Karsonya Wise Whitehead. Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis. Women's Diaries and Letters of the South Series. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2014. Illustrations. 280 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61117-352-9.
Reviewed by Karol K. Weaver (Susquehanna University)
Published on H-Pennsylvania (September, 2014)
Commissioned by Allen J. Dieterich-Ward (Shippensburg University)
In Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis, Karsonya Wise Whitehead provides readers with a transcription of and a history about the diaries of Emilie Frances Davis, a free woman of color who lived and worked in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Whitehead relates the fascinating way she went about reading and understanding Davis’s diaries. Readers of Whitehead’s volume will be pleased with the text; moreover, scholars will be inspired to pursue new research projects thanks to Whitehead’s excellent transcription, outstanding contextualization, and generous observations.
Davis’s pocket diaries present readers with the notes and musings of a free woman of color in Philadelphia at the height of the Civil War. Whitehead skillfully renders the words of Davis from 1863 through 1865, and explains how she worked as a “forensic herstorical investigator” in order to portray Davis accurately (p. 4). This work required the skills of a historian employing primary and secondary sources, a journalist tracking down leads, and an editor transcribing and annotating hundreds of pages. After introducing the goal of her text and her methodology, as well as providing brief histories of pocket diaries, Davis, and the free black community of Philadelphia, Whitehead separates the book into fully annotated transcriptions of the diary. Whitehead treats each year individually and follows each chapter-long transcription with historical information that clarifies, enriches, and enlarges Davis’s entries. As a result, readers can gain knowledge of Philadelphia’s free black community; its rich and varied religious, educational, civic, and philanthropic organizations; and its contributions to the Union army. Moreover, Whitehead explains the economic opportunities available to someone of Davis’s class, free status, and race; specifically, she describes Davis’s work as a dressmaker and a live-in domestic. Whitehead’s fine detective work and skillful writing rank this book as being on par with the excellent diaries transcribed by scholars like Karin Wulf and Susan Klepp.
Whitehead has generously supplied researchers with projects for years to come. First, she has made the diaries available to researchers. The diaries are replete with research topics: African American associations and clubs, the Civil War in Pennsylvania, black Pennsylvanians and the Civil War, and black religious and educational institutions. She has also identified other primary sources—friendship albums and photograph albums—that might enable scholars to write additional histories. Moreover, Whitehead includes a Who’s Who of the men and women mentioned in Davis’s diaries; these persons would serve as excellent subjects for individual biographies or other historical writing. Finally, Whitehead lists questions about Davis and her loved ones that still need to be investigated and studied: “What happened to Vincent and Nellie? What was the distressing news that her sister mentioned in the letter but Emilie never discussed in her diary? What happened to Alfred and Mary’s son Frank? What happened to Emilie in 1866? What happened to her father and sister? What was her life like with George? Was she happy? And even more important, are there any copies of Emilie Davis’s other diaries that are waiting to be discovered?” (p. 217).
Two organizational decisions undermine Whitehead’s otherwise excellent work. The first half of the book contextualizes Davis’s life in relation to larger national trends and in terms of the lives of men. Whitehead acknowledges her shift to women’s lives when she writes, “Similar to the work of black men who vigorously worked to expand the American ideology of social freedom, black women, in response to social realities, continued to find ways to be both politically involved and intimately connected with family and friends. They did so through … the creation of female-centered spaces in which public conversations could take place within private environments” (p. 104). Following transcription entries from 1864, chapter 5, “A World of Women,” finally turns to the subject of women. The decision to wait to discuss women’s lives until this point in the book weakens the text. Whitehead also chose to place a fascinating discussion of diaries, gender differences in diary writing, and diaries as feminine spaces rather late in the text. That discussion should have been placed toward the front of the book, where Whitehead introduces and considers her theoretical and methodological structure.
This book will appeal to a variety of scholars. Historians of Pennsylvania will find an excellent resource about the black experience in Philadelphia in the nineteenth century. Specialists in African American studies will find an excellent primary source and good historical discussion about the life of a nonelite free woman of color, her friends, and her neighborhood. Women’s studies scholars will be inspired by Whitehead’s noteworthy use of black feminist methodology. Finally, Civil War historians will have a primary source that will help them to get at the experience of Northern free persons of color and their contributions and reactions to the events of the time.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-pennsylvania.
Karol K. Weaver. Review of Whitehead, Karsonya Wise, Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis.
H-Pennsylvania, H-Net Reviews.
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