The crossroad

Published 9:46 am Saturday, February 27, 2010

An historical word or two on Gilfield Baptist church, and its community:

Our church, the birth of the Gilfield family, began formally in 1863. Yes, actually during the Civil War.

Hope began a few years earlier. Massachusetts officially abolished segregation in its schools in 1855. Five states: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine allowed negroes to vote, without restriction, in the 1860 presidential election that launched Abraham Lincoln.

In the next few months, a downward spiral of events saw 11 states, including Virginia, secede from the union, indeed resign from the United States.

Tensions were driven, and they tipped, not over the prevalent extent of slavery, but over its expansion into the frontier territories: a hostility profoundly expressed through the intense border war between Missouri and Kansas. The Dred Scott (said to be a Southampton County native, just like Nat Turner, and in his way, just as desperate) affair of 1856-57 is a part of the frontier story.

Germane to this essay, the Gilfield community, is that the Emancipation Proclamation, that indelible document, that division in history, was another more significant feature of 1863 (Jan. 1). Great that it was, as a forerunner of things to come, it was actually a limited-use document. It freed only those slaves, about a million, within the rebellious states.

After having used negroes from the bordering states to supplement the Union army (under General McClellan) and achieving a great victory at the Maryland battle of Antietam; Lincoln issued the proclamation. He hoped that slaves would flee their rebel masters and join the Union army. He may have known that some 5,000 negros fought in the Revolutionary war.

General Lee’s bold venture into an ambivalent Maryland: his failed gamble to inspire confederate sympathizers there, both to feed his army, and to gain recruits; and his failed gamble to encircle Washington and the Union government, cost the confederacy thousands of irreplaceable troops, at Antietam.

By the end of the Civil War, some 200,000 negro soldiers had fought on the side of the Union. Approximately 180,00 army and 25,000 navy: considerable credence to the claim that negroes largely freed themselves.

Shouldering a weapon, shouldering the Union; offsetting the growing antipathy (and desertion) of white soldiers, chafing under their own sacrifices, and uneasy over the potential impact of millions of freed slaves.

The final Emancipation Proclamation of 1865 was incorporated in the Constitution as the 13th Amendment. It officially freed the other 3 million slaves.

Freed?! A somewhat dubious distinction. But one’s spouse and/or children would no longer be sold. They’d be free?

I once heard the famous black historian, John Hope Franklin, say that “both Maryland and Virginia had 50,000 or more free negroes, in 1860” Amazing, but what did it mean? Probably something south of Jim Crow.

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the first president of the Independent Republic of Liberia (est. 1847), Joseph J. Roberts, was born and raised a free negro in Virginia. It is also noteworthy that our own Gilfield made an annual donation to Liberia’s Lott Carey Institute. As recent as the ’80s.

A local irony existed between the two proclamations. As slaves famously escaped into Hampton’s Fort Monroe, they, as a matter of Northern duplicity, went from Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation of freedom, back into slavery.

This grotesque wrinkle in history existed because Fort Monroe, though within a confederate state, was occupied by Union forces, and therefore Union territory, and exempt from the proclamation.

That would be that, except for a providential bit of double dealing.

As legend has it, the progression of events featured three men: Frank Baker, Sheppard Mallory and James Townsend escaping from the slavers, and seeking and gaining refuge within the fort. Not to be outdone, those celebrated Southern Gentlemen, pursuing their line of business for more than 200 years, grabbed their whips and chains, and followed, in pursuit. The fort’s commander, an insightful Gen. Benjamin Butler, seeing and seizing an opportunity in the strident property claims, confounded the ’slavers by declaring the reconstituted property: contraband of war.

Multitudes of other desperate men, women and children, fleeing the gentlemen, would find refuge in the designation.

With all due caveats, it can yet be said that abolitionists and negro soldiers rode pro-union sentiments to freedom. That horse may still be running? Perhaps, to the extent of minds (and wills) still crawling. Let’s be clear: martyrs in ones ancestry, does not indemnify one against self-destruction. Converging at this crossroad of history (this emerging America, this engaging community): The Emancipation Proclamation, our great church and how about Thanksgiving Day!

President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving Day in 1863, as the last Thursday in November. It was reconfirmed by Roosevelt in 1941, as the 4th Thursday. An annual thanks to God for a lifetime of blessings. So much to celebrate, as we look back, and look forward, in these dreams of a lifetime, days of the Obama administration.

Clarence Foster: A resident of Southampton County, and graduate of Hayden High School, Class of 1963. In providing the foregoing historical data, I’m served by a number of history books, more than forty years of daily newspapers, including the recent historical offerings of the Norfolk Virginia Pilot, and the historical inclinations of some county natives. Thank you