Review: In His Own Words

John M. Giggie

John M. Giggie is Associate Professor of History at the University of Alabama.

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John M. Giggie, "Review: In His Own Words," Journal of Southern Religion (18) (2016):

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Houston Hartsfield Holloway, with David E. Paterson, ed. In His own Words: Houston H. Holloway’s Slavery, Emancipation, and Ministry in Georgia. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2015. 247 pp. ISBN 978-0-8814-6545-7.

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“Biography of lief [sic] of H. H. Holloway.”  So opens in deceptively simple fashion the captivating autobiography of onetime slave Houston Hartsfield Holloway, originally completed in 1913 but never published until now.  Stretching across slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the era of the New South, Holloway’s autobiography offers a rare glimpse on a world being violently remade from the perspective of a black American.  Set in rural West Georgia, Holloway traces the arc of his thrilling life:  his experiences being sold three times, relationships with his masters and extended family, survival during the Civil War, emancipation by Union troops in 1865, position as an exhorter with the Methodist Episcopal Church South and later as a preacher with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and occupations as a blacksmith, husband, and father.

The history of the manuscript itself is almost as gripping as the tales it tells.  A self-taught reader and writer, Holloway first put pen to paper in 1904 and finished his story about nine years later.  At completion, it was a small and tidy package: 182 unbound pages, each measuring six inches wide by nine inches high.  It was far from a polished product, though.  Holloway numbered his pages inconsistently; he apparently lost several pages over the years and tried to rewrite a few of them from memory; he ended the entire work rather unexpectedly, trailing off with a single sentence declaring that 1910 had been a good year for black farmers. Significantly, the incompleteness of his writing likely reflected his intention never to show it to the public, but only to his children. Fortunately they and their families took good care of the manuscript, eventually lodging it in the Library of Congress in 1978. There it lay for 29 years, the object of occasional scholarly curiosity, but no sustained analysis until it grabbed the attention of David Paterson.  For eight years beginning in 2007, Paterson patiently edited the manuscript.  It was no easy task.  He scoured census and probate records, church minutes and conference proceedings, newspapers, city directories, and obituaries to paint a picture of forgotten small towns and black men and women who left few historical footprints.

In His Own Words is remarkable for several reasons.  First, it is a rare example of an autobiography by a former slave who lacked any desire to publish it nor ever submitted it to an amanuensis.  As such, it captures the pitch and roll of Holloway’s regional dialect.  Writing the way he spoke, Holloway effectively recorded the distinctiveness of his tongue and the lilt of his voice.  As a convert to the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1867, Holloway also provides a close-up view of independent black denominations' slow spread across the postbellum South.  As a cleric, he details the stress of winning converts, collecting Dollar Money, selling subscriptions to the Christian Recorder, and receiving a new missionary circuit assignment every year or two.  He catalogues factions within the Georgia Conference, rivalries with fellow preachers, and crackling tensions with bishops over salaries and his unwillingness to accept missionary placements too far from home.  In comparison to other published accounts by church leaders who lived or worked extensively in the South, Holloway spends more time exploring the institution of slavery and the religious world of black agricultural workers.  Especially notable is his sensitive attention to the role of magic and the supernatural in everyday life.  Before seeking the hand of his future wife when he was a slave, for example, Holloway paid a local conjurer to ensure that his master would bless the union (115-116).  Later, he yielded to the promptings of an unnamed “Spirit” who told him to throw away his clerical collar and move to Turin, Georgia (163-167).  Finally, Holloway also eschews any triumphalist narrative in which he conquers all personal challenges by dint of hard work, self-discipline, and unflagging faith in God.  Instead, he spins a tale of success laced with mistakes, missed opportunities, and even doubt about his ability to spread the Gospel.

Much of the pleasure in reading In His Own Words comes from Holloway’s memorable descriptions of people and places.  For example, his father “was far above the Average slave[.]  Rather Bright Complecttion [sic] long Black hair about five feet six Inches… he always wore a tall Beaver hat and a broad Cloth Suat [sic]"(1). Holloway framed his experience of learning of his emancipation in the character of his life.  Hoping to attend a meeting at Mount Carmel Methodist Church, he asked his master for a pass.   “He told us that we would not need one.  This was the last time that [I] ever asked for a pass, June 4 1865” (131). Later that day, he recorded saying only “Amen. Amen. Amen.  I could hardly ask to feel any better than I did that day.  [T]he Thought thrills me to this day.  Just think of it.  I had been sold 3 times, once at Sheriff[‘s] sail [sic] and twice privately” (132).

Also impressive is Paterson’s editorial skill.  He exercises a careful and conservative hand, allowing Holloway’s voice to emerge through words spelled and arranged as found in the original manuscript.  Paterson intervenes sparingly and only to insert punctuation marks, indent sentences to mark the obvious start of paragraphs, add words implied but not fully stated, or clarify ambiguity in a word not fully spelled out, converting, for example, “thre” to “th[e]re.”  The greater share of his labor is devoted to tracking down people and places mentioned in the manuscript.  Indeed, the footnotes and appendices are a tour de force, demonstrating a passion for research and professionalism that ultimately make the manuscript richer as a piece of literature.

Paterson provides an important addition to the list of former slaves’ autobiographies and an exemplary edited text.  In His Own Words is a necessary addition to the shelves of any student of African American history and sacred life in the nineteenth-century South.