History Behind the Story: Voter Registration in Georgia, 1867

In the light of the news about obstacles to voting in Georgia today, I thought I’d share a happier moment in Georgia’s history, when the freedmen, newly-minted as voters, were enthusiastically registered under the auspices of the Union Army.

Under post-Civil War military administration, Georgia was divided into 44 districts, corresponding to the state’s senatorial districts. In each district, three registrars were appointed. Two were white, but the third was black. The white registrars chose their black colleague; as in my novel, Let Me Fly, they chose a man they knew and trusted.

In my novel, I appropriated one of my characters as the black registrar, but the real-life registrar for District 42, which included Cass County, was a fascinating man in his own right. His name was William Barton Higginbotham, and he was born a free man in Virginia in 1818. In the 1840s and 1850s, at considerable personal risk, he was an Abolitionist in Georgia. In 1867, he registered the black men of District 42 as voters, and during the contentious election of 1868, he organized northwestern Georgia for the Union League, the secret society that supported the Republican Party.

If you want to read more about Higginbotham’s life and about the history of his home, Floyd County, before and after the war, take a look at this article by David Dixon, published in Georgia Backroads Magazine in 2011.

Replay: Interview with "The Shift with Skip"

I’ve really enjoyed the reaction from the readers who have just discovered both Let Me Fly and Sister of Mine. I think you might like a blog radio interview I did with Skip Jennings, who has hosted a show called “The Shift with Skip,” about Sister of Mine in its very earliest form—the self-published version titled Slave and Sister. (If you’ve read Sister of Mine, don’t worry—the story is the same, even if the cover is a lot nicer!)

Skip Jennings is now a life coach, but he grew up in Selma, Alabama, and before we went on the air, he told me how his parents marched with Dr. Martin Luther King during that historic moment in 1965.

Not History Yet: Black Women and Voting

I was planning to write a blog post about the role that black women played in the Southern elections of 1867, the first year that black men were free to vote. Unable to vote themselves, they were tireless lobbyists and organizers. This morning, the New York Times has done my work for me. Take a look at this article on the long history of voter registration and voter motivation among black women in the South, and the way that the spark lit in 1867 is still burning, with more urgency than ever.

Book News: Publication Day for my New Novel Let Me Fly

It’s publication day! My new novel, Let Me Fly, is now available.

3D Let Me Fly.jpg

The Civil War is over, but it isn’t. For two sisters, one white, one black, a new fight is just beginning.

If you like eye-opening, soul-stirring, true-to-period historical fiction you can’t put down, you’ll love the sequel to my award-winning novel Sister of Mine.

 Discover this book now on Amazon US or Amazon UK!

Romance, Courage, and Voter Registration

Since my new novel, Let Me Fly, is set during the time that voter registration was of intense interest in the Reconstructed South, voting is top of mind for me. I live in a state that allows for early voting, and today, when the polls opened for the early birds, I went to the polls.

They gave me a little “I voted” sticker to wear, and in that spirit, I’d like to bug those of you who live in early voting states to do the same.

Music to Write To: Amber Mark

The other day, I was listening carefully to Curtis Harding’s song “Till the End,” and I heard a sly, low-pitched voice doing call and response in the background. Curious, I looked into the credits for background vocals, and discovered that the voice belongs to Amber Mark, who is a singer and songwriter in her own right. She grew up traveling the world and has a special affection for India, which is the setting of her song “Monsoon.” The song is lovely and also poignant: it is a love song for her mother, who died in 2013.

Tales of Atlanta: An Account at the Freedmen's Bank

As I was researching Let Me Fly, I relied heavily on an unlikely source for fictional inspiration: the records of the Freedmen's Bank, which opened its Atlanta branch in 1870. The Freedmen's Bank, which had branches throughout the South in the early 1870s, was intended to encourage the habit of thrift and saving in former slaves. I took a small liberty in fictionalizing the story of Iverson Riley, who became a Freedmen's Bank depositor on August 22, 1870.

Iverson Riley
When the Atlanta branch of the Freedmen’s Bank first opened in January, it had been overwhelmed with former slaves eager to save their money. The cashier and his clerk had signed up scores of new depositors every day. Now, on a hot Tuesday afternoon in August, they sat at the table where they had created so many accounts and shook their heads at the quiet.

Lucius Wimby, the clerk, said, “The grocer down the street gives folks a gift for coming in. A peck of cornmeal. Maybe we should offer folks a gift for bringing in their money.”

Philip Cory, the cashier, asked, “What kind of a gift?”

Wimby grinned. After seven months, he was at ease with Cory. He no longer had trouble with Cory’s Yankee accent. He said, “Give them a chicken.”

“A dressed chicken for dinner? In this heat?” 

Wimby laughed. “A live chicken to lay an egg every day.”

Cory laughed too. He had never been South before he came to run the bank branch. He could not have managed in Atlanta without Lucius Wimby, who had come from a life of slavery in rural Georgia, just like most of the depositors. Wimby, now educated, now dressed in a banker’s wool suit and starched white shirt, put the freedmen at their ease. Cory looked around the interior, built new just after the war, and said, “Where would we put a mess of chickens?” 

Wimby joked, “Don’t we have room in the alley for a coop?”

The door opened, and a man came in. He was slight and very dark of skin, and he wore the clothes of a workingman, a rough cotton shirt and nankeen trousers, both stained with grease. His shoes were dusty. Wherever he had come from, he had walked to the bank. 

He looked around him in surprise, as though he might have walked into a bank by mistake. Seeing his confusion, Wimby said, “How can I help you, sir?”

He took off his hat and looked with further surprise at the well-dressed, well-spoken black man who had addressed him. He said, “Is this the place where a black man can save his money?” He touched his pocket. “I brought my money with me,” he said. 

Wimby said, “We’re glad of it, sir.” He introduced himself, and then introduced Cory, who held out his hand. “I’m glad to meet you, sir.”

The man looked even more surprised at a proffered hand and a courteous address from a white man. Cory said, “What is your name, sir?” 

The man unfroze and said, “Iverson Riley, sir.” It came out “suh,” as in slavery.

Cory said, “Sit with Mr. Wimby and he will open your account. Then come to me and I’ll count your money and deposit it for you.” 

Wimby gestured Riley to the little table, and they sat. Wimby opened the book where they recorded the new depositors and said, “I need to ask you some questions.”

Riley nodded. 

“Where were you born, Mr. Riley?”

“In Newman, in Georgia.”

“And where were you raised?” 

“In Newman and Atlanta. Came to Atlanta two years ago.”

“Where do you live in Atlanta, sir?” 

“Live over in Jennings town. On Markham Street.”

“How old are you?” 

“Twenty-three on my last birthday.”

“What is your employment?” 

“I work for the Mills Valley Railroad. Do general labor.”

“Are you married?” 

Iverson Riley laughed. It came out as a snort. “I ain’t,” he said. “Can’t afford it, in Atlanta.”

“Do you have any children?” 

Indignant, Riley said, “I do not. I’m a good Christian man. Wait till I marry for that.”

Wimby’s face indicated his regret at having to ask. “Who is your father?” 

Riley looked suspiciously at Wimby. “Why are you asking me all them busybody questions? What do it matter?”

Wimby said, “We’ll be responsible for your money. We need to assure that no one but you takes anything from your account. If someone else comes in, claiming to be Iverson Riley, and can’t say who your father was, we know him for an impostor.” 

Riley nodded, as though he knew about deceit, but he’d never thought of it in relation to money. “All right,” he said. “I’ll answer any question you put to me.”

They established that Riley’s father Thomas had died in Covington in Georgia and his mother mother Harriet Riley was in Atlanta, along with his brothers Dave and Marion and his sisters Mary and Lucy. “We all live together at Jennings town.” 

Wimby nodded. Riley said, “Do you need to know about the others?”

“I do, sir.” 

“There’s Olly, still in Newman, and Jim, who’s dead. And Lizzie, who was carried away in slavery.”

Wimby inclined his head. No matter how often he heard such a thing, it still saddened him. He said, “Now you need to sign the book.” 

Riley said regretfully, “Can’t write my name.”

“I’ll write it down for you, and you can make a mark next to it. We can take that as a signature.” 

“Show me how to write that mark.”

Wimby showed him. 

Riley gripped the pen as though it needed force, like a hammer or a bellows. He concentrated, and he made the mark of an “X” where Wimby showed him to. “Is that all right?” he asked.

Wimby smiled. “That’s just fine,” he said. “Go to the counter, where Mr. Cory is standing, and he’ll deposit the money for you.” 

Riley got up. Wimby saw how his right pant leg pulled. He had put all his money in his pocket.

At the counter, Riley pulled a heavy cloth from his pocket, with the money bundled in it. It fell on the counter with a heavy clanking sound. “Five dollar, all in coin.”

Riley watched as Cory untied the bundle and surveyed the newest deposit. It was in small coins, nickels and dimes. Cory said, “I’ll count it, so we know how much you’re depositing.” He sorted the coins by their denomination, and with the skill of long practice, counted them. He said, “You have five dollars and ten cents,” he said. “Do you want to deposit it all, or to take the dime with you?”

 Riley wavered. He said, “If I had a dime I could take the horsecars home.”

Cory smiled and handed Riley the dime. He said, “Now I’ll give you an account book and write the record of your deposit in it.” As Riley watched, Cory opened the drawer and pulled from it a little leather-bound book. He wrote in it, and handed it to Riley. It was small enough to fit in his shirt pocket. Gold letters gleamed on its cover. “What do it say?” Riley asked, pointing to the letters.

“It says, ‘National Freedmen’s Savings and Trust.’ Inside, it has your name, and the record of the five dollars you brought us today.” Riley held the little book in his hand and looked at the gold lettering. Cory said, “Keep it safe, and don’t let anyone else take it.”

 Riley said, “Don’t want any imposters trying to get my money.”

 Cory said, “I see that Mr. Wimby explained that to you.”

 Riley nodded. He looked weary, as though banking were more exhausting than the railroad work he did for a living. He said, “Can’t promise to bring five dollar every time.”

“Bring us whatever you can. Every dime you save will help you in the future.”

He brightened at the thought of the future. He said, “Thank your Mr. Wimby for helping me.”

“I will, Mr. Riley. A good day to you!”

Iverson Riley opened the door and walked into the street with a pleased look and a light step, as befit a free man with a bank account.

What I'm Reading: The Underground River

I read many books that I enjoy, but it's only occasionally that I read something that I envy as a writer, thinking, "I wish I had written that." Martha Conway's novel, The Underground River, falls into that category.

Set in 1838, it's the story of a plain-speaking, awkward seamstress who falls in with a theatrical troupe that travels the Ohio River. After she's blackmailed into helping slaves flee northward to freedom, her feelings about slavery undergo a (river) change. There's a sweet love story, too.

It's rare to read an historical novel that pulls you into its time and place without a lot of "signalling," but this book does that with grace. And in a genre that is still haunted by the ghost of Harriet Beecher Stowe, it's even rarer to read a novel that handles the moral issue of slavery without moralizing.

History Behind the Story: The Washwomen of Atlanta

When Rachel, one of the heroines of Let Me Fly, first visits Atlanta, she stumbles into a Shermantown courtyard full of women who make a living by washing. This fiction is solidly based on historical fact. Aside from domestic service, the most common occupation for a black woman in post-Civil War Atlanta was that of laundry work.

Shermantown Harpers Weekly 1880.jpg

As late as 1880, this scene in Shermantown struck the artist who illustrated a Harper's Weekly article on Atlanta, and only a few years later, this photograph of a woman at the washtub (second from the top of the page) was taken in Augusta, Georgia.


Aretha Franklin, We'll Miss You

Every book I write has a soundtrack. My first novel, the book that taught me how to write a novel, was set in Detroit, and it was so evocative that my first readers asked me if I'd grown up there. Its soundtrack was Aretha's Gold.

I like to think that she'll be singing in Heaven, alongside her friends and colleagues in life, Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, who could also sing of earthly and heavenly love with equal power and equal joy. But it's a small consolation today.

Oh, Doctor Ree, as they called her in Detroit, how we'll miss you.

History Behind the Story: A Black Teacher in Georgia

Most of the women who taught at black schools in the Reconstruction South were Northerners. In Let Me Fly, the character of Frankie Williamson, who teaches in the Cass County school, is an Oberlin graduate from Ohio. She is based on the lives of four real women, free before the war, all of them Oberlin alumnae, who did just that. But Hettie Sabattie, a black woman born and raised in Georgia, who taught in Darien just after the Civil War, had an equally interesting background.

Hettie Sabattie was born in 1836 in Darien to free black parents: Mary Garey of Darien and Clemente Sabattie of San Domingo, scene of the Western hemisphere’s bloodiest slave uprising, who came to the United States in 1795. Her father moved the family to Savannah when she was a child and prospered there. By the 1850s, he owned property worth $500; he also owned four slaves, unusual in Savannah. Sabbatie may have received her education in a school run by Mary Woodhouse in Savannah in the 1850s, who--presaging Sabattie's own career--was a seamstress who doubled as a teacher.

After Sabattie’s father died in 1856, Sabattie found a white legal guardian, a Savannah attorney named John M. B. Lovell. For free persons of color, guardianship was a common safeguard against being sold back into slavery. During the Civil War, she supported herself as a dressmaker. While she never married, she had a child in 1862, whom she named Mary after her mother.

After the war, Sabattie returned to Darien and began to teach. In 1868, the Freedmen’s Bureau took an interest in her school and offered it some financial support. She remained in Darien to teach until 1869.

For a record of Sabattie's correspondence with the Freedmen’s Bureau, see Whittington B. Johnson, “A Black Teacher and her School: the Correspondence of Hettie Sabattie and J. Murray Hoag, 1868-1869,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 75, No. 1 (Spring 1991), pp. 90-105.


History Behind the Story: Julia Tillory

Julia Tillory is not a well-known historical figure, but her words are famous.

She was born in Lincoln County, Georgia in 1822, into a family splintered and scattered by slavery. Her father, Rex Lee Walker, "carried away" to Mississippi when she was twenty, and her mother Rosa died in Lincoln County, as did three of her siblings--her two brothers, David and John Oliver, as well as a sister, Angeline. Before the Civil War, a move usually meant a sale, which was likely the reason for her remove to Columbia County, along with her sisters Annis and Maria. There’s no record of her marriage to Jerry Tillory, but she later listed him as her husband in the census and at  the Freedmen’s Bank.

In the spring of 1866, she left Columbia County on foot for Atlanta. When she arrived, she sought out the Freedmen’s Bureau office to stand amidst a crowd of tattered, hungry, and footsore former slaves like herself. A Northern lady, sent south by the American Missionary Association to help the newly free, overwhelmed by the misery she saw, stopped to speak to her. She asked Tillory why she had left her master and her plantation for all the uncertainty and difficulty of life in Atlanta.

Julia Tillory’s answer still resounds. She answered, "To enjoy my freedom."

I'm indebted to historian Tera Hunter, both for the details and for the quotation.




Hidden Figures: Eleanor Creesy

I found Eleanor Creesy, who is hard to find, through a circumventous route. I picked up a biography that featured one of John Singer Sargent's best-known portraits, that of Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes. They were a power couple of New York's Gilded age; she was a muse to several artists and he was an amateur scholar.

But that isn't the story, not yet. Mr. Phelps' family had made their fortune in shipping, running clipper ships, among them a famous one, The Flying Cloud, which set the world’s sailing record for the fastest passage between New York and San Francisco in 1851.

But that isn't the story either. It's that the Flying Cloud was navigated by Eleanor Creesy, wife of its captain Josiah Creesy, a woman whose life had prepared her for the task.

She was born and raised in the early 19th century in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where her father, a master mariner, taught her navigation--despite the puzzlement of his neighbors. She dreamed of marrying a sea captain and sailing with him, and she held out until she met Josiah Creesy in 1841.

They had a decade of collaboration before they took on the challenge of the Flying Cloud and sailed the ship from New York to San Fransisco in a record-breaking 89 days. It was universally acknowledged that Eleanor's skill in navigation was essential to setting the record.

Sadly, I can't find any image of her, only of her husband. A hidden figure indeed.

Let Me Fly: Cover Reveal

I'm delighted to show off the cover of Let Me Fly, the sequel to Sister of Mine, which will be available in October of 2018.

Let Me Fly 003.jpg

Thanks go to Laura Klynstra, who designed the original cover for Sister of Mine, and the folks at EBookLaunch, who made it into something new that beautifully echoes the old.

The Face Behind the Character

Whenever I create a character, I like to have a face to inspire me. My forthcoming novel, Let Me Fly, includes a Jewish Freedmen's Bureau agent who has just mustered out as the Captain of a black regiment.

You can get an overview of the Freedmen's Bureau here, since it figures so much in the story, but today I want to share two real men whose faces inspired the character of Captain Lewis Hart. Links only, alas, since the pictures are copyrighted.

Captain Abraham Cohn, recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, who looks like a Jewish version of General Grant in this image.

Private Joseph A. Joel, best known as the writer of a letter about the travails of Passover in the Civil War field. Very dashing!

Free to Marry

For for black people just emerged from slavery, the freedom to get legally married was an essential part of their emancipation. Former slaves took full advantage of this freedom. Couples who had been married in fact, if not in law, hastily solemnized their unions after the Civil War, and couples marrying for the first time were proud to take on all the trappings of Victorian marriage.

In 1866, Harper's Weekly published an illustration of a marriage between a black soldier and his fiancee. Note the white dresses of the bride and her attendants and the bride's demure expression.

 Marriage of a colored soldier at Vicksburg by Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen's Bureau from Harper's Weekly, June 30, 1866. Public domain from the  Library of Congress .

Marriage of a colored soldier at Vicksburg by Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen's Bureau from Harper's Weekly, June 30, 1866. Public domain from the Library of Congress.

At Long Last...the Sequel to Sister of Mine is Coming!

It's been a while in the making, but my new book Let  Me Fly, the sequel to Sister of Mine, is due to publish in October of 2018. Much more to come as the book get closer to publication. here's a teaser...

Adelaide Kaltenbach and Rachel Mannheim, once mistress and slave, fought a war to be sisters. Now that the war is over, they discover that a new fight is just beginning.

Adelaide, married to a Georgia cotton planter, never dreamed that she would side with the Union or the Freedmen's Bureau. In Cass County, just after the Civil War, she's done both. Her school for the county's black children has earned her the warm appreciation of Captain Lewis Hart, Union War hero and Bureau agent, and the animosity of her Confederate neighbors and former friends.

Her half-sister Rachel, no longer Adelaide's slave, used to dream of being free. Free to marry. Free to make a living. Free to educate her daughter Eliza. But after emancipation, freedom remains elusive--and risky. When Rachel buys a hundred acres of cotton land in Cass County, with the help of the Bureau's dashing black lawyer Daniel Pereira, she becomes the target of the just-formed Ku Klux Klan.

As the newly free struggle to reconstruct their lives, will Adelaide find the resolve to stand for freedom? And will Rachel find the courage to follow her heart?