Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Slave Before and a Soldier After

In a speech on July 6, 1863, in Philadelphia, Frederick Douglass said "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters US, let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States."

That very thing is what many people, both North and South, feared with African Americans serving as soldiers. Those that opposed black enlistments saw their service as a slippery slope. Opposition thinking went along these lines: if black men were allowed to be soldiers, then they were men and worthy of citizenship. If they were citizens then they were political and social equals to whites. If they were political and social equals to whites then they could vote and serve on court juries and run for political office. If they could vote, serve on court juries and run for political office they they could potentially change the status quo of white supremacy.

The transformation from slave to soldier is no better illustrated than in two photos of Private Hubbard Pryor of Company A, 44th United States Colored Infantry. As a slave Pryor is shown in the above image with ill-fitting, torn and ragged clothing, misshapen hat and in a seated position. It is not known if the photographer had Pryor sit rather than stand for the slave image of the photograph for a specific reason, but sitting, rather than standing, infers a powerlessness.

Conversely, Pryor is depicted in the soldier image standing (as a man) in a well fitting soldier's frock coat, forage cap, soldiers' accouterments and rifle musket.

Pryor's service records state he was 22 years old, 5' 7" tall, born in Polk County, Georgia, and enlisted on March 7, 1864 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. However, Pryor's Union service appeared to be short-lived, as he was captured at Dalton, Georgia in October 1864. Pryor was probably either sent to a prisoner of war camp, or more likely he was returned to slavery. Regardless of his fate, Pryor's transformation from slave to soldier is striking and is a significant reason so many former slaves took the risk of serving.

Images courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

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