SHORTLY before the election of 1860, a man came upon a plantation near Marlin, Texas, some 20 miles southeast of Waco. Though nobody knew who he was, the plantation owner took him in as a guest. The stranger paid close attention to how the enslaved people working on the plantation were treated -- how they subsisted on a weekly ration of “four pounds of meat and a peck of meal,” how they were whipped and sometimes sold, resulting in the tearing apart of families. Eventually, the stranger said goodbye and went on his way, but a little while later, he wrote a letter to the plantation owner, informing him he would soon have to free his slaves -- “that everybody was going to have to, that the North was going to see to it.” The stranger told the owner to go into the room where he’d slept, and see where he’d carved his name into the headrest. And when the slaveholder went and looked, he saw the name: “A. Lincoln.”
At least that’s what happened according to Bob Maynard, who was born a slave and recounted the story as an old man in an interview with an employee of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a New Deal program created to put writers to work and enrich American culture. In 1936, the FWP began collecting interviews with former slaves, amassing thousands of pages of oral histories which, though often filtered through the racism of white interviewers and their supervisors, provide an invaluable snapshot of how more than 2,000 survivors of slavery lived and thought.
Nearly 40 of those interviewed claimed Abraham Lincoln visited their plantation shortly before or during the Civil War. They said he came in disguise as a beggar or a peddler, bummed free meals off his unsuspecting white hosts, snooped around to find out what slavery was like, and told the slaves they would soon be free.
The stories weren’t limited to one corner of the South. Lincoln didn’t just visit central Texas; he also visited the Mississippi Delta, the Kentucky Pennyroyal, and the Georgia Piedmont. In fact, as late as the 1980s, African Americans in the South Carolina Sea Islands claimed that Lincoln traveled there in 1863 to announce the Emancipation Proclamation in person; some even said they knew the exact tree under which he stood.
Though there’s no evidence Lincoln actually made any of these incognito visits to the South -- and ample documentation to suggest these visits were wholly fictitious -- it’s important that many former slaves believed he did. Today, historical debates over emancipation often focus on whether it came from the top down or the bottom up -- did Lincoln free the slaves, or did the slaves free themselves? But the stories of Lincoln coming down South suggest many freedpeople didn’t see this as an either/or question.
Did they need Lincoln? Sure. But emancipation wasn’t something Lincoln could just decree from on high. He had to come down South and get his hands dirty. Some even described him as taking on the guise of the trickster popular in black folklore, a sort of Brer Rabbit in a top hat. When former slaves claimed Lincoln had paid them a visit, they weren’t just inserting a beloved president into their story -- they were inserting themselves into his story.
African Americans were understandably wary of associating Lincoln too closely with their emancipation. Doing so, after all, implied freedom was a gift from a bene volent white man that could be easily taken away. Indeed, the former slave Charity Austin recounted that, when Lincoln was assassinated, her owner said Lincoln’s death meant they were slaves again, and he kept the ruse up for a year, making them work in black mourning cloth. In 1908, some 30 years before the Federal Writers’ Project began interviewing former slaves, a white mob in Springfield, Illinois, enraged by recent crimes allegedly committed by African Americans, lynched two black men and burned down black homes and black-owned businesses, finally driving roughly 2,000 African Americans out of Lincoln’s hometown. The mob shouted: “Lincoln freed you, we’ll show you where you belong.”
African Americans were not foolish enough to think their welfare would be the utmost concern of a white politician. As Frederick Douglass said, Lincoln “was preeminently the white man’s President,” and they were “at best only his step-children.” But this didn’t mean Lincoln couldn’t be a useful ally, especially if his own self-interest aligned with theirs.
In the stories of Lincoln coming down South, he was rarely concerned first and foremost with the welfare of black people. In one story, for example, his animosity towards the slaveholding class was seemingly motivated by a perceived insult rather than a moral opposition to slavery. Lincoln had supposedly visited a plantation in Jefferson County, Arkansas, asking for work. The owner replied that he’d talk to him once he’d had dinner -- without inviting the stranger to eat with him. As J. T. Tims, a former slave, explained, his owner “didn’t say, ‘Come to dinner,’ and didn’t say nothin’ ’bout, ‘Have dinner.’ Just said, ‘Wait till I go eat my dinner.’” And when he finished eating, he found the stranger had “changed his clothes and everything” and was looking over the slaveholder’s business papers and account books. The stranger whom the slaveholder had treated like poor “white trash” had revealed himself to be a powerful man.
To be continued