American History · courage · women

“…new state of affairs”

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In September 1865, a few months after the Civil War ended, Elvira Townsend, a woman of African descent, wrote her former master’s lawyer to say, “It is necessary that I should know the condition of our affairs…The new state of affairs gives us the power to enforce remedies and we shall do it…we can obtain our just rights, and call any and all parties to a strict account.” Across time, even the seemingly weakest are aware of their ability to claim power. I have all kinds of thoughts on the source of Elvira’s confidence. As I say in my book, it didn’t just emerge after the war ended. She appears to have long been speaking to powerful people in this manner no matter the consequences. I am looking forward to a Feb. 17 Food for Thought noon talk at the Alabama Department of Archives in Montgomery. I will focus on the complex ways black and white Americans have long “known” one another. Among those presented are recently freedpeople like Elvira. Even though she died in 1868 having received just a little over $700 from the more than $200,000 (worth $5.1 million in today’s currency) her former master left her and others – including nine children with five enslaved women – she can be remembered as someone who did not sit back restlessly. She spoke up. She acted. She was heard.
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