Monday, July 31, 2017

Judith Giesberg, “Civil War, Civil Rights: African American Women in Civil War-Era Philadelphia”

Judith Giesberg, ed. Emilie Davis’s Civil War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014. Transcribed and annotated by the Memorable Days Project editorial team: Theresa Altieri, Rebecca Capobianco, Thomas Foley, Ruby Johnson, and Jessica Maiberger.

Laundress in Philadephia

This was another wonderful program July 19, 2017 at The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin and fifty of his closest friends. The speaker Judith Giesberg is Professor of History at nearby Villanova University,  Editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era, a prolific author,  founder of the Emilie Davis Diaries Project (aka Memorable Days Project) and the Information Wanted Ad Project. In 2012 Giesberg and her graduate students started transcribing three diaries of Emilie Davis (1839-89), a young free black woman in Philadelphia, and posted them on their Memorable Days website. The diaries had been recently acquired by Pennsylvania Historical Society. The complete work was published in 2014 entitled Emilie Davis’s War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865, edited by Judith Giesberg and transcribed and annotated by the Memorable Days Project. The diary describes everyday life for African American women in the city during the Civil War. Giesberg first talked about Emilie’s life and Civil War Philadelphia, and then her new Information Wanted Project about African American’s effort to locate lost love-ones after Emancipation.

Judith Giesberg, Professor of History Villanova University

Judith Giesberg’s talk was part of a three-week National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) summer seminar for K-12 school teachers. My sister teaches third grade in Northampton, MA and has taken several NEH summer classes at Smith College in recent years. I hope these programs survive Trump’s budget cuts. We need an educated and critical electorate. The summer seminar Director is Lori Ginzberg, Professor of History and Women’s Studies at Penn State. She introduced her students and the speaker, and promoted The Library Company’s unique programs and collections. Philadelphia has many many historical institutions which are under appreciated.

Philadelphia was a tough town for black people free or slave during the Civil War. According to the 1860 census, there were 22,000 “free colored men and women” in Philadelphia County. There was general support for slavery despite the Quaker and abolitionist heritage in Pennsylvania. Philadelphia voted heavily Democratic in the 1860 election. The city was a Southern neighbor and economically dependent on slave cotton, sugar and agriculture. Frederick Douglass said there was not a city “in which prejudice against color is more rampant than in Philadelphia.” 

Nonetheless African Americans built a strong community. Emilie Davis was a student at the Institute for Colored Youth, which later became Cheney University. She attended Seventh Street Presbyterian Church, aka First (Colored) Presbyterian Church near 7th and South Street. She attended lectures by Frederick Douglass and Ellen Watkins Harper sponsored by The Social, Civil, and Statistical Association of the Colored People of Pennsylvania. She raised money for the Ladies Union Association to provide supplies for sick and wounded United States Colored Troops (USCT) at local hospitals. Emilie Davis’s complete diary is posted at the Memorable Days website.

Black women in Philadelphia also succeeded in integrating the trolley cars so they could visit wounded soldiers in hospital. They visited the USCT at Camp William Penn in the present-day La Mott neighborhood of Cheltenham on the northern edge of the city. Black women were leaders in the civil rights struggle of the day.

Professor Giesberg and her students have launched another project to transcribe advertisements from nineteenth century African American newspapers seeking information about lost family members after Emancipation. They have posted thousands of ads on their website Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery. The project seeks volunteers to help transcribe ads- just sign up. One major source for ads was the Christian Recorder published by Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. The ads give a human picture of the devastation wrought on black families over 200 years of enslavement. A few African Americans have succeeded in tracing their ancestors using the database. This should improve as the archive grows. The project is supported by Villinova University, AME Bethel Church, and the Philadelphia Abolition Society (another historic institution still active in the city).

Information wanted

Emilie Davis concludes her diary “all is well that ends well” on December 31,1865. It is a small uplift for our dark times today.

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