Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Black Slaves Built the White House

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Black Slaves Built the White House

Article excerpt

Byline: Charles Saatchi

THIS photograph (above left) was taken of a man known only as Gordon during his medical inspection to join the US Army. He wanted to fight for the North in the Civil War, and arrived at Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1863. He was in poor shape, and the swollen welts of severe flagellation were evidence of the mistreatment he had suffered at the hands of his Mississippi owners.

Gordon had been so terribly beaten by his masters that he decided to try his luck at escaping -- a risky business because slaves caught fleeing by the plantation teams of overseers were punished by death.

Gordon, "displaying unusual intelligence and energy" (Harper's Weekly, June 4 1863), managed to go undetected as he ran through the plantation, rubbing his body with onions to mask his scent from the bloodhounds.

His escape was beset with misfortune; he was captured and tortured en route by rebels who left him for dead.

When Gordon regained consciousness he was barely strong enough to make it to Baton Rouge, where he became the first black man to enlist in the Army, fighting for the emancipation of his fellow slaves.

Harper's Weekly published the image in June 1863 with the caption "A Typical Negro".

Gordon was transformed into a hero and his tale inspired many freed slaves in North America to enlist. His horrific photograph was reproduced and circulated all over the country, making it one of the earliest examples of photography used as propaganda.

Flagellation was not the worst punishment used on slaves; burning embers would be poured on them for what was deemed a serious offence.

As one of Virginia's slave codes stated: "If any slave resists his master ... correcting such a slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction ... the master shall be free of all punishment ... as if such accident never happened."

The story of Margaret Garner reinforces the history of African-Americans pre-Civil War. Margaret Garner was a slave who fled Kentucky for Ohio with other slave families.

She and her children were caught by slave catchers and Garner killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher's knife rather than see her return to a life of slavery. She was about to kill her three remaining children, and then herself, but was stopped when the officials burst in.

She was tried for murder in Ohio, a free state, and the core issue was whether she would be tried as a person, and charged with the murder of her daughter, or tried as property under Fugitive Slave Law. While deliberations continued she was returned to her master with her children.

Ohio officials gained a warrant to pardon Garner of the murder but were never able to track her down as her owner kept moving her between plantations.

On shipment to Arkansas, the boat hit a storm and a daughter drowned. …

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