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William Henry Singleton
Recollections of My Slavery Days
Peekskill, NY: Highland Democrat, 1922.

Summary

William Henry Singleton was born on a plantation near New Bern, North Carolina. In Recollections, he says his birth date was August 10, 1835, but historians believe Singleton was actually born in 1843. At age four, he was sold to a woman in Atlanta, Georgia, who ran a "slave farm"—raising slaves with promising "pedigrees" to sell them for a profit (p. 2). At age seven, he escaped and made his way back to his mother's house, where he lived for three years before he was discovered by his former master. Singleton was sold again, escaped again, and finally returned to work for his original master as a field hand. During the Civil War, Singleton served in the Union Army and was wounded while fighting Confederate troops in Florida. After the war, he moved north, living in Connecticut and Maine before finally settling in New York. Recollections of My Slavery Days, Singleton's only known publication, first appeared in 1922, when he was 87 years old. Singleton lived to the age of 95, and shortly before his death in 1938, he marched fifteen blocks to commemorate his Civil War service during a reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic in Des Moines, Iowa.

Singleton begins his narrative by explaining why his master wants to sell him: "my father was the brother of my master . . . [and m]y presence on the plantation was continually reminding them of something they wanted to forget" (p. 1-2). He is sold to the proprietor of a "slave farm" in Atlanta. Three years later, missing his mother and upset over an undeserved whipping, Singleton runs away from the slave farm, and with the help of an "old colored man" who advises him and an unsuspecting "white lady" whom he accompanies, he rides all the way from Atlanta to Wilmington, North Carolina, on a stagecoach. Singleton makes his way back to his mother's house, where he lives for three years without his former master's knowledge, by hiding under a floorboard at opportune times. He is discovered at age ten while attempting to eat biscuits that the plantation owner left on a fence near his hiding place, but he manages to escape. He subsequently gives himself up and is sold again, to a "poor white woman" named Mrs. Wheeler, whom Singleton remembers as a kind mistress (p. 5). Nevertheless, he recollects, "she got tired of me for some reason," and when Mrs. Wheeler tries to sell him to a new master, Singleton runs away again, finding work as a paid bell boy at the Moore Hotel in New Bern (p. 5). Finally, Singleton returns to his original master, announces that he has "come home to stay," and goes to work in the corn and cotton fields (p. 5).

Shortly before the Civil War begins, Singleton shrewdly convinces his master to allow him to drill with the First North Carolina Cavalry. In the text, he states that he "learned to drill so well that after a while . . . [the company commander] would tell me to drill the company for him" (p. 7). However, after General Burnside's Union soldiers capture New Bern, Singleton "[runs] away from the regiment and [makes his] way to Burnside's headquarters," where he becomes an informant and advisor for the Union Army. On one occasion he reportedly has a conversation with President Lincoln. Lincoln supposedly tells Singleton, "I can't take you now because you are contraband of war and not American citizens yet. But hold on to your society and there may be a chance for you" (p. 8). In New Bern, Singleton helps recruit a thousand men to form the First North Carolina Colored Regiment, which is later commissioned as the 35th Regiment Infantry, United States Colored Troops (p. 9). Singleton serves as the First Sergeant of Company G, and is wounded in the leg during the battle of Alusta, Florida (also spelled Olustee) (p. 9).

After the war ends, Singleton receives an honorable discharge and moves to New Haven, Connecticut, where he joins the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, learns to read, and marries his first wife, Maria Wanton. Over the years he is ordained a deacon and later a church elder. After his wife dies in 1898, Singleton becomes an itinerant preacher and spends three years evangelizing in Portland, Maine. He then moves to New York City, where he lives and works until 1906, when he moves to his final home of Peekskill, NY. During his later years in New York, Singleton becomes active in various civic and religious organizations and marries another "Northern girl" named Charlotte Hinman (p. 10). His narrative concludes in a triumphal tone, highlighting the contrast between his old life as a slave in the South and his new life as a free man in the North. "Now I feel that I am a part of the country, that I have an interest in its welfare and a responsibility to it," Singleton writes. "Now I am treated as a man" (p. 10).

Works Consulted: "Florida Civil War Map of Battles," Civil War Battles by State website, 11 Jan 2008; Jacobs, Harriet A., Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, 14 Jan 2008; Mobley, Joe A., "Foreword," Recollections of My Slavery Days, by William Henry Singleton, Raleigh, NC: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1999; "Recollections of My Slavery Days: William Henry Singleton's newly published memoir won't let North Carolina's slave past be forgotten," Independent Weekly website, posted 22 March 2000, referenced 14 January 2008; Singleton, William Henry, Recollections of My Slavery Days, Peekskill, NY: Highland Democrat, 1922.

Patrick E. Horn

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