McLib's Evening Upstairs Presents Alicestyne Turley: African Americans' Role in the Civil War
The McCracken County Public Library celebrates Black History Month with its next Evenings Upstairs presentation led by Dr. Alicestyne Turley in partnership with Kentucky Humanities. Austin Carter speaks to Turley ahead of her presentation.
'"African Americans in the Civil War" will discuss the important role of Black Kentuckians in prosecuting the American Civil War. The actions taken by the United States Colored Troops and, on their behalf, established new citizenship rights, norms, and opportunities for all Americans.
Dr. Alicestyne Turley is a historian and educator. She has been a faculty member at the University of Louisville and Berea College. Dr. Turley is the former Director of Freedom Stories, Unearthing the Black Heritage of Appalachia, an NEH Project of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, a member of the Kentucky Historical Society Governing Board, and author of the newly released book, Gospel of Freedom, Black Evangelicals and the Underground Railroad, published by University Press of Kentucky."
Turley begins the discussion by citing misconceptions she found when researching Black soldiers' role in the Civil War. "When I was in grad school, I was taught that African Americans in the Civil War fulfilled primarily fatigue duty. Their roles were confined to digging trenches, building fortification—they had not really been engaged in any major battles."
"That was the biggest find for me—to see how involved the U.S. Colored Troops were in many major battles. Especially after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, but even before that, there were volunteer units of the U.S. Colored Troops in Kansas and Massachusetts who were engaged with fighting."
Turley plans on highlighting several Black Kentuckians who played vital roles during the Civil War, including Uncle Tom, "or Josiah Henson, officially known by many as Uncle Tom as part of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin," Turley explains. "He was a military recruiter in Canada and the U.S. after he escaped slavery in Kentucky."
"You also had Lewis Hayden. He was an escaped slave from Lexington who was very active in Boston, helping to recruit for the Massachusetts 54th but also for African American troops in general. Hayden was one of the first people who helped organize a volunteer unit in Boston, which was the precursor to the Massachusetts 54th."
In addition to highlighting specific individuals, Turley will discuss the prevalence of Black soldiers in U.S. conflicts dating back to the Revolutionary War. "There has never been a war in American history, from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam, that African American troops have not fought. The distinction in the Civil War is that it was the first time they were officially recognized as soldiers."
"Prior to that, they would have just been conscripts or maybe unrecognized at all," Turley continues. "But it was the Civil War where they were actually paid; they could wear the uniform, have the insignias, all the trappings of a soldier. For me, that's the significance of the Civil War. But I don't want to diminish the fact that we have heroes that were part of the Revolutionary War as well."
Turley will also discuss Kentucky's role as a border state during the Civil War. She explains that escaped slaves used Kentucky as a crossroads to get to Ohio, New York, Indiana, and as far northeast as Massachusetts. "There's a great deal of work that needs to be done in these other border states—Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois—where African Americans from Kentucky actually fled to federal lines in order to fight. There have only been a few of those names that have been captured because they mainly extinguished themselves in battle."
Dr. Alicestyne Turley will present "African Americans in the Civil War" as part of the McCracken County Public Library's Evenings Upstairs Series on Thursday, February 9th, at 5:30 pm in the 2nd-floor meeting room. This program is free and open to the public.
For more information, visit the McCracken County Public Library's website.