Civil War scholar Carole Emberton titled this insightful study of “freedom’s charter generation,” the first group of enslaved people to be emancipated in 1865, after a soothing quote from the Bible (Psalm 119:45). But she is clear: There was nothing easy about this walk away from slavery for the Black Americans of the Jim Crow South. Their stories, gathered in interviews by the Federal Writers’ Project during the Great Depression, are carefully retold in To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Priscilla Joyner, a necessary, judicious correction to previously published accounts.
A project funded under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the FWP sent mostly white interviewers across the South to record the stories of formerly enslaved people who were still living. But before publication, the interviews underwent heavy editing to make them align with a more nostalgic vision of the South’s past. It would take Sterling Brown, a Black poet and FWP leader, to insist on authenticity and restore the interviewees’ words. Almost a century later, here they are.
Emberton’s book especially focuses on one woman, Priscilla Joyner, who told her life story to the FWP. Born in 1858, Joyner was never formally enslaved, yet her struggle to be free lasted for her entire lifetime. After the Civil War, former slaveholders did their best to subvert and sabotage the new, fragile laws of Reconstruction. Shocked when the people they had enslaved walked away without looking back, and fearful of a new balance of power, they thwarted Black voting rights and menaced teachers at newly opened schools—or simply burned the schools down.
Joyner experienced much of this hostility firsthand. The white woman who called herself Joyner’s mother did little to nurture or protect her. Joyner’s darker skin enraged her white siblings, who tormented her until, as a teenager, she was abruptly given away to a Black family. Within that community, Joyner found her people, went to school for the first time, wore ribbons in her hair and dresses that fit, and fell in love. Yet she and her family continued to struggle against inequities in pay, health care, education and professional opportunities.
Emberton’s attention to detail, whether she’s describing an inept FWP interviewer, an intimidated storyteller or the heavy-handed project editor, succeeds in debunking any nostalgia attached to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy.