When Clemson English professor and author Dr. Susanna Ashton first discovered the story of Charleston slave Samuel Williams, she didn’t know his real name.
She published Williams’ slave narrative in her book called I Belong to South Carolina: South Carolina Slave Narratives a decade ago, but it was by the pen name under which Williams wrote. After a newspaper article appeared on Ashton’s book, she received a letter from a descendant of Williams.
“The descendant said, ‘I’m so pleased to see that my ancestor’s book gets some attention. I thought only the family members knew about it. I’m so happy to have his story out in the world, but of course, you know his name isn’t Aleckson. His real name is Williams,'” Ashton recalled. “This letter was a revelation. It was shocking and delightful.”
Ashton said the pseudonym explains why she had difficulty finding Aleckson in her research. Only about 17 copies of his narrative exist in libraries worldwide. Before the War and After the Union was published in 1929.
“Now I have the real name it can unopen the key to the true story behind the memoir, behind this slave narrative,” she said.
Ashton is Chair of the Department of English at Clemson University. She and her students embarked on a mission to learn everything they could about Williams’ life.
“We looked into the real story about Samuel Williams and how he came about writing his life’s witness and about his experiences both terrible and beautiful,” she said.
Ashton compiled everything she uncovered into an interactive digital exhibit, Samuel Williams and His World: Before the War and After the Union. Click here to open.
She said Williams’ story had two distinct appeals: a narrative from an urban salve and his experience serving a white master while he was fighting in the Civil War.
“Not enough is known about the urban slavery experience,” she said.
When Williams was about 10 years old, his brother was sent to accompany their white master as he served in the Confederate Army. When William’s brother died of a camp fever, Williams was sent to replace him.
“He was enslaved as a child and forced to serve as a boy under a Confederate officer at Secessionville. . .there is a very rare account of the testimony of what it was like to be in those circumstances.”
Williams not only used a false name for himself in his book, he also created false names for the white people, Ashton said, to protect them.
“I have guesses about the names of the individuals but I don’t have firm knowledge,” Ashton said of who she suspected they were.
“I wanted this story to belong to Charleston,” she said. “I wanted this story to go out to the people fo South Carolina because it is all our history.”
“What I really wanted people to see in the exhibit was the excitement of how these dry-looking documents can tell a full, rich story,” she said. “He and his family were rented and sold and loaned out to different people, particularly during the Civil War years.”
As events separated the family, after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, they reunited and lived together in Charleston on Princess Street, “not far from where Brooks Brothers is now,” she said.
Piecing together census records, city directories and other civic documents, Ashton filled in the parts of Williams’ life that weren’t in his book.
“What it shows us is a family survived and came together and managed to reconstruct their family unit after the war and that’s just a moving, tremendous thing to see,” she said. “I remember almost bursting into tears when I saw that family had somehow gotten together again.”
“His family has survived,” she said. “It’s an incredible American story. He himself lived — we’re pretty confident he lived until 1946. I’ve been in touch with his descendants. . .He has descendants who are living the American dream.”
“He saw the rise of his family and his generations because of his courage and hard work and he captured that story in his memoir,” she said.
Ashton said telling the stories behind the names is her life’s passion so they aren’t erased to history. Those lives mean more than an entry in a city directory or a line in a census record.
“Every name matters,” she said. “To be able to recover some of those names, even one name of a child or one name of a family unit and to figure out what happened to them, that’s a way of reclaiming history in a positive way. . . In America, where there’s so much painful history, where we tried to erase identities of native people or enslaved people of the immigrant population. . .their testimony mattered.”