Focus: Black History Month

Not much is known about Washington Hall, the African American slave author of three 1836 letters to his wife, Jemima Hall. Hall's owner was Levi F. Hall, a large landowner near Florida, Missouri, who had ten slaves in 1840 and probably produced cash crops like hemp and tobacco. When Levi Hall died in 1841, his son took over the farm and continued to own slaves. Whether Washington Hall was among them is not known.

The outlines of Jemima Hall's life are clearer. Born in Virginia, she was about twelve years old in 1822 when she was purchased for $300 by the Davidson family and given as a wedding present to Mary Davidson Rodgers. That same year, Jemima moved with Mary and her husband, Aleri Rodgers, to Missouri, where she eventually married Washington Hall. Jemima likely was given her freedom in 1836, when she accompanied the Rodgers family to their new home in Warren County, Illinois. She lived with them until her death in 1875.

Washington Hall's correspondence and that of his master make plain the cruel realities of human bondage. In his poignant and affectionate letters to Jemima written soon after her departure for Illinois, Washington was unable to do more than plead with her to come back to him and urge her not to let her former owners persuade her to stay with them. Levi Hall's stern letter spells out the ground rules for Jemima's return to Washington. He informed her that, on condition of "correct deportment," he would "make you and Washington as happy as circumstances will admit, but not to free him, nor do I think your freedom will much better your condition." If Jemima were to rejoin her husband, it seems she had to agree to be free in name only. She went on without him.

Correspondence from African American slaves is quite rare, and letters addressed to family members especially so. Writing was not a common form of expression among this mostly illiterate population. When it does survive, it provides an immediate, direct, and tantalizing glimpse into the lives, thoughts, and feelings of the enslaved. In addition to their almost overwhelming emotional content, the Hall letters offer clues about friendships, slave-master relationships, literacy, and religious belief that are difficult to tease out from other sources.

This essay was written by Lloyd Lewis Curator of Modern Manuscripts Martha Briggs for our recently published book, The Newberry 125, Stories of Our Collection.