Leah Erwin and Emancipation

Illustration of West Asheville after the Civil War. Leah and Sandy Erwin moved to Sulfur Springs Township, now part of West Asheville, after emancipation.

Leah Erwin, or “young” Leah, was enslaved by the Vance family from 1800-1865. In her old age, Leah was finally able to experience what many enslaved men and women before her did not live to see: emancipation.

Enslaved people across the nation celebrated emancipation, but often suffered little positive change in their circumstances. Because former enslavers were unhappy with emancipation, they made efforts to circumvent the system in their favor. Many formerly enslaved people had no other place to go after emancipation because they had been prohibited from making a living for themselves and pursuing land ownership. Many did not know where their family members were, as they had been sold away to other enslavers. While hundreds of enslaved people resisted the destruction of their families or escaped slavery to protect their families, poverty was a huge threat post-emancipation. With little support from the government or American society, formerly enslaved people had few chances of social mobility.

Enslaved women sometimes had a harder time than men making their way forward after emancipation. They were often single mothers and grandmothers, aunts, older sisters, and surrogate parents to either their own children or another enslaved family’s children. Fathers, brothers, grandfathers, and other male family members were frequently sold away during slavery. Many others sought freedom by escaping their enslavers, even when their children and female relatives were unable to follow. Enslaved families also suffered abuses from both armies during the Civil War, and the destruction afterward was so far reaching that it was difficult for freed people to find a place to live and make enough money to support themselves.

The intense racism prevalent throughout the country during this time also prevented people of color from truly enjoying the rights and freedoms promised by emancipation. Jim Crow laws began being instituted in the South, cleverly manipulating the system to keep people of color from voting, holding office, interacting with white people, holding jobs, and accessing facilities and citizenship benefits.

The rise of the Ku Klux Klan during this time forced many people of color and their allies to live in constant fear of death and destruction for themselves and those they loved. Lynchings of people of color for perceived offenses and crimes (according to whites) took place frequently, and both white men and women participated in the carnage.

Many formerly enslaved people had to resort to sharecropping and tenant agreements that whites, often their former enslavers, created to keep freed people in bondage after emancipation. These landholders refused to pay sharecroppers a fair wage, forcing people to live as they had when they were enslaved. Whether or not a labor contract of any kind was signed, whites could also re-enslave people of color unofficially by keeping them from earning enough money to pay debts, buy land, or feed their families. These individuals would owe everything to their former enslaver, who hid behind the mask of an employer.

1880 Census record showing Leah Erwin, her husband Sandy, and their granddaughters, all living in Asheville.

While enslaved, Leah used her valued status as a skilled cook and housekeeper to build a relationship with Mira Vance. Leah likely cultivated this relationship to make herself invaluable to her enslavers and therefore resist being sold away from her loved ones. Because few records exist from enslaved women, we do not know Leah’s perspective about this relationship. However, we do know that she chose to maintain this relationship after emancipation. Was this choice based on her need to stay in a familiar place with familiar people? Did she wish to develop a positive relationship with Mira to gain her help for future endeavors? Was there a true bond between the two women? While we will never truly know, it is safe to say that Leah experienced similar circumstances and a similar decision-making process to countless other formerly enslaved people, especially women, in the decades following emancipation.

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