Infusing History Into Fiction: Manumission, Freeing Slaves
I am thrilled by the number of readers who’ve told me they love love love the minor character of young abolitionist Ellen in my novel, The Lies That Bind. I love Ellen, too, of course, and I suspect you did—or will—as well. On my recent appearance on LA Talk Radio’s The Writers Block, the show’s terrific hosts, Jim Christina and Bobbi Bell, were especially enthusiastic about Ellen, and we had a lot of laughs discussing her (listen to the interview here).
Freeing the Slaves
In the novel, Ellen earns a few dollars by keeping the town of Turkle, Mississippi’s minor records, including deeds, wills, agreements—and manumission documents. Historically, manumission is defined as the act of a master freeing his/her slave(s), which required legal papers (to “manumit” the slave). Most often, a master would manumit a favored slave in his/her will or in a deed, or manumit an older slave whose productivity was in severe decline. However, the chance of a field slave or laborer being freed in this or any other way was almost nil.
In the novel, Ellen has never had the opportunity to fill out a manumission document freeing any slaves, and that bothers her greatly. Ellen and her grandfather, a church Senior Deacon (and religious fundamentalist), constitute the town’s only abolitionists, an unforgivable sin in the antebellum South. The anomalous pair is tolerated, however, because they are such idealists, so religious, and so impoverished and powerless, that people consider them harmless.
Historically, manumissions increased in the late-eighteenth century, after the American Revolution, and the percentage of freedmen went from 1 percent of the black population to 10 percent (7 percent in Virginia, for example). However, after the invention of the cotton gin (1793) opened extensive lands to labor-intensive cotton cultivation, manumissions declined almost to zero. In parallel, there were abolitionist preachers in the South who convinced some planters to free their slaves. However, after the 1840s, these idealistic preachers were driven to flee north or were even killed outright. So the religious establishment became solidly pro-slavery until the Civil War.
Interestingly, in a revised edition of The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, John W. Blassingame relates his discovery of a brilliant, black pro-slavery theologian called Bentley’s Old George, who served as preacher to a church of wealthy planters. The congregation, which paid the preacher $700 a year, offered to buy the man from the estate that owned him, and Old George refused to be bought by them!
Likewise, in the second novel in my DarkHorse Trilogy, Honor Among Outcasts, the main characters encounter such a pro-slavery black preacher—under circumstances that are both moving and tragic. (I just couldn’t pass up the dramatic irony.)
Revolting Against Bondage Halts Manumissions
It seems slaves just weren’t satisfied with their condition! After the Haitian slave revolt of 1791-1804, in which all the French masters were killed, and the rebellion led by American slave Nat Turner, planters in the South lived in fear of their unwilling bondsmen rising up against them. The South’s false portrayal of the “happy slave”—which I wrote The Lies That Bind in part to debunk—was used as propaganda to counter Northern abolitionists’ criticism of the South’s “peculiar institution.” As a result of this fear, the South passed laws that made manumission quite difficult, if not impossible; after which few slaves were freed until the Thirteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution ended slavery.
In Lies, Ellen’s life is changed when Durk Hurst asks her to draw up manumission papers to free his (secret) partners, a group of (former) slaves, fulfilling her lifelong dream. Of course, as in the rest of the novel, the irony seldom lets up. Durk does not really own his partners, so his signature does not really manumit them. In fact, under the circumstances, his partners must still pretend to be his slaves, which they never were, and they must keep their fake manumission as secret as their partnership with Durk. A twisted situation, indeed!
Reading Ellen Scenes
I plan to include a few scenes involving Ellen at my upcoming reading at Left Bank Books in St. Louis on Thurs., June 23. It will give fans a sense of the ironic situation Ellen (and Durk) find themselves in, and why she is so endearing to readers. Stop by the reading if you’re in town. See details.
Next blog post: I’ll continue my discussion of Ellen and the literary function she serves in The Lies That Bind.