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.

Textiles & Women’s History: Part Three

It is extremely important to remember that free women were not the only ones to use textiles as a means of expression and resistance to oppression. In this third installment of “Textiles & Women’s History,” I will be exploring how African American women, especially those who were enslaved, used quilting and other crafts to create their own unique culture and to resist the subjugation the system of slavery.

The Agency of African American Women

Enslaved women, especially on large plantations, used quilting as a reason to gather together after the day’s work and socialize, creating strong community bonds that helped sustain them through the daily horrors of enslaved life. Since many of these women lost family members through these brutal realities, they used female kinship networks as a means of creating new family networks, even if unrelated by blood. This resilient choice was itself an act of rebellion against the attempts of slaveholders to disrupt enslaved culture and family life. Leah, one of the enslaved women on the Vance plantation, exhibited similar agency when she chose to create and maintain her family even with the ever-present fear of loved-ones being torn from her. 

Leah and Sandy Erwin went to the Freedmen’s Bureau office in Asheville on August 25, 1866 to record their marriage of 25 years. From the Cohabitation Records, Buncombe County Register of Deeds, Asheville NC.

African American textiles, especially quilts, often contained patterns and colors unique to African culture, which enslaved women used to tell their stories and keep their heritage alive in the face of racism and brutality. Their very approach to quilting was to subvert the usual order, and therefore defy their oppressors. Where white European tradition valued the symmetry of uniformity in quilting, African American women’s quilts counteracted this by valuing diversity in color and pattern. Click here for an example of a quilt made by a formerly enslaved woman in Georgia, courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Textiles & Identity

There were other ways in which enslaved women resisted the abuses they endured each day from slaveholders that also involved textiles. Slaveholders generally issued out a certain amount of cloth or clothing to each enslaved individual annually. Some owners gave intact, immediately wearable clothing to enslaved families, but the clothing was uncomfortable, ugly, shapeless, and impractical for hard labor and certain types of weather. Others simply issued cloth to enslaved workers and had them sew their own clothing and textiles on their own time. Either way, the materials given to enslaved women to provide clothing, warmth, and shelter to themselves and their families was often unserviceable and low in supply. Enslaved families commonly went without needed clothing in cold weather, and those working the fields went through their clothing quickly because it was not durable enough to withstand daily hard labor in the elements. 

As Harriet Jacobs, a formerly enslaved woman in North Carolina, stated in her memoirs; “I have a vivid recollection of the linsey-woolsey dress given me every winter by Mrs. Flint. How I hated it! It was one of the badges of slavery (Jacobs 13).” To Jacobs, this clothing marked her as a slave, the lowest member of American society, and it was a mark she was forced to wear daily. Clothing during this time was one of the many outward ways in which a person could immediately define the social status of another, and enslaved people knew that their clothing broadcasted their bondage to everyone, and further took away from their culture and individuality. 

Drawing of Harriet Jacobs by Keith White, 1994. Image from the State Archives of NC.

To fight back against this dehumanization, enslaved women often found ways to make their own clothing to wear on special occasions, such as to church, at slaveholder-ordained gatherings, and at illicit gatherings orchestrated as acts of rebellion by the enslaved themselves, where they could socialize and enjoy themselves in some capacity without supervision. Enslaved women, despite spending all day and into the night working for someone else, used their limited free time to create beautiful works of art in the form of dresses, quilts, blankets, headwraps, and jewelry that they could wear as badges of pride and cultural heritage, instead of badges of bondage. They incorporated traditional African designs into their clothing and even created clothing similar to that of wealthy white women, in order to mock their oppressors. Time spent working on these crafts was time for enslaved women to express their artistic creativity and to hone skills that could be used to create textiles that they could sell to earn funds to buy their own freedom. 

Enslaved women worked together to obtain the materials needed to make their art, whether it was through taking materials from their masters and mistresses, or buying material through funds they managed to earn. These women were admirably resourceful, and often used castoff clothing to create their desired attire for themselves and their families or to create needed textiles for their homes. 

Along with other forms of subtle resistance, enslaved women used domestic chores like textile work to stake a claim on their individuality and cultural identity. It would be remiss to assume that, just because the Vance plantation was smaller than other southern plantations, the enslaved women working there did not also participate in acts of resistance. 

Aggy, who was one of the few, if not the sole adult enslaved woman working on the plantation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, would have had to perform a vast variety of chores each day for her enslavers. The fear of being separated from her husband Richard and their children likely hovered in her mind for much of her life. Yet she, like Leah, still had the agency and resilience to keep her family connected and well. Along with Aggy and Leah, Venus, who acted as a nanny to the Vance children, resisted oppression by forming valuable bonds with her enslavers that gained her certain privileges and opportunities. These women had to form these bonds with their oppressors in order to survive. If they used such actions of rebellion against the system, who is to say that they did not also rebel through artistic expression in their chores, such as weaving and sewing? 

Ca. 1800s floor loom on display at the Vance Birthplace.

Final Thoughts 

Textile work has connected American women from all classes and ethnic backgrounds together in some way or other, and many of these women used this domestic task to accomplish more than a simple obeisance to the patriarchal gender ideal of womanhood. These arts have lasted until the present day because generations of American women have passed their skills on to each other, and it is significant that, in an age when such work is no longer necessary for women to perform for survival, we still engage in these activities on a regular basis. There are still quilting bees, sewing circles, knitting classes, and embroidery workshops. American women today are not so far removed from the craft of previous generations of women as we often think! I hope that these posts have shed some light on the diversity and importance of textile work in the narrative of American women’s history, and that you will be inspired to learn more about the crafts that these women created!

Further Reading

Blue Ridge Heritage Trails

Textile Art from Southern Appalachia

Journal Articles:

“Slave Cloth and Clothing Slaves: Craftsmanship, Commerce, and Industry”

“Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of an African-American Tradition” in The Journal of Negro History 80, no. 1 (1995): 30-41, by Floris Barnett Cash, doi:10.2307/2717705

“African-American Women’s Quilting”


Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South by Stephanie M.H. Camp

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Meet Elizabeth Bailey

Hi everyone! 

My name is Elizabeth Bailey, and I am the Summer 2020 intern for the Vance Birthplace. Since I am unable to come to the site day in and day out to work due to the Covid19 restrictions, my internship will be mostly virtual for the rest of the summer. Consequently, you will be seeing more of me on various social media and web platforms associated with the Vance Birthplace.

I am currently a graduate student with the Public History department at Appalachian State University, and my research interests focus on women’s history, American military history, and the history of women in medicine. I plan to graduate in May 2021 with an M.A. in History with a concentration in Public History. I have always loved museums and historic sites since childhood and would like to use my knowledge and historical skill to teach others about history. I have an undergraduate degree in Social Studies Secondary Education, so I enjoy teaching and learning in multiple different outlets. 

Some “fun facts” about me are that I read everything I can get my hands on, and combining my books with my mother’s often makes our house look like a library; and outside of history I have a strange interest in ocean science, especially if it’s creepy. Other hobbies include crochet and cross stitching, along with drawing and watching documentaries. I have a ten year old dog that I am obsessed with, Sophie, who you can see below. 

This summer my big project will be to create a virtual timeline that gives voice to the histories of the women of the Vance Birthplace, both white free women and the enslaved. My goal is to open up dialogue about the lives these women led and the agency they exhibited in changing their own lives, the lives of those around them, the Vance Birthplace, the Reems Creek Valley, or Western North Carolina in some way. I feel that women have been repeatedly silenced throughout history, and since my area of research has been focused on women’s history since my undergraduate career, I plan to bring their stories to light in any way possible. 

During this internship I will also be learning how interpretation is done, or at least the basics of it, the daily requirements of running a historic site in terms of online work and historical research, and how to create more inclusive interpretation and present the history of controversial topics to the public online. Hopefully I will be able to visit the sight at some point this summer to interact with some physical artifacts and to engage with the buildings on site, pending a loosening of restrictions! 

I appreciate you taking the time to learn more about me by reading this and am excited to continue my work for the Vance Birthplace this summer! I am enjoying getting to know the history of the Reems Creek Valley and am optimistic about the projects I will be completing this summer!

Stay safe and sane during the chaos!

Elizabeth Bailey