Rothera on Heinrich and Harding, 'From Slave to Statesman: The Life of Educator, Editor, and Civil Rights Activist Willis M. Carter of Virginia'

Robert Heinrich, Deborah Harding. From Slave to Statesman: The Life of Educator, Editor, and Civil Rights Activist Willis M. Carter of Virginia. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016. 162 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8071-6265-1.

Reviewed by Evan Rothera (Penn State University)
Published on H-Florida (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Jeanine A. Clark Bremer

Cuesta Benberry of St. Louis acquired Willis M. Carter’s three-thousand-word handwritten memoir describing his life as a slave, his educational endeavors, and his career as a teacher and newspaper editor, from a Midwestern antiques dealer in the 1980s. Benberry realized the journal’s potential and understood that Carter’s fascinating story deserved to be told. However, she was never able to investigate Carter’s life because she already had a full research agenda. However, she showed the manuscript to her friend Deborah Harding. Harding spent more than half a decade researching Carter’s life and, in so doing, consulted an impressive array of sources. Harding’s research uncovered “a man whose life could hardly be contained in a three thousand-word journal” (p. 2). When Harding shared the journal and her research materials with the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, Robert Heinrich joined the research team and wrote the book.

Over the course of four chapters and a conclusion, Heinrich employs Harding’s extensive research to flesh out the bare-bones story in Carter’s memoir and illuminate many important elements of Carter’s life. At the beginning of the first chapter, for instance, the authors observe that while Carter condemned slavery, he spoke of his owner, Ann Goodloe, in a very complimentary manner. Carter wrote the memoir for himself and his family and, thus, the authors hypothesize that he was “grateful for the limited opportunities the Goodloes granted him within the bounds of slavery” (p. 5). Carter’s story illustrates some of the contradictions of slavery because Goodloe taught him to read and write. Given that he was born in 1852, and was barely a teenager at the end of the Civil War, Carter likely had a very different memory of slavery than other members of his family. Here the authors might have compared Carter’s journal with the writings of Booker T. Washington, particularly Up from Slavery (1901), to provide a comparative perspective.

Throughout his life, Carter strove to better himself. After the end of the Civil War, he pursued both education and employment. In 1874 he decided to leave Virginia and move to Washington, DC, to pursue educational endeavors. Carter did not enroll in school right away but spent the next two years working in Washington and, during the summer of 1876, in Newport, Rhode Island. On his return to Washington, after leaving Newport, Carter stopped in Philadelphia to see the Centennial Exhibition. Sadly, he did not leave many comments about the Centennial--certainly the lack of detail in Carter’s memoir is one of the limits of this source--and one can only guess as to what he saw and did. Although Heinrich and Harding do an excellent job offering a more detailed and complete picture of Carter, there is still some guesswork and supposition because of the way he wrote his memoir. When he returned to Washington, Carter enrolled in a private school, sampled cultural offerings, and attended Wayland Seminary.

After graduating from Wayland, Carter became a teacher and, later, the principal of a school. He “embraced a broad definition of education, working outside the classroom to train black teachers” (p. 44). Carter devotes very little time in the journal to his life during the last decades of the nineteenth century, but Heinrich and Harding offer analysis of life in post-Reconstruction to paint a picture of the man and his times. Carter’s life was not always easy. As an African American he was paid less than white teachers, for instance and Carter knew about episodes of racist violence by white Virginians against African Americans. This knowledge did not, however, dampen Carter’s fighting spirit and his success as a teacher, and a principal thrust him into politics. Carter “took on leadership roles at the community and state levels” (p. 59), edited a newspaper, won election as an alternate delegate to the 1896 Republican National Convention, and protested efforts by white Democrats to disfranchise African Americans. Although Carter had little or nothing to say about many of these events and this important period of his life in the pages of his memoir, “a detailed reconstruction of his life places him in the forefront of many critical events in the history of African Americans, the state of Virginia, and the nation” (p. 59). As a newspaper editor, Carter gained a platform to air his thoughts, and his Tribune resembled many other black newspapers. Carter died 1902 and thus did not live to see disfranchisement of African Americans written into Virginia’s constitution.

As an account of one man’s transition from slavery to freedom, his relentless pursuit of education, and his drive to better himself, this is a very useful source. That Cuesta Benberry had the foresight to preserve Carter’s journal is extremely fortunate. However, this volume is also useful because it would be an excellent book to hand students in a class on historical methods. The book includes three transcribed documents: Carter’s journal, a tribute to Carter by the teachers of Public School No. 2 in Staunton, Virginia, and a protest signed by Carter and other African Americans to be presented to the Virginia Constitutional Convention. Students should begin by reading the journal and then reading the text to see how research allows historians to accumulate information and to render a more complete picture of one man’s extraordinary life. This book could be read in conjunction with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale (1990). This would allow students to analyze how sources, in this case the diary of a midwife and the memoir of an ex-slave, that many people either ignored or overlooked, provide compelling windows into the lives of individuals and their societies. In sum, this valuable book is appropriate for both an academic and a general audience and will prove useful in a variety of undergraduate and graduate courses.

Printable Version:

Citation: Evan Rothera. Review of Heinrich, Robert; Harding, Deborah, From Slave to Statesman: The Life of Educator, Editor, and Civil Rights Activist Willis M. Carter of Virginia. H-Florida, H-Net Reviews. October, 2016.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.