History Behind the Story: Julia Tillory

Julia Tillory is not a 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.