Soundtrack: Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child
My mother’s yohrzeit is coming up—this year, it coincides with Mother’s Day—and instead of lighting a candle, I prefer to write in her memory.
On January 18, 1870, a young woman named Kate Bowie walked into the Freedmen’s Bank and Trust of Atlanta, Georgia, to set up a savings account. Despite its name, the Freedmen’s Bank wasn’t part of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which worked mightily to provide the former slaves with work, education, and justice under the law. But it shared part of the Bureau’s mission, which was to encourage industry and thrift in those newly free.
The Freedmen’s Banks, which were chartered between 1867 and 1871, had branches in every major city in the South, the largest being in Washington, D.C. Atlanta’s branch opened in 1870. It was staffed by a cashier—what we would call a branch manager today—and a clerk. Atlanta’s cashier was an ambitious white Northerner named Philip Davenport Cory, and his clerk was a native Georgian, a former slave named Lucius Wimby.
When a depositor opened an account, either Cory or Wimby took down their identifying information (you can tell who’s writing; Wimby had the clearer hand). Some of it was information that banks still collect: name, address, occupation, and employer. But at a time without universal identification, the Freedmen’s Bank employees also asked their depositors where they were born and where they grew up; if they were married, about their spouses and children; and about their parents and siblings. As a further means of confirming identity, they noted the depositor’s appearance, particularly skin color.
Philip Cory interviewed Kate Bowie, recording that she was twenty-seven years old, “light brown” in complexion, and that she lived on Gibson Street near Pecks Mill, a lumberyard that employed many black migrants in an Atlanta always under construction. Her husband Robert, early twice her age, was employed as a cobbler, and she herself, a rarity among black women in Reconstruction Atlanta, stayed “at home” rather than earning a living to supplement her husband’s. While her husband had a grown daughter by a previous marriage, the couple had no children together.
As Cory asked about her childhood and her parents, the sorrow began to emerge. Today, in professions where painful things come to light—in the offices of doctors, psychologists, and attorneys—a box of tissues is readily available. Did Cory and Wimby keep a stash of clean handkerchiefs before them, to offer to people overcome by their memories and their losses?
Kate Bowie was born in Georgia, three miles outside of Atlanta, but she went to Alabama at the age of fourteen, when she was sold. She lost not only her home, but her family. Five of her siblings were sold away from her: her brothers Andersen, Henry and Williard and her sisters Narcissa and Caroline. She was also torn from her mother, who was sold at the same time.
Her new master bought her at a sheriff’s sale. After he acquired her, he severed her last tie with her family. Her mother had named her Emeline, she told Philip Cory. Jack Jones renamed her.
The 19th century was full of motherless children. Abraham Lincoln became a motherless child at the age of nine. But black children like Kate Bowie suffered an orphanage unique to slavery. She had been carried away, and her family was sold away. At the age of fourteen, she became a motherless, nameless child, far, far from home.