In the film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – based on the bestselling novel of the same name – a young Abraham Lincoln’s life is changed forever after he discovers, to his horror, that slavery is an institution controlled by vampires and the slaves are not to be used for labor, but for food. Lincoln decides that to end slavery is to end the scourge of vampires. Lincoln thus becomes an Abolitionist.
The idea of this took me back to elementary school, wherein we were taught that the real Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves after a terrible war between the Northern and Southern United States – fought because the “evil” South wanted to keep slaves and maintain slavery, while the “good” North sought to abolish slavery. A few years later, Icame to realize that what was taught to us in elementary school was as absurd as Abraham Lincoln ending slavery to stop a plague of vampires.
Many Steampunks choose to ignore the horrors wrought by colonialism – slavery, indentured service, sexism, classism; they create a world in which these things do not exist, or are sugar-coated so much, the world might end up diabetic.
A while ago, in response to another blog I wrote entitled What is Steamfunk? Exposing The Big Steampunk Lie, a Steampunk said “History is exactly what it says on the tin, an event that happened in the past. Learn its lesson and move forward. The human race will never achieve its potential if we cannot let the past go, and progress to greater things. If race, religion, sex or age is an issue to you, it proves a lack of intelligence, or an example of a small mind, which in of itself is an evolutionary cul de sac.”
Now, I wanted to come back in some clever way, like former enslaved brother, Jourdon Anderson did in response to his former “master” asking him to return to work on the same plantation upon which he and his family suffered. But I…wait…you haven’t read the brilliant letter by old Jourdon? Well, here you go:
I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house.
I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville hospital, but one of the neighbors told me Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here; I get $25 a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson), and the children, Milly, Jane and Grundy, go to school and are learning well; the teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday- School, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated; sometimes we overhear others saying, “The colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks, but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Col. Anderson. Many darkies would have been proud, as I used to was, to call you master. Now, if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free-papers in 1864 from the Provost- Marshal- General of the Department of Nashville.
Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you are sincerely disposed to treat us justly and kindly–and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future.
I served you faithfully for thirty-two years and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages has been kept back and deduct what you paid for our clothing and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to.
Please send the money by Adams Express, in care of V. Winters, esq, Dayton, Ohio.
If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night, but in Tennessee there was never any pay day for the Negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve and die if it comes to that than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood, the great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
P.S. — Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
I wanted to be clever, however, my response was just…well, me:
Race, religion, sex and age are not issues to me, however they are concerns. Many people of color have these concerns. Many who are brilliant. Such concerns are not proof of lack of intelligence, nor of small mindedness. Who is seeking such proof anyway? There are several people on this site with the same concerns – none of whom lack intelligence…none of whom have small minds.
If I abuse and steal from my neighbor and then tell him to move on…to let it go…I am the one displaying small mindedness. Should Jews let go of the horrors they endured in the holocaust? Are they small minded or lacking in intelligence for saying “Never again” and for not letting go of their past troubles? Absolutely not! No one who has suffered at the hands of an oppressor should “let go”. They should use the past to move forward. This is a principle in African culture called “Sankofa”. A good principle I will continue to live by.
And so I – like a good African traditionalist – and, indeed, like a good Steampunk and Steamfunkateer – now look back at the America my ancestors and elders knew…the America I choose to express in my Steampunk; the America that provides a wealth of happenings, people and settings that make for great Steamfunk stories.
And to those who want to say “let sleeping dogs lie”, or “let the past go”, or some other insensitive bullshit – my mother sharecropped; my aunts and uncles…my maternal grandparents…my first cousins. I grew up hearing the horror stories and the happy ones and they shaped and molded me, my creativity and my love for all things Black / African.
As I stated in the opening of the Steamfunk anthology: To “let go” is to be un-African; to “let go” is to let go of myself. Ain’t gonna happen. Ever.
And now, without further ado, I present – for your reading (dis)pleasure…
Historic Timeline of Slavery
- 1501-African Slaves in the New World
Spanish settlers bring slaves from Africa to Santo Domingo (now the capital of the Dominican Republic).
- 1619-Slaves in Virginia
Africans brought to Jamestown are the first slaves imported into Britain’s North American colonies. Research shows the year may actually be 64 years earlier – 1555.
- 1700-First Antislavery Publication
Massachusetts jurist and printer, Samuel Seawell, publishes the first North American antislavery tract, The Selling of Joseph.
- 1705-Slaves as Property
Describing slaves as real estate, Virginia lawmakers allow owners to bequeath their slaves. The same law allows masters to “kill and destroy” runaways.
- 1775-Abolitionist Society
Anthony Benezet of Philadelphia founds the world’s first abolitionist society. Benjamin Franklin becomes its president in 1787.
- 1776-Declaration of Independence
The Continental Congress asserts “that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States.”
- 1793-Fugitive Slave Act
The United States outlaws any efforts to impede the capture of runaway slaves. (Also see 1850)
- 1808-United States Bans Slave Trade
Importing African slaves is outlawed, but smuggling continues.
- 1820-Missouri Compromise
Missouri is admitted to the Union as a slave state, Maine as a free state. Slavery is forbidden in any subsequent territories north of latitude 36°30′.
- 1834-1838-Slavery in England
England abolishes slavery in its colonies including Jamaica, Barbados, and other West Indian territories.
- 1850-Compromise of 1850
In exchange for California’s entering the Union as a free state, northern congressmen accept a harsher Fugitive Slave Act different from the previous one of 1793.
- 1854-Kansas-Nebraska Act
Setting aside the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Congress permits these two new territories to choose whether to allow slavery. Violent clashes erupt.
- 1857-Dred Scott Decision
The United States Supreme Court decides, seven to two, that Blacks can never be citizens and that Congress has no authority to outlaw slavery in any territory.
- 1860-Abraham Lincoln Elected
Abraham Lincoln of Illinois becomes the first Republican to win the United States Presidency.
- 1861-65-United States Civil War
Four years of brutal conflict claim 623,000 lives.
On September 22, Lincoln drafts the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. The final is issued on January 1, 1863.
- 1863-Emancipation Proclamation
President Abraham Lincoln decrees that all slaves in Rebel territory are free on January 1, 1863. The Proclamation only emancipated those slaves in states that were in rebellion against the United States. The proclamation did not emancipate slaves in the states that never left the Union.
- 1865-Slavery Abolished
The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution outlaws slavery.
The Underground Railroad was a covert network of people and places who assisted fugitive slaves as they escaped from slavery in the South. Most widespread during the three decades prior to the Civil War, this activity primarily took place in the regions bordering slave states, with the Ohio River being the center of much of the activity.
At the heart of the Underground Railroad were the beliefs of the abolitionist movement. The 18th Century Quakers – members of the Religious Society of Friends – were the first organized abolitionists, believing that slavery violated Christian principles. By the first decades of the 1800s, every state in the North had legally abolished slavery. Abolitionist ideas then spread west into the territories that would soon become Indiana and Ohio.
People involved with the Underground Railroad developed their own terminology to describe participants, safe places, and other codes that needed to be kept secret. People who guided slaves from place to place were called “conductors”; locations where slaves could safely find protection, food, or a place to sleep were called “safe houses” or “stations”; those who hid fugitive slaves in their homes, barns, or churches were called “station masters”; enslaved Black people, who were in the safekeeping of a conductor or station master, were “cargo”.
Code words were also used to enable fugitive slaves to find their way North. The Big Dipper, whose handle pointed towards the North Star, was referred to as the “drinking gourd”; the Ohio River was frequently referred to by a biblical reference, the “River Jordan”; Canada, one of the final safe havens for many fugitive slaves was called the “Promised Land“.
Besides Canada, many fugitive slaves also escaped to cities in the northern and western U.S., Mexico, the Caribbean Islands and South America.
It is important to realize that while conductors and fugitive slaves were participating on the Underground Railroad, all of their actions were illegal. The federal government had passed Fugitive Slave Acts as early as 1793 that allowed slave catchers to come north and force runaways back into slavery. By the 1830s and 1840s, these laws were expanded in reaction to increased Underground Railroad activity.
With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, assisting or helping hide fugitive slaves became a federal offense, making all Underground Railroad activity subject to six months in prison and a $1,000 fine. Escaping from slavery or helping someone to escape from slavery was a very difficult and dangerous task.
The Underground Railroad is often portrayed as the result of benevolent abolitionists who toiled out of the kindness of their hearts to lead and shelter fearful runaway slaves, helping them break free from the bonds of slavery to start life anew in the Promised Land.
These abolitionists are depicted as white people who placed lamps in windows or quilts on fences as signals for safe places. Slaves would then hide in the homes and barns of conductors, hidden in their secret hiding rooms and passage ways. This scenario is pure myth.
The reality of the Underground Railroad was much less romantic. Escaping enslaved individuals often had no help or guidance from anyone throughout the majority of their journey. While it is a common belief that white Northerners were going into the South and bringing slaves from the farms and plantations into the North, the truth is that most enslaved individuals left on their own. When the enslaved did have assistance, the aid they received varied from being given a place to rest in barns and sheds to being provided with a small amount of food and sent on to the next location. Those seeking freedom would have had to place a good amount of trust in the people who were assisting them, for at any moment their safety could be compromised, leading to recapture.
There is also a common misconception that all people working to assist escaping individuals were white Northerners. The fact is that the majority of the conductors on the Underground Railroad in the South were Black, often still enslaved themselves.
Come on, ride this train
It is very difficult to know the exact number of people who escaped from slavery and even harder still to know the exact number of people who escaped with the help of the Underground Railroad because no complete records were kept. Best estimates put the number at 100,000.
The thousands of people, both famous and not, who escaped or assisted on the Underground Railroad were very brave individuals whose courage, cooperation, and perseverance helped them to survive and endure. Here are some of the stories of these heroes and sheroes.
Brown, enslaved in Richmond, Virginia, convinced Samuel A. Smith to nail a box shut around him, wrap five hickory hoops around the box, and ship it to a member of the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia. The box was 2 feet 8 inches wide, 2 feet deep and 3 feet long.
At 5 feet 10 inches and more than 200 pounds, Brown had very little space for movement. Even though the box was marked “This side up with care,” he spent some of the time upside down. He could not shift his position because that might attract attention. Brown took only a little water to drink, and also to splash on his face if he got to warm, and some biscuits. There were tiny holes within the box so he could breathe. In all, the trip took 27 long hours. When the box finally arrived in the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery office, four people locked the door behind them, knocked on the box, and opened it up. Henry stood up and reached out to shake their hands. He was a free man!
Henry ‘Box’ Brown went on to speak all over the U.S. and Europe about his escape.
1827 – 1900
Born enslaved in Virginia, Parker was sold away from his mother at age eight and forced to walk in a line of chained slaves from Virginia to Alabama. After several unsuccessful attempts, he finally bought his freedom with the money he earned doing extra work as a skilled craftsman.
Parker moved to Cincinnati and then to Ripley, where he became one of the most daring slave rescuers of the period. Not content to wait for runaways to make their way to the Ohio side of the river, Parker actually “invaded” Kentucky farms at night and brought over to Ripley hundreds of slaves. He kept records of those he had guided towards freedom, but he destroyed the notes in 1850 after realizing how the Fugitive Slave Law threatened his home, his business, and his family’s future.
1839 – 1915
Years of working on ships around Charleston, South Carolina paid off for Robert Smalls and twelve other enslaved people. On May 13, 1862, Smalls, his wife and two children, and twelve other slaves took over the Planter, a steamboat built to haul cotton.
Dressed as the captain, Smalls used the signals he knew would allow passage by Fort Sumter. He then steered the ship towards the Union Navy, which was currently blockading the port. Hoisting the white flag of surrender, Smalls offered the boat to the Union forces.
Not only had he won freedom for himself, his family, and twelve others, but Smalls had also given the Union a ship, weapons, and important information about the Confederates’ defenses. President Lincoln authorized a bill giving Smalls $1500 for his actions. He was named captain of the Planter, and took part in seventeen engagements (events during the Civil War) on behalf of the Union.
When the war was over, Smalls lectured throughout New York. He bought the Beaufort, South Carolina, home where he and his mother had been enslaved; he lived there for the rest of his life. Smalls served terms in the South Carolina Senate and House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. Congress for five years.
1822 – 1913
When, as a young child on a plantation in Eastern Maryland, Tubman tried to protect another slave, she suffered a head injury that led to sudden blackouts throughout her life. On her first escape, Tubman trekked through the woods at night, found shelter and aid from free Blacks and Quakers, and eventually reached freedom in Philadelphia to align with William Still and the Vigilance Committee.
After hearing that her niece and children would soon be sold, Tubman arranged to meet them in Baltimore and usher them North to freedom. It was the first of some thirteen trips during which Tubman guided approximately 50 to 70 people to freedom.
Tubman spoke often before antislavery gatherings detailing her experiences. She was never captured, and went on to serve as a spy, scout, and nurse for the Union Army. When the government refused to give her a pension for her wartime service, Tubman sold vegetables and fruit door-to-door and lived on the proceeds from her biography.
Reconstruction, one of the most turbulent and controversial eras in American history, began during the Civil War and ended in 1877.
Reconstruction remains relevant today because the issues central to it — the role of the federal government in protecting citizens’ rights, and the possibility of economic and racial justice — are still unresolved.
Central to Reconstruction was the effort of former slaves to take full advantage of their newly acquired freedom, and to claim their rights as citizens. Rather than passive victims of the actions of others, Black people were active agents in shaping Reconstruction.
After rejecting the Reconstruction plan of President Andrew Johnson, the Republican Congress enacted laws and Constitutional amendments that empowered the federal government to enforce the principle of equal rights, and gave black Southerners the right to vote and hold office, however, in time, the North abandoned its commitment to protect the rights of the former slaves, Reconstruction came to an end, and white supremacy was restored throughout the South.
Reconstruction During the Civil War
The nation’s efforts to come to terms with the destruction of slavery and to define the meaning of freedom began during the Civil War. The nation sought to define slavery before the slaves could define it for themselves – he who imposes the terms of enslavement will impose the terms of freedom.
From the war’s outset, the Lincoln administration insisted that restoring the Union was its only purpose and this remained President Lincoln’s stance. However, as military victory eluded the North, the president made the destruction of slavery a weapon of mass destruction against the South; and in January 1863, Lincoln “pushed the button” and unleashed the Emancipation Proclamation.
The Lincoln administration insisted that the preservation of the Union, not the abolition of slavery, was its objective, but as the Union army occupied Southern territory, slaves by the thousands abandoned the plantations. Their actions forced a reluctant Lincoln administration down the road to emancipation.
However, as an old African proverb says, Emancipation from the bondage of the soil is no freedom for the tree.
Emancipation only meant freedom from chattel slavery; it did not mean the enjoyment of human rights.
The meaning of freedom itself became a point of conflict in the Reconstruction South. Former slaves relished the opportunity to flaunt their liberation from the innumerable regulations of slavery.
Immediately after the Civil War, Blacks sought to define their freedom by reuniting families separated under slavery, establishing their own churches and schools, seeking economic autonomy, and demanding equal civil and political rights.
White Southerners, unwilling to accept a new relationship to their former slaves, resorted to violent opposition to the new world being created around them.
From Slave Labor to Free Labor
The most difficult task confronting many Southerners during Reconstruction was devising a new system of labor to replace the shattered world of slavery. The economic lives of planters, former slaves, and non-slaveholding whites, were transformed after the Civil War.
Planters found it hard to adjust to the end of slavery. Accustomed to absolute control over their labor force, many sought to restore the old discipline, only to meet determined opposition from the emancipated Black people, who equated freedom with economic autonomy.
Many former slaves believed that their years of unrequited labor gave them a claim to land; “forty acres and a mule” became their rallying cry. White reluctance to sell to Blacks, and the federal government’s decision not to redistribute land in the South, meant that only a small percentage of the Black people became landowners. Most rented land or worked for wages on white-owned plantations.
The Mississippi Delta was where “cotton was king.” The Delta plantation system started in the nineteenth century when white farmers went there in search of fertile farmland, escaping declining productivity in other Southern states.
They brought with them slaves to do the backbreaking work of clearing the wild forest and subduing the Mississippi River with levees. As a result of the slaves’ labor, the Delta became the richest cotton-farming land in the country.
The Delta stretches 200 beautiful miles – from Memphis, Tennessee, down to Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Slavery and cotton production became synonymous with the Southern economy and Mississippi. Since the Mississippi Delta was the last area of the South to be settled, after the Civil War, the state became among the most reactionary and repressive states for Blacks, who lived with the daily threat and reality of violence.
Although Blacks outnumbered whites, the sharecropping system that replaced slavery helped ensure they remained poor and virtually locked out of any opportunity for land ownership or basic human rights.
Under this system, the sharecropper rented a plot of land and paid for it with a percentage of the crop – usually 30 to 50%.
Sharecroppers would get tools, animals, fertilizer, seeds and food from the landlord’s store and would have to pay him back at incredibly high interest rates. The landlord would determine the crop, supervise production, control the weighing and marketing of cotton, and control the recordkeeping.
According to my cousin, Doris Davis – “It was a hard life, boy. We’d get ten…maybe twelve dollars a bale and we had to work from sun up, to sun down – ‘til we bled – to make that. The school system in Mississippi was even scheduled around the crops; still is.”
At the end of the year, sharecroppers settled accounts by paying what they owed from any earnings made in the field. Since the plantation owners kept track of the calculations, rarely would sharecroppers see a profit.
The End of Reconstruction
In the 1870’s, violent opposition in the South, and the North’s retreat from its commitment to equality, resulted in the end of Reconstruction. By 1876, the nation was prepared to abandon its commitment to equality for all citizens regardless of race.
As soon as blacks gained the right to vote, secret societies sprang up in the South, devoted to restoring white supremacy in politics and social life. Most notorious was the Ku Klux Klan, an organization of violent criminals that established a reign of terror in some parts of the South, assaulting and murdering local Republican leaders.
The North’s commitment to Reconstruction soon waned.
Many Republicans came to believe that the South should solve its own problems without further interference from Washington. Reports of Reconstruction corruption led many Northerners to conclude that black suffrage had been a mistake. When anti-Reconstruction violence erupted again in Mississippi and South Carolina, the Grant administration refused to intervene.
The election of 1876 hinged on disputed returns from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina, where Republican governments still survived. After intense negotiations involving leaders of both parties, the Republican candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes, became president, while Democrats assumed control of the disputed Southern states. Reconstruction had come to an end.
After slavery ended, railroads and associated companies like the Pullman Car Company became a major employer of Black people.
The story of railroad porters is an important chapter in the history of railroads and the American West. The construction of railroads encouraged large numbers of people to settle in the West.
Many of those settlers were Black people.
Railroad companies barred people of color from holding high-quality jobs. Inventor Elijah McCoy is one example.
McCoy was a descendent of Kentucky slaves who had escaped to Canada with the aid of the Underground Railroad. When he was a child, his family returned to Michigan.
Elijah McCoy studied as an engineer in Scotland but was only able to work as a locomotive fireman upon returning to the United States, despite being issued over 57 patents for his inventions.
The phrase, “the real McCoy,” was created by machine buyers who insisted on purchasing only products designed by the inventor. His name is still associated with authenticity.
For the most part, conductors, engineers, managers and cooks were all white. Blacks were allowed to apply for jobs as porters, dining room attendants, kitchen help and freight handlers. Companies hired African American women as maids and kitchen help. Through their hiring practices, the railroads created one of the most highly institutionalized forms of industrial segregation in the land.
For Black people, being a porter and other service jobs were seen as an improvement over sharecropping, one of the few other opportunities open to blacks at the time.
For many Black people growing up in the South in the 19th and 20th centuries, the threat of lynching was commonplace.
Lynching, an act of terror meant to spread fear among blacks, served the broad social purpose of maintaining white supremacy in the economic, social and political spheres.
Although the practice of lynching existed even before slavery, it gained momentum during Reconstruction, when viable Black towns sprang up across the South and Blacks started to make political and economic inroads by registering to vote, establishing businesses and running for public office.
Many whites – landowners and poor whites – felt threatened by this rise in black prominence.
Lynchings were frequently committed with the most flagrant public display. Like a medieval execution by guillotine, lynchings were often advertised in newspapers and drew large crowds of white families.
Lynchings were covered in local newspapers with headlines spelling out the horrific details. Photos of victims, with exultant white observers posed next to them, were taken for distribution in newspapers or on postcards. Body parts, including genitalia, were sometimes distributed to spectators or put on public display.
Most infractions were for petty crimes, like theft, but the biggest one of all was looking at or associating with white women. Many victims were black businessmen or black men who refused to back down from a fight.
Newspapers even printed that prominent white citizens in local towns attended lynchings, and often published victory pictures – smiling crowds, many with children in tow – standing next to the corpse.
In the South, an estimated two or three blacks were lynched each week in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
With lynching as a violent backdrop in the South, Jim Crow as the law of the land, and the poverty of the sharecropper system, Black people had no recourse.
This Unholy Trinity of repression ensured Black people would remain impoverished, endangered, and without rights or hope.
When I wrote Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman, I wanted to create a retrofuturistic America that was as gritty and brutal as the world described to me by my parents (seen in the photo to your left) and other relatives; a world in which monsters were real…and bore names like Rufus…and Joe-Bob…and Shadrach.
I also, however, wanted to make the book an enjoyable read. My family had it hard in the American South (and North), but we have always been a people who encourage creativity and enjoy a good laugh. So, no doom and gloom for me…just a healthy dose of reality!
I am a Steampunk. I am a Steampunk author. I am a Steamfunkateer. My expression is rooted in Africa and in an America that was not too kind to Blacks, other People of Color, the poor, or women. My roots run deep and are well-nourished and I will forever feast from the fruit of the Echo Tree.