As a young woman with modest means and few prospects, Ruth Middleton transformed her life by moving north. Taking a leap into the unknown as a Black woman in the 1910s required tremendous courage. Ruth was still a teenager at the time, living in Columbia, South Carolina, and laboring as a domestic. She may have already met her future fiancé, Arthur Middleton, a South Carolinian from Camden and a tiremaker by trade. And she would have known from what she heard and saw, and perhaps from incidents in her own life, that the South was still a dangerous place for African Americans at the start of the new century. The first generations to be born to freedom found few job opportunities beyond the agricultural work their forebears had done, risked indebtedness in the sharecropping system, and faced public humiliation as well as unpredictable violence in everyday life. Perhaps Ruth and Arthur evaluated their situation and determined that only drastic change would better it. For they, like so many other African Americans fed up with the dusty prejudice of the South, packed their retinue of things and traveled northward seeking safety and opportunity.
Ruth and Arthur made this move amid the uncertainty of World War I and a deadly flu epidemic, joining what historians have called the first wave of the Great Migration, which would, by the 1970s, reshape the demography and political landscape of the entire United States. African Americans, who had predominantly lived in the rural South, relocated in the hundreds of thousands to the urban South, urban Midwest, urban West, and urban North in search of physical security and economic opportunity. Half a million of these travelers relocated to northern cities in the period when Ruth uprooted herself, between 1914 and 1920. They pulled up stakes, packed their bags, and left behind all they knew and many whom they loved. Those who departed must have faced tough decisions about which items they could afford to bring along on the journey and which things they would give away or abandon. Practical objects like skillets and skirts, cherished things like handmade quilts, and valuable items like tools and books might each have been scrutinized, weighed, and considered. We have no inventory of a great migration of things that accompanied African Americans northward and westward. Ruth Middleton’s case stands as a precious exception.
When Ruth arrived in Philadelphia around the year 1918, she brought along a plain cotton sack that her great-grandmother, Rose, had packed for her grandmother, Ashley, when Ashley was a child and the two were ripped apart by sale during slavery. Ruth’s attachment to the textile reflects an important aspect of women’s historical experience with things. While free men have historically owned and passed down “real” property (especially in the form of land), women have typically had only “movable” property (like furniture and linens—and, if the women in question were slaveholders, people) at their disposal. Although American women possessed a limited form of property, they used that property intentionally to “assert identities, build alliances, and weave family bonds torn by marriage, death, or migration.” A New England–born white woman in the colonial era, for example, cherished a passed-down painted chest not only for its function but also for the ways in which the object connected her to her women forebears, reinforcing a sense of belonging not to male ancestors but to a line of women. Ruth Middleton, who would take her husband’s name upon marriage, as was the American legal custom, also took her foremother’s sack as she traveled north. And one day, when she was herself on the verge of motherhood, Ruth decided to annotate it.
Ruth’s fabric testament to Black love and women’s perseverance did not—perhaps could not—exist in any historical archive. Though necessary to the work of uncovering the past, archives are nevertheless limited and misleading storehouses of information. While at times imposing and formal enough as to seem all-encompassing in their brick, glass, and steel structures, archives only include records that survived, were viewed as important in their time or in some subsequent period, and were deemed worthy of preservation. These records were originally created by fallible people rather like you and me, who could err in their jottings, hold vexed feelings they sometimes transmitted onto the page, or consciously or unconsciously misconstrue events they witnessed. Even in their most organized form, archived records are mere scraps of accounts of previous happenings, “rags of realities” that we painstakingly stitch together in order to picture past societies.
Even when compared with the motley rags that make up the archives of history, the nineteenth-century seed sack that we are exploring together here appears particularly threadbare. Ruth’s embroidery is the only definitive primary source detailing the fate of Rose and Ashley. In addition, read in a certain mood, Ruth’s verse on the bag can feel more like poetry than reportage. Slight on facts and specifics, the embroidered text states only three names (Rose, Ruth, and Ashley), one place (South Carolina), and one date (1921). None of the sources that scholars typically use to reconstruct histories of slavery directly address this object. No plantation supply log exists that tells of the sack’s manufacture or acquisition. No mistress’s handwritten letter describes an interaction with Rose. No formal bill of sale lists a buyer of Ashley. No published slave narrative describes this family and their travails. The bag dates back to the 1840s or 1850s, but the writing was added in the 1920s. And perhaps most glaringly—and, for the historian, most alarmingly—we have only one person’s word that events took place as described and that the bag was packed with the listed items.
Ruth Middleton, that one person, probably rendered the details as she recalled them. While we can presume that she told the truth as she knew it, Ruth’s version of events was formed, like any other, through the lenses of memory and narrative desire—what she consciously or unconsciously wanted this family story to mean. There is no reason to think that Ruth wrote this story as fiction, given the form she chose (amateur embroidery on a personal object with no commercial value at the time) as well as the first-person voice she used. The intimate, possessive, and immediate tone of the line “Ashley is my grandmother” suggests that Ruth knew this relative and remembered her. The tale she stitched for private use was by no indications imagined, and by all reckoning, it was true to Ruth. Still, as a vehicle of historical recovery, memory is at least as fallible as paper records. It is possible, even likely, that Ruth mistook, misrecalled, or rearranged aspects of her emotional family account. We all do this when drawing out and thinking through memory, a malleable store of information “retrieved even as it is refashioned.”
Nevertheless, with steady hands we can thread the eye of this needle and ask what Ruth’s record can tell us about Black women, Black families, women crafters, and Black material, as well as social, worlds. By doing so, we refuse to give up on those many people of the past who did not—could not—leave behind troves of documents. To abandon these individuals, the “archivally unknown” who fell through the cracks of class, race, and position, would consign them to a “second death” by permitting their erasure from history. It would also mean turning our faces away from fuller, if unwelcome, truths about our country and ourselves. Ruth’s account, subjective and incomplete as it may be, stands as a baseline rebuttal to the reams of slaveholder documents that categorized people as objects. Her list of a dress, a braid, pecans, and whispered love accounts for the things that sustained life, rather than rendering lives as things. If Ruth’s text did nothing else but replace the “slave list” of our cultural script with Rose’s shimmering inventory, it would be enough. Yet Ruth’s cloth chronicle does much more. By recovering, for history, Rose, her life conditions, and her act of love, Ruth sets the record straight.
The sack Ruth Middleton embroidered in the 1920s is resplendent with “the power of simultaneous pain and hope.” It evidences a persistent Black matriline, a continuation of radical vision that should have been impossible, given the logic and enforcement of American enslavement. What had begun as a mother’s prescient act of provision during those dim years of captivity became “symbolic armor” for the family over time, representing women’s faith in the continuity of kinship, the protection to be found in the promise of love, and the defense of what was most certainly a sacred memory in the face of a national culture of Black parody and debasement well into the twentieth century. As a thing fashioned and preserved by generations of African American women, as a woven and embroidered textile that has weathered slavery and the passage of time, this sack itself can claim a stunning survival story. The twists and turns of the bag’s rediscovery and renewal also reveal contemporary racial dynamics obliquely reflective of power relations in play during Rose’s, Ashley’s, and Ruth’s lives and times. When we recognize the value of objects to human identity and to African Americans in particular, as a historically demeaned group forced into captivity and lives of scarcity, it is frustrating, even infuriating, to trace the trajectory of Ashley’s sack that landed it in the collection of a former plantation. How could a priceless object like this wind up in the inventory of a restored estate once maintained by an enslaved labor force and still partly overseen by descendants of its original owners?
The answer is fit for an episode of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow. In 2007, after having been lost for decades and presumably unknown outside of the original family, the sack Rose had packed reemerged. A white woman discovered the bag in a bin of old fabrics at an outdoor flea market near Nashville, Tennessee. In order to supplement her family’s income, the shopper, a mother of three, routinely bought items and resold them on eBay. She might have done the same with the discolored sack had she not absorbed a few of the words on its surface. Realizing that “she had stumbled upon a precious object,” the shopper offered the vendor twenty dollars for the sack and a bundle of other cloths. How much might the sack be worth? She followed the clues on the sack, noted Ruth Middleton’s signature, conducted an Internet search, and contacted an appraiser. The search led her to Middleton Place, once the home of the famously wealthy Charleston slaveholders Henry Middleton and Mary Williams Middleton and now a nonprofit foundation. After a series of conversations with foundation staffers, a dream about the women whose names were on the sack, and perhaps reflection on being the mother of her own nine-year-old daughter, the flea market shopper donated the bag to Middleton Place in exchange for a lifetime membership and a very small sum. “I happened to field the initial call from the donor and hear her description of the sack and how she found it in a rummage sale,” Tracey Todd, the president and CEO of the Middleton Place Foundation, said. “And I’ll never forget, after several weeks and numerous calls, the feeling when she decided to donate it to MPF. We knew it would be one of the most important artifacts owned by the Foundation.”
The Tennessee shopper’s incredible find is an inspiring example of what historians have called “dazzling things” that “sometimes show up in ordinary places.” Like many flea market collectors, she had a keen eye for the rare possibilities of things categorized as rubbish. Her perception was matched months later by the duo of Middleton Place curators who took on the task of interpreting the donated sack. Although the remarkable textile belonging to an enslaved girl named Ashley bore only ten lines of embroidered text, the many layers of the sack’s makeup—material, historical, and emotional—had myriad stories to tell. Who had manufactured it? Who were the people named on it? Why had this family been torn apart? And how had the bag survived for more than a century in the shadows?
Excerpted from ALL THAT SHE CARRIED: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake by Tiya Miles. Copyright © 2021 by Tiya Miles. Excerpted by permission of Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.