Richardson was fighting the good fight. Or was she?
Central to her legacy was her work on the Virginia Writers’ Project, which had two purposes: to hire unemployed writers to chronicle the culture, landscape, and people of Virginia; and, more importantly, to interview formerly enslaved people to document their stories. Scores of writers on the federal payroll surveyed the South in search of people who were born before slavery ended but who were still alive during the Great Depression. The result is one of the largest archives of slavery in the United States, gathered under the auspices of the Federal Writers’ Project. Organized by state, each volume includes first-person testimony from formerly enslaved people reflecting on their time in bondage and their lives after emancipation.
The Virginia contributors turned their interviews into a narrative, which they then submitted to Richardson, whose job was to edit the stories into a book. Richardson took the reams of pages and “went down to a cottage, shut the door, and stayed down there two weeks without even a telephone,” where she “rewrote the material.” The result was The Negro in Virginia, published in 1940.
Richardson’s interpolation has, in part, made generations of historians suspicious of the records. The interviewers were also not trained oral historians; they were enterprising writers whose questions often determined the content and character of formerly enslaved people’s testimony. Compounding matters, the interviews took place during the height of Jim Crow in the segregated South, so many Black people were skeptical about talking to white people about slavery.
While the records pose serious challenges for scholars, award-winning historian Carole Emberton demonstrates that meticulous research and careful analysis can circumvent purposeful distortion. In her breathtaking book, To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Priscilla Joyner, Emberton manages to miraculously bypass Richardson’s intrusive hand.
With surgical precision, Emberton lifts the story of one person, Priscilla Joyner, from Richardson’s book, and tells it as a saga that encapsulates some of the most tumultuous periods in Southern history — slavery, war, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. To both verify the published account and learn more about Joyner, Emberton has pored over indecipherable census records, crumbling birth and death certificates, untraceable marriage licenses, scattered newspaper accounts, and many other written records. In a deft scholarly turn, Emberton located Joyner’s original, untampered interview transcript before it was turned into a narrative account and falsified by Richardson.
In the published version of the interview, Richardson quotes Joyner as saying that her plantation mistress was “the best woman in the world. She may have owned slaves, but she never sold any.” Emberton discovered that Richardson rewrote that part of Joyner’s testimony “to demonstrate the trusting relationships between Virginia slave owners and their bondspeople.”
There is more. When a team of interviewers met Joyner in her garden in the 1930s, one of them, a “young Black teacher” named Thelma Dunston, worried that the group may have intimidated Joyner, so she sent the men away and talked to Joyner alone. In the quiet confidence of Dunston’s company, Joyner explained that the woman Richardson described as her “plantation mistress” was actually her mother.
Historians from Deborah Gray White to Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers have documented the pervasive ways in which slaveholding men raped enslaved women and how their progeny often became a common feature on Southern plantations. Southern lore refers to the enslaved children living within proximity to their slaveholding fathers as “a shadow family.” What many historians have not uncovered are slaveholding women as the parents of enslaved children.
By tracking down the original interview transcript, Emberton explains how Joyner named Ann Eliza Joyner, the slaveholding mistress, as her mother. According to the unedited interview, Ann Eliza had told Joyner that she was her mother. As Emberton explains in the first quarter of her book, there are many reasons why this relationship would have been purposely omitted from official records. Emberton explores the question of whether Ann Eliza was or was not Joyner’s mother, but one piece of evidence is somewhat buried in the book: a reference to another one of Ann Eliza’s children, a Black girl named Ida, whom Joyner identifies as her sister, and after whom she even names one of her own children. Emberton suggests that Ann Eliza may have tried to protect Ida from the racism that Joyner endured in her childhood home by giving her to a local Black family to raise. Another mysterious question haunts this book: who was Joyner’s father?
Not only is Joyner’s story fascinating because of the questions surrounding her parents, but it is also an absorbing account of a woman who lived through slavery, emancipation, the violence of Jim Crow, the outbreak of a tuberculosis epidemic, and the troubles of the Great Depression. Drawing on clues in the surviving sources, Emberton places Joyner’s life within the historical context of these major transformations, but she also reads for evidence of Joyner’s relationship with her husband, her children, and even her community. She takes simple quotations from Joyner’s interview — like “[my husband] was a good level-headed, sober-minded man” — to brilliantly gain insights into how Joyner understood her marriage in the precarious context of the agricultural South, and in relation to her unreliable stepfather and her need for connection to the Black community through marriage.
What makes To Walk About in Freedom extraordinary are the many critical and historical insights that Emberton adds when telling Joyner’s story. When Emberton mentions Joyner’s marriage, she tells us about what marriage meant to 19th-century people. She reminds us of historian Stephanie Coontz’s claim that, for centuries, “marriage did much of the work that markets and governments do today.” Emberton further contextualizes Joyner’s marriage using Tera W. Hunter’s award-winning book Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (2017) to explain how the federal government campaigned for Black people to marry to create a moral order in the Reconstruction South.
These historical anecdotes deepen the book’s significance and showcase Emberton’s impressive knowledge of African American studies. When Emberton sets the stage for a funeral, where “rivers of flowers” and “meticulously groomed horses” led processions, she acknowledges Karla F. C. Holloway’s influence on her understanding of funeral practices in the Black community. More than just shoutouts or an embodiment of the urgent Cite Black Women movement, the appearance of these scholars throughout the book forms a chorus of storytellers who provide a poignant soundtrack to Joyner’s story.
In one lyrical interlude, Emberton describes the garden where Dunston interviewed Joyner. She evokes Alice Walker’s iconic essay collection, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983), pointing out the multidimensional similarities between Walker’s mother and Joyner, both of whom were gardeners. Walker’s meditation on Black women in the past and their connection to art and history summons Joyner and her place within the Federal Writers’ Project series. Walker writes, “And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.”
In other parts of the book, when the archival record becomes quiet, Emberton provides short narratives of other formerly enslaved people. These sketches offer the reader opportunities to use their historical imagination and to consider Joyner’s predicament or circumstances. The appearance of cameo characters who serve as potential composites for Joyner could have been obtrusive, but Emberton expertly weaves their stories into the plot.
Emberton’s sophisticated analysis and capacious historical knowledge are the book’s most arresting features. Richardson championed women’s rights, their place in civic society, and their voice, but she did not see Priscilla Joyner as a Southern woman. For her, woman meant white, a potent embodiment of what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham refers to as “the metalanguage of race.”
Richardson thought nothing of Joyner’s voice, but Emberton did. She rediscovered, reframed, and reclaimed it, using careful historical analysis to allow Joyner to continue to walk about in freedom.
Jim Downs is the Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University and the author of Maladies of Empire: How Colonialism, Slavery, and War Transformed Medicine (Harvard University Press, 2021).