Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis

Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis

Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis

Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis


In Notes from a Colored Girl, Karsonya Wise Whitehead examines the life and experiences of Emilie Frances Davis, a freeborn twenty-one-year-old mulatto woman, through a close reading of three pocket diaries she kept from 1863 to 1865. Whitehead explores Davis's worldviews and politics, her perceptions of both public and private events, her personal relationships, and her place in Philadelphia's free black community in the nineteenth century.

Although Davis's daily entries are sparse, brief snapshots of her life, Whitehead interprets them in ways that situate Davis in historical and literary contexts that illuminate nineteenth-century black American women's experiences. Whitehead's contribution of edited text and original narrative fills a void in scholarly documentation of women who dwelled in spaces between white elites, black entrepreneurs, and urban dwellers of every race and class.

Notes from a Colored Girl is a unique offering to the fields of history and documentary editing as the book includes both a six-chapter historical reconstruction of Davis's life and a full, heavily annotated edition of her Civil War-era pocket diaries. Drawing on scholarly traditions from history, literature, feminist studies, and sociolinguistics, Whitehead investigates Davis's diary both as a complete literary artifact and in terms of her specific daily entries.

From a historical perspective, Whitehead re-creates the narrative of Davis's life for those three years and analyzes the black community where she lived and worked. From a literary perspective, Whitehead examines Davis's diary as a socially, racially, and gendered nonfiction text. From a feminist studies perspective, she examines Davis's agency and identity, grounded in theories elaborated by black feminist scholars. And, from linguistic and rhetorical perspectives, she studies Davis's discourse about her interpersonal relationships, her work, and external events in her life in an effort to understand how she used language to construct her social, racial, and gendered identities.

Since there are few primary sources written by black women during this time in history, Davis's diary--though ordinary in its content--is rendered extraordinary simply because it has survived to be included in this very small class of resources. Whitehead's extensive analysis illuminates the lives of many through the simple words of one.


The history of how the free and enslaved black communities were able to both survive and prosper within a slave society is both engaging and fraught with confusion, half-truths, and in some cases, unsubstantiated claims. Sifting through the history is particularly difficult for anyone who is attempting to understand how the social and political climatic shift that occurred in the nation on January 1, 1863, affected both of these communities. We now know that for a variety of reasons “freedom” for some did not actually mean freedom for all; and in both cases, there was not a clear definition of what freedom meant, how it could be negotiated, and how it translated into tangible rewards. Though there have been a number of books and articles that have attempted to answer these questions, many remain, and more research still needs to be done. Slavery and freedom are complicated terms that involve an understanding of how race, class, and gender were socially constructed in this country and how this social construction still continues to inform how these issues are viewed today.

This book cannot possibly answer all these questions and instead seeks only to tell the narrow story of one woman’s life through an intensive reading of her pocket diaries from 1863 to 1865. It is easy to overlook the life of Emilie F. Davis, a freeborn woman who worked as both a domestic and a modiste (a dressmaker), as her name is unknown; her contributions to history are undetermined; and outside of her pocket diaries the details of her life would not exist. What sets Emilie apart is that her pocket diaries are one of only a few primary sources written by a black woman during this time period. Her ordinary has been rendered extraordinary simply because it has survived; and therein lies the dilemma and, of course, the interest. Because of Emilie’s choice to keep a personal diary—her conscious act of identity assertion—she has moved from invisibility to visibility and been added to the literature on everyday, working-class free black American women. Since her handwriting is difficult to read and her story had to be reconstructed, I viewed her diaries as a code that needed to be broken so that I could discover who she was.

Code Breaking

My earliest experience with code breaking happened when I was eight years old and I stumbled upon my father’s fraternal ritual books. They were written in a . . .

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