Miles at a Crossroads
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Editor's Note: PBS has partnered with Mercy Street's historical consultants to bring fans the Mercy Street Revealed blog. Audrey P. Davis is Director of the Alexandria Black History Museum in Alexandria, Virginia.
In this blog post, Davis dives deeper into the lives of enslaved children.
Spoiler Alert: This post discusses events in Episode 3: The Uniform.
“When I Became a Man, I Put Away Childish Things:” Miles at a Crossroads
Nine owners out of ten will insist upon it that their slaves are much attached to them and would not leave them unless enticed or forced away. My conviction is that this is a delusion. I have yet to see a slave of this kind.
— Endorsement by Colonel William Birney, 28 January 1864
In the third episode of Mercy Street, we are introduced to Miles, a young enslaved boy belonging to Dr. Foster’s mother. While not a main character, Miles’ visit to Mansion House Hospital forces him to confront a new reality, one that many African Americans must face in these ever-changing times.
Sam and Aurelia both see this naive boy, and they want him to realize that being in Alexandria brings opportunities. Miles is unaware that Mrs. Foster’s benevolence does not stem from affection. He sees himself as part of the family, yet he is considered more like a beloved pet, indulged but not free. It is time for him to become a man, and “put away childish things.”
Sam and Aurelia have different ways of urging Miles to pursue his freedom, and this is directly related to their own life experiences. Aurelia fervently encourages Miles to take his freedom quickly, because the war offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for liberation. She is a survivor, and survival is often messy. Sam is more reflective. He wants Miles to consider what his life will be like if he remains a slave.
For the enslaved child, there came a time in life when, despite being raised with the white children of their masters, they were eventually forced to accept their unequal roles. As slaves, they have no control over their destinies and their own bodies. Corporal punishment and sexual abuse were common forms of intimidation and control. Aurelia has been repeatedly raped at Mansion House Hospital, but one suspects that she has experienced similar abuse in the past. More will be discussed on this in future blog posts.
Enslaved children were especially powerless, their vulnerability making them targets for emotional as well as physical abuse. In Weevils in the Wheat, a book of interviews with Virginia ex-slaves, Robert Ellett recounts his experiences growing up in King William County. Young Robert says his family were “favored slaves....They was valued high.” He goes on to report,
I grew up with the young masters. I played with them, ate with them and sometimes slept with them. We were pals.
One day, his favored status changed, and he became acutely aware that he was a slave. The plantation owner took him into the barn, tied him up and whipped him, because Robert wouldn’t show his sons the deference he felt was their due.
...He beat me till the blood run down and I wouldn’t say a squeak. Not one word of promise did I give to call either of those two boys I was raised with, “master.”
This marked the end of young Robert’s childhood, as he understood that he was not the sons’ playmate, but in fact their property. Realizations like this were common for many enslaved children. One can foresee a similar ending for Miles’ relationship with Mrs. Foster as he becomes a man and outgrows his "pet" status.
During the 1930s, the Works Project Administration (WPA) sponsored a Federal Writers’ Project that conducted interviews with former slaves. Between 1836 and 1938, thousands of former slaves were interviewed. While sometimes controversial in their use of dialect, these narratives offer a fascinating glimpse into the life of America's enslaved. You can find these narratives in the written transcripts and recordings made by the WPA. Some of them are available online at:
Local history museums, historical societies, and libraries are invaluable places to uncover more of America’s slave history. Each community has its own story. By supporting these institutions, you support the work of local historians who are trying preserve an important part of the nation’s heritage.
— Audrey P. Davis
Audrey P. Davis is Director of the Alexandria Black History Museum in Alexandria, Virginia. Davis has worked in museums and historic sites including the Smithsonian Institution, Mount Vernon and Monticello. She is one of the founders and an Advisory Council member of Virginia Africana: The Network of Museum, History and Preservation Professionals. Read Bio