There once was a man named Sampson Moore. He was an enslaved African American. He gained freedom after the Confederates, who wanted to keep him a slave, were defeated during the Civil War. He lived through Reconstruction and Jim Crow. He was a farmer who lived in what is now Staunton, Va. He was also my great-great-great grandfather.
The facts that we do know about Sampson’s life tell us the uncomfortable facts and truths of American history that often get unmentioned to our children while they are in schools. Which is why we must push for civic and history education that is as honest in tackling the bad and ugly of our nation’s past as it is in celebrating the parts that are good.
As with so many former slaves, there’s a lot about Sampson we will never know about. He died 16 years before the Federal Writers’ Project embarked on its massive collection of first-hand accounts about life in bondage from once-enslaved Black people.
His death certificate states that he was born sometime in 1840. But Census records also record him giving different ages, meaning that he could have been born in 1830 or even 1835. Given that slaves weren’t even considered human, and therefore, unworthy of a proper recording of their birthdays, we will never know when he was truly born.
If Sampson’s life before the Civil War was like that of the surviving former enslaved Black people who recounted their lives for the Federal Writers Project, it was especially brutal. Chances are that he grew up with little to no clothes (and definitely no shoes) because slaveowners were always looking to reduce the costs of keeping the people they enshackled.
Besides the brutality of the slavemaster, Sampson also likely saw death all around. Particularly in places such as Augusta County, a gateway into Appalachia, slavemasters saved more money (and kept their often lower-than-national average production of corn and other crops for themselves and horses) by ensuring that enslaved Black children were malnourished, often on diets consisting of just a mush of cornmeal and buttermilk. As a result of the undernourishment, 60 percent of enslaved Black children in the nine Southern States in Appalachia died before age 10, according to Wilma Dunaway of Virginia Tech, one of the leading researchers on American slavery. This was higher than even the one-in-two chance of survival for slaves nationally.
Put bluntly: Sampson was a survivor. Probably even outlived his brothers and sisters.
Sampson Moore lived on what is now Arborhill Road in a section of what was unincorporated Augusta County called Beverley Manor. The land is now occupied by several farms, including one called Berry Moore. He could not read or write in 1880, according to the Census taken that year. But he managed to learn how to read by 1910, the second-to-last Census he participated in before he left this earth. Sampson owned his own land, one of the few Black men to do so. That probably made him very happy.
He was married to a woman named Elizabeth, who he also called Lizzie, who was also born in bondage. They first appear as a married couple in 1865, but may have actually been a couple earlier than that. This is because slaveowners often sent over enslaved Black men to other farmers in order to mate with Black women in order to birth more Black children for enslaving. Given her possible year of birth (1835), Elizabeth may have been the 15-year-old girl listed by the Census Bureau in 1850 as one of the enslaved of Archer Moore.
Elizabeth was unusual. She knew her mother and father, Morris and Lucy (also named Moore) and got to see them for years after the end of bondage. In 1880, they lived next door to her and Sampson, along with their children (including Samuel, my great-great grandfather). Sadly, Morris and Lucy died three years later. But they at least got a chance to experience freedom — and Elizabeth got to see her parents out of bondage.
Sampson wasn’t so lucky — and the same was true for so many other formerly enslaved Black people like him.
Because slavery was a financial enterprise that extended beyond merely owning the lives and liberties of Black people. As Dunaway details in books such as The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation, slaveowners in states such as Virginia and Maryland often sold and rented out enslaved Black people to other slaveowners in cotton-planting states such as Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. The slaveowners counted on such revenues, often garnered during spring planting and fall harvesting seasons, to offset the cyclical nature of farming, especially tobacco (whose prices were in decline for most of the 19th century).
Particularly for slave owners working smaller parcels of land in parts of Virginia such as Staunton and Augusta County that are the gateways into Appalachia, selling slaves was more-profitable than working the fields. Dunaway estimates that at least 100,000 enslaved Black people from places such as Augusta County were sold away and left the Appalachian South between 1840 and 1860 alone. This included teenage boys and girls being removed from their families before they turned 15. Two out of every five enslaved Black children were permanently removed from their homes and sold to slaveowners in the Deep South, according to Dunaway.
As they pursued profit, these slaveowners broke up Black families. Broke apart bonds of love between Black men and women formed despite slavemasters having whipped them, raped them, and exploited them economically. Took children from the arms and love of their mothers formed despite the fact that their mothers often never got to wean their own children because they were breastfeeding the children of slave owners. Removed children from fathers who cared for them despite the degradation of oppression.
Three years into Reconstruction in January of 1868, Sampson mentioned his plight to an employee of the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, known to us today as the Freedmen’s Bureau. He told the a worker at the Staunton office looking at his case that mentioned that his father died before the end of the war and his mother had been “sold away South”. Sampson also mentioned a son named Andrew, who was 11 years old at the time of the recollection.
It is hard to know what happened to Andrew. But there are no mentions of a boy aged three or younger on Archer Moore’s slave schedule for 1860, and he doesn’t appear on the 1870 Census, the first in which Sampson and his family were no longer enslaved. There is a chance that Andrew may have been with Sampson for a short time, then died before he reached adulthood.
Sampson was one of many formerly enslaved Black men and women who had found themselves seeking help from the Freedmen’s Bureau. Sometimes it was about being owned wages for work done for former slave masters. Other times, it was about disputes they had with White men under which they apprenticed. In many cases, the Freedmen’s Bureau offices set up the very first schools Black children ever attended, settled disputes, even interceded on their behalf in court cases.
White former slaveowners who worked slowly and successfully to bring about Jim Crow hated the presence of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the expansive role the federal government was playing in Southern States. But for Black people like Sampson, as well as for people such as Hiram Revels (the first Black man ever to serve in the United States Senate), the Freedmen’s Bureau was the one tool they needed to ensure that they had a chance to at least have their civil rights and liberties defended and respected.
Reconstruction would end with the emergence of Jim Crow with its brutal segregation and oppression of Black people. Despite this, Sampson would manage to raise 10 children, and see many of them, including my great-grandfather, Samuel, make it into adulthood. Samuel, in turn, would watch his daughter, Florine, leave the South as part of the Great Migration and settle in New York’s Nassau County, where she and her husband, Henry Stone, would raise my grandmother, the first person in our family to go to college. The story carries on today as my family and I live the life Sampson never had the chance to have, and fulfill the dreams he would never have a chance to see.
Certainly that is all well and good. But there is no way that the realities of Sampson’s life in bondage and oppression, along with those of other formerly enslaved Black people should be obscured with talk of happy endings. Especially since Black people of today, along with other minorities, are still fighting for their liberties and for their children to gain the high-quality education they need and deserve.
If anything, what we need now, more than ever in this time, is an honest discussion of how America’s legacy of slavery, segregation, and oppression continue to shape our politics and society. That begins with providing all children with honest, unflinching knowledge about what people like Sampson went through, from slavery to Reconstruction to Jim Crow.
As your editor pointed out in last month’s essay on Confederate statues, much effort has been dedicated, both by generations of segregationists as well as by academics embracing the Lost Cause narrative of the Civil War, to render the lives of enslaved Black people and their descendants invisible, and to forget that their talents and other contributions were to the overwhelming benefit of generations of White people. American public education has been complicit in this erasing of reality, especially through classroom instruction, (as well as curricula and standards, that have wrongly taught generations of children that the Civil War was merely a battle between two equally noble sides, and sidestepped, even minimized, the true brutality of slavery.
The consequences of this failure to fully educate children can now be seen everywhere, including a White House occupied by a historical illiterate embracing the kind of White Supremacy that would have been respectable in the 19th century. Even respectable discourse about matters such as reforming schools are clouded by the inability of some to fully understand why it is critical to transform systems that are living legacies of deliberate decisions by past generations of White people to deny liberty and freedom to enslaved and oppressed Black people.
This is where a strong, comprehensive civics education comes in. When all children are taught the full and honest facts about American history, they can deal thoughtfully with the issues facing the nation today.
The good news is that we now have opportunities to correct that failure to provide children with proper civic and historical education. Common Core’s reading standards allow for teachers to use original texts (including documents from Freedmen’s Bureau offices) as well as more-accurate books on the history of slavery. Thanks to sites such as Family Search and Ancestry.com, as well as other resources such as the Library of Congress (which houses the Federal Writers Project’s former slave recollections effort) teachers and even families can get their hands on these sources.
Another step lies in improving how we train teachers, especially those specializing in history, civics, and social studies. This is where organizations such as Teach for America, as well as university schools of education, come in. It is high time that those men and women who teach our children are fully knowledgeable about how America as much perpetuated denial of civil rights as it tried to fulfill the promise of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness espoused by the Founding Fathers.
Our children deserve a more-honest history. The Sampson Moores deserve to have their struggles and roles in American life acknowledged. Now is the opportunity to do both.