light, it was the Emancipation Proclamation that was the light. Meacham dispenses with the predominant myth that Lincoln came only gradually to wanting to abolish slavery. Researching deeply, Meacham finds abundant indication that Lincoln’s aversion to slavery begins in childhood and takes firmer root throughout his life.
But the Emancipation Proclamation was not universal, as it decreed freedom only in the states that had seceded from the United States, leaving slavery intact in the Union states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri. Lincoln saw that he had to make this compromise that was abhorrent to him in order to prevent these states from flipping to the Confederacy. Slave-holding Maryland geographically surrounded the Union capital at Washington. But even before the Civil War ended, just the presence of the Emancipation Proclamation began bringing these Union slave states around. Maryland, for example, rewrote her constitution to abolish slavery on November 1, 1864. Missouri and the new state of West Virginia soon did the same.
The Proclamation was so enthusiastically received in Europe that it ended any hope of the Confederacy of gaining official recognition there. Said Italian leader Giuseppe Garibaldi of Lincoln, “Posterity will call you the great emancipator, a more enviable title than any crown could be, and greater than any merely mundane treasure."
On the wall if the front entrance hall of our home is a framed facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation that I gave to my wife shortly after we married. Lincoln’s immortal phrasings in the Proclamation end with this: “And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind.” Justice, indeed.
In both of my weddings, my best men were Black. This kind of inter-racial closeness might never have happened without you, Abe. Yes, you did invoke the considerate judgment of mankind.
Peter H. Michael, Publisher
A Black Teen’s Vivid Civil War Diary
We are indebted to Free Press subscriber Yvonne Wilson of Fuengirola, Spain for alerting us to the following news.
Every day at 9 AM, Susie King Taylor and her brother would walk the half a mile to the small schoolhouse, their books wrapped in paper to prevent the police from seeing them. Her grandmother made sure of it—she wanted Susie to be able to read and write.
Susie was barely in her early teens when her family fled to St. Simons Island, a Union-controlled area in Georgia, during the Civil War. With her inquisitive eyes and kind demeanor and her education, she impressed the army officers. They asked that she become a teacher for children and even some adults. “I would gladly do so, if I could have some books,” she replied. And so, she became the first Black teacher of freed Black students to work in a freely operating freedmen’s school in Georgia.
Not long after, Susie married and joined her husband and his regiment as they traveled. She became their teacher, instructing the illiterate men to read and write. It was also during this time that she became a nurse to the men, thus making her the first black army nurse in the Civil War.
All this she accomplished before the age of 18.
Looking back on her time as a nurse, she said, “I gave my service willingly for four years and three months without receiving a dollar. I was glad . . . to care for the sick and afflicted comrades.”
During her United States Army service, Taylor kept a comprehensive diary that after the Civil War she had published as a book, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops. The book has now been made available by the University of North Carolina’s “Documenting the American South” program and may be read or downloaded at https://tinyurl.com/RevivedBook.
After the war, Taylor owned and taught at a school which she founded in Savannah, Georgia. She, the book and her school are shown below.
There is no known Underground Railroad safehouse farther west than the Mayhew Cabin in Nebraska City, Nebraska.
Allen and Barbara Kagi Mayhew moved to Nebraska in 1854 and the following year built themselves a cabin in what was to become the town of Nebraska City along the Missouri River. The Mayhews raised six children in the cabin. Barbara’s younger brother, John Kagi, lived with the Mayhew family in the winter of 1855-56, after which he went to Kansas to promote the anti-slavery cause and become involved in the Underground Railroad.
Kagi conducted freedom seekers who were heading north through Nebraska and used his sister’s cabin as a safehouse to shelter his charges. The Underground Railroad route traveled through southeast Nebraska towns such as Falls City and Nemaha. Once escaping slaves reached Nebraska City, they crossed the Missouri River into the free state of Iowa en route to Civil Bend and Tabor, Iowa.
The Mayhew Cabin is a registered Nebraska historic site and is listed in the Underground Railroad Free Press Lynx database and the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom program.
Freedmen’s Bureau Database Now Searchable
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) announces the launch of the Freedmen’s Bureau Search Portal. The new comprehensive search platform is designed to help family historians and genealogists search for their ancestors and for scholars and students to research various topics found in over 1.7 million pages of Freedmen’s Bureau records.
The portal allows users to search records from the United States Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. Congress created the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War to assist in the political and social reconstruction of post-war Southern states and to help formerly enslaved African Americans transition from slavery to freedom and citizenship. From 1865 to 1872, the Freedmen’s Bureau created and collected over 1.7 million handwritten records containing the names and information of hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved individuals and Southern white refugees.
To search the extensive database, see https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/freedmens-bureau.