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The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough
Edited by Michele Valerie Ronnick
The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough: An American Journey from Slavery to Scholarship

2005, Edited and with an Introduction by Michele Valerie Ronnick, Foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. African American Life Series, Wayne State University Press


This is a study in transgression and transcendence. It is the self-portrait of a black man born in slavery who broke through a nexus of biased cultural assumption to reach the self-actuated state of full personhood. It is the story of a man who experienced his “first” liberation through the cultivation of his own intellect at a time when education for members of his race was interdicted by law. And finally, it is a blow-by-blow account of his heroic struggle to rise above seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order to stand upright in the formal dress of civilized life with his humanity authenticated.

Accident of birth placed William Sanders Scarborough in a place, in a time, and in a bodily form that regarded him as a warm-blooded machine to be bought and sold with the livestock and worked like a “twohanded engine,” as John Milton might have described it. But his unflagging commitment to self-betterment, his dauntless courage, and his untarnished nobility of purpose—each founded on the bedrock of support of his faith, friends, and family—determined otherwise. The young Scarborough,suffused with an inborn affection for arts and letters,was destined for a different way of life. He had great ambitions for himself and for his race. And his egregious efforts would bring him great acclaim.

Scarborough was born with the status of a slave in Macon, Georgia, on February 16, 1852, to Frances Gwynn Scarborough, a woman owned by Colonel William K. DeGraffenreid. For reasons unknown, DeGraffenreid allowed her to marry and live with her husband, Jeremiah, in their own home. As a boy, the precocious Scarborough was encouraged to study—albeit surreptitiously because the education of blacks was illegal and punishable by law in many parts of the South. The young Scarborough said that he “daily went out ostensibly to play with my book concealed.” In this manner he reported that he “continued to evade the law and study.”

After the Civil War things changed abruptly. The young Scarborough enrolled in the Macon schools, where he excelled. He was no longer a secret scholar. Several years later after studying at Atlanta University, Scarborough earned both his B.A. and M.A. degrees in classics from Oberlin College and began to teach at Wilberforce University soon after. Over the course of the next several years, he rose to national distinction by publishing First Lessons in Greek, a text that according to his obituary in the New York Times made him “the first member of his race to prepare a Greek textbook suitable for university use.”With this book came fame as he simultaneously demonstrated his own intellectual capacity and that of his entire race. The mindless prejudices of men,who maintained ingrained ideas of “negro inferiority,” were directly challenged. In particular, John C.Calhoun,who was reported to have said to Samuel E.Sewall and David Lee Child,two Boston attorneys,that “if he could find a Negro who knew the Greek syntax, he would then believe that the Negro was a human being and should be treated as a man,” was undone—at least for the moment.

For more than forty years, Scarborough was an engaged intellectual, public citizen,and a concerned educator. In terms of his classical studies he accomplished as much as some of the better-known figures from this era, and in fact more than many. Scarborough was, in the widest sense of the word, a pioneer. He not only broke through barriers of race and class but stayed the course. His life ran contrary to many currents of his age. As a man of African descent who excelled at Greek and Latin, his attainments challenged all those who maintained ideas about the intellectual deficiencies of his people to reconsider their positions. At the same time, he confounded those who thought that his erudition was merely a thin coat of white-washing.

Scarborough’s unfailing efforts to gain membership in numerous learned societies helped blacks gain access to professional organizations. In this way he confronted Jim Crow head-on with his intellect and thereby cleared the pathways for many African American intellectuals. On the political and social front,his dedication to the Republican Party acquainted him with politicians all over Ohio, in many states across the country, and with every seated president. He spoke out on many different issues including the reprehensible treatment of the Hawaiian and Philippine peoples, the inhumanity of the convict lease system in the South, and the mistreatment of black soldiers after World War I.

Scarborough’s account of his life is a study of principled behavior sustained by the virtues of humanity, dignity, and fortitude. There is hardly an event of his era that is not refracted in some way through his “lens.” Scarborough’s autobiography provides a remarkable look into the development of an exemplary black citizen-scholar, who dedicated himself to intellectualism and racial uplift. In the current debates about diversity in the university and its curriculum, his insight is invaluable foresight.



According to the census of 1850 there were in the state of Georgia [in the decade of my birth] 193 free colored males between the ages of twenty and thirty. My father, Jeremiah Scarborough,was one of this number having been set free some years before by his master who was convinced that slavery was wrong and washed his hands of the stain. The same census gives 287 as the number of free colored females in Georgia between the ages of twenty and thirty. My mother, Frances Gwynn,was not included in this number.

My father was born near Augusta, Georgia about 1822. One of his great grandfathers was said to have been a full-blooded African, the son of an African chief. To this descent he always referred with a feeling of superiority. This infusion coupled with a strain of Anglo-Saxon blood gave to him a carriage of dignity that became him well though he was not a stalwart man. He was rather short of stature and somewhat stocky build,brown skin, rounded pleasant face, with high forehead, and a kindly eye that observed everything.

My mother was of very mixed blood. Her mother was a mulatto with Anglo-Saxon admixture. One of her grandfathers was a Spaniard and another was a full-blooded Indian of the Muskhogean stock, so named from the powerful confederacy of North American Indians among whose tribes were the Mitchhite [Hitchiti] portion of the Seminoles and of the Yamari [Yamasee] and Yamacraws as ethnological history records. The last two named tribes lived on the lower Savannah river. They are known in history as especially friendly to the English colonies there. The name—Yamacraw—was a most familiar word to my childish ears, and I think this tribe must have been the one to which my mother was related. She was born in Savannah,Georgia about 1828—the daughter of Louisa and Henry Gwynn. Her Indian ancestry was very apparent in many ways; in her more than ordinary height, high cheek bones, reddish brown complexion, and in other characteristics especially of disposition. She was a woman of strong personality and determined will. She had strong “likes”and “dislikes”with almost always a good basis for them. Always of a cheerful disposition,wearing usually a smiling countenance, she was a favorite with young people, and partly brought up several children outside of her own family. Some of these served her with an attachment that lasted through her lifetime. One of these, a cousin, Matilda Thomas, came to our home to care for her the last year of her life.

The early life of both [my] parents was spent in Savannah where my father went to live when quite young,and where he early became connected with the Georgia Central Railroad, remaining with it as a trusted employee until his death in Macon, Georgia in 1883. My mother came to Macon,Georgia when she was about twenty years of age and there married my father. His position with the railroad company was a very responsible one.He was given charge of all new men—white or colored—to be instructed as to their duties. At times in later years he was even made conductor of excursion trains and given full authority which was respected by all. Here I may say that when he was freed a sum of money regularly was set aside from his wages by the railroad company for his use should he ever decide to go North. As he was unable to secure my mother’s freedom at once he remained with her in the South. In the end he failed to receive any of the money set aside for him.

Both parents,even in those early days,had been able to secure some educational advantages, as the free Negroes in that extreme southern section around Savannah and Charleston had opportunities not allowed in the upper part of the gulf states—Georgia and South Carolina. There were some private schools carried on openly for and by a free people, and there were clandestine schools, the number of which would have startled the South had it known of their numerous existence. Even the schools allowed to exist were closely watched as [seen] in the case of Daniel A. Payne of Charleston, who afterwards became a bishop in his [A.M.E.] church. He was considered too progressive and [was] forced to leave his school and flee to the North. Knowing the worth of education my father gathered all that he could as time went on and learned not only to read and write but how to transact his business. My mother also learned to read and write in these same clandestine schools.

There were many free people of color who gained considerable education in these ways. My mother’s half brother, John Hall,was one of this number. I mention him here not only because of his unusual attainments, but because of the influence he had over my life.His face, form,and general appearance are well remembered by me [al]though he died while I was but a boy. His Indian blood was also very apparent. He had not only acquired a remarkable education in books, far above his fellows generally, but he had also such a knowledge of carpentry as to make him a “boss workman.” Very few excelled him and as he was universally trusted and respected,he was kept constantly employed. At that day many men of color were allowed to become master workmen in many industries—a necessary thing where they had to perform the labor for the South in cities and on plantations. This proved to be a fortunate thing for them in later years.

This uncle became my boyish ideal while I was very young. He was a great help to me in furthering my book education which my parents had determined I should have. He also purchased for me a kit of tools and instructed me in the use of hammer, saw, and plane. I took to the work very readily and decided then to be a carpenter, busying myself in my boyish way in their use at every opportunity.

My father was a man of intensely positive character, upright and without deceit. Policy [sic] never seemed to enter his mind. He was slow of speech and of a very retiring disposition, avoiding public company, but enjoying the social companionship of a few. With strong moral and religious convictions he took the highest ground in carrying them out, never permitting vice to flaunt itself before him in any shape without rebuke of some kind. As he never swerved an inch from the course he had determined upon as the right one, he made enemies as well as friends, but the latter were many. [They] looked up to him, respected him, and stood by him. His honesty, integrity of purpose, and his love of justice made him honored, revered, and esteemed by all who knew him—white and black.

He was a great friend to the young people who sought him for advice and also financial aid which last he gave to many according to his means. He was a member of the Methodist Church in early years,but joined fortunes with the African Methodist Episcopal Church when it became established in Macon at the close of the Civil War. One of the strictest of churchmen, he would rather miss a meal than a church service. Intensely Methodist he stood by his church in every way, grieving to see anything go wrong, but sturdily standing by pastors and brethren. He was quite indulgent to me, much less strict in discipline than was my mother who had her views as to my bringing up and let nothing interfere with them. Both invariably insisted upon obedience, good behavior, and good manners. They were willing I should have playtime, but being very industrious themselves, they did not tolerate idleness in me, and as I early became the only child, my mother found plenty for me to do in the house.I had to help wash dishes and sweep.

Through this I gained the nickname of “Miss Sallie” among the boys and girls who soon learned that they must wait for my company until household duties were done. Three children had been born to my parents: John Henry, older than I, who died in his fourth year, and Mary Louisa, a sister younger than myself, who died in her second year, leaving me,William Sanders, as an only child upon whom my parents hung their hopes. With such parentage and connection I began life February 16,1852 in a house on Cotton Avenue, Macon, Georgia, a building long since torn down.

I was born under the slave system, and because of the law I followed the condition of my mother. She, however, fortunately for us all, was only nominally in servitude, as the man who claimed her services allowed her to have her own time to spend as she pleased,for which she was paid a small sum. She was thus virtually her own mistress and at her marriage had her own home and was enabled to give good care to her family.

Because of this situation I never felt the harsh, inhuman restrictions of slavery, nor did I as a child encounter many of the embarrassments which beset the large number of my companions.I have never been ashamed of my birth conditions; I have left that to the slaveholders. Neither have I ever felt it a thing to boast of as showing the depths from which I sprung. However, I learned to know as I passed into manhood that I was born into a struggle upward like all of my color. I learned also to realize how blessed I had been from infancy. This I am proud to record to my parents honor and credit in the days of that terrible American institution—human slavery.

My father died in October 1883 from a second stroke of paralysis. He served the railroad company to the last month of his life.He is buried in Macon, Georgia. I then brought my mother to my Northern home where she lived for twenty-nine years a contented, happy life in the loving care we sought to give her for all that had been done for me to help me on to what I had achieved. She passed away in 1912—the night of the great Titanic disaster—a patient sufferer from that dread disease—cancer, the poison of which is thought to have come from a snake-bite in her younger years. This had disabled her for a long time and curiously broke out at each recurrent season of the accident.

Throughout all my manhood years it has been my happy thought that both parents lived to see their son attaining a place in the world such as they had coveted for me from my birth, and for which they had worked and sacrificed. Blessed are their memories.


Boyhood Days

As I already said, the services of my mother were only nominally claimed,though she “belonged”to Colonel William DeGraffenreid, a man after whom I thought I was named. I must pay a passing tribute to this man for his kindness to my parents and me. He was an aristocratic, influential Southerner, a fine lawyer and a man of high standing in his church. He held broad views in regard to the Negro and was one Southerner who was thoroughly liked by every colored man and woman who knew him. He had proved himself a friend and did not fear to express this friendship. It was he who not only helped to make it possible that my parents could have a home for themselves in which they could rightly rear their children, but it was he who furnished all my books through my entire college course later on. I owe him a debt of gratitude for long continued interest in me and the many kindnesses shown me.

There were good slaveholders as well as bad ones, and all were slaves together—slaves to a system [that] the good ones could not always see how best to discard for the good of all concerned. One great enemy the Negroes then had was the “Cracker”class of people. These poor whites hated the Negro because the Negro felt above them. He often had more money and always had more protection. My boyhood altercations almost invariably took place with this class. They thought I was “too big.”Even to the present day the descendants of this class hold the same enmity to and jealousy of the progress of the race.

There was another man to whom [I as a] boy owed much help, but it was of a different character from that given by Colonel DeGraffenreid. This was a Mr. J. C.Thomas, a man of an entirely different type—a very peculiar man, intensely southern, and as a rule opposed to anything that meant progress to the Negro,yet for some reason he took an interest in me and taught me to read and to write, though my parents first put me in the path of knowledge by teaching me my letters.

It is to be remembered that in those days it was dangerous both to teach and to receive instruction. The penalty for the instructor was fine and imprisonment, and for the instructed one, severe corporal punishment.

Notwithstanding this Mr.Thomas gave me daily lessons in private.Whether this was known or even guessed in a general way I cannot positively assert, but I have always had reason to believe that many persons—both white and colored—knew of it. But whether known or not,I was never molested nor was my teacher. Perhaps the reason none of us as a family were subject to many annoyances was because of the influence of Colonel DeGraffenreid, and too, it may have been in part due to my father’s connection with the railroad company by which he was well known and trusted, and “Jerry Scarborough’s boy” was also well known everywhere in the city. At any rate my education and educational activities went on undisturbed.

I did not parade my efforts, however, as I daily went out ostensibly to play with my book concealed, but really, as time went on, to receive further instruction from free colored friends who helped me on, and living by themselves,my parents had unusual freedom for such opportunities to further my education.This learning was soon put to a practical use.

I was often called upon by friends of the family to write “permits.” Without these a colored man would have been punished for the misdemeanor of visiting his family. My conscience has never troubled me for rendering this assistance, though I would not recommend as good ethical training such continued practice by a boy for any length of time. However, all of us then felt justified in it because of the system under which we were forced to live.

My first lesson in responsibility came about in the following way. I must have inherited from my father a love for railroad cars and travel which has remained with me through life. He used often to take me in the cab with him on the excursion trains he was given to run and all the employees were kind to me. It was my delight to be around the cars.When I was about five years old one of my pleasant duties was to carry his dinner to him in the yards—some two miles from our home. I had to cross a deep ravine and climb a high embankment. One day a severe storm of rain and wind overtook me and blew me down the embankment many yards from the main path. [I did not know] which way to go,but some men found me and set me on the right path to my father. Through it all, however, I hung on to the dinner pail and delivered it to him safely.

As I continued to evade the law and study, I mastered before I was eight years old Webster’s Blue-back[ed] Speller, the main educational book of that day. I was also studying arithmetic, geography, and history under a free family near home. But though books came first, I liked to play as as any boy, liked to hunt, fish, swim, and roam the fields and woods. I admit to the possession of an inquisitive,adventurous disposition,which often led into dangers as I was let to rove about quite freely, my parents believing that I should learn to take care of myself and trusting my good sense to do so. This led me to have some exciting experiences that remained in memory.

[One] instance had to do with snakes with which the southern woods and streams abounded. Once while swimming I was warned by my companions of snakes in the water. Knowing they did not bite beneath the surface,I dove beneath and swam about seeking for a safe exit above for so long a time that I came near drowning. Another time a big snake chased me furiously through a sugar cane field. I succeeded in escaping it only by frequent turnings and wisting among the tall standing stalks until I found a way out. Again, I climbed a large oak tree in search of a bird’s nest. Finding a hole, I thrust in my hand to discover a large snake comfortably coiled within. It is needless to say that I did not stand upon making a swift withdrawal and retreat to the ground.

I liked to play pranks and crack jokes, and I am told to this day that a love of jocularly teasing people has not left me. I used often to urge playmates to action and take the role of an innocent bystander. Like all boys I did things, too, for which I was sorry, though only once of which I speak elsewhere, did I have trouble of any serious sort because of my mischievous doings. As to my playmates, they were mostly Irish boys, living near my home, who treated me well and often defended me against outsiders
and larger boys,who sought to plague me. Many of these later rose to eminence in the world.

The shadows of the Civil War were then hovering over the South. My first intimation of it came from these playmates. In our excursions to the pine woods near Macon,we would climb the trees and make seats among the branches, talking for hours in common about many things. In one of these talks a boy called across to me from his own particular limb and told me teasingly that a big war was coming and the outcome was to be very terrible. He said that the Yankees were going to try to set my people free and that many would be killed and many other dire things would happen.

He sought to see if he could frighten me. He did succeed in disturbing me very much. I very soon climbed down and ran home to tell my parents what I had heard.Then for the first time, they talked over the situation with me, explaining it as best they could. It is well known what endeavors the South made to keep the Negro people in a state of ignorance and fear. At one with this effort in view those in East Macon were prevented from going to those on the west side of the Ocmulgee River. But those who could read could not be kept in ignorance and there were many ways of communicating knowledge.

In this, too, I soon became an instrument. After the Civil War had begun,my father decided that aside from my lessons still studied privately, I must have knowledge of some trade. [This was my] first industrial training. Instead of carpentry as I had early hoped, the shoemaker’s trade was chosen and I was apprenticed to it in the shop of a friend of my father—Mr. Gibson—a most thorough and skillful workman.4 Here, every morning, after cleaning up the shop and getting things in readiness for the workmen,it became my duty to read to them the morning paper, so that they might be kept informed quietly and secretly of the progress of the war. Just in sight of the shop was an elevated spot where the Confederate flag was unfurled,if victory was with the South. Each morning I was sent out to observe this and report. It was a day of depression when I found the flag flying aloft, but one of elation when it was dangling idly on its staff.

I continued in the shoemaker’s shop for over two years where I learned to make my own shoes and do work for others, but found time however to continue my surreptitious studies and read every book I could lay hands on, for I felt sure there was something in store for me higher than the work of shoemaking. This feeling became more pronounced as the war proceeded and it began to be understood among us that the Union forces would be successful and that then there would be a general change in our condition as people.

Those were days full of privations as well as repressed excitement for all—white and black alike. Prices for everything needful were very high,food was scarce,and fare was scanty. Sugar,tea,and coffee were never seen by most of us during those turbulent times. We used to roast corn for coffee or sweet potatoes sliced and burned to a crisp with sugar cane for sweetening.

My parents had moved several times from the east to the west side of the Ocmulgee River trying always to better their living conditions. They had at last moved back to East Macon where they lived during the war and where they finally built a home on a piece of land given my father by the Mr. Thomas before mentioned. Here I had a chance to put my small knowledge of carpentry into practice. Here [my] family lived the remainder of their lives in Macon.

Other dangerous experiences occurred after this move. On one hot day,while crossing the bridge when going home,a drunken man seized me as I reached midstream and swung me out of the bridge opening,threatening to drop me into the river. Though severely frightened, I kept quiet which perhaps led him to draw me back to safety, when I made haste to scamper home. At another time, the Mr.Thomas mentioned before, who owned a grocery store on the outskirts of the city,was obliged to go away for a few days and left me to care for the opening of the store each day. He left a gun in case of any danger which came when two drunken men came in one morning and found me alone. One made a remark to me that I did not understand. Because I did not reply he threw up his gun at my breast.

I was helpless as I could not reach my own gun, but kept quiet. His more sober companion knocked down the weapon and again I was saved. The same man came back later to the premises and killed a man.

Another escape was when I was employed in a store and a man came in demanding where I had taken his laundry. As I knew nothing of it he marched me out before his gun to several places. At last in a crowd of passers-by I darted down a side street and once more I was saved. Negro human life was cheap in those days.

As the war went on, colored boys were always in danger when found on the streets. As a rule they were seized and made to do duty in the hospitals where the Confederate soldiers lay sick and dying. I had several narrow escapes and several times felt sure that I would be captured, when commanded to halt at the muzzle of a gun, but somehow my feet always served me well and I managed to slip away.

None of the dangers of the times seemed to frighten me enough to keep me off the streets in leisure hours. I was curious to see and hear what was going on and often went out to camp, delighting to see the Floyd Rifles’ drill.6 All through life military maneuvers were a delight to me. I admit I must have given my parents many anxious hours though they seemed to have confidence in my ability to keep out of trouble, which I am sure I never sought, though sometimes it found me.

The war days wore on. Months passed and these ran on into years. I was kept busy at home and at my trade, and life passed with alternate periods of elation and depression as news crept to our ears of the victories and defeats of the Union forces. As a people,however,we had to conceal our real feelings,because of our situation and only in stolen meetings or hushed tones were we able to express our hopes and fears. My father was given much latitude of movement because of his connection with the railroad. He thus avoided being pressed into many kinds of services, as he had only to state his employment to be let alone, as all knew too well the value of the transportation service and knew it was not to be tampered with at any point. I still read and studied privately,feeling that I must be prepared whatever might be the outcome. Indeed, our family in the privacy of home nursed the hope that should victory rest with the South in the end, then would come the moment when my father would be in a position to take advantage of the arrangement made years before by the railroad officials should he desire to come north. Then our friends would see that his long services were rewarded by allowing my mother to accompany him. But we could not divest ourselves of all anxiety as to the future as these dark years wore on.

In the spring of 1864 came what is known in history today as the brilliant campaigns of Grant and Sherman when the latter began his “March to the Sea” and the siege of Atlanta took place. History tells of Sherman’s endeavor to reach the Macon road over which came the stores and ammunition that alone maintained the Confederate Army in Atlanta.

We could distinctly hear the guns only 103 miles away during the whole of that eventful period. They were busy and trying days for my father. He had to keep his post on the railroad and help see to the transportation of troops, upon which the South so much depended at that moment. What an irony in it all—compelled to labor that his own people might not be freed! But it saved his life probably, for further and better work for the race, as no matter what dangerous duty the Macon troops tried to force upon him with others,he always had the unanswerable excuse that he must hurry back to the railroad. As the summer drew on the Confederate soldiers,who were entrenched only a few rods back of our home, were suffering from thirst, and some came with their guns to compel us all to take water to them. We with some friends were eating watermelon for our lunch. Father’s excuse which always held good saved him from the disagreeable duty as did that of one of our friends, a baker, who had “to go and bake bread for the army.” I remember well that I filled a very dirty pail with no compunction as to cleanliness and followed after the soldiers. I was more anxious to see the troops at closer range than to quench their thirst.

Life took on a more distracted aspect with increasing anxiety on all sides. Frantic prayer meetings were held on the “Macon Green” by the distressed white people [when] it became more certain that victory would be with the Union. As Wilson’s forces were known to be nearing the city, my first actual contact with the war came in July of that year when Stoneman’s raid took place.

Deep impressions were made upon me as to what the immediate outcome was to be and might mean to my family. It was a depressing sight when the raid failed, [and] I saw General Stoneman with his cavalry staff pass by our house, a prisoner of the Confederate forces. I had sufficient knowledge as a boy of twelve to understand that by this capture the Union Forces had lost much, and tears rolled down my cheeks.

From the first we had known of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln in January of the preceding year, and we felt sure that if the Union forces could not win now our condition as a race would inevitably be worse than before. Our spirits rose again when Atlanta fell in September. The fall and winter months passed with eager watchfulness of every movement we could learn of events. Then we were again thrown into a gulf of despair when in the following April the news of the assassination of Lincoln reached our ears. Throughout the city my people took the tidings with the deepest sorrow and foreboding. What effect would his death have upon the final issue? What would become of the future I had hoped for? We could only grieve and wait in patient silence for the coming march of events.

In a few days Macon faced its second immediate danger as it became known that Wilson’s forces were approaching the city. Life now took on a panic stricken aspect with the daily prayer meetings of the white people on “Macon Green,” while we looked on breathlessly, secretly praying that victory would rest with the Union Forces in the end.

For some days I had been kept at home though my curiosity was unabated.We were living in East Macon directly in front of the earthworks thrown up by the Confederate soldiers and shells were flying directly over our heads into the city doing much damage. People moved from place to place seeking safety,but we remained in our own house. Everywhere there was a state of turmoil and distress. I had finally been allowed to venture out upon the streets. There I saw Confederate soldiers coming into the city one after another at first at full speed on horses and mules—then in rapidly increasing groups and numbers giving the alarm that the Union Forces were entering the city. Then came several of these shooting in the air [and] showing they were in command. I hurried home to my anxious parents who knew not what might happen at this moment of peril. We slept little that night, uncertain as to whether the constant rumbling meant the flight of the Southern people or the entrance of the Union troops.

It was not until later that we learned that the surrender of the city by General Howard Cobb had taken place outside of the city limits. We learned too, that our fine bridge over the Ocmulgee River, separating East Macon from West, was only saved from being burned by the retreating Confederates by the prompt arrival of the vanguard of the Union forces,whom I had seen entering behind the fleeing enemy.

Then in order that the Union soldiers might gain possession of but little of the city stores provided for the Southern troops,the city authorities had broken open some of the storehouses,letting the people take what they would,rather than let them fall to the Northern victors. They had also poured streams of liquor into the streets. Now the Union Forces broke open the rest of the commissariat stores and allowed the Negro people to carry away what was not used by themselves. Many useful and needed things were thus gained by my family. I recall that my own share of the spoils consisted of an abundance of boxes of penpoints, pencils,envelopes,and paper.

Another never to be forgotten scene was fixed in my mind [namely] that of the announcement of freedom to the colored people. Officers had been detailed by General Wilson to announce the new relations now to exist between the white and blacks. The meeting was held in the Presbyterian church. The house was packed. I saw and heard as I sat perched in an open window—a joyful boy who knew now that there was a possibility of his dreams becoming a reality. The effect upon the people cannot be described—only imagined. There was that rejoicing with cries and tears by which only a long enslaved and suffering people could voice their emotions as they realized that the day of freedom, so long prayed for, had at last dawned. The next day nearly every Negro family,who had served a white family, as it seemed to me,moved out regardless of what it might mean to begin a new life under a new regime.

This was such a radical movement that I am forced to believe that it was at that moment that rancor and bitterness sank roots deep into the hearts of the South. One party was exulting in the conditions that struck off its shackles and made it free.The other party was despondent, humiliated, and angry because it had not only been beaten and defeated, but had lost long-accustomed service, and worse than being made dependent, it was forced to do for itself.

The life that I now began to live changed its nature. Soon after General Wilson made his headquarters in Macon I was hired to work in a bookstore owned by Mr. J. Burke. [He was] a strong Methodist, a man intensely Southern in feeling,[al]though naturally broad and sympathetic.

Here I had wide opportunity to read as I wished, for he was very indulgent to me. Indeed, he soon accepted the new situation even to the extent of becoming very friendly and helpful to the incoming teachers sent from the North to aid our people. As is well known all books published in the South during the war had but one side to present to the public,which was done with strong partisan expression and great care had been taken, that [no other] should be available to readers. So I could now see what literature the South had fed upon during these years—literature that had been instilling so many warped ideas into the Southern minds.

General Wilson had been in the city a short time when this store was burned. Later Mr.Burke established another one and a few years later, and of him I purchased my set of books for freshman college for which our old friend Colonel DeGraffenreid paid.

I was a busy and industrious boy from the first.My first real “greenback” was made by selling with other boys,both white and black,the Macon Telegraph—the leading newspaper of the city. We were permitted to pass the lines for the purpose of selling to the soldiers. Sometime before this I ad been selling strawberries from a garden [for] one hundred dollars per quart in Confederate scrip. It had lost its value [after the war] and for the first time I looked upon real money made in Washington by the Federal overnment. I made considerable money by selling papers and my father carefully put it away for me in a walnut box beautifully made with lock and key by my carpenter uncle. I have kept it to this day. The Northern soldiers were very kind to me and often questioned me as to what I was going to do. Even then I knew of such colored men as Frederick Douglass and John Langston as ideal men of the race, and had selected the law like the latter as a profession and planned to be an orator like the former.

There was another unforgettable scene I witnessed. It was on a day in May when Jefferson Davis was brought a captive to Macon,under a special guard—the wagon guarded on all sides by soldiers with guns. I had climbed a tree in front of the Carrier House on Mulberry Street and was within a few feet of him as he was taken within. My feelings, I must admit, were largely that of boyish exultation that I had seen him brought to my home city mixed with some disappointment as to his general appearance which seemed to me to hold nothing of what I felt the great Confederate leader should be. I saw him but once again after his liberation from prison when he made a speech in Atlanta.

[A] new order of things came in many ways with freedom. I recall the coming of colored troops to take the place of the white ones in Macon. The former met with much opposition from the Southern white citizens. Some incidents were amusing to onlookers,as many times the white people would go out into the gutters and mud,often to the detriment of their attire, rather than acknowledge defeat and be humiliated by walking beneath the Union flags stretched out over the sidewalks. Still, although everything was under military rule and an ill repressed feeling was ever present,I do not recall any incident of great disorder.

Other changes soon followed which touched my life.When the general rights of my people were fixed, the Freedmen’s Bureau was established in Macon, and colored postmasters were made for the city. [They were] Henry McNeal Turner and John G. Mitchell as assistant. These with John Langston were the first distinguished people of my race I had ever met. The former came to attend the First Conference of the African Methodist Church in Macon, and J.M.Langston came to address the people of the city generally. Of the latter I purchased my first great book—The Life and Services of Abraham Lincoln. All were strong capable men.

[With] John G. Mitchell, an early graduate of Oberlin College, I was destined later to be closely associated in my Northern home and work.

In the Freedmen’s Bureau I found employment at odd times as a clerk before I finally left Macon. In it I put my small savings from selling papers and my father also made deposits there, looking forward to my future college expenses. I withdrew mine in time but his book, still in my possession, shows a loss on its pages, when the bureau collapsed. There are many things connected with what is known as the Reconstruction Period of which I speak later.

Many thanks to Wayne State University Press for sharing this excerpt of The Auotbiography of William Sanders Scarborough.

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About the Author:

Michele Valerie Ronnick is Associate Professor in the Department of Classics, Greek and Latin at Wayne State University. A Latinist by training with a book on Cicero''s Stoic Paradoxes, she has published widely in journals here and abroad and has won a number of professional awards for excellence in scholarship, teaching and service on regional and national levels. Ronnick''s special interest in the Classical Tradition led her to open up a new subfield of reception studies, Classica Africana, a.k.a. black classicism, which examines the influence of classics upon the creative and professional lives of people of African descent. She is the editor of a critical edition of The Autobiography of William Sanders Scarborough.
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