Research News

Book explains long process of emancipation through eyes of formerly enslaved woman


Published March 2, 2022

Carole Emberton.
“Slavery came to an end through an extended and fraught process, and what Pricilla’s story tells us is that for many people emancipation was a journey that spanned an entire lifetime after slavery. ”
Carole Emberton, associate professor
Department of History

A new book by UB historian Carole Emberton explores emancipation through the stories of a formerly enslaved woman born in the antebellum South.

Pricilla Joyner’s life before and after the Civil War provides personal details of the emotional, political, social and familial experiences of someone who traveled what historians now call the long emancipation as part of an extended search for belonging.

Emberton, associate professor of history, College of Arts and Sciences, will discuss her book, “To Walk About in Freedom: The Long Emancipation of Pricilla Joyner,” at 6 p.m. March 9 at the Buffalo History Museum, 1 Museum Court, near Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo.

Admission is pay what you wish.

There were approximately 4.5 million people enslaved in the United States in 1865, but slavery’s end did not arrive swiftly with the Civil War’s conclusion or the signing two years earlier of the Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery’s death spanned decades of struggle and full emancipation remains, as Emberton writes, “an unfulfilled promise.”

“Emancipation was a profoundly personal experience and the legacies of slavery were long-lasting,” says Emberton. “Freedom did not simply arrive for those who were enslaved — that’s not what happened. Slavery came to an end through an extended and fraught process, and what Pricilla’s story tells us is that for many people emancipation was a journey that spanned an entire lifetime after slavery.”

Joyner’s story sat largely dormant, a fragmented chronicle told to Thelma Dunston, one of the writers charged with collecting the life histories of everyday Americans, including former slaves, as part of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a Depression-era initiative that grew out of the Works Progress Administration beginning in 1935.

Cover of To Walk about in Freedom.

Emberton was working with this archive to learn what the people of emancipation’s charter generation had to say about freedom and what they did to recreate their lives after slavery. When Emberton discovered Joyner’s story, she immediately saw it as the anchor of a book that could provide light to emancipation in a story told through Joyner’s eyes. 

“I was touched by the personal nature of Pricilla’s story,” says Emberton. “When people think about emancipation and the end of slavery, they’re usually thinking about things like civil rights and voting rights, which are very important, but the story Pricilla tells in the FWP archive is the story about family, finding a home, and searching for a place where she belongs.”

Joyner’s journey began when she was 12, when she goes to live with a community of freed slaves. It’s here that Emberton says Joyner finds acceptance, love, a spouse and the beginning of family. It’s not her whole story, since the historical record about Joyner contains too many gaps for what might be considered a biography. “To Walk About in Freedom” is a book Emberton calls “more of a microhistory, a small book about big things.” It’s a book about obstacles that the legal abolition of slavery never dismantled, but it’s also a story of joy realized through the creation of families and communities.

“All the stories on the long road to emancipation are unique, but there are overlapping themes, where to live, and how to find family and build community,” says Emberton. “The answers were always different, but individuals often worked with the same set of questions, and that created a commonality.”

That readers have Joyner’s story today results from her overcoming reluctance about being interviewed on the subject of slavery and emancipation. “I don’t like to talk about it to folks,” she admitted to her interviewer, Thelma Dunston, “but don’t mind telling it for the work you are doing. If it will do any good to have my life in a book, you can use it.”

Joyner’s story never made it to a history book — until now — thanks to Emberton’s work.

“These stories will give readers a ground level view of emancipation,” she says. “These are powerful, heart-wrenching stories that are not widely known.”