Guest Blog

Q&A with Amy Murrell Taylor, Ph.D.

We caught up with Amy Murrell Taylor, Ph.D. to ask her some questions about her work and research. Amy Murrell Taylor is a Professor of History at the University of Kentucky and a recent Frederick Douglass Book Prize Winner for her book, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps. You can see Amy Murrell Taylor at our upcoming Foundry Series on Nov. 21, Living in “Temporary” Shelters.

How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?
I came to this topic as a historian of the American South who found it mind-boggling that there could have been a mass exodus from slavery—the largest slave rebellion in American history, as some have put it—and still I knew very little about it. And as I looked for information in the vast library of Civil War history, I found relatively little (although W.E.B. DuBois tried to turn attention to this subject in his magisterial Black Reconstruction). The predominance of Civil War narratives that have whitewashed Americans’ public memory of the Civil War and made emancipation seem merely like an outcome secured by powerful men in Washington, D.C., clearly had a lot to do with this. I knew there had to be more to the story, so I set out to find it. (And I have not been alone, as other historians in the last decade or so have likewise made a shift in this direction.)

I became fascinated then, and remain fascinated now, by the fact that people who had already suffered in slavery now chose to thrust themselves deep into a war zone. They did not run away from war—they ran toward it. It was preferable to confront the risks of warfare, such as violence, disease, and deprivation, than to remain in slavery. That tells us so much about what they left behind, and also, about what has been required to secure the promise of freedom in the United States. Their stories are essential to fully grasp how slavery collapsed in the 1860s, how emancipation was pushed forward with each step taken by women, men, and children fleeing their plantations and entering Union army lines.

How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today? 
I think the history of the over half a million people who risked everything to flee slavery and take up residence in Union-supervised refugee camps is, at its essence, a deeply American and timeless story of how people have moved and migrated and risked their lives, over and over, to realize the promise of freedom and enjoy the fruits of American citizenship. It continues to play out today. I see this in my own community, in Lexington, Kentucky, where I currently help teach citizenship classes to refugees seeking freedom and protection from the United States government; we see it clearly every day in news accounts from along the U.S.-Mexico border. And those are just two examples.

Refugees, citizenship, the politics of borders, and the role played by race and white supremacy in all of it: What happened during the Civil War was clearly no exceptional moment in our past but an event that exposed some enduring truths about this nation and its people.

What was the most significant or surprising find during your research?
Every tiny piece of information that I discovered about a person I had been following through their journey out of slavery was significant – and surprising. It is a difficult thing, as all historians of slavery know well, to reconstruct the lives of people who often did not write their own stories and who did not have archival institutions carefully saving and preserving whatever they did leave behind. So a mention on a list of people employed by the quartermaster at Fort Monroe, or an entry in a register of individuals who received army food rations, or a brief reference by name in a missionary’s report home, were all significant findings. Over time I began to see the same people emerging in multiple sources in multiple places and began to connect the dots of their movement out of slavery. That those dots could, in fact, be connected, was an additional and welcome surprise.

Did you discover anything interesting that you did not publish?
There’s one element of this history that I did not explore in as much depth as it deserves, and that is the presence of children in these Civil War refugee camps. In some places children were the majority of the refugee population – and yet they are the hardest population to research. It’s the adults whose names appear in wartime records; children aren’t entirely absent, but they are far less visible in textual records. Photographs, however, are a different matter, and some of them make very clear how numerous children were. These images also raise questions about how children came to understand their time in the camps – and what impact it would have on them for years to come. If I don’t return to this subject, I hope someone else will! The presence of children in this history is certainly another way that this history resonates with our lives today.

Are there any social media accounts that you follow, especially that relate to your work (its topic and/or your role as a historian)?
I’m actually not that active on social media. I sort of dip in and out of Twitter, but when I am on, I check in with the rollicking conversations that the #twitterstorians are usually having — and with the accounts of historical organizations like the OAH, SHA, AHA, SAWH, AAIHS (and Black Perspectives), and NCPH.

Explore how the experiences of enslaved people seeking freedom similar to those of migrants living in “temporary” shelters today with Amy along with Harriet Kuhr, Executive Director of International Rescue Committee; Amanda Prak, Founder of One Hundred Pounds of Hope and Khmer Rouge Survivor; and Emila Stambol, Education Specialist for Resettlement, Commonwealth Catholic Charities and Bosnian Refugee. You can reserve your tickets for our upcoming Foundry Series here: