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Sam Aleckson (Samuel Williams), 1852-c.1945
Before the War, and After the Union. An Autobiography
Boston: Gold Mind, 1929.


Details regarding the life of Sam Williams (1852-1914) are not corroborated by any known historical records, but the author's own account states that he was born to enslaved parents in Charleston, South Carolina. Williams points to his great grandfather as his first ancestor to arrive in North America from Africa; this victim of the slave trade took or was given the name of Clement and for his surname adopted the name of Aleckson, presumably the name of the man who bought him. While Sam Aleckson's parents were owned by different masters, they were permitted to live together on the estate of his father's master, where Williams lived as a boy. His record indicates that his owner was relatively humane. He was taught to read, was allowed to have leisure time and play with local children, and was eventually sent to work in the city, a condition that allowed for far more independence and freedom of movement than that afforded to a typical field hand. Williams spent time serving in the Confederate Army in Charleston during the Civil War, after which he married and resettled in the North. He died in Vermont in 1914, fifteen years before his memoir was published.

While Before the War, and After the Union (1929) contains autobiographical details, it is less a single coherent narrative than a series of vignettes detailing the experiences of Williams and other slaves in the antebellum South. Williams provides little detail regarding his years after being emancipated as a "Sherman Cutloose (this was a term applied in derision by Some of the Negroes who were free before the war,—To those who were freed by the war)" (p. 35). He minimizes his own story at times in favor of the stories of others he knew, making it difficult to fully chart his own involvement in events. Inasmuch as he provides details relevant to his own life, they are more generally unified by theme than chronology.

Williams indicates that his treatment by his owners was relatively humane, even liberal by contemporary standards, leading him to say of his owners that they were "of all slave holders, the very best" (p. 19). He was taught to read and allowed leisure time to play with local children: "There were six of us, three girls and three boys. Four of us were white and two were Negroes. Did we quarrel and fight? No indeed! Our little misunderstandings were settled long before we came to blows" (p. 24). Unlike most slaves who have left records of their bondage, Williams enjoyed the benefits of an intact family life, being raised by both parents and two grandmothers who doted on him. Of one grandmother, Williams recalls, "My grandmother was a Methodist and attended 'Old Cumberland.' It required something very serious to prevent the dear old lady going to prayer meeting on Sunday mornings. These meetings were held at an early hour, but I always went with her" (p. 27). Williams points to religious activities in his youth as being one of the primary sources of his intellectual development, along with the influence of his grandmothers.

Williams recalls examples of the good treatment he received, recounting of his master that "He taught me to ride, and when I could sit my horse well 'bare-back' he had a saddle made for me at the then famous "McKinzie's" saddlery . . . I would often accompany him "up the road" on horseback to the Clubhouse, there to exhibit my youthful feats of horsemanship, for the divertissement of Mr. Dane and his friends" (p. 35). Williams takes pride in the skills he was able to acquire but also recognizes his owner may have had an element of self-interest in his education, explaining, "Possibly Mr. Dane had "views" concerning me for he owned several fast horses, but before I was old enough to be of practical service, Sherman came marching through Georgia" (p. 36).

As a result of his own relatively positive memories of his childhood, Williams seeks to address the common Northern views of slavery: "In many parts of New England a very erroneous impression prevails regarding the attitude of the . . . white people of the south toward the Negro. The general idea seems to be that the average southern white man sallies forth every morning with a bowie knife between his teeth, and the first Negro he meets, proceeds to lay him open in the back, broil him on a bed of hot coals and thus whet his appetite for breakfast" (p. 165). Because of repeated sentiments like these and his insistence that he was generally well treated, his condemnations of slavery almost come as a surprise. He died in Vermont, but the narrative suggests he never lost a fondness for the South.

Williams also spent time defending the South during the Civil War. He recalls that "Mr. Ward had received a commission in the army with headquarters at Secessionville. It chanced that Mr. Edward Dane was appointed on his staff, and he took my brother, several years older than myself, into the army with him. But the dear boy contracted fever and soon died. Later, the command was removed to another point in the harbor, and for a short time I took my brother's place as officer's boy!" (p. 87). While Williams recalls the experience of donning a uniform with a muted recollection of boyish pride, he also recognizes that his participation in the conflict was never validated by his fellow white combatants. He writes that "I must admit I wore the "gray." I have never attended any of the Confederate reunions. I suppose they overlooked my name on the army roll!" (p. 87).

Through this text Williams attempts to suggest that African Americans are neither objects of pity for the north, nor tools to be used in labor by southern slaveholders, but something more. He places the black community in a hopeful and triumphant light, informing the reader that "you may disfranchise the Negro, you may oppress him, you may deport him, but unless you destroy the disposition to laugh in his nature you can do him no permanent injury. All unconscious to himself, perhaps. It is not solely the meaningless expression of 'vacant mind,' nor is it simply a ray—It is the beaming light of hope—of faith. God has blessed him thus. He sees light where others see only the blackness of night" (p. 51). African Americans, Williams suggests, have been uniquely blessed by God to be able to persevere and overcome in the face of trials and adversity that implicitly would have destroyed others. Williams demonstrates in his narrative the spirit he points to. While undoubtedly exposed to great evil as a young slave and in his military service during the Civil War, Williams overcomes and perseveres, finding love and happiness in life despite his participation in a trying time in American history.

The conclusion of the narrative reflects this optimistic spirit. Williams closes with a passionate post-racial appeal for all people to move past slavery and for both whites and African Americans to reconcile their differences and unite as a single people. His only fears, he explains, "are for the American nation, for, I feel as an American, and cannot feel otherwise" (p. 171).

Hyrum Palmer

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