“It was death to go back and it was death to stay there and freedom was before me;
it could only be death to go forward if I was caught and freedom if I escaped.”

—Wallace Turnage

Slave narratives are extremely rare. Of the one hundred or so of these testimonies that survive, a mere handful are first-person accounts by slaves who ran away and freed themselves. Now two newly uncovered narratives, and the biographies of the men who wrote them, join that exclusive group with the publication of A Slave No More, a major new addition to the canon of American history.

Wallace Turnage was a teenage field hand on an Alabama plantation, John Washington an urban slave in Virginia. They never met. But both men saw opportunity in the chaos of the Civil War, both escaped North, and both left us remarkable accounts of their flights to freedom. Handed down through family and friends—Turnage’s daughter carefully preserved her father’s handwritten manuscript during a lifetime of passing for white—these narratives tell gripping stories of escape.

But this book marks more than just the discovery of two new emancipation stories. It is also the discovery of two lives. Working from an unusual abundance of genealogical material, historian David W. Blight has reconstructed Turnage’s and Washington’s childhoods as sons of white slaveholders, their service as cooks and camp hands during the Civil War, and their climb to black working-class stability in the North, where they reunited their families.

In the lives and narratives of Turnage and Washington, we find a revelatory new answer to the question of how four million people moved from slavery to freedom. In A Slave No More, the untold stories of two ordinary men take their place at the heart of the American experience.

Wallace Turnage
Courtesy of the William E. Finch, Jr., Archives, Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich, Connecticut

Wallace Turnage (1846–1916) was born in Snow Hill, North Carolina, and spent his adult life in New York City and Jersey City, New Jersey

John Washington
The Alice Jackson Stuart Family Trust

John Washington (1838–1918), born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, worked as a house and sign painter in Washington, D.C., after his escape. He retired to Cohasset, Massachusetts.

David W. Blight
Pamela Leo

David W. Blight is the director of Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and a professor of American history. Among his books is Race and Reunion, which won the Frederick Douglass Prize, the Lincoln Prize, and the Bancroft Prize. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

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