Book review: ‘Notes from a Colored Girl’

“Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis,” by Karsonya Wise Whitehead.
“Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis,” by Karsonya Wise Whitehead.

Reflecting on the meaning of the Civil War, Walt Whitman remarked in 1875, “The real war will never get into the books.”

Whitman worried that historians would privilege the “surface courteousness of the Generals” and “the few great battles” over the “countless minor scenes.” He feared that future narratives would ignore stories of the conflict’s innumerable victims and witnesses.

Karsonya Wise Whitehead’s “Notes from a Colored Girl” tells the story that Whitman feared would be forgotten. Whitehead, who teaches communications at Loyola University Maryland, has meticulously transcribed, edited, annotated and interpreted the diaries of Philadelphian Emilie Frances Davis (1838-1899), a freeborn mulatto and an upwardly mobile domestic and dressmaker.

Although Davis’ diaries span only 1863 to 1865, they are among just a handful of surviving primary sources written by African-American women during the Civil War era.

Her terse diary entries challenged “the intellectual and cultural mores of everyday freeborn black women and how their experiences have been constructed by the male historical dispensation,” Whitehead writes. Davis’ “decision to record her life attests to her sense of self-worth and her belief that she was living a life that was worthy of being documented and remembered.”

Davis, who was 25 years old in 1863, recorded the banalities of everyday working-class life in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward – the weather, her health, family news and neighborhood gossip. She also reported on visits from her devoted beau, Vincent, and her best female friend, Nellie.

Beyond these personal accounts, she described classes at the Institute for Colored Youth, services at the First African Presbyterian Church, events at the Banneker Institute and fundraising by Philadelphia’s Ladies Union Association for wounded black soldiers and slave refugees.

Davis often wrote about the unfolding of wartime emancipation, about hearing inspiring lectures by such notables as Frederick Douglass and Horace Greeley, about attending abolitionist meetings, on the mobilization of the U.S. Colored Troops at Philadelphia’s Camp William Penn and about interracial tensions in the City of Brotherly Love.

On Jan. 1, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect, Emily wrote: “To day, has bin a memorable day. I thank God I have bin here to see it. The day was religiously observed, all the churches were open. We had quite a jubilee in the evening. I went to Joness to a party, had a very blessest time.” Six months later, when Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops invaded Pennsylvania, Davis reported, “To day has bin the exciting day. I have witness refuges are comin from all the towns this side of Harrisburg. The greetes excitements prevails.”

On April 3, 1865, she reported how Philadelphians responded to the news that Richmond, the Confederacy’s capital, had fallen to Union troops: “The city is wild with excitement. Flags are flying.”

Less than two weeks later, however, she wrote sadly: “The President was assassinated by som Confederate villain at theathre. ... The city is in the deepest sorrow. These are strange times.” Soon after she noted: “Everything has a solemn afect. The streets look mournful. The people are sad.” On April 23, Davis joined 300,000 Philadelphians who viewed Lincoln’s body. “I got to see him,” she wrote, “after waiting four hours and a half. It was actually a sight worth seeing.”

Although Whitehead frequently misinterprets Davis’ observations of the mundane as examples of black activism, her diaries nonetheless provide rare glimpses into the workaday world of an intellectually curious black woman on the northern homefront – the kind of stories that Whitman feared would never be told.

John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at UNC Charlotte.