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To Walk About in Freedom
The extraordinary life of Priscilla Joyner and her quest—along with other formerly enslaved people—to define freedom after the Civil War.
Priscilla Joyner was born into the world of slavery in 1858 North Carolina and came of age at the dawn of emancipation. Raised by a white slaveholding woman, Joyner never knew the truth about her parentage. She grew up isolated and unsure of who she was and where she belonged—feelings that no emancipation proclamation could assuage.
Her life story—candidly recounted in an oral history for the Federal Writers’ Project—captures the intimate nature of freedom. Using Joyner’s interview and the interviews of other formerly enslaved people, historian Carole Emberton uncovers the deeply personal, emotional journeys of freedom’s charter generation—the people born into slavery who walked into a new world of freedom during the Civil War. From the seemingly mundane to the most vital, emancipation opened up a myriad of new possibilities: what to wear and where to live, what jobs to take and who to love.
Although Joyner was educated at a Freedmen’s Bureau school and married a man she loved, slavery cast a long shadow. Uncertainty about her parentage haunted her life, and as Jim Crow took hold throughout the South, segregation, disfranchisement, and racial violence threatened the loving home she made for her family. But through it all, she found beauty in the world and added to it where she could.
Weaving together illuminating voices from the charter generation, To Walk About in Freedom gives us a kaleidoscopic look at the lived experiences of emancipation and challenges us to think anew about the consequences of failing to reckon with the afterlife of slavery.
Cover image of Sterling Brown: Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
Carole Emberton is professor of history at the University at Buffalo. An NEH public scholar, she is the author of the prize-winning Beyond Redemption. She has written for the New York Times and Washington Post.