Writing About the Slave Era, “The Unwritten History” Discusses Slavery, Emancipation, USCT & More

A USCT Reenactor at the dedication of the Charles Sumner GAR Post in Chestertown.

A USCT Reenactor at the dedication of the Charles Sumner GAR Post in Chestertown.

While attending an excellent event hosted by the Kent County Arts Council to mark the reopening of the Charles Sumner GAR Post # 25, we listened to an informative and engaging talk by Dr. Clara Small. The retired Salisbury University professor sketched out the history of the post, the United States Colored Troops in Maryland, and life before the modern-era Civil Rights movement. As we listened to her remarks, we thought about a little title from the days of slavery in Cecil County, the “Unwritten History” by Bishop Levi J. Coppin.

The Bishop was born in Fredericktown, Maryland thirteen years before the Civil War started. His mother, Jane Lilly, taught the youngster to read and write and at the age of 17 he began to study scriptures. After moving to Wilmington when he was 17, he joined the Bethel AME Church. In 1877, Levi became a minister, eventually becoming the 30th Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. During his life-time he also served as an editor, educator and missionary. Coppin University is named after his wife, Fanny Jackson Coppin. She was a noted educator.

The Bishop published his autobiography in 1919. “Intermingled with this ‘Unwritten History’ is the story of my life. . . Those who are fond of reading novels about men who never lived, and things that never did and never will happen, may enjoy a change to something that is historic and real,” the foreword notes. Of the nine chapters the first five concentrate on Cecil and Kent counties and his life here. The fifth chapter is entitled “Farewell to Cecilton.” He passed away in 1924.

This book is a helpful, seldom used local source for anyone studying the antebellum, Civil War and reconstruction eras on the Delmarva Peninsula. In the antebellum period many land owners in the lower part of the county relied on slave labor for harvesting crops and performing plantation work. This valuable title provides information on the families in the area, slavery, some insight on the Underground Railroad, the arrival of Union Troops in the town, news of Emancipation in lower Cecil, and life in general for African-Americans during the slavery era.

“Imagine the feeling of our people at the first sight of colored men in soldier’s uniform” the Bishop writes. “When the call was made, generally, many responded. When later on, a recruiting office opened in Cecilton by Lieutenant Brown, some of our boys who had joined the army were selected to come, now as soldiers, to their own home and induce others to enlist. Under shoulder arms, they would march through the little village, “as proud as Lucifer and without fear. While Lt. Brown and his men remained, many volunteered. Some slaves, whose masters still held them in bondage, came to the recruiting office, enlisted and placed themselves under the protection of the flag. When the colored soldier came, it left no doubt as to whether or not freedom had some.”

In another section he talks about news of the Emancipation Proclamation. “Father Jones was promptly on hand with Lincoln’s proclamation, but there was no one present with authority to say to the slave, “You are free, so all were in suspense . . . .”

Speaking of the Underground Railroad, he writes: “The talk of war, so absorbed the thought of the people, and controlled public sentiment that the colored people were no longer the sole objects of attention. The fact is no one was buying slaves, for it began to look like they would be set free. This put the Georgia Trader out of business. The slaves were not watched so closely. Some masters boldly said if their slaves ran away, they would not try to find them. Under this influence of this changing sentiment quite a number made their escape, some going no farther than Pennsylvania, but even more going to New Jersey. But many concluded to stand still and see the salvation of God. . . “

This digitized e-book will help local and family history researchers investigating this era. It is available on the Internet Archive.

Tablet of Contents, the Unwritten history by Bishop Levi J. Coppin

Tablet of Contents, the Unwritten history by Bishop Levi J. Coppin

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