research project to me: “I’m still here”

Huntsville, AL, native Charles Osborne Townsend was one of ten children freed by their father, a white slaveholder. He went on to serve in the Union Army.

Just when you think you have put a project in your rearview, it keeps coming back and saying, “I’m still here.” Today I have been responding to copy edit questions for a chapter I’ve contributed to an edited collection on Alabama women.

The experiences of the freedwomen and girls in Ch. 5 of Remember Me to Miss Louisa are explored in that chapter. While going through old emails to answer questions, I found a photograph Christina Bradley, a Georgetown, CO, archivist, earlier shared of Charles Osborne Townsend’s grave. Osborne – as he called himself in one of many letters that survive in the University of Alabama’s Hoole Special Collections – was a quartermaster Sergeant with the 5th Regiment United States Colored Heavy Artillery Unit.

He was also one of the ten children freed by Samuel Townsend,  a white Huntsville, Alabama, slaveholder who also left them his $200,000 estate. That’s the equivalent of $5.1 million in today’s currency. As I told my students in one class yesterday, it’s hard to digest such an act when one considers it alongside today’s headlines. We truly live in a complex world. I think such complexity has long been with us.

To further respond to copy edits, I also had to reach out today to a member of my cohort at the University of Chicago to ask her for a letter written to Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas concerning where to settle the Townsend children. Some of you know Douglas because of his debates with his Abraham Lincoln. Imagine that. A family of enslaved people two degrees of separation from prominent statesmen who are discussing a major issue of the day – slavery – while their own future as freedpeople was being considered with those statemen’s direct input. It is a lot to wrap one’s head around. New York Senator William Seward was also called on for advice about where to settle the Townsend children.

Please stay tuned as this edited collection that further peels apart the Townsends’ complex lives is finally being published by the University of Georgia Pres. My colleague Lisa Dorr and Susan Ashmore, Associate Professor of History at Emory, are the editors.

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