Scholarly Editing

The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing

2013, Volume 34

"Will not these days be by thy poets sung": Poems of the Anglo-African and National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1863–1864

Edited by Elizabeth Lorang and R. J. Weir
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Complete Issue: The Anglo-African (19 September 1863)
William Slade, "The Slave to His Star" The Anglo-African (19 September 1863): [1]View Poem Image
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FOR THE ANGLO-AFRICAN.

THE SLAVE TO HIS STAR.

           
Bright star, of all stars beloved,[2] To thee I turned from dreams erewhile; Far up in God's free heaven unmoved, I saw by night thy ceaseless smile, Lighting a path of hope afar, Freedom's high watchfire for the free— Steadfast and solitary star, I felt that fire was lit for me!
I gaze upon thy Northern light, That never fails, and falters never, But hang far over day and night, From Heaven's wall shine down forever; I seem to hear a voice of God Speak through the silence down to me, "Thy feet are strong, thy way is broad, The star shall be my path for thee."
Hiding in darkling caves by day, With toiling footsteps through the night, To me came down thy guardian ray, A burning lamp, a shining light! The Red Sea of my pilgrim road, Whose parted waves hung threatningly,[3] I traversed while that beacon glowed, And freedom's fettered slave is free.
Star of the slave, crown of the free, The eternal midnight's dearest gem, My race from midnight look to thee, As Bethlehem's star art thou to them. Forever dear their light above, Their path below through wood and wave, Their evening star of trust and love, Thou pilot of the pathless slave!

Notes

  1. William Slade (1815–?), black leader, businessman, and White House steward. William and Josephine Slade moved to the District of Columbia at some point before 1843, when their eldest daughter was born. By 1860 the family included seven children (Rachel, Louisa, Josephine, William, Jesse, Andrew, and Catherine). All but two-year-old Catherine were born in the District of Columbia. The 1860 census places the Slades in Ohio, and lists William's occupation as "grocer." His business concerns must have flourished, as he owned four thousand dollars' worth of property.
     
    By the summer of 1861 the family had returned to Washington (Kate Masur, "The African American Delegation to Abraham Lincoln: A Reappraisal," Civil War History 56 [2010]: 125n). Historian Kate Masur suggests that Slade became "the lead servant" in the White House before the delegation of five black Washingtonians—Edward M. Thomas, John F. Cook, Cornelius C. Clark, John T. Costin, and Benjamin McCoy—met with Lincoln in August 1862 to debate his proposal for a black colony in Central America (125). According to Masur, Slade may have "worked behind the scenes to help Lincoln and [colonization agent James] Mitchell understand civic life in black Washington and to persuade them to trust the delegation" (133). Masur also observes that Cook, Costin, and Clark were members of the Social Civil and Statistical Association, the black city-based organization over which Slade presided. The SCSA had sought to "banish several emigration promoters from Washington" weeks before the delegation met with Lincoln (Masur, 119). Many of the SCSA's members were connected with the prestigious Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, where Slade was an elder. Elected as president of a committee for the relief of "contrabands" in the city, Slade continued to work for the Contraband Relief Society throughout the war, as did his wife, Josephine (see the Anglo-African of November 22, 1862, [2], and of October 3, 1863, [3]).
     
    City directories for 1863 and 1865 list Slade as a "messenger"; he worked for Lincoln in this capacity. After Lincoln's assassination, President Andrew Johnson appointed Slade as his steward. Slade family friend Elizabeth Keckley described William as "the present steward of the White House, who, in Mr. Lincoln's lifetime, was his messenger" (Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, ed. Frances Smith Foster [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002], 309). Frances Smith Foster writes that the younger Slade children "sometimes played with Tad both at their home and at the White House" (224n4). The exact date of William's death is unknown; the census for 1870 suggests that Josephine was a widow.
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  2. Slade's opening line mirrors "Bright Star" by British Romantic poet John Keats ("Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art"). Lines later, Slade confirms the parallel with "steadfast." The allusions foreground the precious constancy of Slade's North Star; its apparent fixity over the pole made it a valuable guide for fugitive slaves who navigated their way to the free states under the cover of darkness. (The influence of Keats might also be seen in Slade's "darkling caves"—see Keats, "Ode to a Nightingale.")Go back
  3. The fugitive's escape is represented as another Exodus. According to the book of Exodus, God parted the Red Sea during the Israelites' flight from Egyptian bondage: "And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. / And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground: and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand and on their left" (14:21–22). Like the path between the walls of water, the speaker's "pilgrim road" is fenced about with danger.Go back