When Glory came out in 1989, movie audiences were excited to see a relatively unknown side of the Civil War that highlighted the sacrifices of the Massachusetts 54th, a “colored” volunteer regiment. Gripping as the story that unfolded on the screen was, there was much more to it, of course. In real life, other people’s stories became part of the regiment’s history as the Civil War gripped the nation.
John Mercer Langston, along with Frederick Douglass, acted as a recruiter for the 54th. As an abolitionist and orator, he was an excellent choice, and this task was just one of Langston’s civic accomplishments. Although he had spent most of his life in a free state, John was familiar with plantation life. His father had been a white plantation owner in Louisa County, Virginia—not far from Spotsylvania. His mother had been his father’s slave. But his parents’ story was not a common one for the era. His father freed his mother, and, although they were not allowed to marry for legal reasons, they lived together as man and wife for the rest of their days, their children considered to be freeborn.
Fiction authors sometimes begin historical narratives by announcing the discovery of a long-forgotten strong box in a dusty attic containing purportedly true accounts of times passed handily preserved for the modern reader’s enjoyment. T.O. Madden, Jr.'s We Were Always Free starts with just such a scenario, but unlike historical fiction, this is no ploy. The history unearthed is real and traces back to colonial Virginia when Mary Madden, an Irish woman, gave birth to a child of mixed race on August 4, 1758 in Spotsylvania County.
Because of the laws of the time, just as the mother was free so would Mary’s child, Sarah, be considered free, as would all of Sarah’s descendents. Mary and her newborn were first tended at the Collins farm in Spotsylvania, and the church vestry paid the Collins for their year of upkeep with 600 pounds of tobacco taken in tithes from the parishioners. In 1759, still being paupers, Mary was sent along with her baby, to the local workhouse where the poor labored to support themselves.
From The Journal of Negro History, Volume 1, January 1916
The following is excerpted from The Journal of Negro History, Volume 1, January 1916, pp. 30-36, which is available online at Manybooks.net.
She was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, October 1, 1841. As her people left that State when she was quite young she did not see so much of the intolerable conditions as did the older members of the family. Miss Richards was successful in getting an early start in education. Desiring to have better training than what was then given to persons of color in Detroit, she went to Toronto. There she studied English, history, drawing and needlework. In later years she attended the Teachers Training School in Detroit. Her first thought was to take up teaching that she might do something to elevate her people. She, therefore, opened a private school in 1863, doing a higher grade of work than that then undertaken in the public schools. About 1862, however, a colored public school had been opened by a white man named Whitbeck. Miss Richards began to think that she should have such a school herself.