WASHINGTON — A part of what makes Samuel Hall’s story unique is the very fact that it exists and lives on to be read by people today.
Hall, a former slave, lived in Washington, Iowa for the latter half of his life.
The narrative of Hall’s life was recorded by Orville Elder, a journalist who helped publish “Samuel Hall: 47 Years a Slave” in 1912, just a year shy of Hall’s death on August 2, 1913. While there is no definitive evidence telling where Hall was buried, it is assumed that he lies in Woodlawn Cemetery in Washington, sharing a headstone with his second wife, Milley. He seemed to be a well-liked figure in the community and helped to found the African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the town, according to Elder’s writing. The former slave also stood out because he was well-spoken and educated.
Hall’s journey through slavery and later to Washington began on the African Coast in Liberia, where his parents were kidnapped and sold into the transatlantic slave trade in 1756.
Hall, himself, would be born into slavery in Iredell County, North Carolina in 1818. From there, his life was a series of transfers from one owner to another until he joined the Union Army during the Civil War. Immediately following the war, the former slave would move his family to Washington.
The short, semi-autobiographical book details the horrors Hall witnessed and suffered, including nearly being murdered by his last owner, William Wallace. While sections of the book were written by Elder, a section by Hall himself briefly recounts a first-person telling of his own life, including detailed observations about the way slaves were treated. Hall recalled scenes of slaves being whipped to death and “slave mothers [falling] over in a dead faint when their children were sold away from them.”
Bryan Kendall, the head commissioner of the Washington Historic Preservation Commission and a Project Archaeologist for the University of Iowa, said slave narratives, particularly at the turn of the 20th century were not well-documented. With the sting of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the not-so-distant past, it seemed very few people were interested in preserving the history of freed slaves.
“Those sorts of lives were poorly documented and not until quite a bit later did anthropologists and archaeologists become more introspective on minority cultures ... without those forward thinking people, those stories would have been lost,” Kendall said.
Kendall notes Hall’s family was one of just several who lived in Washington at the time according to early census data. The former slave’s ability to adapt and integrate into a community with very few people of color may have been a testament to his education and extraordinary experience as a slave.
“Samuel Hall had an extraordinary amount of education and freedom even as a slave. It puts him in a different position coming out of slavery. He was able to establish self as articulate person, hard working, and knowledgeable about farming. He was able to easily integrate self very easily, whereas a person who didn’t have those types of experiences may not have been able to,” Kendall added.
The archaeologist also noted Hall came to Iowa in a time when the state was at the tail end of its “wild West” days before coalescing as a state with regulated laws.
“At the time, Iowa was largely populated by immigrants and people who had been pushed out of Europe for religious reasons. Especially right at the end of the Civil War ... people would come to Iowa to hopefully find some acceptance. It’s not until kind of the 1870s and 1880s that Iowa becomes a place that has laws and things like that,” Kendall said of why Iowa may have been an attractive place to settle for former slaves.
Mike Zahs, a documentary film maker and retired history teacher from Washington, said the town “was on the whole very accepting of the blacks who came here after the Civil War.”
“Young America School, in this county, and a school in Muscatine were perhaps the first two schools in the nation to accept black students as equals in school. Separate is not equal started in Iowa. It was law here, I think 86 years before it was the law of the country,” Zahs said.
Elder’s writing about Hall and his family documents Iowa’s first steps toward educational equality. When local farmers objected to having their children educated alongside Hall’s children, a director of the district said “Hall’s children ‘were going to school in that district and the other man could keep his children at home if he wanted to.’”
Elder added that Hall “always felt that education was the one thing that was needed to bring his people up. The right kind of education he says will solve the Negro problem.”