I haven't written on this blog in a good while, but I have been thinking plenty about the value of this record, The Register of Freedmen. It is not that big a record in relative terms, but it is a complicated one to say the least, and its implications are beyond words, so I have mostly just been sitting and thinking and tweeting at least one name from the record each week.
Since working on The Register, I have actually relocated to the general area where most of those listed in this record were enslaved. Why? Well, believe it or not, I did very much want to set my eyes on the towns represented in The Register. Without doing so, both the people and the places would have remained flat. So, I have been taking to the roads. Last month, I visited Hardeman County. Today, I visited Fayette County. I live in Marshall County, and I am regularly in Shelby County. There probably are well over six hundred freedmen in The Register who before the war lived their lives in these areas.
From Marshall County, Holly Springs, I take Highway 7 north, crossing the state line. Historian Hubert McAlexander has written: “Marshall is a land of hills and valleys and bottom lands cut by small rivers, creeks, and branches.” And so it is. I pass through the shade of arbors and, as I approach Indian Creek, the area becomes swampy, refreshing wetlands on each side of the road. I wonder if there were slaves who tried to travel through these waters going from Holly Springs perhaps, the site of a short-lived contraband camp, to Grand Junction, Tennessee, where they might find a train bound for Memphis.
I arrive at Benton County, which used to be Marshall; it is such a long way even by car, even now. So many slaves walked. I remember Angela Walton Raji's ancestors and my own; this is their path.
Crossing the state line takes me into Fayette County--more rolling hills. Traversing them would have required the help of God; there is no doubting this.
I spent part of my day at the Fayette County Public Library. What a nice genealogy room they have. I researched the Fayette County slave owners who are listed in The Register, just a few of them. I have my students helping. Only one traveled with me to Somerville, the county seat. When he tired, I returned him to campus and then...yes, I went back!
I had to. I was so taken both by just being in the area and by its beauty. One student has been assigned Charles Michie. I remember transcribing a Charles Micka, Mica, Mickey, or Miclea. Five freedmen in The Register were once owned by him. I am intrigued by the variations on spelling. I can just hear these ancestors' voices, thick with accent, as they stated this name before the Union official who wrote it down. Two little boys, three-year-old Henry and eight-year-old Calvin, reported Micka as the name of their former owner. It would in fact appear that Michie is pronounced like Mickey.
I visited Michie's plantation today, Woodlawn. It is still standing, and it is, yes, especially on a spring Saturday, beautiful. But I tried to imagine Michie's slaves working there, on the undulating field that fronts the estate. I got out of my car to take a picture, and, as I did, a friendly brown and white horse greeted me. I was surprised and pleased. I spoke to him as he eyed me and placed his nose over the white fence that surrounds the grounds. I'm discovering new dimensions of places and people in this public record.