What can a simple sack tell us about the past? As it turns out, an absolutely incredible amount. Sometime in the 1850s, a slave named Rose sent her daughter Ashley out of South Carolina to escape slavery with a sack that contained a tattered dress, 3 handfuls of pecans, a braid of her mom’s hair and love. With these talismanic items, Ashley (who was still a child) was able to escape the hellish conditions of the South to freedom in the North. How do we know this (and how do we know the contents of the sack)? Ashley’s granddaughter embroidered them on the sack in 1920.
The sack was lost for many years but came to be displayed in various museums in the early 21st century. Tiya Miles heard of the sack and started digging more into the story around the item, which is completely unique in American history. There are quilts and memoirs of those who escaped slavery but no other item like this detailing the provisions used when escaping slavery has yet been found. The story is part investigative in finding out more about Rose and Ashley and part descriptive as it uses the contents of the sack to explore what life was like for the unfree people in that region during this period.
I was ambiguous in my opening because that was one of the aspects discovered when Ms. Miles began researching this book. We still do not know exactly who Rose and Ashley were. There is a pretty likely guess, based primarily on the name Ashley which was uncommon at the time, but it is not certain. Why? Because records on the unfree people were spotty at best, often detailing only the purchase and death (and that only on occasion) of these people.
Ms. Miles exhaustively goes through each of the contents of the bag, including the love that filled it, placing its importance both in the context of how it could be used by a young child escaping slavery and within the African American culture of the time. One aspect that surprised me was about pecans. I think of the pecan as a staple of southern culture but, during this time, it was still a luxury item and one that was not very prevalent in South Carolina as it was originally from the Texas and Louisiana region. If I am being honest, the details of some of these chapters can get a bit long and scholarly. It is always interesting but I did find it dry at times.
The chapter that affected me the most was the one concerned with the Slave Block. I don’t know how anyone, especially a parent, can read these stories of a parent pleading to not have their child taken away or the descriptions of some of the horrific abuses heaped on very small children. I am not going to lie, I could only read this chapter in small chunks and had to walk away after only a handful of pages. But just because some history is difficult to read about does not mean it is not worth studying. I would argue that it becomes more important to read so we do not forget what occurred or sanitize it in later generations.
This is a very powerful book and I would encourage everyone to read it.