In 1843, William Henry Singleton enters the world a slave.
His father is a white man, William Singleton of New Bern — the second largest city in North Carolina with nearly 5,000 residents, including a large free black population. His mother is a black slave named Lettice Nelson — her surname taken from the family that owns her.
Singleton’s master is John Handcock Nelson — a proud and haughty man, with whom the stubborn boy will engage in a battle of wills lasting for years.
The limits of Singleton’s life are the boundaries of a 1,390-acre plantation in Craven County, on the Neuse River north of Beaufort. There he spends his first four years, with the other infants and toddlers, in the care of an elderly black woman at the central house. His mother chops cotton, digs potatoes, and harvests the cornfields along with more than a hundred fellow slaves.
Although Singleton is light skinned, his world is, quite literally, black-and-white.
“And because I was black it was believed I had no soul,” he writes later in his memoir (a small miracle because throughout his childhood he is denied schooling). “For in the eyes of the law I was but a thing.”
As a thing, he can be sold. And when he is 4 years old, a man shows up, offers him a stick of candy, and then simply takes him south to Atlanta. His new owner, a widow, operates an entrepreneurial “slave farm” — buying child slaves, training them, and selling them for a profit.
Singleton sleeps “on the dirt floor by the fireplace in the house like a little dog.” He is too young to work in the fields, so he is employed to run errands. After one whipping too many for dawdling, he determines to run away home to his mother.
Fortunately, the first person he encounters on the streets of Atlanta, an elderly black gentleman, sets him on the road to New Bern. He admonishes Singleton, “But don’t tell anybody your name.”
The boy is clever and daring. When he spies a white woman holding a carpetbag, he politely takes the bag from her and carries it to the stagecoach. The driver assumes he is the woman’s servant, so he lets Singleton board. In this manner he makes it as far as Wilmington, the lady’s destination. She has figured out he is a runaway, but she doesn’t divulge his secret.
Singleton walks most of the 95 miles to New Bern, catching an occasional ride on a farmer’s wagon. Then he hikes 40 miles farther on dirt tracks to the Nelson plantation. He knocks on the first cabin door he comes to.
The woman who answers says, “What do you want, little boy?”
Singleton announces, “I am looking for my mother.”
Neither recognizes the other, until Singleton’s older brother Hardy appears and pronounces, “Mamma, that’s Henry.”
But the woman is not convinced. How could a 7-year-old boy make it home from so far away? But she finally identifies him by a burn scar on the back of his neck, made by her own glowing pipe when Singleton was an infant.
Singleton has hardly begun to recount the tale of his journey when the slave patrol is reported coming up the line. His mother hustles him underneath the board floor into a kind of potato cellar. The cellar becomes his hiding place for three years.
Sold into slavery, again
All that time, his mother feeds him secretly, and Singleton keeps watch through the cracks in the boards under the house. One Sunday, while she is away at a camp meeting, he spies an incredible sight: fresh biscuits cooling on the fence rail outside. This is an old trick to lure out hungry runaways in hiding, but Singleton is far too young to comprehend such deviousness. At once, a horn sounds, and the slave catchers grab him.
This time he is sold for $500 to a man in a neighboring county.
But left to gather his belongings for the trip, Singleton runs away again and hides out in the thick woods. For the next few weeks, he lies low during daylight and sneaks back home to his cellar hideaway at night. At last John Nelson tells his mother that if Singleton will agree to work on the farm, he won’t be sold again.
Singleton comes out of hiding, only to be sold a third time — for a mere $50 to a poor, white, farm woman. At least she treats him kindly, but she, too, soon sells him. Singleton refuses once again to “stay sold.” He escapes his new owner and hides out in the last place anyone would look for him: the town of New Bern itself. There he hires out as a bellboy at the Gaston House Hotel. When asked his name, he says he doesn’t know.
“They called me the ‘Don’t know’ boy,” he writes later, recalling his three years of grace from plantation slavery. He is paid $3 per week — a small fortune for a boy who has never owned even the clothes on his back. But at last his secret is discovered, and he flees back to his mother. By now he is 13, old enough to do a man’s labor.
At his mother’s insistence, he gives himself up to Nelson. “He was a tall, raw-boned, black faced man, quite old then, too old to go to war when the war came. He said, ‘All right, go out to the barn and go to work and it will be all right.’”
Singleton learns to plow behind a mule and takes his place in the fields. His master whips him regularly with a harness strap for any small infraction. Once, Nelson’s son, Edward, accuses Singleton of opening one of his schoolbooks, and Singleton suffers a severe whipping. Singleton recalls, “If you looked cross at them, they would whip you.”
But Nelson’s wife, Eliza, is troubled by her position as a slave owner and often speaks of a coming day when black and white will live in equality.
In 1860, Eliza Nelson falls gravely ill. She summons some of the family’s slaves to her bedside and exhorts them, “Be good and do your work and the time will come when you will all be free.” Shortly afterward, she dies. More than 75 slaves trail her casket to the cemetery, mourning her as a friend. Within eight weeks, John Nelson remarries, and the new mistress is no friend of the slaves.
“It was about this time, too, that we first heard of a man named Lincoln,” Singleton writes. “They said he was a bad man and that he had horns. Another man we heard about was John Brown and the underground railroad. Of course we did not understand what the underground railroad was. We thought it was some sort of a road under the ground.”
John Nelson is deeply religious and preaches at the local Adams Creek Methodist Church — attended by both the whites and their slaves, who sit in the back. On this particular day, the presiding elder invites a slave named Ennis Delmar to ascend the pulpit and offer a prayer for the congregation. Delmar prays, “Send the time when Ethiopia should stretch forth her arm like an army with banners.”
Nelson is outraged that a black man has been called on to pray publicly with whites. After the service, he accosts Delmar and demands to know the meaning of his prayer.
Delmar has no reply (he can neither read nor write); he was only repeating what he had learned by rote. Nelson has him whipped on the spot.
The elder protests: Why shouldn’t any Christian man, white or black, pray in church?
Nelson banishes the elder from the congregation; from now on, he will do all the preaching at this church.
Secession is coming, and with it war. Nelson’s nephew, Samuel Hyman, enlists in the 1st North Carolina Cavalry, and Singleton volunteers to accompany him as his manservant. Singleton is already keen to learn the ways of a soldier, for he has visions of fighting for his freedom. He becomes so adept at soldiering that he is often called upon to drill the Confederate company in his master’s stead.
When the U.S. Army captures New Bern and drives on Kinston, Singleton runs away in the confusion and reaches the Union lines — joining 10,000 other escaped slaves. He acts as a guide for the troops moving on Wyse Forks, outside Kinston, and his horse is shot out from under him.
He tells his superior, Colonel Leggett, that he will not fight anymore unless he is armed.
Leggett tells him, “We never will take niggers in the army to fight. The war will be over before your people ever get in.”
But the colonel underestimates Singleton’s determination.
“The war will not be over until I have had a chance to spill my blood,” he retorts.
He takes his pay, $5, and proceeds to the A.M.E. Zion Church at New Bern and sets up a recruiting station.
“I secured the thousand men and they appointed me as their colonel and I drilled them with cornstalks for guns,” Singleton writes. “We drilled once a week. I supported myself by whatever I could get to do and my men did likewise.”
Singleton has grown into a handsome, formidable man, strong and outspoken. He stands just 5 feet 6 inches tall but he is tough, and he holds himself with a soldier’s erect bearing, looking out on the world through steady, deep-set, gray eyes.
Time and again, Singleton implores Gen. Ambrose Burnside, in command of the New Bern district, to allow his men to fight. Burnside has no authority to raise colored troops, he explains. But working at headquarters one day, Singleton has one of the most memorable encounters of his life. The adjutant indicates a man conferring with Burnside in the next room. “Do you know that man in there?”
“No,” Singleton replies.
“That is our President, Mr. Lincoln.”
When the president and Burnside emerge, the general points at Singleton and says, “This is the little fellow who got up a colored regiment.”
Lincoln shakes Singleton’s hand. “It is a good thing. What do you want?”
“I have a thousand men,” Singleton answers. “We want to help fight to free our race. We want to know if you will take us in the service?”
“You have got good pluck,” Lincoln says. “But I can’t take you now because you are contraband of war and not American citizens yet. But hold on to your society and there may be a chance for you.”
It’s the first and last time Singleton will ever lay eyes on the “tall, dark complexioned, raw boned man, with a pleasant face.”
Singleton bides his time. In January 1863, news of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation raises hope that he and his brothers in arms will be taken into the U.S. Army at once. But months pass, and still they wait.
At last, on May 28, 1863, the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers (later the 35th United States Colored Troops) is officially formed at New Bern under the command of Col. James C. Beecher, half-brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Singleton is enlisted as First Sergeant of Company G. The regiment drills briefly and then sets off to Kenansville on a raid meant to season the troops. They burn a saber factory, rescue two prisoners from the courthouse, and sweep through Warsaw before returning to their camp in high spirits, unscathed.
Before long, they march south to Charleston. During the next two years, Singleton fights battles in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, where he is wounded in the right leg at the Battle of Olustee, one of 1,800 Union casualties. After the battle, Brig. Gen. Truman Seymour, the ranking U.S. commander on the field, praises his regiment: “The colored troops behaved creditably … the 54th and the 1st North Carolina like veterans.”
In the Army, Singleton learns the letters of the alphabet and how to spell simple words. Mustered out in Charleston in 1866, he buys a secondhand primer, travels north, and settles in New Haven, Connecticut. There he joins the African Methodist Episcopal Church and learns at last to read properly.
Singleton notes with pride, “And in those days since I was whipped simply because it was thought I had opened a book. I have seen the books of the world opened to my race.”
In 1938, half-blind and with an ailing heart, Singleton attends the 72nd national encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic in Des Moines, Iowa. Stubborn to the last, the 95-year-old veteran parades for 15 blocks in blistering heat. Hours later, he collapses with a fatal heart attack. He dies a free man, wearing the uniform he earned.
Recollections of My Slavery Days by William Henry Singleton (1922), with introduction and annotations by Katherine Mellen Charron and David S. Cecelski, Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. 1999; Freedom for Themselves: North Carolina’s Black Soldiers in the Civil War Era by Richard M. Reid, UNC Press, 2008; Slave Narrative of Tempe Herndon Durham, 1937, from the Museum of the African Diaspora; U.S. Census for 1860, Craven County, N.C.; Just Learning To Be Men: A History of the 35th United States Colored Troops,1863-1866, by Shana Renee Hutchins, M.A. in History thesis, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C., 1999.